The Depression of 1893

In its impact on industry and employment, the depression of the 1890s was on a par with the Great Depression of the 1930s. In some places it began before 1890, in a deep agricultural crisis that hit Southern cotton-growing regions and the Great Plains in the late 1880s. The shock hit Wall Street and urban areas in 1893, as part of a massive worldwide economic crisis. A quarter of the nation's railroads went bankrupt; in some cities, unemployment among industrial workers exceeded 20 or even 25 percent.

Americans of different incomes experienced the depression in markedly different ways. In the bitter winter months, some poor families starved and others became wanderers. Unemployed "tramps" crisscrossed the countryside, walking or hiding on freight trains. Many appeared at the back doors of middle-class houses, pleading for work or food.

Despite the obvious structural crisis, many Americans blamed those who could not find work, accusing them of laziness or begging. Some among the unemployed blamed themselves, and stories of despair and suicide ran almost daily in many newspapers.

Many in the comfortable classes feared violence and anarchy. A series of bitter labor conflicts--such as the Homestead strike at the Carnegie Steel Works, and the Pullman strike in Chicago--captured the nation's attention before and during the depression itself. In such situations, many respectable Americans blamed violence on the strikers, though others sympathized with the plight of the underpaid and unemployed.

In 1894, Ohio businessman Jacob Coxey organized an "Industrial Army" to protest the federal government's inaction in the face of economic crisis. Coxey proposed many programs that would later win acceptance during the New Deal, but which were considered extremely radical in the 1890s. Most notably he advocated the creation of government jobs, through which unemployed men could improve the nation's roads and build public works, while also supporting their families. This project, he argued, could be financed through the issue of government bonds.

Coxey's Army picked up many allies and sympathizers on its march to Washington, but it also stirred panic among those who feared an insurrection of the unemployed. When the members of the Army reached Washington they were driven from the Capitol lawn. Coxey, who tried to read a prepared statement on the Capitol steps, was jailed for trespassing, though allies later read his speech into the Congressional Record. Coxey, who founded the newspaper Sound Money, went on to run for U.S. Representative from Ohio in 1894 (he lost to a Republican) and to serve as a delegate to the 1896 Populist convention. Because of his high profile in the party, many commentators associated Populism with "Coxeyism."

The depression remained severe in 1896, making economic conditions a crucial issue of the campaign. The sitting Democratic president, Grover Cleveland, was wildly unpopular because of the depression--a fact that helped foster a deep rift in the Democratic party, and also made Bryan's campaign an uphill battle from the start. During the first two years of McKinley's presidency the nation returned to prosperity, bringing new issues to the fore in 1898 and beyond.

'The spectacle of men fighting for work...' My God! This is terrible! Battling for the privilege of working all day for enough to eat--and the next day go at it again; and so on until the earth rattles on their pine boxes.
Cannot the good God do something to relieve his wretched children? Or is this thing to go on forever? Why not give some good-hearted, honest man supreme power for four years, and let him improve God's world or blow it up. He could not make it much worse than it is, for the great mass of mankind.
A judicious hanging bee in Wall Street would be a good measure with which to begin the reformation.
-- I.D. [Ignatius Donnelly] in The Representative, 29 August 1894

Cartoons on this Site Mentioning the Depression
(see also broader manifestations of economic concerns, such as appeals to workingmen, the currency question, and the tariff.)

29 September, L.A. Times
13 October, New York Journal
22 October, Sound Money

[Legal Tender Coxey]

Jacob Coxey and his son, "Legal Tender" Coxey from Coxey's magazine "Cause and Cure," December 1897.

Jacob Coxey's Address on Behalf of the Industrial Army

The Constitution of the United States guarantees to all citizens the right to peaceably assemble and petition for redress of grievances, and furthermore declares that the right of free speech shall not be abridged.
We stand here to-day to test these guaranties of our Constitution. We choose this place of assemblage because it is the property of the people. . . . Here rather than at any other spot upon the continent it is fitting that we should come to mourn over our dead liberties and by our protest arouse the imperiled nation to such action as shall rescue the Constitution and resurrect our liberties.
Upon these steps where we stand has been spread a carpet for the royal feet of a foreign princess, the cost of whose lavish entertainment was taken from the public Treasury without the consent or the approval of the people. Up these steps the lobbyists of trusts and corporations have passed unchallenged on their way to committee rooms, access to which we, the representatives of the toiling wealth-producers, have been denied.
We stand here to-day in behalf of millions of toilers whose petitions have been buried in committee rooms, whose prayers have been unresponded to, and whose opportunities for honest, remunerative, productive labor have been taken from them by unjust legislation, which protects idlers, speculators, and gamblers: we come to remind the Congress here assembled of the declaration of a United States Senator, "that for a quarter of a century the rich have been growing richer, the poor poorer and that by the close of the present century the middle class will have disappeared as the struggle for existence becomes fierce and relentless."
--Jacob S. Coxey, "Address of Protest" on the steps of the Capitol, from the Congressional Record, 53rd Congress, 2nd Session (9 May 1894), 4512.

There are millions of heads of families partially or wholly out of employment, and many of these must live in some degree on the earnings of their friends. In the agricultural districts wages have fallen one-half. In manufacturing and other lines, where labor is organized, and the unions will not permit reductions, wages remain more nearly at the old figures, but as there is nothing to prevent employers from reducing the number of their employees, this has been done to such an extent that the aggregate of all wages paid is at the starvation point.
--Denver News, 20 September 1896

There is to be a presidential election this year; in view of which it may be well to remark--
That workingmen will not be taxed less under a Republican president than they have been under a Democrat.
That there will be no more opportunities open to labor in the next four years than there have been in the past four.
That it will be just as difficult to "make ends meet" in the four years coming as in the four years going.
That there will be no more flour in the bin with a McKinley in the White House than there has been with a Cleveland.
That concentration of wealth will rather be accelerated than otherwise by the change. That the election of a Republican or a Democrat as president of this "republic" will have no more effect on inventionand the use of more machinery, than the kick of a gnat on the Rocky Mountain.
We admit that this is rather a gloomy forecast; but experience warrants it and events will justify it.
--The Coming Nation, March 21, 1896


© 2000, Rebecca Edwards, Vassar College