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Book Review

Madalyn Ullestad

Alexander, Benjamin F. Coxey’s Army: Popular Protest in the Gilded Age. Witness to History. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 2015.

In Coxey’s Army: Popular Protest in the Gilded Age, written by Benjamin Alexander, the political discontents during the 1890s are emphasized and connected to the once considered irrational march on Washington in 1894. Hundreds of unemployed men, otherwise known as Coxey’s Army, trudged to the capital demanding the government employ them with programs to build roads. These demands were unheard of at the time as the government was not considered responsible to ensure employment. Anyone unemployed was considered “lazy” and it was through fault of their own. Coxey’s Army gained support in the little towns and communities but never had any legislation passed on the national scale. Alexander answers the question of why these men were marching, why they were not taken seriously by the government, and how a once “comical” march on the capital was foreshadowing for future government programs. Benjamin Alexander has written a clear, cohesive book that contextualizes social, class, and labor struggles during the late nineteenth century by connecting Coxey’s Army to the vast underlying problems of the time.

While Coxey’s army was considered a foolish venture at the time, Alexander explains that the movement was actually representative of the nation’s feelings on labor struggles. According to Alexander’s book, the labor struggles during the Gilded Age prompted some of the nation’s top agendas. This was a time of economic expansion. Captains of businesses took advantage of the free markets and excelled in capitalism that left few with vast fortunes and most still struggling to buy bread every week. Alexander uses Andrew Carnegie as a prime example in his explanation of the economic situation of the time. While some were making great profits, many of the workers were left behind with barely survivable income. Alexander utilizes the Pullman Strike in 1894 to strengthen his argument. The men involved in the strike exploded into a protest with discontent and anger over their wages. This is similar to Jacob Sechler Coxey Sr.’s agenda. Coxey was a wealthy businessman and politician who led the unemployed men to Washington D.C in response to the economic depression of 1893. This depression is remembered as the “Panic of 1893” that left many unemployed. In this book, the author does a phenomenal job of describing the financial situations at the time. Alexander does not only describe the violent strikes at the time and the viewpoints of the unemployed, but also the feelings of the middle class and writers of the time. He emphasizes the importance of Henry George’s Progress and Poverty, published in 1879, and Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, in 1887. These works “did show that the producerist critique of the new order was garnering some sympathy in the middle-class American thought.” (17) The theatrical tactics that Coxey enabled for his march is the reason that many did not take him seriously according to Alexander. He agrees that Coxey’s strategies were comical at the time and that there were other more significant ways to garner support for his cause. This book accurately captures the emotions of the movement. From descriptions of taking over trains, mayors standing with shot guns, and women gathering to feed the men. This march was anything but diplomatic and Alexander manages to write a book that is not only informational but grasps the attention of the reader. The book connects the problems during the late nineteenth century to Coxey’s problems in a way that shows the reader that although this march was a folly, Coxey’s ideas were progressive and embodied the nation’s ideas on how to move forward.

Alexander embodies the overarching feelings of political and economic dissatisfaction during the Gilded Age in this short book and connects it to political strife still relevant today. Coxey’s main goals consisted of the idea that “the federal government should accept deposits of non-interest-bearing bonds from local governments in exchange for paper fiat money” (110), and that “local entities should expand the money ono job-creating, infrastructure-building projects.” (110) During and before the Gilded Age, the government was not emerged in the economics of the nation. There was little regulation and few laws protecting laborers. In fact, unions were often being outlawed thus not guaranteeing any rights to workers. Even the money system during the nineteenth century was not regulated by the government. Coxey’s ideas were revolutionary and foreshadowed events left to come. The New Deal programs in the 1930’s embodied the idea that men were willing to work for a living and wages if provided work by the government. Alexander uses other groups during the Gilded Age with similar thoughts to Coxey’s. “Knights of Labor, the Farmer’s Alliances, and the People’s or Populists Party” (34) were a few that expressed demand for labor laws. They called on the federal government to provide “low interest loans to farmers and take ownership of railroads.” (117) The Coxeyites expressed the same want in 1894 by “calling for the federal government to provide jobs to the unemployed through massive public works projects.” (117) Alexander does a phenomenal job of connecting the labor problems in the nineteenth century, the twentieth century, and even the labor struggles of today. Welfare programs are a point of contempt and the question of what the government is responsible for is still expanding, very similar to the question of Coxey’s time. Alexander is able to condense all of this information in his book and allows readers a glimpse into the past and how the past effects the present.

Coxey’s Army is a precise, comprehensible book that encompasses the politics, economic situations, and labor struggles of the Gilded Age and is effectively explained by Alexander. This book not only describes the feelings of Coxey but the underlying problems that brewed amongst the nation’s citizens. A vast collection of information is condensed for the reader so that one gets an understanding of the late nineteenth century. At times the various labor unions, strikes, and political groups run together and become confusing, the author does an effective job of reiterating his argument throughout the book. Alexander carefully blends two sides of the story into one cohesive educational text and creates a vivid picture of time. Not only does the reader find him or herself encompassed in the labor struggles and political atmosphere of the Gilded Age but is also introduced to a story about a wealthy man named Coxey who gathers men and treks across the country through mud and rivers just to be kicked off their own capital. While this book not intended for the general public, it is a worthwhile read for any undergraduates who want to understand the political and economic problems of the Gilded Age, how it influenced the progressive era, and how it is still relevant today.

“I hereby declare upon my word of honor that I have neither given nor received unauthorized help on this work.”

 

 

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