In the Footsteps of Thomas Paine:
Francis Neilson and the Liberal Tradition
Edward J. Dodson
Over the course of time, there have been many thoughtful individuals
drawn to the philosophy and principles of
cooperative individualism as they struggled with their own
feelings about what is just and right and moral. I have described
Thomas Paine as the architect of cooperative individualism
because he, above all others before him, provided us with a framework
for creating societies that secured and protected individual liberty
within a cooperative socio-political framework. Paine's efforts
influenced many others who followed. Henry George's intellectual
contributions are equal to those of Paine, and the torch he raised
during the late nineteenth century burned bright for a generation.
Among those most deeply affected by Henry George's insights was one
man who, like Thomas Paine, was born and raised an Englishman, but was
drawn to leave the land of his birth to seek a different sort of
existence in the United States. This was Francis Neilson.
Francis Neilson was born in 1867, in a small town near Liverpool,
England. He was the eldest of nine children in a family of very modest
means. At the age of fourteen he left school to make his own way, and
four years later decided to join the millions of other Europeans
migrating to the United States. After finding work as a laborer and
eventually as a clerk in New York City, he settled down to a long
period of self-education. In the 1880s, Neilson acquired a copy of
Henry George's book, Progress and Poverty, and soon adopted
George's ideas on political economy as his own.
Neilson was driven to accomplishment. One side of his personality
took him down a path toward success as an actor, director, playwrite
and novelist. At the same time, he was pulled by a strong moral sense
of right and wrong and of obligation. Returning to England during the
Boer War, Neilson felt compelled to do something constructive. He
offered his services to the Liberals, and for two years from 1906 to
1908 he took on the task of editor of The Democratic Monthly.
Along with other Liberals sympathetic to Henry George's proposals, he
vigorously campaigned for the taxation of land values and for free
trade. In Neilson's view, "the land campaign
dominant political question in England form 1908 to 1911." In
1909 he was elected to the House of Commons, where he served for six
years, and for much of that time also served as president of the
United Committee for the Taxation of Land Values. The land campaign
stalled, however, in the face of formidable opposition from the landed
interests but also, Neilson believed, because of Britain's destructive
attempts to preserve empire.
Neilson's theatrical interests brought him back to the United States
in 1915. While on the passage across the Atlantic, he found himself in
deep thought about the future and what he do with his own life. As he
"Since the beginning of the war, I felt a great
change had taken place in me. My thoughts on life and the plans I
had made on entering politics were completely shattered. They were
like wreckage strewn upon a beach after a fierce storm. There was
nothing of self-pity in this; just an objective taking of stock."
I made a survey of the chief political events that had
taken place in Europe since I came of age. I wanted to know why men
were slaughtering one another by the thousands in Europe and in
Asia. In this review I singled out many contributing causes: the
work of concessionaires, the competition for markets, the imperial
aggrandizements of the chief States, the ambition of politicians,
and the deepening poverty of the lower classes of workers. All
these, I noted, were in the economic and political fields."
He was leaving the Old World behind, to place his hopes for the
future on life in the United States, whose leaders were was still
committed publicly to a policy of neutrality toward the warring
powers. His American friend, Albert Jay Nock, had returned to the
United States from England earlier in the year, carrying with him
Neilson's manuscript for the book, How Diplomats Make War, a
manuscript that would catapult him to the forefront of the anti-war
movement. He was in this regard encouraged by the publication in The
New Statesman of George Bernard Shaw's article, Common Sense
About the War, about whom he wrote:
"The indomitable courage of the man enabled him to
survive the bitterest criticism, and he throve on opposition.
Indeed, it may be said his opponents polished his armor and
sharpened his sword."
Neilson had started working on How Diplomats Make War
literally days after the outbreak of hostilities. Now, in the United
States, his publisher convinced Neilson to allow the book to be
published anonymously to remove any hint of subjectivity that would be
attached to a book written by a member of Britain's Parliament. Not
long thereafter Neilson resigned from Parliament, although his own
statement suggests he made this decision for ethical reasons other
than Britain's entry into the war:
"To me it seemed most unfair to draw money when I
could not attend the sessions."
By the end of 1915 the first printing of How Diplomats Make War
had been completely sold. The second printing now carried Neilson's
name as the author. British authorities confiscated the book, although
it was reviewed in a few English newspapers. Translations soon
appeared in Swedish, German and Italian. Neilson went right to the
heart of the matter as he attacked the motives, sincerity and honesty
of the heads of government and others who had orchestrated the war:
"All wars we are told are fought in the interest of
the people. It is their land, their nation, their homes, that are at
stake. It is their pride, their honour, their patriots, that are
called upon by recruiting statesmen when a diplomatic squabble is to
be settled by the force of arms.
But what do the people, the
workers, get in return for all the vast sacrifices they make?"
He ended with a dire warning:
"Society will need a new basis when this war is
over. Each day tendencies are shaping into efforts. Already the
Government works along the very socialistic lines it poured contempt
upon a few years ago. Reversion is the dominant note of the period.
Swift some teachers have been to point the moral of the change to
many artisans. Statesmen go whither the currents take them."
Americans became increasingly interested in what this Englishman had
to say regarding the war. Neilson was hired to deliver a series of
lectures, beginning in Chicago. This was followed by additional
lectures at a number of colleges and universities. His engagements
completed, Neilson returned to New York, where he was dismayed to find
"just as many warmongers
as there were in England."
Yet, in New York, he also found company with leaders of the Single Tax
movement, including Lincoln Steffens and Clarence Darrow, about whom
"Both revealed to me that in nearly all their work
they were actuated by their love of fundamental justice.
we could ignore the popular notions of crime and reform of it,
and go straight to fundamentals, in an endeavor to find the basic
wrong which will not be set right until the minds of the people
themselves possess a knowledge of how injustice has shaped their
However, the Henry George-influenced quest for just law was quickly
being overtaken by the threat of U.S. involvement in the war.
Neilson's pacifist views were now becoming anathema to the new
national mood. Neilson adapted his message somewhat to avoid conflict
with Federal authorities in the United States. He now looked to the
future and the possibility of a Europe united under one democratic
After his lecture engagements ended in mid-1917, Neilson took up
residence in a Chicago hotel. His relationship with his wife was less
than ideal. She now decided to return to Britain with their children,
and so they were divorced. Not long thereafter he married for a second
time, to Helen Swift (daughter of Gustavus Swift, the founder of the
meat-processing firm). Just as the First World War was coming to its
conclusion, Neilson was asked to take over as editor of the Chicago
newspaper, Unity, which had a small but international
Neilson's old friend Albert Jay Nock joined him in Chicago in 1919
for a brief visit. Nock had suggested to Neilson's new wife "the
idea that The Nation might be bought and made into a
completely new vehicle" to showcase Neilson's writings. The
Nation was owned by Oswald Garrison Villard, and, although at a
later meeting Villard expressed no interest in selling, Neilson
convinced him to move The Nation in a new direction. As
"I told him that the publication lacked a definite
economic policy and should pursue a severely critical attitude
toward the political State. Villard agreed but asked who could write
such articles. I told him that Nock would fill the bill. Thus, it
was arranged that Nock should join the staff of The Nation
and Mrs. Neilson would be responsible for his salary."
In the interim, Neilson completed a book, The Old Freedom,
critical of Wilsonian policies as being in opposition to true,
individualistic liberalism. Then, after Nock returned for another
visit in the autumn of 1919, Nock convinced Helen Swift to finance the
start of an entirely new periodical, with Neilson at the helm and Nock
in charge of putting it together. This was The Freeman, and
its first number was published in March of 1920. Neilson credited Nock
with its early success, although Neilson devoted a large portion of
his time and energy during that first year writing for The Freeman.
Accompanied by his wife, Neilson then returned to Europe, where he
became deeply involved in the post-war work of the Union of Democratic
Control, formed to bring pressure in every country to restructure
European politics. Many of these individuals had read and been
instrumental in getting How Diplomats Make War translated into
their own language. The Neilsons' time spent in Germany convinced him
of the inevitability "that an even more dreadful war would
convulse Europe." He comments in his autobiography on the large
numbers of Americans who had come to Berlin in a "scramble to buy
art treasures, while the market was falling rapidly." While in
Berlin, Neilson - with remarkable ease -- gained access to diplomatic
records, which provided material for articles in Unity on the
war, later published in book form as Duty To Civilization.
This material expanded on and supported much that was in How
Diplomats Make War. He also found time to meet with Albert
Einstein, with whom he had become acquainted during Einstein's visit
the year before to the United States and the University of Chicago.
Their conversation in Berlin ranged across a wide range of subjects:
World War I, diplomacy, the British
Constitution, and free trade. He had read my book, How Diplomats
Make War, in the German translation, and he gathered sufficient
information from it to satisfy him that no one nation was solely
responsible for the war. I tried to persuade him that the world of
political economy needed his mind as urgently as the world of
physics and mathematics. He was keenly interested in free trade
because he regarded it as a peace movement. We spent quite an hour
on the question of his devoting some time to economic questions."
After reading a copy of the Treaty of Versailles, Neilson became
convinced that another war was not long off the horizon. He decided on
a course of action that would bring pressure on the leaders of Britain
and France to revise the treaty. Back in Britain, the ranks of "old-fashioned
Liberals" were dwindling, as Labour was poised to assume power.
Neilson found himself rather philosophically isolated in this new
political environment. So, after completing his tour of the continent,
he returned to the United States and to New York. His attention
returned to editing The Freeman, and he enlisted his wife to
contribute articles and stories. Despite this, Neilson soon concluded
The Freeman's "days were numbered." The list of
subscribers was too small to make the project financially viable. Nock
could not carry on much longer on his own, but Neilson was unable to
recruit others with the desired qualifications to come aboard. The
decision was made to curtail publication after March, 1924. Soon
thereafter, the Neilsons returned to Chicago to become immersed in
other interests. Of The Freeman years and its contribution to
the history of intellectual thought and literature, he wrote:
"The editors were free to publish what they
considered to be essential information for the readers and, apart
from the editorial policy itself, individualist and socialist, Tory
and Liberal, capitalist and laborite found an avenue of expression."
Now, with The Freeman behind him, Neilson concentrated on
writing plays and pursuing other cultural interests. His financial
condition suffered greatly when the U.S. stock market crashed in the
Fall of 1929, but not enough to bring ruin. Gradually, Neilson
recovered a good portion of his initial losses, although he never felt
very financially secure even in his later years.
In 1930, Neilson was approached by the new president of the
University of Chicago, Robert M. Hutchins, with a proposal to deliver
a series of lectures on "Religion, Science and Art" at the
university. The attendance was unexpectedly small; however, Neilson
continued on and completed the course of some thirty lectures. Neilson
then joined with Hutchins in the latter man's effort to focus
attention on what they both agreed was a serious erosion in the
quality of education offered by the nation's colleges and
universities. Hutchins set down his observations in the book The
Higher Learning in America, and Neilson engaged every major critic
in debate over the issues. "The further I carried my
correspondence with them," he recalled, "the more certain I
became that Hutchins' subject was somewhat foreign to their minds.
They were all grimly opposed to metaphysics, and not one seemed to
realize that all men are metaphysicians at some time during their
Neilson's interest in education also extended to the effort to bring
Henry George's ideas before the public. Whenever possible, he gave
time to the Henry George School in Chicago, about which he later
"Anyone and everyone interested in fundamental
economics was welcome and, so far as I know, it was the freest
congregation of students with a single objective in existence. No
fees were charged, and all the teaching was done voluntarily. The
students at the classes were invited to study Progress and
"Few organizations could carry on such an extensive program on
such a small budget. The work was voluntary, with the exception of
three or four persons. Of course, printing, circulation and postage
expenses had to be met, and the donations from sympathizers usually
covered the cost of these services."
One the characteristics of the Henry George School that most
impressed Neilson was its openness to people of different races,
religions and cultural backgrounds. For Neilson, the school "was
democratic in the true sense of the term."
Neilson's long attachment to the principles espoused by Henry George
also brought him to put his writing talents to work on a serious book,
published in 1933 with the title The Eleventh Commandment.
Shortly thereafter, Neilson and his wife escaped the Chicago winter to
the valley of the Salt River in Arizona. Franklin Roosevelt was now in
the White House, and Neilson was quick to challenge the new
administration's interventionist activities:
"In Control from the Top I showed that the
so-called Brain Trust was nothing but a group of Fabians whose
purpose was to steer the administration toward a form of
collectivism - one that would enable them, through a system of
doles, to bribe the voters to keep them in power."
Ironically, the senior member of Roosevelt's group of advisers at
this time was Raymond Moley, who was also associated with the
surviving remnant of Henry George supporters centered in New York.
Moley shared many of Neilson's views and eventually broke with
Roosevelt. A diary entry he made in1936 after a meeting with Roosevelt
conveys his grave concerns: "I was impressed as never before the
utter lack of logic of the man, the scantiness of his precise
knowledge of things that he was talking about, by the gross
inaccuracies in his statements."
A second book, Sociocratic Escapades, critical of the
Roosevelt program, followed in 1934. Neither book found a receptive
audience in the atmosphere of desperation that had settled upon
Americans. They were, however, a statement of principles, upon which
an alternative course might be pursued. And, as Neilson recalled, "the
book had a vogue among the Georgists" and some within the
academic community. Neilson would build on this theme in another work,
Man At The Crossroads, published in 1938. On this project,
Neilson found support and encouragement from Robert M. Hutchins. Yet,
mainstream publishers were not interested in a book attacking the New
Deal, and Neilson was forced to have the book published by a firm
without the means of distribution. "That, however, was not a
stumbling block," he later wrote, "because I knew the Robert
Schalkenbach Foundation was a medium through which any book of mine on
fundamental economics would find readers." Man At The
Crossroads stands the test of time and deserves to be read,
studied and discussed today. In search of the just society, Neilson
emerges as a champion the supremacy of the rights of the individual:
"Now I say there are no rights without duties. A
right is an obligation which insures the rights of others. Take away
the rights of a thinking individual and he will have not time to
think of duties. Indeed, it may be said: no rights, no social
obligations. And we can call on history of all the civilizations of
the past to support that verdict. What was the Nemesis of nations?
Surely it was slavery, the abrogation of rights of the individual.
contention is as follows: conscious of the value of his own rights,
a man cannot fail to protect them by assuring his fellows that he
places an equal value on their rights and that it is his duty,
arising form his knowledge of the value of his own right, to act
with regard to the rights of others as if they were his own to
His Georgist ties were firmly established and would be throughout his
"The Foundation was devoted to the circulation of
Henry George's works, and its list of clients in this country and in
other parts of the world was unique for my purpose. As I had not
large ideas about the circle of readers that would be interested in
my writings, I was only too glad to accept the Foundation as a
sponsor of my book."
During the second half of the 1930s, the Neilsons returned to England
twice, the second time for the Coronation of George VI. It seems
remarkable that although they were constantly on the move, Neilson was
able to generate such an important body of political writing - in
addition to his other writing interests. "In those three or four
years I must have written three or four hundred thousand words on many
different subjects," reflected Neilson. At decade's end,
moreover, his Georgist associations were strengthened when he agreed
to contribute articles for a new scholarly quarterly, The American
Journal of Economics and Sociology, brainchild of Will Lissner.
Neilson was now in his seventh decade, a time when the productive
years of most individuals has passed.
The world's societies were only just emerging from the ravages of
economic depression. The Japanese were already engaged in a war for
territorial conquest on the Asian mainland, and both Italy and Germany
were in the grips of fascist, militaristic regimes. Neilson's reading,
more than his first-hand observations, caused him great concern that
another war was about to erupt. Despite the character of Hitler and
the Nazi regime, and despite the ambitions of the militarist-driven
government in Japan, Neilson held to the view that a global war was
not yet an inevitability.
"It is amazing to think of what terrific power the
war-mongers have, once they set to work. The sowing of the seeds of
strife between the spring of 1937 and the summer of 1939 - in about
two years - should, in itself, provide a lesson for the people to
Neilson provided his own answers in the pamphlet, Why Hitler?
written during 1939 just as Neville Chamberlain warned Hitler that
Britain would declare war in the event of a German invasion of Poland.
Neilson's wife thought the pamphlet would be perceived as anti-Semitic
and convinced him to withhold it from publication. Instead, with the
outbreak of war, he began to keep a journal "to record the daily
events as they were reported in the dispatches." The end result
was a five volume, critical analysis of the war as it progressed. He
still found time to write for various Georgist publications, and in
the spring of 1940 he also prepared an essay on "Henry George,
the Scholar" which he later delivered "as a Commencement
address to the Henry George School of Social Science in New York. He
hoped this essay, published as a pamphlet, would reach a wider
"Long before the appearance of the New Dealers that
Roosevelt gathered round him, I had tested the economic intelligence
of the type of academician who was afterwards collected into what
was called the Brain Trust; and I had found most of them incapable
of giving precise definitions of fundamental economic terms.
Therefore, in dealing with George as a scholar, I intended to
enlighten, if possible, the gentlemen who were taking payment for
teaching their pupils political economy and who were lacking in a
knowledge of the real meaning of such terms as land, labor, capital,
Daily work on The Tragedy of Europe continued, with three
volumes published by 1943. His Georgist activity also remained
vigorous during the war years -- writing for The American Journal
of Economics and Sociology and delivering lectures at the Henry
George School of Social Science in Chicago. He left no doubt in
anyone's mind that in his view the writings of Henry George held the
key to a prosperous and peaceful future to all of humankind:
"Progress and Poverty is primarily an economic
work, but the presentment of the case is philosophic, historical,
cultural, and spiritual. The very comprehensiveness of George's
gospel contains the essential knowledge a man should have if he
would know his relationship to the universe. Here for the first time
he can learn the reason for his material distress.
character of ht writing and the imagery of the work reflect the
understanding and joy that George must have felt in reading the
Prophets and the sayings of Jesus."
Yet, his thoughts could not leave for long the fate of Europe. As
news of Nazi atrocities began to circulate, Neilson feared all Germans
would be grouped together and held accountable as a people. He
produced another pamphlet, Hate, the Enemy of Peace, to try to
put these developments into what he viewed was the proper perspective.
In the midst of the war, with so many families suffering the loss of
loved ones, there was little public appetite for words sympathetic to
the plight of any Germans, whether they had opposed the Nazi regime or
not. Neilson was already gravely concerned over the world order that
would emerge after the Axis powers were defeated.
Neilson's second wife died in 1945, ending many years of physical
suffering. He left Chicago for New York, where he completed the fifth
and final volume of The Tragedy of Europe, published in
October of 1946. In New York, Neilson soon found himself meeting
regularly with others "interested in science, philosophy, and the
liberal arts." This included several prominent Georgists - Will
Lissner, Lawson Purdy and Roy Foulke. Among the topics they discussed
was Arnold Toynbee's 1954 work, A Study of History, which
Neilson decided to review in depth. This review was published by The
American Journal of Economics and Sociology as a Supplement to the
April, 1955 issue. Of Toynbee's effort, Neilson wrote:
"One of the great difficulties in this task that
Toynbee has undertaken is the conflict that ensues when the modern
mind desires to interpret the history of the past in terms of
present conditions. On page after page we meet examples of this,
which tend to divert the reader's consideration away from the main
point at issue. It is one of the most perplexing problems the
historian has to contend with."
His long association with Robert M. Hutchins and their commitment to
classic liberal education resulted in another book, A Key to
Culture, published in 1948 to be used in conjunction with the
Great Books courses developed by Hutchins and Mortimer J. Adler. No
sooner was this project finished than he was urged by admirers to
begin work on a condensation of The Tragedy of Europe. The
result was The Makers of War, published in 1950, focusing on "the
events before Hitler's onslaught on Poland."
After the war, Neilson's pessimism over the prospects for true peace
in the world came out in his writings. Others agreed and wrote to him
expressing their appreciation for Neilson's objective presentation of
the facts as they were revealed by the historical record. Even so,
Neilson was genuinely amazed at the reception he received on return
visits to Britain in 1948 and 1949:
"For such a rebel, a thoroughgoing pacifist, a
leader of unpopular causes, to be welcomed by so many distinguished
Conservatives and other men who were once high in the councils of
the Liberal party, as it was known in my time, convinces me that the
best of the Whig tradition still lives, though it is preserved by
men who have passed their seventies."
"While it lives, whether in the soul of aging men or in those
who are meeting middle life in a world of turmoil, there is hope
that in England there may be a resurgence of spirit such as was seen
during and after the Napoleonic Wars. All that is needed is the man
who has the courage to go to the people and tell them the truth
about affairs. The younger the prophet, the better. Is he to come
from the Conservative ranks? There seems to be no prospect of one
rising from the remnant of the Liberal party."
As he neared completion of his autobiographical writing, he reflected
on the time he had devoted in an effort to influence the course of
history. His judgment is one reached only after a long life:
"The time spent upon the political platform in an
attempt to educate the masses was ill spent. The bitter experience
of three wars has taught me that the mass is not reformable.
"It is a relief to be free of the old political perplexities
that harassed me for years.
I feel convinced that the only
thing a man of my years can do after such a life as I have had, is
to withdraw from the fray and seek the companionship of creatures
that obey the ordinances of nature."
Still in remarkably good health for a man in his late eighties,
Neilson found a good deal of personal peace. He had a modest home
constructed out on Long Island, New York, and retired to his books and
his thoughts, accompanied by his long-time assistant Phyllis Evans and
buoyed by his spirituality. He continued on until 1961, when he died
quietly at the age of ninety-five. His ashes were returned to England.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
1. Francis Neilson. My Life In Two
Worlds, Volume Two: 1915-1952 (Appleton, Wisconsin: C.C. Nelson
Publishing Co., 1953), p.138.
2. Ibid., p.1.
3. Ibid., pp.4-5.
4. Ibid., p.246.
5. Ibid., p.5.
6. Francis Neilson. How Diplomats Make War (New York: B.W. Huebsch,
7. Ibid., p.357.
8. Francis Neilson. My Life in Two Worlds, p.11.
9. Ibid., p.40.
10. Ibid., p.143-144.
11. Ibid., p.75.
12. Ibid., p.138.
13. Ibid., p.139.
14. Ibid., p.154.
15. Francis Neilson. Man At The Crossroads (New York: Robert
Schalkenbach Foundation, 1938), p.125.
16. Francis Neilson, My Life in Two Worlds, p.161.
17. Ibid., p.167.
18. Ibid., pp.175-176.
19. Francis Neilson. "The Natural Law of Justice," In Quest
of Justice (New York: Robert Schalkenbach Foundation, 1944), p.5. From
a series of lectures delivered in 1943 and 1944 at the Henry George
School of Social Science, Chicago, Illinois.
20. Francis Neilson. "Arnold J. Toynbee, A Study of History, A
Review," The American Journal of Economics and Sociology (New
York: Robert Schalkenbach Foundation. Supplement to Vol.14, No. 3,
April, 1955), p.5.
21. Francis Neilson. My Life in Two Worlds, p.272.
22. Ibid., pp.291 and 292.