On Easter Sunday, March 25, 1894, Jacob Coxey, his flamboyant sidekick Carl Browne, some 122 unemployed tramps, cranks, and vagabonds, and about forty newspaper reporters, left Massillon Ohio for Washington D.C. As the leader of this very first "March to Washington," Coxey sought to deliver a petition to Congress calling for the establishment of a $500 million "Good Roads" program. Though the march was widely ridiculed in the popular press and ended in the arrest of Coxey and Browne on the Capitol grounds on May Day, it set an important precedent for how protest could occur.
During what Coxey and Browne referred to as the Commonweal of Christ, the number of marchers varied, often reaching as many as three hundred or more in Coxey’s Army and as many as five to ten thousand in the seven other industrial armies marching across the country. Those other armies, coming from the west, including Kelly's Army and Fry's Army, are referred to in Carlos Schwantes excellent interpreatation of the March. Schwnates depicts how these unemployed soldiers comandeerd trains and lived off the land in their frantic effort to join General Coxey in his final May Day march uo Pennsylvania Avenue.
Coxey and his followers sought to convince Congress to enact the “Good Roads Program” that would put thousands of unemployed from the Panic of 1893 back to work again. Part populist, part religous, part labor protest, and in all, an unrivaled spectacle, Coxey’s very first march to Washington became a media circus. It launched the famous journalistic career of a reporter destined to become a famous muck raker, Ray Stanard Baker. Baker, after writing several dispatches mocking the affair, in the end came to appreciate the march as an expression of pure democracy: “It seems to me that such a movement must be looked at as something more than a huge joke,” Baker concluded in the Chicago Record.
But generally Coxey was ridiculed in the public press not only for the March itself, but for his Greenback philosophy and his idea for interest free municipal bonds to fund the Good Roads program. But though Congress failed to enact any of the bills embodying his ideas, thirty years later the Good Roads program became one of the germs that sparked Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal public works programs. FDR met with Coxey at Warm Springs Georgia in 1932 because the President elect saw in Coxey's Good Roads idea the foundations of what was to become the first National Public Works Administration, and later evolved into a major national investment in an interstate highway system.