In March of 1894, in the midst of the worst recession in the history of the country, Jacob Coxey began a march to Washington with nearly five hundred unemployed people to demand that Congress pass legislation that would create jobs by building bridges and roads.
Coxey carried with him a statement which questioned why lobbyists of trusts and corporations have passed unchallenged on their way to the committee rooms, access to which we, the representatives of the toiling wealth producers, have been denied.
Last month, in the throes of the worst economic conditions since the Great Depression, thousands of the unemployed, activists, and union members travelled to Washington to “Occupy the Capitol” and demand that Congress pass legislation that would create jobs by fixing crumbling bridges, building schools and improving other public infrastructure.
Coxey never got to read the statement he carried with him as he was arrested when he approached the steps of the Capitol.
Unlike Coxey we didn’t get arrested, but like Coxey we never got to confront our representatives with questions that are as relevant today as they were in 1894; questions that go to the core of what is the proper role of a democratically elected government in mediating how the fruits and burdens of a society should be shared.
The questions may be couched in terms of economics, finance and political power, but fundamentally they are moral questions. The answers to these questions inform our society and define what kind of people we are or hope to be. The answers to these questions reveal to the world what we most value, what is most important to us.
These questions are not new today, nor were they new in 1894. These questions first penetrated human consciousness when, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Discourse on the Origin of Inequality wrote, “The first person who, having enclosed a plot of land, took it into his head to say this is mine….”
These questions have no finite answers. These questions are human constructs defined and determined by a dynamic society within its historical context. The answers to these questions is an argument without end.