In 1894, a young reporter named Ray Stannard Baker was sent on the road to cover an exciting news story. The Panic of 1893 was wreaking havoc on the American economy and unemployment was crippling millions of families all across the country. Desperate Americans were looking to more desperate and radical solutions to the country’s woes. Baker’s editor had gotten a tip that an Ohio businessman named Jacob Coxey planned to raise an army of the unemployed and march on Washington D.C. On the Capitol steps, Coxey planned to propose new legislation to the federal government to “cure the ills of the nation” and put the unemployed to work building roads. It was a call for federal unemployment aid decades before the New Deal or the Great Society. It was a grand march into the heart of D.C. a generation before the 1932 Bonus March and or the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Baker took an overnight train from Chicago to Massillon, Ohio. With a hundred dollars expense money in his pocket, he made his way to Coxey’s farm where a few dozen unemployed men and their families were gathering for the march.
Sitting in the dining room reading from a pile of letters and telegrams, Baker found an impressive specimen of a man who looked “too good to be true:”
“He was strongly built with a heavy mustache, and a beard with two spirals. He wore a leather coat fringed around the shoulders and sleeves. A row of buttons down the front were shining silver dollars. Calvary boots, tight-fitting, well polished, came to his knees…He handed me a card with his written signature, at the end of which was a grand flourish and the words, ‘The pen is mightier than the sword.’” (7)
But to Baker’s surprise, the embellished card did not have Jacob Coxey’s name on it. This colorfully dressed and gregarious man was actually Carl Browne, Coxey’s friend and chief lieutenant. Realizing that this was a case of mistaken identity, the journalist then noticed a small, mild-mannered gentleman who was sitting next to Browne. Coxey was “mild-looking and of medium size, with rounding shoulders, an oily face, a straw-colored mustache, and gold-bowed spectacles. “He did not impress me as a great leader of a revolutionary movement,” (7) Baker wrote dissapointedly.
Coxey was indeed the leader of this growing army. He was a forward thinking supporter of labor rights and earnestly wanted to help the unemployed find relief. The Panic of 1893 had ravaged the US, putting ten percent of Americans out of work. There were few government or charitable support systems in place for workers back then, and going even a day without work meant that you and your family went hungry.
Coxey felt that the best way to help was with support from the federal government. His proposed legislation would have the government spend $500 million on public road construction. Carl Browne shared Coxey’s concern for affected Americans and was instrumental in bringing Coxey’s plan to life. A consummate showman, he convinced Coxey to go on an epic march to Washington D.C. where he could personally present his ideas to Congress. With an army of job seeking men that Browne promised would number in the thousands, Coxey was sure to get the attention of law makers.
Coxey and his army’s march on D.C. are pretty well known, but I think his charismatic second-in-command deserves more attention. Carl Browne was a complicated man who had a huge impact on the march and can teach us a lot about politics and culture in the late 1800s. Though most reporters at the time focused on Coxey and his activities, Roy Baker became enamored with Browne, who “reminded me immediately of some of the soap-box orators and vendors of Kickapoo Indian remedies I had seen on the lake front in Chicago.” (7) Baker embedded himself in Coxey’s Army got to know Browne intimately during the long journey. Fifty years later in his autobiography, Baker remembered Browne vividly and wrote about him in detail.
From Massillon, Browne and Coxey were planning on marching with an army of supporters directly to the steps of the US Capitol, a “Petition in Boots” to present their proposed unemployment relief law to the government. When Baker arrived at Coxey’s farm ten days before the march was to begin, there were less than a hundred men, hardly the army that he expected to see. “With millions of men out of work and starving in America, and other millions striking for a living wage,” Browne boasted, “our problem is not to recruit an army, but to prevent a rush to Massillon that will overwhelm us.” (8) As Baker would learn, Browne always embellished, but there was also a grain of truth in his words.
Carl Browne was as peculiar as he was optimistic. Born in 1849, Browne was originally an artist known for his paintings of nature scenes and battlefields. After the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, he became a passionate apologist for labor rights. From there, Browne threw himself into the Greenback movement and then Populism.
Browne was deeply spiritual and his religious convictions guided his political beliefs. He converted to a mystical Christian religious philosophy called theosophy in 1892, after his wife Alice tragically died of pneumonia. He believed that when a man died his soul “went into one great reservoir and his body into another, to be used over again in future human beings.” Browne declared that he carried a portion of the soul of Jesus Christ and the Greek orator Callisthenes in him, along with the soul of his recently deceased wife.
On the day that Baker first met Browne, he proudly showed him a large oil painting of Jesus he had just finished that “bore an extraordinary resemblance” (8) to himself including the spirals in his beard. His religious beliefs were not simply self-serving, however. Browne passionately believed that Christ’s life (and His soul residing in his own body) compelled him to spend his life doing good for others. He regularly preached sermons that showed Jesus was a humanitarian and that his whole life was “spent in doing good to His fellows.” Browne believed he must do the same for his own neighbors.
Browne’s religious beliefs were central to his association with Jacob Coxey, who he had met at a Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. The two shared similar views on monetary policy and how it could be used to aid the poor and jobless and became close associates. When Coxey shared his federal road building legislation idea, Browne realized it was a chance for him to do a lot of good for his fellows.
Browne was drawn to Coxey’s ideas and his willingness to aid the jobless and impoverished. With Browne’s encouragement, Coxey threw everything he had: his money, his business, even his own family into organizing the march on D.C. “Brother Coxey has plenty of this world’s goods and he is obeying the Savior’s injunction to ‘sell all he hath and give to the poor,’” Browne proudly avowed, “It shows how thoroughly he believes in the work.” (9)
Using his artistic and oratorical skills, Browne painted signs and banners, wrote songs and bulletins, and spoke to the men who were gathering at the Coxey Farm. Though Baker thought Browne was “living in an unreal world of [his own] feverish enthusiasm,” Coxey’s right hand man was convinced that his cause was divinely inspired and could not fail:
“We are acting from inspiration from on high. We believe that the liberty-loving people comprising this indivisible and undividable American Union will respond in such numbers to this call of duty that no hessian Pinkerton thugs, much less state militia or U.S. troops can be hired for gold to fire upon such a myriad of human beings, unarmed and defenseless, assembling under the aegis of the Constitution, upon the steps of the Nation’s Capitol, to assert their prerogative, shielded as they would be by right and justice, and guided by Him in the interest of good and higher government, and thus will take place that final battle, long and foretold; for it will be, as noble Lester [he meant Elbert] Hubbard once wrote: ‘That plain of Armageddon, dimly seen by ancient seer when the brute nature and immortal soul of man close in final contest, which shall herald the dawning of the era of love and tenderness, when nations shall know the fatherhood of God and live by the brotherhood of man.’” (10)
Coxey’s ideas were popular with the jobless, but it was Browne’s vision of a crusade for justice and federal unemployment relief that attracted recruits to Coxey’s Army. The army, Browne insisted, was to be known as the “Commonweal of Christ” and was a millennial movement to rescue the nation from its economic sins. Christian symbols and writings permeated every aspect of the Commonweal, from the images painted on their wagons to the very words they used to describe their mission. Inspired by his religio-political convictions or mesmerized by his masterful showmanship, many were drawn to the Commonweal because of Carl Browne.
The days drew nearer to Easter Sunday when the army’s march would begin. Inspired by Coxey’s radical ideas and Browne’s magnetic personality, Baker witnessed a steady stream of strange human beings arriving ready to march. “Many of the cranks of the country seemed to have scented spoil and have started for Massillon; some…coming with a flourish in Pullman cars, others riding on the lowly brake beams. Every day…was a fresh repast of wonder and delight.” (12)
There was “Doctor” Cyclone Kirkland, an astrologer who would write epic poems about the Commonweal’s march and “Prof” C.B. Freeman, a black minstrel singer who claimed to be the loudest singer in the world, “a gift he willingly demonstrated on the spot.” (13) Coxey’s Army was also joined by “The Great Unknown” and his wife, the “Veiled Lady.” No one knew who the Great Unknown was, and rumors arose claiming he was an anarchist, circus ring man, or disgraced German officer (he was later revealed to be a patent medicine salesman). Hugh O’Donnell, a leader from the 1892 Homestead Strike also took part in the march, as did hundreds of union men and their families.
Carl Browne may have been eccentric and idealistic, but he was no fool. He knew that these bizarre characters could be used to attract attention and publicity for the Commonweal. Publicity, in turn, would lead to more recruits and support during their 350 mile trip to D.C. And Browne was right- as word of the Commonweal spread (helped by Baker’s regular news reports in the Chicago News-Record) townspeople and local politicians all long the Commonweal’s route planned celebrations and gathered food and clothing to donate to the marchers. Baker wrote that the spectacle the men created “would have satisfied even the most exacting of newspaper correspondents, of whom there were now enough to make a small army of our own—some forty or fifty, including the newspaper artists.” (13)
On Easter Sunday, 1894, the Commonweal of Christ was ready to march. It was a rag-tag band of jobless men, hungry hobos in ragged clothes, labor advocates, cranks, crack-pots, and the divinely inspired. At 11 AM, the Commonweal of Christ Brass Band began to play and Jasper Johnson Buchannan led the way waving a huge American flag. And right behind him was Carl Browne, wearing a white lace necktie and sombrero atop a beautiful white stallion.
By April 3rd, the Commonweal had reached Pittsburgh. Baker and other reporters had expected the men to be undisciplined and give up after just a day or two. But through determination, desperation, and everyone’s faith in Browne and Coxey, the Commonweal gained strength as it passed through each town and village along the way. The farther the Commonweal got, the more respected and legitimate it became in the eyes of observers like Baker.
“The discipline was remarkable” Baker recalled. Browne enforced the Commonweal’s rules strictly and banished many tramps and recruits who were taking advantage of the march for their personal gain. Doctor Cyclone, “beguiled by a dime museum manager” to appear in his show, was court martialed by Browne and discharged from the Commonweal in Pittsburgh.
Browne remained popular with most of the men throughout the march. At every stop, Browne would display his painted cartoons and artwork to thousands of onlookers and new recruits. The large oil painting of Browne/Christ, displayed at the front of the Commonweal at all times, became more popular than the other colorful banners and flags the army carried. New banners were created picturing Coxey as the “Cerebrum of the Commonweal” and Browne as the “Cerebellum.”
Though he did not take Browne or his ideas seriously at first, the Commonweal’s success began to change Roy Baker’s opinions. As men, women, and children continued to flock to the Commonweal in droves, Baker became fascinated with Carl Browne. The gaudy man in the sombrero was no longer a mere curiosity or character to be pitied in Baker’s eyes.
Though Baker traveled with the Commonweal, he was bewildered by their eccentricities and was never converted to their ideals. Nevertheless, he did become close friends with Browne and came to respect him despite his quirks. “I delighted to watch him. There was something positively childlike in his love of the make-believe, the romantic completeness of his faith in himself, the innocence of his self-deception, and his word-intoxication—the ‘languorous languor of the lingering day.’ The spectacle of him speaking at night from his wagon with the kerosene flare uncertainly lighting his grotesque cartoons, his coattails flying in the wind, while he demolished the Rothschilds and the Rockefellers, is a scene I cannot forget…When I think of the army, I think first of Browne. He was a kind of brief abstract and chronicle of the time; but when I saw him heading a great public movement, and trying to do the thinking for it, I was sorry for our civilization.” (20)
Though Browne was bolder and more compelling than Coxey, he could not lead the Commonweal by himself. If Browne was anything it was not practical. Baker recounted multiple times when the Commonweal was forced to pay to use a toll gate or walk on a pike. Browne would to ride up to the toll collector and loudly demand that the Commonweal be allowed to pass through free. When the toll collector refused (and they always did), Browne loudly cursed them and denounced them as “minion[s] of the bloated bond-holders and corporations.” (21) After this loud demonstration, Coxey would quietly come forward and pay the fare. Would Browne have paid the fare if he was leading the Commonweal by himself? Perhaps, maybe not. It wasn’t his style.
Browne and Coxey complemented each other and together kept the Commonweal marching. Coxey was a successful businessman and independently wealthy. He skillfully leveraged his own resources and thousands of donations of money, food, and supplies to make sure the Commonweal stayed together. Browne was much more comfortable being the public leader of the army and was less concerned with logistics.
Coxey knew how important Browne was to the Commonweal’s success. When The Great Unknown challenged Browne and tried to usurp his second-in-command position, Coxey quickly intervened on his lieutenant’s behalf. Browne prevailed and the Great Unknown speedily left camp. Without Browne, Coxey would have arrived in D.C. with an army lacking in conviction and enthusiasm.
On April 26 the Commonweal was within sight of the Capitol building. Joined by two “branch” armies raised in D.C. and Philadelphia, the army marched up Pennsylvania Avenue, led by Coxey’s daughter Mamie dressed in red and blue on a white horse. Thousands lined the streets, watching the procession, as did many elected officials. Waiting at the Capitol was an imposing army of police, with orders not to let Coxey set foot on the Capitol lawn.
Jumping off his horse, Browne was the first to dart across the street and onto the Capitol grounds. Baker was hot on his heels and witnessed the exciting climax of the Commonweal’s march. With his big sombrero and fringed coat Baker was hard to miss and was apprehended within seconds by two unmounted policemen.
Coxey, in his usual mild mannered way, used Browne’s distraction to pass through the crowd undetected and made it on to the Capitol steps. Baker later suspected that the two had planned the diversion ahead of time, knowing that Browne was a much more visible target than the unassuming Coxey. However, the plan ultimately failed. Within moments Coxey was arrested too. He was barely able to hand his petition to a nearby reporter before he was hauled off to prison.
That afternoon, Baker went to the city prison to visit Carl Browne. Though Coxey’s name was plastered on all the headlines and reports, it was Browne’s fate that Baker was interested in. The two had come to respect and admire each other during the trying journey to D.C.
Baker was also on a personal mission. When Browne was tackled and arrested, the police had ripped a necklace of amber beads off his neck. Baker recognized these as the beads that belonged to Browne’s wife Alice (who you’ll recall had died just two years earlier). Browne wore them everywhere he went and Baker knew their value when the string burst and beads flew all over the Capitol lawn.
“I saw Browne sitting on the bed in his cell,” Baker recalled. “Blood had dried on his hair and neck. His elbows rested on his knees and his head was buried in his hands; he was a picture of complete dejection. The turnkey let me into the cell and I sat down by his side. When he turned to look at me I placed in his hand the amber beads I had picked up during the melee. When he saw them his shoulders began to heave and he sobbed like the child he really was. ‘You’re the only friend I’ve got left in the world,’ he blubbered.” (25)
A lot of times, I think we distance ourselves from the men and women in our history books. Whatever their beliefs and actions were, they are regular people just like the rest of us with the same emotions and feelings. I imagine it was pretty difficult to believe so passionately about a cause for so long that all seemed to fail catastrophically in a matter of seconds. When I was reading the official histories and newspaper accounts of the failure of Coxey’s Army I wasn’t affected personally. But when I read Baker’s recount of his visit to Browne’s cell, I found myself feeling sadder and understanding the weight that Browne had been carrying with him. Browne was a charismatic and emotional man, and that resonated with me the most in this passage.
Browne and Coxey were both charged with “treading on the turf or grass and injuring the shrubbery” on the Capitol grounds and sentenced to pay a $5 fine and spend twenty days in jail. Though their punishment was fairly mild, it was too much for the Commonweal to endure. Without Browne’s compelling leadership or Coxey’s resourcefulness, their supporters melted away after just a few days.
Browne and Coxey parted ways shortly after. Coxey’s daughter Mamie had fallen in love with her father’s trusty lieutenant and the couple was secretly married a year after the march. Coxey had discouraged the union and never spoke to Browne again.
Just as the Commonweal had quickly vanished, Carl Browne spent the rest of his live in relative obscurity. In his later years he supported the Socialist Party and encouraged them to adopt the same principles of Christian goodness and relief for the working man that had united the members of the Commonweal (he proudly voted for Tom Watson in 1904!). He remained good friends with Ray Baker and visited him every time he passed through Chicago. Even at the end of his life he continued to sign letters with a flourish and the motto “The Pen is Mightier than the Sword.” He passed away in 1919 at the age of seventy.
Many historians have written on the importance of the Commonweal’s march to D.C. and its impact on unemployment relief and popular reactions to problems in the government and the work-place. I don’t think there is much debate that Coxey’s ideas were significant and inspired (or at least influenced) the platforms and politics of other movements that found a lot of success in the 20th century.
However, I don’t think we should stop with the significance of Coxey’s ideas. Carl Browne’s influence on the Commonweal- particularly with his showmanship and ability to manage publicity effectively- made the march the spectacle that kept it in the papers (and later history books). Without the eccentric characters Browne attracted to the Commonweal banner and the colorful speeches and displays he created, I seriously doubt that the march would have been as popular or had any serious impact on how American society thinks about social/economic issues. Carl Browne’s personality resonated with needy Americans (and kept the press’ attention) and helped shape how later marches and relief efforts conducted themselves in public.
I think Baker (who admitted he did not care deeply of the plight of the unemployed before he met Browne) said it best in this report from March 1894: “Taking into consideration the grotesque and outlandish appearance of the army, it is really surprising to see how well it is treated…when such an ugly and grotesque fungus can grow out so prominently on the body politic there must be something wrong. The national blood is out or order, and Coxey, Browne, and the other Commonwealers seem, seriously considered, to be but the eruption on the surface. I don’t like to think of the army with a sober face, but it seems to me that such a movement must be looked at as something more than a huge joke. It has more meaning than either Coxey or Browne imagine.” (19-20)
To learn more about Carl Browne and Coxey’s Army, check out these sources:
-Baker, Ray Stannard. “American Chronicle: The Autobiography of Ray Stannard Baker.” 1945. (All cited quotes in this post came from this book.)
-Barkun, Michael. “Coxey’s Army as a Millenial Movement,” Religion, Summer 1989.
-Chapter 1: Coxey’s Army Invades Washington, 1894 in Barber, Lucy. “Marching on -Washington: The Forging of an American Political Tradition.” 2002.
-Browne, Carl. “When Coxey’s ‘army’ marcht on Washington, 1894,” 1944.
-General Jacob Coxey Collection at the Massillon Museum (lots of great digitized material here).
-Ray Stannard Baker Papers at the Library of Congress
-Vincent, Henry. “The Story of the Commonweal.” 1894.
–Johns Hopkins University Press Blog entry on Coxey’s Army