A growing chorus of voices was saying that as a matter of humanity, government could not stay uninvolved. As the Winslow Township Committee voted in New Jersey, a Roman Catholic priest in Pittsburgh decided that it would take more than prayer to sustain the unemployed miners and steelworkers of western Pennsylvania. These industries were among the hardest hit by the depression. Across the state, a quarter of the working population, nearly 1 million people, was jobless. Although Governor Gifford Pinchot had initiated a state road-building program that employed 25,000 workers, he had written Hoover in August 1931 to say that “hundreds of thousands will go hungry next winter unless the Federal Government steps in.”
Next winter had now arrived, and Father James R. Cox was marshaling an army of the unemployed to begin a march—or, more accurately, a motorcade—to Washington. Cox was forty-five, a florid, paunchy millworker’s son for whom the needs of the jobless were a calling as insistent as his ministry. His parish was Pittsburgh’s oldest, St. Patrick’s, centered in a rundown section of produce warehouses along the Allegheny River called the Strip. At Pitt Stadium in December, 60,000 people had answered his call to a rally of the unemployed. Now he urged them on to Washington, to confront Hoover with the human evidence of massive unemployment. He hoped they would embarrass the president into dropping his opposition to a large-scale program of government-funded public works that would employ the jobless in road and street construction, building repairs, and other infrastructure improvements such as water and sewer systems.
Fifteen thousand people showed up for Cox’s motorcade in the cold first week of January. Many of the jobless men were accompanied by their families. The Pennsylvanians piled into 2,000 cars and trucks and set out for Washington in a convoy eight miles long. They arrived in the capital on January 6 and camped overnight on government-owned lots in southwest Washington. The next day the “haggard, unshaven” marchers gathered outside the Capitol while Cox went inside to deliver their petition for a federal jobs program to Pennsylvania’s representatives in Congress. Then, as the marchers ate a meal of wieners and sauerkraut dished out at army field kitchens set up by the District of Columbia police, Cox received a White House audience with Hoover.
By all accounts, the president gave Cox his full attention. He was not without compassion. He had risen to prominence on the strength of his efforts at relieving want, the first time in Europe during and after the Great War, when he headed programs that supplied food to millions in Belgium and northern France. The Russian writer Maxim Gorky had credited him with saving the lives of 3.5 million children and 5.5 million adults. As commerce secretary for eight years under Harding and Coolidge, Hoover had studied the 1920–21 recession and devoted himself to trying to design cures for business downturns while holding fast to fundamental laissez-faire assumptions. When the Mississippi River broke its banks in the spring of 1927, flooding the Mississippi Delta and making refugees of almost a million people, Coolidge placed Hoover in charge of the response. He organized everything from rescue fleets and refugee camps to the delivery of food, clothing, and medical supplies, and launched the rebuilding effort afterward. His brilliance at the job—and his equal brilliance at publicizing it with personal appearances, news releases, and radio broadcasts—made him a national hero and helped win him the Republican nomination for president in 1928. His sincerity was not an issue when Hoover, after Cox had finished his appeal, expressed “intense sympathy for your difficulties.”
But words of sympathy were one thing, action another. The rest of the president’s comments were as predictable as his expression of concern. The fundamentals of the economy were strong, he insisted, and a balanced budget ensuring the sound credit of the government was the only sure way to bring about recovery. He had been echoing the same refrain ever since the crash, to the point that it often seemed as if optimism was his only policy. “I am convinced we have now passed the worst,” he had told the United States Chamber of Commerce on May 1, 1930. “There is one certainty in the future…—that is prosperity.” A month later, when a delegation came to press him to start a program of public works, he greeted them by declaring, “Gentlemen, you have come sixty days too late. The depression is over.” Now, in January 1932, Hoover told Cox that a government-sponsored work program would not only violate tradition but cost too much. “The real victory,” he said, “is to restore men to employment through their regular jobs.”
Cox’s army did not leave entirely empty-handed. Senator James J. Davis of Pennsylvania gave the marchers $100 and a local Catholic charity donated $300, the contributions forming a gasoline fund to take them back to Pennsylvania. Before they turned their wheezing vehicles toward home, they detoured to Arlington National Cemetery to visit the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Cox addressed the men and their families as they shivered on the marble plaza in the winter cold, the monuments of Washington visible across the Potomac through the naked trees. “Today you have asked only for your God-given right to work,” he said.
Home again in Pittsburgh, Cox dismissed Hoover’s response to unemployment as “utterly inadequate,” announced the formation of the Jobless Party, and later became its presidential candidate. It was the dawn of an election year, and as the 1932 campaign took shape, no issue would prove to be more potent than the lack of jobs. Among the major parties, congressional Democrats had long been raising the government’s inaction as an issue, led by House Speaker John Nance Garner, who was supported by publishing baron William Randolph Hearst for the presidential nomination. And he was not alone. Democrats were salivating over the chance to face a vulnerable Hoover and contrast themselves with him.