Petitioning in Boots: Motivation & Mobilization in the Rhetoric of Coxey's Army, 1894
Klumpp, James F.
Wolvin, Andrew D.
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In light of rising unemployment in 1894, a wealthy quarry owner named Jacob Coxey led a band of unemployed marchers from Massillon, Ohio, to Washington, DC, to urge Congress to pass two job-creation bills. Coxey spent eight weeks recruiting downtrodden laborers for his “Army,” which marched for thirty-eight days to the nation’s capital to lay their grievances at their representatives’ doorstep. When they arrived, the Army’s protest was silenced, and although their bills never passed, those marchers left their mark on history by engaging in an unprecedented protest. This study examines the rhetoric of Coxey’s Army to understand how it motivated participation in a seemingly impossible feat, especially when it became apparent that the Army’s legislative cause would fail. The Army’s motivational appeals comprised what the current study refers to as the rhetoric of Coxeyism. Distinct from but related to discourses of populism, Coxeyist rhetoric developed the appeal of arguments that emphasize society’s obligation to meet the needs of the middle class, as well as arguments that denigrate other classes to situate them in opposition to the middle class. In turn, Coxeyist rhetoric revealed the motivations behind the so-called “industrial army movement” of 1894, but also behind populism as it reached its apex in the 1890s. Beyond its significance at the time, this dissertation finds that the rhetoric of Coxeyism developed the rhetorical viability of two political traditions that we see still today. First, Coxey’s Army crafted the justifications we accept today that constitute unemployment as a problem of political economy. Coxey’s Army portended the belief that the government should proactively create jobs to alleviate workers’ economic woes. Second, Coxey’s Army heralded marching to Washington to seek redress for grievances as a rhetorically viable form of petitioning, another in a long series of evolutions in that mode of political engagement. That both of these precedents have endured over the decades suggests that scholars of populism, of social protest, and of the rhetoric of the Gilded Age would do well to take the rhetoric of Coxey’s Army seriously.