The Printer and the Riddle:
The Story of Henry George
[Reprinted from Ch. 7 of the book Champions of
published by Little, Brown and Co., 1936]
THE riddle first challenged him when he was a boy of eighteen. He had
a job then in a printing house in Philadelphia, where he was born. As
the youngest typesetter in the house he liked to goad the older men
into debates. He used to stand at the case and raise all sorts of
questions in politics, religion, travel -- culled from his reading the
They were talking of hard times one day, and an elderly printer
remarked that wages were much higher in the United States than
anywhere in Europe. "That's because the United States is young,"
he explained. "When a land gets old, like Europe, people find it
hard to make a living there. Wages sink so low. Look at us in America:
Wages are higher in California than in New York. That's because
California is younger."
"But why?" asked Henry George. "Why should the age of
a country affect the pay envelope? Don't the people do the same amount
of work whatever the age of their country?"
The elderly printer did not know.
"The older the country, the richer," persisted the young
man. "I should think its wages would be higher."
"But they aren't."
And that was the riddle that lodged in Henry George's mind.
It came up again for an answer shortly after when he sat on the deck
of a schooner in the Pacific Ocean, bound for the Fraser River in
British Columbia. He had worked his passage out to California, in
search of the higher wages of the new land. San Francisco was then a
city of shanties stuck to sides of a sheaf of hills, its streets
restless with, fortune hunters. There was gold in the hills. But when
Henry George arrived in 1858, the best "claims" had already
been located, and the look in the eyes of the fortune hunters grew day
by day hungrier. He himself had taken odd jobs at his trade of
printing, meanwhile sharing the golden dreams of his neighbors.
Suddenly the news broke out of the discovery of placer mines on the
banks of the Fraser River. The land was still untenanted and waiting
to be staked out. At once the docks of San Francisco were crowded with
emigrants, Henry George among them.
On the deck of the schooner, which took each man to his own nugget,
the miners exchanged stories of lucky strikes, of how this or that
prospector had dug and washed dirt for months without scraping
together enough "dust" to buy a fried egg, and how one day
-- and, well, how he was back home now with the world in his pocket.
Every cheek flushed. They spoke of California, how it had lured people
from every corner of the world, even China.
"There's the trouble," said one of the miners. "The
Chinese should be kept out."
"They don't do us any harm," objected Henry George. "They
work the cheap diggings. We don't care to work them."
"They do no harm now," admitted the miner. "But wages
will not always be as high as they are to-day in California. As the
country grows, wages will come down, and some day we shall be glad to
get those diggings that the Chinamen are now working."
Again the ominous riddle!
Later he encountered it on another turn in the road of Western
progress. Plans were in the air to lay down a railroad overland
between St. Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento, linking the Far West to
the East. In the streets of San Francisco men spoke of the coming of
the railroad as the priests in the mission spoke of the millennium.
The railroad would bring prosperity to the West.
"Yet what good will it bring men like me, hired hands?"
wondered Henry George.
He had had no luck in the gold hunt, had come back dead broke to his
old job of setting type. He saw no hope in further prospecting. All
the good diggings had been staked out, every river bed and bank worked
over, and only the barren ones left. The new prospectors turned to the
dry diggings in ravines, on hillsides. They bored wells, sank shafts
into the earth, shot columns of water against the hillside, and were
lucky if they washed out enough "pay dirt" for a day's
wages. Rumor whispered of the good pay dirt yonder, here, there. But
the sun had set for the adventurer prowling with his shovel, pick and
The gold fever had gone from the blood of young Henry George and left
him depressed. He had been led on by a mirage of wealth, and found
himself instead working long and hard for bare sustenance.
"How I long for the Golden Age," he wrote to the folks back
home, "when the poorest will have a chance to use all his
God-given faculties, and not be forced to drudge away the best part of
Sometimes I feel sick of the fierce struggle of our
high civilized life."
He worked so much of the day that he had no time or energy left for
reading in the evening. He wore his clothes until they were rags. He
economized in every way, yet he hadn't enough to meet his board bill.
Times were bitter. In Sacramento the first shovelful of earth was dug
for the railroad which was to join the East to the West and, so people
said, bring good times. Henry George was doubtful. Why was it that the
wealthier a country became, the poorer its people? Sphinx-like, the
riddle taunted him.
Times grew even worse for him. He had married, and with work scarce
and a family to support, he was frantic. The day his second baby was
born, he had no money to buy food. He went into the street and walked
along slowly, eyeing every passer. At last he picked his man, stopped
him and spoke in a firm tone.
"I need five dollars. Will you let me have it?"
The man looked at him. "What do you want it for?"
"My wife is ill. I have nothing to give her to eat."
The stranger hesitated, then reached into his pocket.
"What would I have done," wondered Henry George afterward, "had
he refused? I was desperate." He saw that poverty breeds
criminals as well as beggars. That was why the riddle must be
answered. "Yes," he thought. "The railroad will bring
us wealth. Those who have, will have more; but the average person will
be poorer. San Francisco will build its fine mansions; but along with
them the slum will arise, the almshouse and the jail."
The riddle that stalked him threw him its last and fiercest challenge
in the city of New York. Times had improved for him; he was now an
editor of a San Francisco newspaper which had sent him East on
business. New York fascinated him. He saw avenues lined with mansions,
and people in coaches. But when he turned his head, he seemed to
behold the skeleton beneath this fair complexion of things: homes
worse than shacks in the hills, people gaunt and weary. He saw small
dogs fed and housed, and little children in want. He saw men and women
swathed luxuriously, and others without the daily crust of bread.
"And yet," he thought, "there is enough wealth here
for the needs of all."
When he was a boy of sixteen he had gone to sea. He had sailed up the
Ganges in India, thrilled to be in the land of soft airs and dreamy
luxury. At least so it was described in books. But the real India
before him was a bitter disappointment. He saw the princely luxury of
a few, saw jewels blaze in the trappings of elephants. But most human
life he saw groveling in the dirt.
Now New York impressed him the same way.
His yearning for the sea had been inspired by the tales he had read,
of missionaries who had gone abroad to spread Light and Truth among
the benighted people of the earth.
Now he longed to become a missionary among his own people, to teach
them to stamp out the disease of poverty.
Pity roused him to confront the riddle once for all time. "This
riddle has its root somewhere. Wealth and want spring from the same
seed," he believed. This seed he must find. Then, taking humanity
by the hand, he would lead them to it, that they might destroy it.
Although he had quit school before his fourteenth birthday, he had
never stopped studying. Now he assigned to himself the problem: Why do
a few people have so much, and most people so little?
A man of thirty, small and erect, with a full sandy beard and alert
blue eyes, had undertaken to answer the riddle of the ages.
One afternoon, not long after his return to San Francisco, he took
his horse for a gallop in the country. The clear stretch of wild land
refreshed him; the jolting of his mount threw off him the cares of the
day. Far in the distance he seemed to see a row of ties and poles
bobbing past: the railroad was finished. The ground beneath his
mustang's hoofs was wild, but no longer free. It belonged to someone
now. Everyone was in a rush to buy land. The railroad, people said,
would raise its value. Buy land and hold it, they advised.
The mustang was panting and his rider drew in the reins. As they
halted, a teamster happened along, and he, too, stopped.
"What's land worth around here?" asked Henry George.
The teamster pointed to some cows grazing in the distance. "That
man wants a thousand dollars an acre."
Something clicked in the mind of Henry George, like a door opening
wide. He was dazed with the flood of light that streamed in over him,
dazed with the sight of the thing he had been looking for: the answer
to the riddle.
Home he charged. He had to be alone to work it out. He had hold of
the bare idea. That man who wanted one thousand dollars an acre, for
his land -- what had he done to earn that money? Nothing: he was just
shrewd enough to foresee that more and more people would settle around
his land. Land is the one thing you cannot create. Those people would
need his land; he could raise the price of it.
"That is why," thought Henry George trembling with
excitement, "that is why the more our community grows, the more
wealth we are forced to hand over to landlords. The people remain poor
but the few landlords grow richer."
He sat down at his table to publish the thought. There flashed into
his mind the image of the four men who built the railroad. As though
in gratitude, the Government had given away to these men more than
twenty-five thousand acres of the people's ground for each mile of
railroad they had built. Few people cared. The vast empty territory of
the West seemed worthless. Yet that gift had made the four men
It was wrong to give away the people's land, he wrote. True, just
then, we had more land than we could use. That was because America was
young. Land was still cheap; on the frontier, even free. His free land
on the frontier made the American independent. He worked for nobody
unless he was well paid for his work. He was cheerful and confident,
because he was independent. For the same reason he was hospitable to
strangers, to the downtrodden foreigner. He could afford to be. God's
earth was plentiful.
But land had its end, Henry George pointed out. At the rate it was
being fenced in, another twenty years would see the end of America's
free ground. Already there were men who owned more land than a horse
could gallop over in a day. One day we, the people, would need that
land, and would have to pay tribute for it to the lord of the domain:
rent to the landlord. We would have to give him a share of the crops
we raised, or a share of our wages, just for the privilege of building
our house on it. And as the country grew, the landlord's share of our
labor would grow larger until we should become no better than his
slaves. Such was already the case in Europe, and so it was developing
in the East. Thus, when people said that wages were low in the old
countries, they meant that the landlords there took away a high share
of the wealth produced. That was the answer to the riddle.
"But what of it!" he could hear the objection come from
outside his window. "This is the country of opportunity. One man
is the owner of a factory, another of a shop, and a third man owns a
piece of land. Business is business."
Henry George was ready with his reply: "Oh, no. There's a
difference. The landlord did not earn his profit. He did no work. He
merely waited until his land was needed by other people. The community
that came to his land created its value. That value belongs by right
to the community, to all the people."
How can they get it?
"It's all very well to find fault," went on the voice of
objection. "But if there's nothing to be done about it, you're
"We must do something," warned Henry George. "Otherwise
the very ground which nourishes and shelters us, as vital to us as
air, will be monopolized by a few men. Those few will own and rule us.
And then democracy will perish."
"What would you have done?"
"One step only can safeguard us and our children: We must claim
what is ours, every cent of ground-rent."
"What would happen if we so taxed the landlord?"
"It would no longer pay him to hold on to his acres. Land would
become cheap. Settlements of people would flourish everywhere. The
worker could reap the full harvest of his work. No longer would
children starve in the streets of New York, to provide the princes of
the Avenue with splendor. All our people could then live in ease and
freedom. Through that single tax on land, democracy would be saved."
This was the powerful thought with which Henry George would abolish
poverty. It kept whirling in his mind, and developing, and upon it his
spirit soared. He saw the planet Earth sailing through space, a
well-provisioned ship. But it seemed whenever a quantity of food was
drawn up out of the hatches a few officers stepped forward and laid
hands on it. The rest of the crew got only the leavings.
If he could conjure up ghosts, he would summon old Ben Franklin, the
man of perfect common sense, and say to him: "The world has
changed miraculously since your day. Hear the throb of our engines.
Those are the slaves of our lamp. They can turn out a case of shoes in
less time than one of your cobblers takes to put on a sole. They can
spin cotton into cloth almost without the lift of a human finger. They
can harvest our crops and build our houses."
He predicted the comment of the old sage: -- "Oh, to be alive
now! For with plenty for everyone, life must be beautiful; your hearts
pure of envy and greed; your bodies radiant; your minds in search of
perfection. Pray, what means that terrifying roar?"
"That is the cry of masses of men out of work."
"Did you not say that your engines -- "
"Yes, but those engines belong to few."
"Let the men without work do as we did. Let them go into the
"That, too, belongs to a few."
Poor Richard would understand. "Then I seem to see a land of
beggars and criminals; a land poorer than in my day; a land of
discontent and misery." And without a trace of regret, the shade
For three years Henry George spent his happiest hours in his room on
First Street, San Francisco, in the company of his figures and his
visions. His children, stealing past, saw him bent over his table in
the center of the room overlooking the Bay, his cheeks glowing and his
pen gliding over the paper. During the night, sometimes, when the tide
beat strongly against the docks, they awoke and there in the hall lay
a yellow beam thrown by their father's lamp. At dawn the beam had
paled, but not gone out. A little more of their father's plan for a
better world had been drawn.
They tiptoed into his room, perhaps, when he went walking, or down to
the newspaper office where he sometimes worked. They looked with awe
at the sermon paper neatly piled on the table; at the bold letters
written in blue ink. The words were lofty and melodious, but hard.
Even the title was hard: "Progress and Poverty." But now and
then little stories seemed to break out over the page. There was one
about a pioneer driving his wagon over a grassy plain.
The poor fellow is looking for a home. He notices that around him the
soil is rich. He hears the rustle of game, and sees trout flashing in
the stream. He may as well build his cabin right there, he thinks. The
only trouble with the place is that there are no people near by. He
and his family have to do everything for themselves -- build their own
house, kill their own food, make their own clothes. They are very
poor, they have only food and shelter.
But presently another wagon rolls over the plain, another pioneer.
He, too, can settle anywhere, but, since it is better for him to have
a neighbor, he builds his house next to the first pioneer's. Pretty
soon others arrive. The plain rings with pleasant sounds, and the men
help one another in labor. Life is richer for everyone. Instead of
each man's building his own wagon, or making his own shoes, one of
them sets up a shop and builds all the wagons of the settlement, or
makes all the shoes. Instead of everybody's journeying to town to sell
his corn and buy his utensils, one man only need go back and forth; he
opens a store. Pooling together, they hire a teacher. As the seasons
roll over the little village, there are husking bees, apple parings,
But what happens to our hero, the first pioneer? It seems that
someone says to him: "You've built a barn and a house. You've put
up fences and planted an orchard. Now I'll pay you all that it cost
you and I'll pay you for your labor, too. You don't care about the
land itself, do you? Beyond the village there's just as fertile land
you can have for nothing."
Our hero laughs loudly. Why, his land is next to the general store; a
doctor has moved across the road; the schoolhouse is right there. He
wouldn't take less than fifty dollars an acre for his land.
The village grows into a good-sized town. The spot our hero had once
found so wild and lonely teems with a thousand people. All kinds of
shops have come to it. A railroad puffs by. Our hero's land is worth
one thousand dollars an acre. In time, when the town has grown into a
city, an acre may be worth ten thousand dollars. Our hero, or his
children, suddenly find themselves rich. And they have done nothing
but sit on their acres. To the end of time other people, more and more
of them, will have to work for his children's children.
The only point the George children could make of this story was that
somehow our hero wasn't a hero at all; he was really a sort of
villain, because he made people pay him for nothing he had done.
Perhaps the children overheard their father discuss "Progress
and Poverty" with his friends.
"We must make land the property of all," argued Henry
"You mean to divide up all the land equally?" asked his
critics. "You couldn't do that."
"That is not what I mean," replied George. "Let the
world carry on exactly as it does to-day. I would merely have our
Government take all ground-rent."
His critics had a serious objection. "Yes, perhaps the world
would then be a better place to live in. But would it be fair to take
away all the ground-rent from people who paid money for it? Your first
pioneers are no more. They have sold their land. Is it right to punish
the people who bought it?"
"Was it right to take the slaves away from people who bought
them?" retorted Henry George. "Suppose Captain Kidd, the
pirate, had robbed your grandfather of a fortune. Now suppose that
Kidd's grandson has the fortune which you would have had. The law
says: 'Young Mr. Kidd never harmed you. You must let bygones be
bygones.' Is that fair? Well, our early pioneers were land pirates,
although innocent ones. They took for themselves the increasing value
of the land, even though they had not earned it. Unearned increment of
land belongs to all of us. Let us claim it."
The children wished they could hear more about the pirates -- "unearned
increment" were such hard words. But they liked to listen to
their father when he spoke, with a faraway look as though fixed on
some vision outside the room, about the new world his single tax on
land would make. In that world nobody could be poor. In that world
their father would not have had to pawn his watch to pay the grocer.
Young boys would not have to go to work, like Junior; they could
continue their schooling. Nobody would be out of work, and no workers
would ever need to go on a strike because their wages would be high
enough. Everybody then could be honest, and really have what Thomas
Jefferson said he was entitled to have: life, liberty, and the pursuit
of happiness. At present, as their father said, Americans had the
right to vote but not to work. They had the ballot but no bread, and
there was starvation and misery throughout the land of the free and
One night in the spring of 1879 the gleam of light lay outside Henry
George's room, as usual. Within, shortly before dawn rose out of the
bay, Henry George laid down his pen. He had just written: "Beauty
still lies imprisoned, and iron wheels go over the good and true and
beautiful that might spring from human lives."
It was almost the last sentence of the book, "Progress and
Poverty," and the face of the author was wet with tears. He was
about to send into the world the vision that lived in his brain. What
would the world say?
At first the world said little, and Henry George at the age of
forty-two found himself with his book under his arm in New York, poor
and unknown, in search of a job. But suddenly the spotlight of fame
turned upon him. Throughout the country workingmen, in the midst of
bitter strikes for wages and jobs, became aware of an eloquent voice
speaking for them in the pages of a book called "Progress and
Poverty." They hailed the book as a prophecy and demanded ever
more copies of it. They called for the author, and Henry George went
on tour, lecturing before crowds of people in the United States and
Canada. His fiery presence branding his message into their hearts.
Who could answer him? Could anyone deny the pinched faces in the
streets of a big city? No one with a heart in his body could fail to
be moved by the squalor and the distress in the tenements of New York
or the slums of Chicago. No one who had seen the figures of men and
women shuffling aimlessly outside a factory, like discards of flesh
and blood, could resist joining Henry George in pleading for those who
were racked with poverty and uncertainty.
There were thoughtful people who agreed with Henry George that
democracy would die unless something were done to elevate the masses
of men, but who doubted whether his plan of a single tax on land was
the right plan. With those people Henry George was always willing to
debate. But there were others who raised a hue and cry against him,
who shook their fists at him and called him "Robber!
Revolutionist! Anarchist!" -- their fists flashing with diamonds.
Many hesitant people, judging Henry George by his enemies, enlisted in
Abroad his fame was more intense than at home. He got his first
invitation to cross the sea from Ireland, where the suffering of the
poor was more pitiable than anywhere else in Great Britain. After his
visit his name became Irish household words. But honor of him spread
through all the British Isles. Next to the Prime Minister, he was the
most talked-of person; and groups of men were organized to act on his
plan. The great scientist, Alfred Russel Wallace, said that in his
opinion "Progress and Poverty" was the most important book
of the century.
When he returned to America, he was greeted by huge throngs of
workingmen to whom he lectured at Cooper Union, in New York. Shortly
after, it happened that an election for the office of Mayor was facing
the city. The labor unions, deciding to put up a candidate of their
own, were unanimous on only one man, Henry George, and they appealed
to him to accept their nomination. The author of "Progress and
Poverty," just then in great demand as lecturer and writer, was
reluctant to enter politics. But a petition of 30,000 people touched
him and he consented to run.
He almost won, too, which fact frightened the wits out of some people
-- those whom it profited to believe Henry George a highwayman from
the West. Nearly 70,000 people voted for him. As they put their mark
after his name on the ballot, what did those people signify? They
seemed to say: "In a world as rich as ours, poverty is absurd. It
is not nature's, it is man's fault. Men have divided up their wealth
stupidly and selfishly. We must re-divide it more wisely and more
justly. Democracy, which decrees freedom for every man, is the most
beautiful of ideals. But no man is free when he is as poor as millions
of us are, for he is bound by hunger, by all his pangs and those of
his family. From those he must be freed."
This was the basis of Henry George's politics. "It is not the
end of the campaign," he said after Election Day. "We have
fought the first skirmish."
His next move was to start a weekly newspaper, the
Standard, in which he broadcast his protest against progress
with poverty, and the Standard gave rise to an Anti-Poverty
Society. Meanwhile his world popularity was growing and in 1890 came
his third call abroad, this time to the South Sea Islands continent,
Australia and New Zealand. Once he had visited Australia, with a
ship's crew when he was sixteen. Now, at the age of fifty-one, he came
as one of Australia's most celebrated men. Whenever he went on the
island continent he was the guest of honor of Single-Tax and
Anti-Poverty Societies. To this day, although his principles of the
land tax are practised in various parts of the world, it flourishes
best throughout Australia and New Zealand. When he returned to New
York, however, his honor at home was rival to that abroad. He found in
progress a national convention of "single-tax" men. He heard
himself dubbed "Saint George."
In June 1897, the labor unions again asked him to run for the office
of Mayor of New York. This time, it was felt, the banner of Saint
George could be raised on the City Hall. There was one fear -- on the
score of Henry George's health. He was sick from overwork. His face
was ashen, his body thin. The physician forbade his taking part in the
"Tell me," Henry George asked the doctor. "If I
accept, what is the worst that can happen to me?"
"Since you ask," answered the doctor, "you have a
right to be told, it will most probably prove fatal."
"You mean it may kill me?"
The patient shrugged. "I've got to die. How can I die better
than by serving humanity?"
He thought of the line of men standing on cold nights outside a
Broadway bakeshop where the stale, unsold loaves of bread were given
away. He would run.
He had to be helped to the platform of Cooper Union where, before the
throng of workingmen, he accepted their nomination.
"You ask me to raise the standard again
" he said in
a weak voice, "for that great cause; to stand as Jefferson stood.
Thomas Jefferson had once said: "The earth belongs to the living
and not to the dead. The earth is given as a common stock for men to
labor and live on." Therefore, Henry George's party became "The
Party of Thomas Jefferson."
His doctor was right; the strenuous campaign proved too much for him,
and on the eve of the election he took his seat among the immortals by
the side of Thomas Jefferson.
"He was a tribune of the people," agreed the newspapers the
next day, "poor for their sake when he might have been rich. All
his life long he spoke, and wrote, and thought, and prayed, and
dreamed of one thing only -- the cause of the plain people. He died as
he lived, striking at the enemies of the people.
He was a
thinker whose work belongs to the world's literature. His death has
carried mourning into every civilized country on the globe."
But Henry George has written his own portrait in the pages of "Progress
and Poverty." He speaks of his ideal man: --
"He turns his back upon the feast
he leaves it to others
to accumulate wealth
to bask themselves in the warm sunshine.
works for those he never saw and never can see.
He toils in the
advance where it is cold, and there is little cheer from men, and the
stones are sharp and the brambles thick. Into higher, grander spheres
Where Henry George comes at last, and stands fixed among the
traditions of America.