Via Occupy History:
Coxey’s Army heads toward the Capitol. (Illus. in: Frank Leslie’s illustrated newspaper, 1894 May 10, via the Library of Congress.)
Word spread around the country. Men left their homes, their farms and their cities, and headed toward Washington. The economic boom had mostly missed them; they bore the brunt of the bust. They didn’t have jobs. Unemployment surpassed 15 percent. Workers had been replaced by machines, dislocated by trains, were too aware of inequality. They felt disenfranchised, disempowered, and they were angry. They came to be called an army — the most famous of them Coxey’s Army.
Jacob Sechler Coxey was a businessman from Massillon, Ohio. He made his money from his sandstone quarry and spent it on racehorses. He was no robber baron though, and he spent a lot of time thinking about how the country should be improved. He was obsessed with fixing broken roads. In 1894 he could also see the crushing economic crisis that had followed the excesses of the Gilded Age, as banks crashed and businesses went broke, and the homeless wandered and became known as hoboes. Coxey pushed for massive public works programs to give people jobs and fix the nation’s infrastructure.
Many of the men who marched to Washington made a more diffuse protest. They appealed to a vague sense of justice. They said they marched for the "commonweal" of Christ. But mostly they wanted jobs.
On May 1, 1894, a mass of men reached the Capitol. Coxey planned to take the steps to make his speech. But the local government, which had never seen a protest like this, decided things had gone too far. They had a few weapons at their disposal. A democracy allows for certain demonstrations, but not mussing up public spaces and greens. Coxey trampled the shrubs and lawn. And so the leaders were arrested, and the steps were cleared.