[Chapter 9, "Critics and Cassandras" from
the book America's Gilded Age,
published by Henry Holt and Company, 1989]
There were of course many Americans who were not content with their
lot in the Gilded Age. Some languished on worked-out New England
farms, others in the slums of cities and towns, in the hovels of poor
whites and freed blacks in the South, in the log cabins of
backwoodsmen or on homesteads on the prairie. Some were resigned to
their fate or clung stubbornly to hopes and dreams. Others simmered
with unfocused resentment or vented their grievances at local meetings
or in petitions to their legislators. Only a few began, in farmers'
granges, the early labor unions, or in the abolitionist or women's
rights movement to join in some form of organized protest.
If such people were discontented, it was the discontent of the
economically or socially deprived. But there were others, admittedly
few, who enjoyed all or most of the benefits of the social system yet
were deeply disturbed by the values and practices that were reshaping
American life. Such critics, faced by the prevailing conviction that
America was the best of all possible worlds, hardly achieved anything
like the scope or influence of such European radicals as Marx, Engels,
or Louis Blanc, and somewhat less than such English dissidents as
Carlyle, Ruskin, and William Morris. The Americans were for the most
part voices crying out not in a wilderness but in something like a
The most famous of the political economists was Henry George. His
campaigns against the increasing concentration of wealth and on behalf
of working people were the most systematic and intense of any American
critic of his time. Although almost entirely self-educated, George
achieved a grasp of economic problems and an acquaintance with history
that would have done credit to a university-trained authority.
Although George's parents were people of some education, Henry, a
bright, energetic youth, left high school after only a few months. He
was scarcely sixteen when, in 1855, fascinated by the great sailing
ships in the Philadelphia wharves, he left home and, like a number of
Victorian youths of good families, went to sea. He sailed as a cabin
boy on a merchant ship bound for Australia and India and was away for
fourteen months. In Melbourne, when members of the crew asked for a
discharge -- they wanted to go prospecting in the goldfields -- the
captain had them arrested. Such incidents explain why, years later, as
an editor of a San Francisco newspaper, George became known for his
defense of seamen's rights. The rough life of deck and forecastle and
what he saw in India of the extremes of poverty and riches sowed the
seeds of many of his later views. On his return to Philadelphia,
George found work as an apprentice typesetter, a training that was as
much of an education to him as it would be to Walt Whitman and Mark
Twain. But after his independence as a sailor, the restrictions put
upon him at home, especially by his puritanical mother, led him, in
December 1857, to ship out as a storekeeper on a steamer going around
Cape Horn to San Francisco.
George found San Francisco alive with excitement over reports of gold
in the Fraser River across the Canadian border. Infected by the gold
hunters' fever, he hurried north but soon found that little gold was
being brought out. Drifting back to San Francisco, he moved from job
to job, setting type, working in a rice mill, and, although far from
robust, doing farm labor. Returning to typesetting, he was admitted to
the local typographical union and began earning a journeyman's wages.
But he now wanted to work for himself, and in April i86i he and
several other printers bought the San Francisco Evening Journal.
Although they worked tirelessly, they could not compete with
newspapers that received dispatches by the new transcontinental
telegraph. After only eight months the partnership was dissolved.
He was now faced by another crisis: he had fallen in love with Annie
Fox, an eighteen-year-old Australian girl who had been orphaned and
was living with an uncle in California. The uncle, a prosperous,
strong-minded man, was understandably opposed to his niece's penniless
suitor. But George was an ardent wooer and the couple, defying Uncle
Matthew, eloped, with Henry dressed in a borrowed suit and Annie
bringing only a packet of books. Despite such a troubled beginning,
the marriage would be marked by a lifetime of love and mutual respect.
Years of intermittent employment and chronic debt followed. George
became so desperate when his wife was pregnant with their second child
and they had no food in the house that he decided one morning to
somehow get money from the first person he met. As he recalled many
years later, "I stopped a man -- a stranger -- and told him I
wanted $5. He asked what I wanted it for. I told him that my wife was
confined and that I had nothing to give her to eat. He gave me the
money. If he had not, I think I was desperate enough to have killed
At twenty-six, an insatiable reader and stimulated by what he had
learned in printing shops, he began to write. Among his first efforts
was a long letter to a labor journal warning against the tendency of
the press to "pander to wealth and power" and of society "to
resolve itself into classes who have too much or too little."
Although strongly opposed to slavery, family obligations kept him from
enlisting in the Union army. But the assassination of Lincoln moved
him to write so impassioned a eulogy on the fallen President that a
paper for which he had set type, the Alta California, featured
it, and then engaged him to write several special articles. Almost
overnight he was launched on his career as a journalist, serving as an
editorial writer on the San Francisco Times and then as its
Soon he found his major theme as a writer. In an article in The
Overland Monthly, a journal edited by that new star on the western
literary horizon, Bret Harte, he pointed up the widening gap between
rich and poor, writing,
One millionaire involves the existence of just so many
We need not look far from the palace to find the
hovel. When people can charter special steamboats to take them to
watering places . . . build marble stables for their horses, and
give dinner parties which cost . . . a thousand dollars a head, we
may know that there are poor girls on the streets pondering between
starvation and dishonor.
George also began the first of his many battles against entrenched
interests. The San Francisco Herald, unable to compete against
the monopolistic news service run jointly by the Associated Press and
Western Union, sent George to New York to set up an independent
service. But Western Union soon raised its rate on dispatches from
George's service and forced him out of business. The episode added a
bitter personal note to his quarrel with all monopolies.
A blot on George's growing record as a defender of human rights was
an article in which he joined the West Coast chorus, led by labor,
against the admission of Chinese immigrants. To George, both as a
union member and a student of economics, the immigrants, mostly men
who came to work on contract for "coolie wages" and then
returned home, were simply a disruptive factor. He ccnceded that as
individuals they might be intelligent and teachable, but he echoed the
most bigoted nativists when he said that as a group they were "utter
heathens," treacherous, cruel, and filthy. He later acknowledged
that this attack was crude, but he never repudiated it.
While in New York, George was appalled by the contrast between
monstrous wealth and debasing want." In his travels across
America he was also struck by the tremendous rise in land values.
Once, while riding through the California hills on his mustang pony,
he was astonished to learn that a landowner was asking $1,000 an acre.
In a flash, as he describes it, he concluded that "with the
growth of population, land grows in value, and the men who work it
must pay more for the privilege." Inspired by this conclusion, he
wrote a pamphlet, Our Land and Land Values, printed a thousand
copies, and gave away most of them. It contained the kernels of his
future masterwork, Progress and Poverty: all land is the gift
of nature and should belong to all; increases in the value of land are
unearned; therefore the fairest tax is a tax on land values.
Determined to spread the message, George and two other newspapermen
established the San Francisco Evening Post in 1871. It
attacked corrupt officials and monopolies and called constantly for an
exclusive tax on land. It was only a four-page paper, but it lasted
four years and earned George the post of secretary of the California
delegation to the Democratic National Convention in Baltimore in 1872.
He added to his influence by helping elect William S. Irwin governor
of California. When, after leaving the Post, he sought a state
job that would leave him time for the major work he was planning, the
governor appointed him state inspector of gas meters.
At home George was a devoted father and husband, close to his
children and confiding constantly in his wife. Although he belonged to
no church -- perhaps a reaction to the excessive piety of his mother
-- he was in spirit a religious man, insisting that social injustice,
not a vengeful God, was responsible for mankind's burdens.
A speech George made at a major rally for Samuel Tilden in the 1876
presidential race went off so well that he became the principal
speaker in the California campaign. Even more remarkable was his
emergence as the leading candidate for the first professorship of
political economy at the University of California. But when he
delivered a lecture at the university in which he referred to the "learned
fools" produced by colleges and criticized political economists
for opposing every effort of working people to increase their wages
and reduce their hours of work, he failed to get the appointment. The
university authorities evidently did not relish being told that
the blasphemous dogma that the Creator has condemned one
portion of his creatures to lives of toil and want, while he has
intended another portion to enjoy "all the fruits of the earth
and the fullness thereof" has been preached to the working
classes in the name of political economy, just as "cursed-be-Ham"
clergymen used to preach the divine sanction of slavery.
But he was deeply disappointed when he was denied the position.
With each article and speech, George cut deeper and wider. His
concern with the larger economic problems was spurred by the
nationwide depression and violent railroad strikes that staggered
America in the late 1870s. It was also a difficult time personally for
George: a fourth child, Anna, was born in 1877 -- she would become the
mother of Agnes de Mille, the famous dancer and choreographer -- and
income from his gas meter inspections declined as hard times reduced
the number of meters.
It was in this atmosphere that he began writing Progress and
Poverty. Working feverishly, he finished it in eighteen months.
Several publishers in the United States and England turned it down
because they thought it too "aggressive" or not salable.
Finally he had a printer friend set it in type and plated. With this
major expense covered, D. Appleton & Company agreed to publish it.
Progress and Poverty had an extraordinary impact because of
its immense conviction, moral fervor, patient detail, and its aim, at
least in tone, at the common reader. Its main point, that landowners
reaped unearned profit from every rise in the value of land and that a
single tax on land would make all other taxes unnecessary, struck most
readers as a revelation, even though the French Physiocrats, Herbert
Spencer, and others had proposed it many years before. The weakness in
George's approach was that he focused more on the agrarian society
that was passing away than on the industrial society that was
emerging. Thus he spoke of land as the source of all wealth and the
private ownership of land as the chief obstacle to ending poverty. He
deplored the "insane desire to get rich at any cost," and
asserted that what drove men to "working, scheming, striving
long after every possible need is satisfied
[is] the sense that
makes them men of mark in the community."
Noting that Darwin's theories were encouraging an unlimited
confidence in mankind's progress, he insisted that there were signs
everywhere of corruption, imminent chaos, and decay: "The pillars
of the state are trembling . . . and the very foundations of society
quiver with pent-up forces that glow underneath! The struggle that
must either revivify, or convulse in ruin, is near." Like a
revivalist preacher, he terrified his audience with threats of doom
and then lifted them up with a vision of a masterly economic solution.
The ultimate success of Progress and Poverty was astonishing,
the publishers claiming that it had the largest circulation of any
nonfiction work before 1900 except for the Bible. Not only were
millions of readers with no previous interest in political economy
captured by his arguments but in the coming years large audiences
would welcome George on his lecture tours in America, England, and
Australia, and such world figures as Sun Yat-sen, George Bernard Shaw,
and Leo Tolstoy would testify to his influence.
Curiously, among both George's supporters and critics were people of
distinctly conflicting views. Some conservatives went along with
George because of his laissez-faire views of government control, his
defense of businessmen's profits, and his opposition to all taxes
except the one on land. But they attacked his land-tax and saw it as a
first step toward the expropriation of all commercial property. They
also pointed out that some land was owned by workingmen who had earned
it by toil and sweat.
Radicals hailed George's plan because it was a tax on "unearned
increment." But they faulted his program for not seeking to take
over all the means of production and for not using a tax on wealth to
reduce the gap between the rich and the poor. Some of George's basic
assumptions and prophecies have, moreover, not stood the test of time.
Challenging his prediction that wages would continue to fall,
economists have argued that labor's share of the national income has
remained fairly stable. They have also rejected his claim that a land
tax alone would pay for all the services of governments and have
challenged his charge that strikes are destructive and that a
graduated income tax would lead to bribery and evasion.
When George, a year after publishing Progress and Poverty,
moved to New York with the hope of getting a newspaper post there, he
wrote to a friend, "I am afloat at 42, poorer than at 21."
Despite the huge sale of his major work, he made only a few hundred
dollars a year from it -- many copies were sold in very cheap editions
- and not much more from his lectures.
Long troubled by the plight of the Irish people in their struggle
with poverty and English rule, George published a pamphlet, The
Irish Land Question, in 1881. It described Ireland as a conquered
nation suffering from the same baneful land system that "prevails
in all civilized countries." One result of the pamphlet was his
engagement by the Irish World, a New York newspaper, to make a
lecture tour in Ireland. Arriving in Ireland late in 1881, George and
his wife became so friendly with Michael Lavitt, the militant rebel
leader, that he was repeatedly detained and questioned by the police.
Crossing over to England - it was the first of six increasingly
successful tours he would make there between 1882 and 1890 - George
attracted much attention by openly encouraging the radical land
nationalization movement. On his return to New York he was welcomed by
labor unions at Cooper Union and was the guest of honor at a banquet
given by prominent citizens at Delmonico's.
Greatly encouraged, George pressed his attack on poverty, asserting,
in Social Problems (1883), that there would be enough for
everyone were it not for the failure of America to make full use of
its labor resources. Carried away by his own fervor, he indulged in
such sensational generalizations as:
The experiment of popular government in the United
States is clearly a failure.
Our government by the people has
in large degree become . . . government by the strong and
In some sections bribery has become chronic, and
numbers of voters expect regularly to sell their votes.
many places it [the party machine] has become so strong that the
ordinary citizen has no more influence . . . than he would have in
China. . . . In our national Senate, sovereign members of the Union
are supposed to be represented; but what are more truly represented
are railroad kings and great moneyed interests.
And the bench
. . . is being filled with corporate henchmen.
So great had George's reputation grown by 1886 that the labor unions
of New York City invited him to become their candidate for mayor. Many
years later George revealed that the Tammany bosses in New York,
seeing a grave threat to their rule, guaranteed him a seat in Congress
if he would withdraw. They declared that he could not win the
mayoralty race but that his participation in it would "raise
hell." George answered that he did not want the mayor's office
but did hope to raise hell.
The campaign was a hectic one, with George making as many as fourteen
speeches a day. His platform featured a steep tax on all unused land.
All the major newspapers opposed him, calling him an "apostle of
anarchy" and a dangerous fanatic who preached socialism,
communism, and nihilism. The Democratic candidate, Abram Hewitt, a
respected congressman, won the race with 90,000 votes, but George
received 68,000 votes and came in ahead of a young politico named
Annoyed by the charges that he was a socialist, George made clear how
much he disagreed with socialism in his response to a papal
encyclical, "The Condition of Labour." In his Open
Letter to Pope Leo XIII (1891), he protested that the encyclical "gives
the gospel to the labourers and the earth to the landlords," and
We differ from the socialists in our diagnosis of the
as to remedies. We have no fear of capital,
regarding it as the natural handmaiden of labor; we look on interest
as natural and just; we would set no limit to accumulation, nor
impose on the rich any burden that is not equally placed on the
poor; we . . . deem unrestricted competition to be as necessary as
the free circulation of the blood.
We would simply take for
the community . . . the value that attaches to land by the growth of
Such statements left radicals confirmed in their view that George
advocated only a slightly modified form of capitalism.
In 1890 George agreed to go on a lecture tour in Australia, drawn to
it by its progressive government. It was a triumphal jaunt, but it
lasted over three months and so exhausted him that on his return to
America he suffered a stroke. He recovered quickly and soon plunged
into his last major work, The Science of Political Economy.
Left unfinished at his death, it is a massive patchwork summary of his
economic and philosophic views. One of its most aggressive passages is
another attack on professors of political economy. He accuses them of
misrepresenting Progress and Poverty or treating it as beneath
contempt, but he stoops to gratuitous insult when he charges that
their criticism results from their loyalty to the "pecuniary
interests" that support them.
It seemed to George, as to many progressive-minded individuals, that
the century was closing in darkness and that the democratic principles
that had triumphed with the election of Jefferson in 1800 were being
overwhelmed a century later by the Hamiltonian faith in plutocracy and
aristocracy. As his health failed, and especially after the death of
Jennie, his thirty-year-old daughter, he came to feel that "life
was a strife" filled with as many defeats as victories.
In a surprising display of confidence in George's leadership, several
Democratic factions urged him in 1897 to run once again for mayor of
New York. Despite warnings by his physician that a major campaign
could prove fatal, he felt that it was his duty to run. His motive, he
confided to his wife, was that his election would thrust his doctrines
into the arena of world politics. At the height of the campaign he
made thirty speeches in twelve days. The result was another stroke and
his death five days before the election.
Henry George was an evangelist preaching faith not in a religious
creed - although he would say, "There never was a holier cause"
- but in a single economic measure. A visionary in the guise of an
economist, he was dedicated to convincing mankind that the poor could
be freed from their bondage and that governments could be financed
entirely through one master stroke of legislation.
George's influence came from the seeming simplicity of his proposal
and his passionate sympathy for the working classes. Most of all it
came at a time when America had been confronted with a race of
plutocrats who seemed able to subvert the system to their own
advantage. But George's proposals, like most panaceas, were based on
unsupported assumptions and an oversimplification of the problems of
an industrial society.
Perhaps it was his very lack of formal education along with his
experience of toil and poverty that enabled him to perceive the
inequity in one of the oldest and most common economic arrangements -
the private ownership of land - and to communicate with a larger
audience than had been reached by any other social critic except