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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.)

  • Sept 29: L.A. Times: Poor Circulation
  • Oct 13: New York Journal: Hanna and Workers
  • Oct 22: Sound Money: The Old Party Scale

Jacob Coxey's Address on Behalf of the Industrial Army

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

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.

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

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

© 2010 Rebecca Edwards, author of New Spirits: Americans in the Gilded Age, 1865-1905 by Rebecca Edwards, Oxford University Press

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Major events of the campaign,
in cartoon and story. (Click date)

  • Feb 27: People’s Advocate: Reading Tillman's Speech
  • Mar 19: People’s Advocate: Pitchfork
  • Apr 4: The Ram’s Horn: Rescued
  • Apr 15: Sound Money: History Repeats Itself
  • Apr 25: The Ram’s Horn: The Stranger at Our Gate
  • May 28: Prohibitionist’s convention, Pittsburgh, PA
  • June 16: Republican convention, St. Louis, MO
  • June 21: Denver New Road: Cleveland's Romance
  • June 28: L.A. Times: Bucking a Wall
  • July 4: Socialist convention, New York, NY
  • July 11: Democratic convention, Chicago, Illinois
  • July 9: Rocky Mountain News: A Soliloquy
  • July 11: Harper’s Weekly: Gold Bugs
  • July 12: L.A. Times: The Old Lady and Her New Wheel
  • July 16: People’s Advocate: McKinley's Evil Sprit
  • July 18: Harper’s Weekly: Altgeld and Bryan
  • July 22: Silver convention, St. Louis, MO
  • July 25: People’s Party convention, St. Louis, MO
  • July 22: Rocky Mountain News: Wall Street's Private Studio
  • July 25: Harper’s Weekly: Farmer McKinley
  • July 25: Judge: The Silver Candle
  • July 27: Chicago Record: Bryan's Tightrope
  • Aug 5: Rocky Mountain News: The Plain English of It
  • Aug 6: Sound Money: Spain and Rothschilds
  • Aug 8: McKinley accepts Republican nomination
  • Aug 9: Denver New Road: Bryan's Romance
  • Aug 12: Bryan accepts Democratic nomination
  • Aug 13: American Non-Conformist: Farmer Hanna
  • Aug 15: Rocky Mountain News: Bryan the Lion
  • Aug 16: L.A. Times: Aesop's Fox
  • Aug 18: Rocky Mountain News: Hanna the Wizard
  • Aug 20: Sound Money: The Cross of Gold
  • Aug 20: L.A. Times: Popocratic Witches
  • Aug 22: The Ram’s Horn: A Double Burden
  • Aug 29: Harper’s Weekly: McKinley the Veteran
  • Aug 29: Labor Advocate: Look at This
  • Aug 30: St. Louis Globe Democrat: Dime Museum
  • Sept 2: National (Gold) Democratic convention, Indianapolis, IN
  • Sept to Nov 1: McKinley front-porch campaign, Canton, OH
  • Sept 3: New York Journal: Li Hung Chang
  • Sept 5: Harper’s Weekly: The Crown of Thorns
  • Sept 5: St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Just the Bare Facts
  • Sept 6: L.A. Times: Comrades in Arms
  • Sept 6: St. Paul Pioneer Press: A Bryan Dollar
  • Sept 8: Early election day in Arkansas and Vermont
  • Sept 9: Rocky Mountain News: John Bull
  • Sept 10: St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Arkansas and Vermont
  • Sept 11 to Nov 1: Bryan travels 13,000 miles by train, stump-speaking around the nation.
  • Sept 11: St. Paul Pioneer Press: The Divorcee
  • Sept 11: St. Louis Globe Democrat: Uncle Sam Diagnoses
  • Sept 12: Labor Advocate: Their Argument Misses Fire
  • Sept 12: The Ram’s Horn: Building Up His Business
  • Sept 12: Harper’s Weekly: Populist Supreme Court
  • Sept 12: New York Journal: Hanna's Funds
  • Sept 13: Boston Globe: The Silver Dog
  • Sept 13: L.A. Times: Uncle Sam's Circus
  • Sept 14: L.A. Times: Populist Pandora
  • Sept 14: Rocky Mountain News: Playing Upon a Single String
  • Sept 17: Rocky Mountain News: Chinese Immigration
  • Sept 18: St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Against Turkey
  • Sept 18: Rocky Mountain News: A Horrible Suspicion
  • Sept 19: Judge: Bryan's Cross
  • Sept 19: Labor Advocate: How They Love The Farmers
  • Sept 19: St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Election-Year Friend
  • Sept 20: Boston Globe: Writ of Replevin'
  • Sept 20: L.A. Times: Populist Delilah
  • Sept 20: L’Abeille de Nouvelle Orleans: The Sultan Laughs
  • Sept 20: St. Louis Post-Dispatch: John Bull's Theft
  • Sept 21: St. Louis Post-Dispatch: The Robber And His Victim
  • Sept 24: L.A. Times: Resurrecting Secession
  • Sept 24: St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Treachery
  • Sept 25: Daily Inter-Ocean: Democratic Jonah
  • Sept 26: Harper’s Weekly: Silver Bullfight
  • Sept 26: L.A. Times: For Sale
  • Sept 26: National Reflector: Rings On The Hog
  • Sept 26: Seattle Post-Intelligencer: Bicyclist Bryan
  • Sept 29: L.A. Times: Poor Circulation
  • Oct 1: Pioneer Press: Silver Trust Hog
  • Oct 3: St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Workingman's Friend
  • Oct 4: Raleigh New and Observer: Hanna and Dixon
  • Oct 6: Election Day in the state of Florida (not all states voted on the first Tuesday in Nov).
  • Oct 6: Chicago Times: X-Ray of Bryan's Brain
  • Oct 6: Pioneer Press: Silver Conversation
  • Oct 6: St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Florida's Lifeline
  • Oct 8: St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Democratic Florida
  • Oct 8: New York Journal: Confident Hanna
  • Oct 10: Harper’s Weekly: Three Witches
  • Oct 10: The Coming Nation: The Worker's Treadmill
  • Oct 11: St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Resurrection
  • Oct 13: New York Journal: Hanna and Workers
  • Oct 13: St. Louis Globe Democrat: Bryan as Jack Cade
  • Oct 13: St. Louis Post-Dispatch: The Gold Balloon
  • Oct 15: Coxey's Sound Money: Uncle Sam Enslaved
  • Oct 15: Rocky Mountain News: Elected McKinley
  • Oct 16: Boston Globe: Bryan the Salesman
  • Oct 17: Coming Nation: Labor Exploitation
  • Oct 20: L.A. Times: Burning Cross of Gold
  • Oct 21: The Coming Nation: Socialism
  • Oct 22: Sound Money: The Old Party Scale
  • Oct 22: St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Hanna's Crown of Thorns
  • Oct 24: Harper’s Weekly: Altgeld and Guiteau
  • Oct 25: Daily Inter-Ocean: Bryan's Balloon
  • Oct 25: Omaha World Herald: Getting Women to Register
  • Oct 27: St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Hanna, Trusts, and Morgan
  • Oct 28: Puck: A New Civil War
  • Oct 30: St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Hanna in Lehigh Valley
  • Oct 31: Republicans announce “Flag Day,” then argue with Democrats and Populists over meaning of the flag
  • Oct 31: Harper’s Weekly: Democratic Wind-Up Toys
  • Oct 31: New York Journal: Buncombe Brigade
  • Oct 31: The Ram’s Horn: Ignorance, Stupidity, and Fraud
  • Nov 2: McKinley wins presidential election
  • Nov 2: L.A. Times: Clown Bryan
  • Nov 4: L’Abeille de Nouvelle Orleans: Knock-Out Punch
  • Nov 4: St. Paul Pioneer Press: Elephant on the Silver Pillow
  • Nov 5: Sound Money: Prediction for 1900
  • Nov 14: Judge: Republican Tam O'Shanter
  • Nov 14: Coming Nation: Our Farmers Situation
  • Dec: Overland Monthly: Uncle Sam Looks Abroad
New Spirits
New Spirits
Perceptions and Realities: The Victorian Age Inventions of the era Tramps and Millionaires Yellowstone Park Journals of the era White City/1893 Worlds Fair The Civil War President McKinley