During the Great Depression, Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon was unimaginably rich, deeply conservative and completely mistrustful of the government interfering in businesses or citizens’ lives. Father James Cox was a former steelworker, now a Catholic priest in depression era Pittsburgh who led a massive march on Washington to demand the government provide direct relief to the unemployed and homeless. These two men would seem like natural enemies. And yet, for reasons which remain mysterious, Andrew Mellon secretly financed Cox’s march on Washington.
There is no easy answer. A bit of context may help.
Andrew Mellon was one of the richest men in America. He served three Republican presidents as Secretary of Treasury. His policies centered around lowering taxes, cutting government activity, and making sure that regulations on business were as sparse as possible. He would be a natural supporter of today’s Tea Party movement. In the early 1920s, an economic boom led to a rapid expansion of the stock market, good growth in both the GDP and housing, and lower taxes. All of that came to a crashing end when the Great Depression devastated America. Pres. Herbert Hoover, a brilliant man of great accomplishment, offered little in the way of a solution as millions of Americans lost their homes, their farms, their bank accounts and their hope.
He turned to his Secretary of the Treasury for advice on how to deal with the heart wrenching economic conditions and massive human suffering. Mellon gave him this advice:
“Liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate farmers, liquidate real estate… it will purge the rottenness out of the system.”
Mellon’s plan, consistent with his ultraconservative philosophy, was simply to let the economy resolve itself. A cold, chilly and condescending man, Sec. Mellon was not swayed to action by the desperate condition of the American people. He believed that holding to a consistent political philosophy, regardless of the practical outcomes on the lives of the people, would someday lead to a better economic situation. The champion and architect of “trickle down” economics wanted the government to do nothing to directly help the people. His disdain for politicians became even more evident as his politically consistent but inhumane attitude became nationally known.
Meanwhile, in Pittsburgh, Father Cox believe deeply that the government had a moral responsibility to help the people. He built a massive charitable relief in Pittsburgh. In a city where unemployment was over 40%, homelessness and hunger threatened the lives and souls of the people. Father Cox was tireless. He organized charity drives, built a massive soup kitchen that fed more than 1,000 people per day and organized a “Hooverville” to offer some semblance of housing for more than 300 families of all races. He used his radio program to continually exhort the government to step in to stop the suffering. The “Pastor Of The Poor” new the charity alone was not going to be able to solve the problem. He also knew that the policy of Sec. Mellon, to simply let the Great Depression bottom out no matter how long it took, would lead to unimaginable levels of avoidable suffering and death.
Father Cox decided the time had come to take his message directly to Washington. He announced plans for a massive march of unemployed people from Pittsburgh to lobby the Congress and the president. Their goal was to get direct government relief for the poor, the hungry, and the unemployed. In short, the good priest was demanding everything that Andrew Mellon opposed.
At first the march of “Cox’s Army” was expected to draw 2,500 people. Instead, 25,000 people showed up at the sendoff. Estimates are that of out 12,000 to 15,000 people actually participated in the march.The logistics were staggering. Simply paying for fuel for 2,000 vehicles would have decimated the meager budget of the protest. Feeding and housing 12,000 homeless people called for incredible faith and charity as the protest entered Washington DC.
The march was entirely peaceful. Instead of adding extra patrols, the police pitched in to help feed the marchers. Pres. Hoover was embarrassed by the site of so many American citizens camped out in shanties on federal property. Little did he know that his Secretary of the Treasury, Andrew Mellon and Cox’s Army were working together quietly behind the scenes. Hoover’s response to the march was to order an investigation of Father Cox as a radical and enemy of the democracy. The investigators reported exactly the opposite. Father Cox was a World War I veteran and more than a quarter of the marchers were veterans as well. They were deeply patriotic Americans who wanted work and needed food. Hoover met with Cox for 20 minutes but offered little beyond a canned statement that the depression was almost over. Both he and the Republican Congress refused to act on the petition of Father Cox and the marchers. Cox stated: “While I, out of respect to the Chief Executive of the nation, did not comment then, I can say now that his plans for relief are utterly inadequate.”
To The Rescue: Andrew Mellon And Cox’s Army
Feeling they had done all they could, Cox and the marchers returned to Pittsburgh. However, some of the men did not have adequate transportation to return. What we now know is that arch-conservative Andrew Mellon secretly was financing the march! The fuel for the march was provided, free of charge, under quiet order of Andrew Mellon. He instructed his Gulf oil service stations to make gasoline available for free and when almost 300 of the marchers had no means of returning to Pittsburgh, Sec. Mellon provided the train fare. In today’s money, that was almost $20,000 worth of largess, not including all of the other secret financial support and free gasoline he offered.
Why? Why Did Andrew Mellon And Cox’s Army Work Together?
Historians have long debated why Andrew Mellon would support a march whose goals for the antithesis of his political philosophy. There is no easy answer. Mellon was contemptuous of Pres. Hoover and the two of them were involved in a complex disagreement which would lead to impeachment hearings against the Sec. of the Treasury. It’s been suggested that Mellon was acting out of personal pique, anxious to embarrass the president. A second explanation is that Mellon, as a Pittsburgh native, was acting out of hometown pride. A third argument has been made that while Mellon did not believe in government relief, he did believe in personal charity. All of these explanations have holes in them. Perhaps the answer lies in a tangled combination of several of them or perhaps Andrew Mellon and Cox’s Army teamed up for reasons we don’t yet understand. It is a great historical mystery.