Henry George: The Great Paradox

Daniel Aaron

[Chapter 3 of Men Of Good Hope, published by Oxford University Press, 1951]

At the time this book was published, Daniel Aaron was director of the American Studies program at Smith College. He was born in Chicago in 1912.

The feeling of doubt and apprehension about the so-called benefits of the machine economy antedates, as we have seen, the post-Civil-War years in America. Many of General Jackson's supporters, in the words of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., 'felt themselves the victims of baffling and malevolent economic forces which they could not profit by or control.' In the 1830's men were disturbed by the growing class divisions, by the pride and the snobbery that accompanied the increase of wealth, by the effects of aggressive individualism and the consequent weakening of the community spirit.

The majority of the discontented during this period did not advocate any revolutionary scheme of property redistribution, although there were some groups who did. What seemed to attract them the most were the movements that promised to insure equal social status and equality of opportunity. Public education, it was anticipated, would reduce the traditional handicaps of the poor in the race for success. Shorter working hours would allow the operative or the day laborer more time for self-improvement, so that he too could compete for the high offices. Early trade-union movements (especially the interesting but abortive flurry of activity in the 'thirties) sought not only to unite workers against the encroachments of organized capital but also to preserve their individuality. So, too, the community experiments of Owen and Fourier can be seen as fruitless attempts to redeem the frustrated and aimless citizen trapped, as the exuberant Utopians believed, in a savage and a chaotic society.

Evidences of insecurity or 'alienation,' already discernible before 186S, became more apparent during the last hall of the nineteenth century. And as the impersonal economic order grew less and less concerned with the vast changes it was effecting on the American scene, and as the business community grew increasingly irresponsible, it became necessary, as Walter Rauschenbusch said, for the state 'to step in with its superior Christian ethics' before unadulterated capitalism destroyed the social order. The reform movements that agitated the country at this time, which increased in turbulence and finally culminated in the wild eruption in 1896, are less explainable by Marxian dialectic than by a kind of unconscious mass awareness of the community that it was being endangered by inhuman social forces.

One man who voiced this fear and proposed to circumvent the threat to community welfare was Henry George. He is an arresting and important figure in the progressive tradition, not because his program had much practical significance but because he exerted a vast influence as a social philosopher and caught the surge of unarticulated public despair and hope in a single book. In an age of trusts and millionaires, of labor violence and depression, George compounded the agrarian radicalism of Jefferson with the humanitarian transcendentalism of the 'forties. He revived an old American dream of equality and plenty and made clear to hundreds of thousands the menace and the promise of nineteenth-century industrial society.


Professor William Graham Sumner, who during the last three decades of the nineteenth century rescued several generations of Yale students from what he called 'the domination of cranks,' once wrote an essay about a person he called 'the forgotten man.' Sumner's 'certain man who is never thought of' was no kin to Franklin Roosevelt's lost citizen but an unsung embodiment of middle-class business virtues, a less flamboyant and more respectable Poor Richard, the solid citizen who works hard, minds his business, and pays for the stupidities and indiscretions of the masses. Sumner worried about the forgotten man and spoke for him whenever he could, because the forgotten man, patient and long-suffering, had no other champions. Drunkards, criminals, and misfits successfully appealed to soft-headed reformers; the man who lived quietly, educated his children, and paid his debts never sank low enough to arouse their sympathies. Instead he was perpetually robbed by the philanthropists and nostrum-peddlers. His savings provided the capital for their absurd attempts to remodel the world.

Sumner also took an angry pleasure in portraying the vicious, shiftless, inefficient brother of the forgotten man. This improvident fellow possessed all the traits of the man in the street. He was a fool, a bungler, a band-wagon jumper. He believed that life was a banquet and that he had a natural right to a large portion of nature's feast. He envied the rich and wanted the advantages of wealth without working for them. He spoke about a golden age. He flattered human nature. In his personal life he was likely to be imprudent or intemperate. He usually married when he was too young and always had too many children. He could not support them. He never had any money in the bank. He chattered a good deal about 'injustice' and paid no taxes. He supported the crazy schemes of the Greenbackers or the Populists or the Socialists, gave lectures on the crimes of capital and on human equality, and dumped his badly disciplined progeny into a world already burdened with an excess of the same breed.

These sentiments came naturally from one who made a fetish of hard fact and whose entire life had been devoted to puncturing abstractions. Like other armchair realists dealing with particulars removed from their contents and carefully dusted, he sounded more practical than he really was, and the gospel of Herbert Spencer that he preached (with a few revisions) permitted him to consign the drunkard to the gutter and defend the millionaire with a tranquil conscience, assured that what God or nature had ordained, no human scheme could modify.

It is proper to mention Sumner in these introductory remarks not merely because he was a contemporary of Henry George and later his vigorous antagonist, not because of the curious parallels and contrasts of their respective careers, but because George might have served as Sumner's horrid example of the improvident man. It was only coincidence that the essay series in which the phrase 'the forgotten man' first appeared (characteristically entitled 'What the Social Classes Owe Each Other') should be answered by George himself in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, but a poetic significance lay hidden in George's rejoinder, which the Yale professor undoubtedly missed.

In the first place, Henry George never made any money in spite of the tremendous sales of his books; in fact he usually owed money and accepted loans and gifts of cash from his friends. From his birth in 1839 until his death fifty-eight years later, he lived a helter-skelter sort of life-working as a clerk, a sailor, a printer, a peddler-searching for gold, sleeping in barns, agitating, writing what Sumner would have considered nonsensical editorials, lecturing, pamphleteering, and in general doing everything that the forgotten man rigorously eschewed. As Sumner might have suspected, George proposed marriage with fifty cents in his pocket. He was twenty-two years old at the time, with no job and very meager prospects. He wore borrowed clothes to the wedding ceremony and barely managed to keep alive during the next five years. Like other improvident men, however, he promptly began to raise a family and on one occasion, after the birth of his second son in 1865, he had to beg five dollars from a stranger to keep his wife and children from starving. It is true that bad times had something to do with his early misfortunes, but Sumner, had he been reviewing George's career, would have dismissed this excuse with contempt. 'Here you have,' he might have said, 'the classic type of the improvident man, half-educated F George's education stopped when he was thirteen], restless and impractical, and totally devoid of those steady habits without which no man can succeed in the battle of life.'

Before George exploded into fame with Progress and Poverty it is quite likely that he would have humbly accepted these Sumnerian rebukes. He had too much of the middle-class ethic in himself not to be ashamed of his poverty and his aimlessness, and he constantly exhorted himself to save, to avoid running into debt. His eighteen years spent in ante-bellum Philadelphia, before the fateful journey to San Francisco, had stamped into him some of the morality of the Quaker City's merchantdom, which even fourteen months aboard an old East Indiaman could not eradicate. George's parents, like Sumner's, were devout Episcopalians, and George was raised on the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer and the Episcopal Sunday School books published, incidentally, by his father. Although he drank whiskey with his friends, played cards, and swore when away from his father's strait4aced household, the odor of respectable Protestantism clung to him nevertheless, and the guilty feelings he experienced during the early California days were quite possibly induced by his earlier pious associations.

Had his father been a more gifted man, or even a richer one, had George's home atmosphere been less drab and more intellectually stimulating, or had some discerning person recognized his remarkable potentialities, George might have become an Episcopal minister like Sumner and gone on to Gutting and Oxford. Set adrift at fourteen, George educated himself, but with all of his wide reading he remained an uncultivated man with a feebly developed artistic sense and the instincts of a Philistine.

And yet Henry George did not end up in the gutter or in jail, where, according to William Graham Sumner, improvident men usually landed; on the contrary, he became a world4amous man. His masterpiece, Progress and Poverty, was a work of genius, but it was also the culmination of intense and varied experience -experience quite alien to the bookish Sumner and far more real than the obdurate facts he professed to deal with.


When George set sail for San Francisco aboard a United States Lighthouse steamer in 1857, he had already traveled and seen more sights than most eighteen-year-olds. Two years before he had signed up as foremast boy on a ship captained by a friend of his father's. On the voyage of the Hindoo he did not see the opulent and exotic scenes he had anticipated, but he observed the unemployment in Melbourne and watched dead bodies, covered with crows, float down the Hooghly River. To judge from his recollections, life in the forecastle was no more glamorous than the seamy Orient. 'There were so many cockroaches and bed bugs on the vessel,' he wrote afterwards, 'and they got so black and thick that you could not get a drink of water or eat a piece of pie or eat soup without getting a mouthful of them. It was on this trip that I began to like cockroaches for they would eat the bed bugs up.'

George had one more short experience as a sailor after he returned from India, but parental pressure and the advice of the Hindoo's captain induced him to forget the sea. During the next few years he learned the trade of typesetter, drank 'red-eye' and smoked cigars with his friends, argued with his father and mother about slavery, and began to weigh the possibilities of going to Oregon. His friends there assured him that jobs were plentiful, and since thousands of 'hard fisted mechanics'-among whom he numbered himself-were being discharged daily from Philadelphia shops, the prospects of high wages in the West sounded especially alluring. The offer of a steward's berth on the Lightship Shubrick, bound for California, settled the matter, and on December 22 he left Philadelphia and all it contained with few misgivings. 'I know, my dear parents,' he wrote the next month from the West Indies, 'that you felt deeply the parting with me-far more so than I did. But let the fact that I am satisfied and that my chances are more than fair comfort you. As for me, I, for the first time in my life, left home with scarcely a regret and without a tear.'

If he had known what was to await him in San Francisco and what kind of life he was going to lead during the next decade, he might have written less jauntily to his grieving family. But George had already formed quite a good opinion of himself, if we can judge from a phrenological self-analysis he made while still in Philadelphia. This examination revealed a tendency toward rashness and over-zealousness which needed to be checked, but it also showed that the subject possessed an ardent, generous, and discriminating temperament, an audacious imagination, and a fearless, resolute spirit. One notation appearing in the phrenological report deserves special scrutiny, for it was uncomfortably substantiated in San Francisco: 'Desires money more as a means than as an end, more for its uses than to lay up; and pays too little attention to small sums.'

The question of money, or rather the absence of it, figured prominently in George's mind during the following years. He searched for it in the Frazer River gold fields; he shifted from job to job, to the concern of his family and friends, and he tramped around the state. All of these discouraging experiences helped to mature him and stock his mind with information, but they did not make him rich. What galled him particularly, he confided to his sister, was 'the fierce struggle of our civilized life,' and it was at this time that he began to dream about

the promised Millennium, when each one will be free to follow the best and noblest impulses, unfettered by the restrictions and necessities which our present state of society imposes upon him-when the poorest and meanest will have a chance to use all his God-given faculties, and not be forced to drudge away the best part of his time in order to supply wants but little above those of the animal. …

George had not yet pondered the question of why work was scarce and hard to keep; he only knew, he wrote home in 1861, that 'the want of a few dollars . . . keeps us separate . . . forces us to struggle on so painfully . . . crushes down all the noblest yearnings of the heart and mind.' Some sixteen years later he began to formulate a reason and a solution for the dilemma, to raise the specter of poverty and lay it to rest; but a long time of trial remained before he was ready to announce the glad tidings to the world.


After the first shock of discovering the rarity of windfalls and the improbability of picking up gold nuggets on the streets, George settled down to the job of staying alive. The city in which he had chosen to make his home was rapidly losing the look of an isolated coastal port and showing unmistakable signs of its future importance. When George got there in 1858, San Francisco depended on the ocean-going steamer for its communication with the outside. Two years later George wrote to his sister Jennie about the arrival of the Pony Express and his expectations of a transcontinental telegraph system by 1862. He thus found himself in the unusual position of watching the evolution of a society from 'incoherent homogeneity to coherent heterogeneity' (as his onetime idol, Herbert Spencer, phrased it) and drawing invaluable conclusions from this phenomenon. George Bernard Shaw, himself 'swept into the great Socialist revival' after hearing George speak many years later, subsequently wrote of George's California sojourn:

Some of us regretted that he was an American, and therefore necessarily about fifty years out of date in his economics and sociology from the point of view of an older country; but only an American could have seen in a single lifetime the growth of the whole tragedy of civilization from the primitive forest clearing. An Englishman grows up to think that the ugliness of Manchester and the slums of Liverpool have existed since the beginning of the world: George knew that such things grow up like mushrooms, and can be cleared away easily enough when people come to understand what they are looking at and mean business. His genius enabled him to understand what he looked at better than most men; but he was undoubtedly helped by what had happened within his own experience in San Francisco as he could never have been helped had he been born in Lancashire.

As Shaw correctly observed, George might not have reached his solution if he had not been a close reasoner with an ability to see beneath the glittering surface of progress and to detect its latent consequences. An unreflective booster might have drawn the unwarranted conclusion that he automatically profited from the growth of his city or section and would have accepted the coming of the railroads and the resulting expansion of trade and population with complacence if not delight. But George early deduced that only the property holders or people with established businesses and special skills could expect to benefit. 'Those who have only their own labour,' he wrote in 1868, 'will become poorer, and find it harder to get ahead.'

The responsibilities of a marriage entered into with customary thoughtlessness may have provoked these sober reflections, and certainly the gloom of the early war years had something to do with them. But perhaps the real explanation was simply that Henry George was growing up. Resisting the impulse to join the Federals, he had taken a job as typesetter in Sacramento after his wedding. He lost this job after quarreling with the foreman, and then he failed completely as a clothes-wringer salesman. The operation of a small job-printing business which followed earned him a precarious livelihood in the middle 'sixties, but it was not until 1868 that he secured a decently paid position on the San Francisco Times. George emerged from these dreary and seemingly interminable misadventures a more mature person and a more confident one. He had found out that he could write well, a piece of information any reader of his vigorously written log books and letters should have been able to give him, and he sensed that his opinions, hitherto scattered and unrelated, were beginning to shape into a coherent philosophy.

He had not yet developed his powers as a speaker, but in his newspaper work he now came face to face with organized wealth in the guise of autocratic railroad executives and the Associated Press monopoly. A trip to the East in the winter of '69 not only furnished convincing proof that no small individual concern could survive a contest with a monopolistic and influential organization like the Associated Press, but also illustrated for George the dramatic paradox of wealth and scarcity which he was to exploit so brilliantly in another ten years. In New York at this time, overcome perhaps by the sight of so much want and misery, he experienced what he later described as 'a thought, a vision, a call-give it what name you please' to devote himself to the eradication of poverty. But still the solution lay hidden. That monopoly, especially monopoly in land, had something to do with the great paradox, he was now ready to believe; by 1877, he became certain at last that land monopoly lay at the root of all social and economic ailments.


George's disciples, the more devout ones at any rate, have attached the same reverence to his vision and its subsequent embodiment in Progress and Poverty that the Israelites gave to the revelation of Moses on Mt. Sinai. His own account of the -~genesis of his ideas did not discourage this attitude, for although he was in many respects a modest man and disinclined to plume himself at the expense of his movement, he occasionally gave the impression of being the Lord's holy vessel. It would be possible, for instance-although unfair-to write his life as hagiography, to describe his youthful follies, his soul-searchings, his pilgrimage through the valley of the shadow, and then to conclude with the flood of irresistible grace and the transfiguration.

His first vision, it will be remembered, came to him in New York when he made his vow of social dedication. The second, and perhaps more important, vision occurred several years later when it suddenly burst upon him that 'with the growth of population, land grows in value, and the men who work it must pay more for the privilege.' He afterwards described this seemingly humdrum observation as 'one of those experiences that make those who have them feel thereafter that they can vaguely appreciate what mystics and poets have called the "ecstatic vision."' That many of his followers sensed the transcendental origins of his book is borne out by the number of letters he received from 'believers' all over the world, in which they thanked the 'Master' or the 'Prophet,' as many of them addressed him, for vouchsafing his more than human message.

Putting aside these supra-rational explanations for the moment and turning to more verifiable facts about the events immediately preceding the writing of Progress and Poverty, we know that George sat down to work on September 18, 1877, after several years of active crusading against political corruption and social cruelty. Women's rights, prison reform, the treatment of sailors, honest elections-any issue bearing on the rights of the underdog or having any humanitarian implications-inspired his pen. During this period he built up and lost a promising newspaper, inspected gas meters, campaigned for Tilden (developing at this time his forensic talents), offended the political scientists at the University of California by impugning the value of 'all this array of professors, all this paraphernalia of learning,' thrilled San Francisco with a magnificent Fourth of July address, and speculated unluckily in mining stocks. The gambler kept pace with the seer.

In the early fall of 1877, Californians suffered from one of those periodic economic disturbances which economic philosophers disposed of very easily but which meant real privation for the wage earners. Denis Kearney founded his Workingmen's party and a 'citizens' committee retaliated characteristically by organizing a vigilance group of five thousand volunteers armed with the traditional pick handles and guns. At this point George began what was to be a magazine article on the question of poverty and progress. His personal affairs were rather unsettled, but neither the arrival of a fourth child nor the lectures he gave in the interests of the family larder interfered seriously with the writing of Progress and Poverty as it gradually lengthened into a book. Dressed in a shabby robe of saffron yellow, so a visitor described him, and surrounded by his books and papers, he seemed quite oblivious to what someone euphemistically called the 'rolicking disorder' of his dingy house. Anyone who has tried to work under similar conditions may well marvel at his self-possession and inward serenity, which enabled him to write one of the most lucid and logical of books in a house filled with small children. But George pushed along, and at the end of fourteen months of intermittent work, the book was done. He finished the last page in the middle of the night. Then, as he himself records it, he flung himself on his knees 'and wept like a child.'

The finished product did not satisfy him completely. The chapters dealing with the development of civilization were not so detailed as he had originally intended them to be, and he had a few misgivings about the intelligence of his west-coast audience; but George never doubted that the ultimate reception of his book would be favorable. Difficulties arose about getting it published, as George might have expected, and recognition did not come immediately, but its sensational popularity a few years later must have gratified his vanity even if it did not greatly surprise him. He had sent a copy of his book to his father, informing him with sublime assurance that although Progress and Poverty might not be accepted for some time, 'it will ultimately be considered a great book;-will be published in both hemispheres, and be translated into different languages.' What seems like conceit merely indicated a quiet faith in the truths he believed his book embodied; he had simply transcribed God's word and Nature's laws. Once published, Progress and Poverty ceased to be a personal thing for George. There it stood like any other natural object. One did not question a mountain or an ocean. 'My work is done,' he wrote to a friend; 'the rest is not my business. ...I do not think anything that could be said of it could either flatter or abash me.'

He was perfectly justified, to be sure, in attributing the success of Progress and Poverty to its intrinsic merits, but other circumstances had something to do with its tremendous vogue. It appeared toward the close of a long depression and served as a kind of literary equivalent to the bumper wheat crop of that year, which revived America's flagging economy. The poverty and unemployment he so bitterly arraigned, however, and the angry outbursts of a discontented laboring class were still fresh memories to a public now thoroughly alarmed about the growing class antagonism earlier discerned by Theodore Parker. Writers and publicists, perhaps with the Paris Commune in mind, hinted at vast working-class conspiracies and eyed such a sprawling inchoate Organization as the Knights of Labor with wonder and fear. Actually, this body, formed secretly in 1869 to promote a friendlier public attitude toward the labor movement, had by 1879 lost any revolutionary zeal it might have possessed and was simply a loosely joined and ineffective aggregation of wage earners agitating for a conventional program of reform. But the Knights augured the rebirth of a more aggressive labor spirit in the 'eighties, and George, though he usually sided with labor, did not hesitate to point out to his middle-class audience what lay in store for them if the movement for reform fell into the wrong hands.

Progress and Poverty was, among other things, a lecture to the middle class on the tactics for survival. George, of course, presented his case as a moderate and democratic American who detested violent and illegal remedies, but he refused to minimize the dangers that might conceivably result from stupid inaction. Civilizations advanced or retrogressed; they did not stand still. And the dry-rot invariably set in as power and wealth tended to become unequal. George, following in Parker's steps, pointed out that technological progress in a plutocratic society increased inequality and accelerated national decay, thus giving the lie to the Andrew Carnegies, and he reminded stubborn conservatives that their refusal to scrutinize the rotten foundations upon which American prosperity rested endangered the lives of their children and their children's children. He threatened them finally with his prophecies of the new barbarians now breeding in noisome slums who would solve in their own way the problems ignored or mismanaged by their betters.

Had Progress and Poverty confined itself to these negative appeals alone, it would not have evoked such a universal response. George always emphasized the positive and constructive features of his plan. The real success of his book lay in its warmth and optimism, in the convincing way he demonstrated how the application of his one simple measure -- the appropriation of rent by taxation -- would 'substitute equality for inequality, plenty for want, justice for injustice, social strength for social weakness' and 'open the way to grander and nobler advances of civilization.' His book, in one sense, might be described as a dramatic poem justifying the ways of God to man.


Anyone who has read Progress and Poverty can understand George's excitement in undertaking so tremendous a book and his exaltation on completing it, for it was indeed an astonishingly bold attempt. George proposed nothing less than to explain why poverty exists and how it could be abolished without disorganizing the economy or provoking social upheaval.

He aimed his book, moreover, at an audience hitherto bored by the doctrines of political economy or confused by the jargon of the professionals, who did not write their books for the average reader. He did not expect to reach directly the poverty-stricken and the hopelessly ignorant. They had been deprived of their natural rights so completely that they had lost their power to regain them without the help of luckier men. Their amelioration had to come from above. George preferred to address himself to a large number of business and professional men and to artisans, merchants, and skilled workers, who possessed the natural wit to comprehend the grand truths of the political economy he set out to expound. Stripped of its abstract terminology and the vicious distortions of its academic purveyors, the science of political economy was easily grasped. In Progress and Poverty George brilliantly succeeded in demonstrating this contention.

The ideas expressed in his masterpiece turned out to be less original than George had at first believed (many others had anticipated his solution) and his economic assumptions were not unassailable, but Progress and Poverty remains nevertheless one of the greatest popular primers ever written. George later discounted the question of originality as being of no importance. What really mattered, he said, was the fact that his book placed old truths in new relations, that 'it shattered the elaborate structure that under the name of political economy had been built up to hide them, and restoring what had indeed been a dismal science to its own proper symmetry, made it the science of hope and faith.' He made it at once a lesson in economics and a message of hope. As a treatise, it unfolded with clarity, logic, and simplicity; as an exhortation and a call to action, it throbbed with an emotion that unquestionably sprang from the author's sincerity but was heightened none the less by his skill as a popular rhetorican. Progress and Poverty, with its alliterative title, its dramatic structure, its theatrical set-pieces, fused fact and feeling and suggested through emotion what it did not convey by sense.

George opens his book with a presentation of his famous paradox-'the great enigma of our times,' the 'central fact from which spring industrial, social, and political difficulties that perplex the world, and with which statesmanship and philanthropy and education grapple in vain.' He sketches swiftly the glaring discrepancies between want and plenty and indicates that he will try to answer the riddle posed by the sphinx of fate. Progress and Poverty thus begins darkly and with a note of urgency, for the barbarians are already beginning to stir.

Before the prophet can cut down the tree of error, much underbrush must be removed. George is obliged to expose the false teachers who through their economic hocus-pocus have made poverty seem inevitable and permanent. The wage-fund theory of the classical economists-that wages are drawn from a limited stock of capital-and the gloomy pronouncements of Malthus, which attribute scarcity to a niggardly nature, are reviewed and demolished. In this examination, carrying George almost one third of the way through his book, he discusses the issues in a quiet conversational tone and proves his points by the kind of homely analogy most reassuring to the average reader. He domesticates economics, removing it from the academic groves and bringing it to the fire-sides and offices and country stores. At intervals he stops and recapitulates, making certain that his basic axioms are completely understood, for Progress and Poverty, as George was fond of saying later, is a 'linked argument,' and he wants to make sure that no doubts remain before he mounts the next step.

Having struck off the gyves of Manchester, George proceeds to correlate and co-ordinate the laws of distribution. He has shown what poverty is not caused by, but he must still weed out other false distinctions and re-define such misinterpreted words as wealth, capital, value, land, and rent before the problem of poverty can be solved and its remedy suggested. The crux of this section lies in his definitions. The value of anything does not depend upon its mere exchangeability but on the degree to which it can command the product of labor. Wealth consists of real natural products 'modified by human exertion . . . labor impressed upon matter' and nothing else. Capital is stored-up wealth, an accumulation of the product of labor. But land is not the product of labor; unlike wealth, it cannot be reproduced, and its supply is limited. Moreover, it is the primary substance without which there could be no wealth or capital. The value of land ownership, then, lies simply in the privilege it confers of withholding the use of something that is not man-made but God-made. When the rentier commands a share of wealth -- the results of production -- by virtue of mere owner-ship, he is taking without returning a commensurate contribution.

George's arguments have been oversimplified here and the connections loosely drawn, but it can be seen now where he is heading. The true wealth producers, the wage earners, or the man 'who by any exertion of mind or body adds to the aggregate of enjoyable wealth, increases the sum of human knowledge or gives to human life higher elevation or greater fullness,' are collectively drained by the evil monster George is now ready to disclose-the Vampire of Rent. Labor and capital lie at the mercy of rent. They receive their share of production only after the Vampire has seized a large portion for himself.

George is now already beginning to formulate his answer to the sphinx. Why, he asks next, does rent advance? And then he offers these reasons. Rents go up after the increase in population reduces the margin of cultivated land. The landholder benefits not only from the heightened demand for an inelastic and irreplaceable commodity but also by the imponderable values that society by its mere presence confers. 'The most valuable lands on the globe,' he writes, 'the lands which yield the highest rent, are not lands of surpassing natural fertility, but lands to which a surpassing utility has been given by the increase of population.' Every advance in culture or technology enhances the value of land by aggravating the insatiable demand for it. The pre-emption of large acreage by speculators is another important cause he does not fail to mention, but the real force of his explanations lies in its implied answer to those optimists who place their hopes in science and technology. Increased wealth, like population, forces down the margin of cultivation. 'This being the case,' he concludes, 'every labor-saving invention, whether it be a steam plow, a telegraph, an improved process of smelting ores, a perfecting printing press, or a sewing machine, has a tendency to increase rent.'

The problem is solved. Now George can show why periodic depressions paralyze the country and why poverty persists as wealth multiplies. The real enemy, he has demonstrated, is rent. Robber rent levies a constant toll on productive labor:

Every blow of the hammer, every stroke of the pick, every thrust of the shuttle, every throb of the steam engine, pay it tribute. It levies upon the earnings of the men who, deep under ground, risk their lives, and of those who over white surges hang to reeling masts; it claims the just reward of the capitalist and the fruits of the inventor's patient effort; it takes little children from play and from school, and compels them to work before their bones are hard or their muscles are firm; it robs the shivering of warmth; the hungry, of food.; the sick, of medicine; the anxious, of peace. It debases, and embrutes, and embitters. It crowds families of eight and ten into a single squalid room; it herds like swine agricultural gangs of boys and girls; it fills the gin palace' and the groggery with those who have no comfort in their homes; it makes lads who might be useful men candidates for prisons and penitentiaries; it fills brothels with girls who might have known the pure joy of motherhood; it sends greed and all evil passions prowling through society as a hard winter drives the wolves to the abodes of men; it darkens faith in the human soul, and across the reflection of a just and merciful Creator draws the veil of a hard, and blind, and cruel fate!

George's style, growing lush and almost revivalistic when he writes of injustice or the iniquities of rent, lapses back again to cool expository prose as he constructs an argument and clinches a point.

George now reveals his remedy for the unequal ownership of land: the confiscation of rent by the nation. Society at last can profit from the value that it alone confers and the Vampire, deprived of its sustenance, will shrivel away. The owners of land, to be sure, retain title to the property or the 'shell,' as George puts it, but the community takes the kernel. This appropriation of rent is the famous Single Tax which will finally do away with the necessity of any other tax, restore the harmony of interests intended by nature, and prepare for the glorious destiny that lies in store for the emancipated society.

The effects of the remedy on production will, of course, be enormous after the parasite growth is removed, but George writes even more enthusiastically about the prevention of waste at last possible in a povertyless society. It will no longer be necessary to spend vast sums on charity. Vice and crime and corruption will disappear. And most important of all, individuals who have hitherto been a drain on the community can become active working members. George regarded men too highly to think that the acquisitive mercenary 'men with muckrakes' were following their natural instincts. Approbation, the esteem of their fellows, is what they seek primarily, he insists-'the sense of power and influence, the sense of being looked up to and respected,' and not money for its own sake. Abolish the fear of want and the passion now wasted in the quest for riches may be harnessed for the welfare of the community.

By this time George has transcended the dubious mechanics of his land tax and is now reaching the ethical and spiritual part of his treatise, which links him with the other middle-class progressives of his generation. Poverty is condemned, finally, not because of the physical suffering attendant upon it, but because it brutalizes the spirit and destroys the sympathy latent in everyone:

The wrong that produces inequality; the wrong that in the midst of abundance tortures men with want or harries them with the fear of want; that stunts them physically, degrades them intellectually, and distorts them morally, is what alone prevents harmonious social development.

Down-to-earth people may scoff at 'the dream of impracticable dreamers,' but George assures his readers that it is really a utilitarian consideration for men not to kill themselves with drudgery and to release the mental power, the 'infinite diversities of aptitude and inclination' lying unused and unrecognized. He presents an alluring picture of a society in which human resources are conserved, in which want and ignorance and degradation have vanished, and he asks the property holder if the future of his children would not be safer in such a state.

Having held forth the golden prospect of a new day, George dramatically suspends the final apotheosis while he offers an either/or choice to the world-to retrogress and decay or to go forward. Progress is by no means inevitable, he argues, despite the 'hopeful fatalism' of the Spencerians, nor is there any justification for imputing human advances to wars or slavery or famine as exterminators of the unfit. Civilizations rise and fall; 'the earth is the tomb of the dead empires, no less than of dead men.' Hereditary modifications, George suspects, and changes in the nature of men explain neither progress nor retrogression. And the line of reasoning that attributes a life cycle to nations or races paralleling the growth and decay of individual lives is no less superficial than all such analogies. A community, unlike the human body, is being constantly refreshed by new members and cannot be corrupted 'unless the vital powers of its components are lessened.' Yet the central truth remains: that civilizations engender their own poisons.

George has swept away the claims of racial chauvinists and boldly asserts that human development depends largely on the matrix of culture in which the individual finds himself, what Veblen was later to call 'the state of the industrial arts.' This web of institutions, this storehouse of human achievement, while it often acts as a barrier to progress, accounts for the transmission of knowledge and 'makes progress possible.' But still George withholds his revelation. He has not yet explained the dynamics of civilization's mobility forward and backward.

The answer when it does come is not anticlimactic. Nations grow or deteriorate depending on the extent to which they make use of or vitiate the collective mental powers. When societies are running downgrade, mental energies are being consumed for what George calls 'non-progressive' purposes. That is to say, men's lives are consumed in aggressive enterprises of their own or in resisting the aggressions of others. George illustrates this thought with one of his characteristic nautical analogies:

To compare society to a boat. Her progress through the water will not depend upon the exertion of her crew, but upon the exertion devoted to propelling her. This will be lessened by any expenditure of force required for bailing, or any expenditure of force in fighting among themselves, or in pulling in different directions.

Mental power, in short, is most effective when men associate in equality.

George does not minimize the importance of natural circumstances in determining the kind and quality of a civilization. Following a lead of Buckle's, he emphasizes the importance of physiography and admits that uncontrollable physical phenomena-deserts or jungles or mountains -- not only isolate men and prevent association but directly inspire national conceits and prejudices that ultimately promote wars, 'the negation of association.' But he attributes the chief reason for a civilization's decline to the ever-present tendency toward inequality. The institutions that take root at the dawn of a civilization may later strangle it by retaining obsolete ideas and by funneling off the benefits derived from the 'collective power' of the society to a special class in the community. The community in turn is deprived of the advantages achieved by men commingling in free association; progress stops and retrogression begins:

On the one side, the masses of the community are compelled to expend their mental powers in merely maintaining existence. On the other side, mental power is expended in keeping up and intensifying the system of inequality, in ostentation, luxury, and warfare.

When a society has reached such a pass, any innovation, of course, is considered dangerous; the rulers permit no experiment that may ultimately unseat them, and the masses are too preoccupied with the problem of staying alive to take up 'progressive' considerations.

The lesson for America is quite obvious. It is the inequality of wealth that finally brings about the petrifaction of civilization, divides society into a plutocracy and a mob, and sweeps away the middle class for which George speaks and from which he believes most good derives. He has revealed the cause for social decay and has offered a plan to circumvent it. Now he presents a stark picture of what America may expect if present tendencies are allowed to continue unchecked. The threat follows the promise. Our boasted political democracy has not prevented economic inequality nor can mere political forms sustain a democracy. Tyranny sprouting out of decayed republican institutions can be the most vicious of all, 'for there despotism advances in the name and with the might of the people.' The very democratic stratagems that in the equalitarian society insure popular will become devices ideally suited to plutocratic manipulation. Universal suffrage becomes a positive evil when granted to a broken-down, will-less corrupt proletariat.

George does not conclude his book on this painful note; a heavenly vision must follow the apocalypse of destruction. He is no fatalist, no Brooks Adams charting the course of civilization's decline. 'The Central Truth' is most reassuring despite the possible menace it involves, for if men will only act, a utopia whose golden spires have been seen only by a few poets and seers will become at last an earthly habitation. Political economy, far from being the dismal science, becomes under George's supervision 'radiant with hope,' and the reader is pleased and comforted to discover at the end that everything George has been discussing is subsumed under the golden rule, dear to Christian and democrat alike. We see finally 'that the truth which the intellect grasps after toilsome effort is but that which the moral sense reaches by a quick intuition,' that nature is bounteous, not stingy, and that earthly salvation lies in the minds and hearts of men. George's eschatology is optimistic in the best transcendental vein. His investigation has convinced him that though the race and the individual die and the world shall someday 'resolve itself into a gaseous form, again to begin immeasurable mutations,' a passage exists 'from life behind to life beyond.' Man at last is redeemed, and the ways of God are justified.


The almost instantaneous popularity of Progress and Poverty had nothing to do with its originality -- or rather unoriginality, for in many ways it was a most derivative book. Like the Declaration of Independence from which it stemmed, it was largely an amalgam of ideas already long familiar (the echoes of Condorcet, Comte, Fourier, Bastiat, Mill, Jefferson, Emerson, and many others are deafening), but it was at the same time so intensely personal and sincere and presented with such an enraptured finality that it seemed more novel than it actually was. George had really enlarged upon his own experiences and written a kind of sublimated autobiography calculated to attract even those readers -- and there must have been many -- who had neither the interest nor the ability to follow his chain of thought.

John Jay Chapman, describing 'the New Jerusalem of Single Tax' that George unfolded in the last chapter of Progress and Poverty, could think of nothing else but Don Quixote:

He is rapt. He is beyond reach of the human voice. He has a harp and is singing-and this is the power of the book. It is preposterous. It is impossible. It is romance -- a rhapsody -- a vision-at the end of a long seeming scientific discussion of rent, interest, and wages -- (in which discussion of his destructive criticism of other people must be admitted to be very strong - conclusive -- but which leaves his own work subject to his own criticism). This burst of song, being the only lyric poetry of this commercial period, is popular.

But with all of his facetiousness, Chapman gave more credit to George's destructive criticism than did most of the academicians, who never treated George as a serious economist.

George expected the hostility of the propertied interests and tried to meet it. If he seemed carried away by the significance of his revelation, he never dropped out of his role of the cautious advocate. 'A great wrong always dies hard,' he wrote, and George tried carefully not only in Progress and Poverty but also in his subsequent works to play down those ideas that were likely to antagonize his audience if presented in too bald a fashion. For instance, if George had proposed outright confiscation of land, it would have involved, as he said, 'a needless shock to present customs and habits of thought-which is to be avoided.' He did not like to hedge when great principles were at stake, for that was not real wisdom, but he apparently had no illusions about the social inertia holding back reform or the stubborness of the masses. With all of his idealism and his Jeffersonian expressions of human equality, he showed an almost hard-boiled awareness of human stupidity, which suggests, at times, Emerson's contemptuous opinion of the 'imbecile' mob.

No matter how outrageous the wrong, George believed, society accepted it and grafted it into the social system:

… the majority of men do not think; the majority of men have to expend so much energy in the struggle to make a living that they do not have time to think. The majority of men accept, as a matter of course, whatever is. This is what makes the task of the social reformer so difficult, his path so hard. This is what brings upon those who first raise their voices in behalf of a great truth the sneers of the powerful and the curses of the rabble, ostracism and martyrdom, the robe of derision and the crown of thorns.

He likened mankind to a great stupid bull with a ring in its nose, all tangled up in its own rope and struggling vainly to reach the green pastures a few yards away. Like the bull, man can only bellow ineffectively, and he will never be able to use his great power 'until the masses, or at least that sprinkling of more thoughtful men who are the file-leaders of popular opinion, shall give such heed to larger questions as will enable them to agree on the path reform should take.' That George regarded himself as one of these prophets or file4eaders is quite clear. Quietly and skillfully he disentangled the bull, taking particular precautions not to alarm it and leading it by the nose into Elysium.

The zeal, always tempered with discretion, that made Progress and Poverty radical but somehow safe, characterized the speeches and poverty radical he now began to make in great profusion a halting and awkward speaker into a natural orator of extraordinary charm and persuasiveness. His public writing had always been oratorical in tone, mingling the plain words and simple phrasing with rhetorical flourishes, and his speaking took on the same quality. George, first drawn to the lecture platform in order to supplement his meager income, grew to believe that his spoken words would gain more converts than his written, and his short sturdy figure and his red beard and dome-shaped head soon became familiar to people all over the United States. But it was in the British Isles that his eloquence drew the admission from the London Times that as an orator he was superior to Cobden and Bright.

In the spring of 1881, afloat once more and poorer than he had been at twenty-one, 'The Little Gamecock,' as the reporters called him, became actively concerned with the agitation for land reform in Ireland, and seeing an opportunity for propagandizing his own views on the question, began to speak and write for the Irish Land League. The pamphlet he published on this issue received considerable attention, and in the fail of 1881, he sailed for Ireland as a reporter for the Irish World. This trip marked the beginning of George's enormous vogue in Ireland and England. He was quickly identified as one of the leaders of the Irish movement, hobnobbed with celebrities, lectured to large audiences, and returned home a year later a famous man. His friends and well-wishers, including some New York politicians who thought George was an Irishman, tendered him a fancy dinner at Delmonico's.

Progress and Poverty in the meantime had been selling by the thousands, and even though George's growing reputation brought him little cash (he was lax about his copyrights and gave away as many books as he sold) and he continued to live, as he said, 'literally from hand to mouth,' he now found plenty of opportunities to write and speak. The series in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper appeared at this time, and he started his book on the tariff, but an invitation by the Land Reform Union to deliver a number of addresses in England put an end to his writing for the time being. In January of '84, George found himself once again in London, eager to convert the gentiles.

George Bernard Shaw, who heard George in 1882, has recorded his impressions of the American prophet:

One evening in the early eighties I found myself-I forget how and cannot imagine why-in the Memorial Hall, Farringdon St., London, listening to an American finishing a speech on the Land Question. I knew he was an American because he pronounced 'necessarily' -- a favorite word of his-with the accent on the third syllable instead of the first; because he was deliberately and intentionally oratorical, which is not customary among shy people like the English; because he spoke of Liberty, Justice, Truth, Natural Law, and other strange eighteenth century superstitions; and because he explained with great simplicity and sincerity the views of The Creator, who had gone completely out of fashion in London in the previous decade and had not been heard of there since. I noticed also that he was a born orator, and that he had small, plump, pretty hands.

For all of his levity, Shaw attested to the importance of George as a social revivalist, and although he and his friends outgrew the simplicities of the Single Tax, Shaw, at any rate, never minimized his debt to Henry George. It was enough for Shaw that George made them see the importance of economics in the battle for reform prior to their discovery of Marx and that he stimulated such men as Sidney Webb and H. G. Wells to complicate the problem for themselves and pass beyond the elementary outlines of Progress and Poverty. It was a good thing, said Shaw, that George was not overly burdened with information when he arrived, for 'the complexity of the problem would have overwhelmed him if he had realized it, or If it had not, it would have rendered him unintelligible.' As it turned out, his book served as an introductory text to the nature of society for these budding socialists and Fabians; without it, perhaps, they would not have advanced so quickly to more sophisticated levels of economic thinking.

In England as well as in America George became the popular instructor in political economy not only because he was a gifted teacher -- patient, lucid, and persuasive -- but also because he possessed to a high degree what J. A. Hobson called a 'certain capacity of dramatic exaggeration.' During George's first English visit in 1882, liberal M.P.'s, non-conformist leaders, and ministers looked upon his views with horror. Seven years later these same men were presiding over his lectures and advocating his ideas in Parliament. No one, Hobson believed, exercised so much influence on English radicalism in the 'eighties and 'nineties as Henry George.

George's own effectiveness and influence were not lost upon him, and despite his modesty and his conscious desire to subordinate his fame and fortune to the land-reform cause, he came more and more to think of himself as God's right arm. After he had been scornfully denounced by the Duke of Argyll as the 'Prophet of San Francisco,' his friends happily borrowed the designation and henceforth referred to George in terms that suggested he was more than mortal. He emerged, in the words of one of his ardent followers, as 'the hero,' the 'commander in chief in the contest of ideas . . . for me, and doubtless for future generations, the greatest man of the 19th century.'

By the middle 'eighties, the Single Tax had hardened into a religion, with George in the role of the not always genial Pope when it came to the question of refuting minor heresies. Organized churches, he believed, offered men 'stones instead of bread,' and from Protestant to Catholic preached 'alms giving or socialism.' He now grew more certain 'that the time is ripe for our doctrine, and that it is being forced forward by a greater power than our own.' Convinced of the truth of his own particular vision, George began to regard other reformers who ranked their pet projects as of equal or of more importance than his own as upstarts. He closed the columns of his newspaper, The Standard (the parent organ of the Single Tax, established in 1887) to rival ideas, and fired two of his editors for insubordination. George was justified in dismissing these men on many counts, yet he showed an impatience and an absence of generosity in this episode not consistent with his earlier magnanimity.

The men who took the leadership in the movement at this time were largely business and professional people. Some of them, like Thomas G. Shearman, a successful corporation lawyer, and Tom Johnson, a Cleveland industrialist, seemed to be more interested in the economics of the Single Tax and free trade than in the more deeply radical implications of George's theories, and George himself became increasingly chilly toward socialism and its proponents as the radicals grew more vociferous about the inadequacies of the Single Tax.

At the beginning George had been tolerant of socialism and had agreed with its objectives; but, he argued even then, 'it is evident that whatever savors of regulation and restriction is in itself bad, and should not be resorted to if any other mode of accomplishing the same end presents itself.' The confiscation of rent, he was sure, would bring about the benefits of socialism without inviting the dangers likely to occur with its installation.

Realizing the looseness of the term 'Socialist' and acknowledging that he too had been classed as one, he neither admitted nor disclaimed the name, because he saw 'the correlative truth' in the principles of both individualism and socialism. But he made it quite plain that Marxian socialism as expounded by the British socialists and in America by Laurence Gronlund was nothing more than 'a high-purposed but incoherent mixture of truth and fallacy, the defects of which may be summed up in its want of radicalism-that is to say, of going to the root.' In so far as socialism increased international solidarity and taught the advantages of associated action, he concurred. He fully admitted that as society grew more complex, the domain of social action would enlarge. He pointed out that much evil had resulted from the habit of leaving to individuals what ought to be undertaken by the state, and he called the laisser-faire gospel of the Spencerians a 'stench in the nostrils.' Nevertheless, he distrusted deeply the 'super-adequate' socialism that allowed the state to 'absorb capital and abolish competition' and that saw labor and capital as irreconcilably opposed. Super-adequate or scientific socialism, moreover, brought up visions of the authoritarian state, where the workers had everything provided for them, 'including the directors themselves.' It lacked a guiding principle, and, most important of all, it failed to define 'the extent to which the individual is entitled to liberty or to which the state may go in restraining it.'

It is not always easy to discover what prompted George's feelings toward the Socialists. Some of his misgivings were in all probability honestly arrived at, and these have been confirmed by history. And yet his annoyance with the Socialists was not always warranted. He complained that they tried to wreck any movement they could not dominate and that they blurred the Single Tax by introducing irrelevant issues, but George and his followers did not try very hard to maintain a basis of agreement with them. His unfortunate stand against the Haymarket Square anarchists, unjustly convicted in 1887, alienated the Socialists even farther, and it is no wonder that they deserted him in the same year when he ran a very poor third in the New York contest for Secretary of State. In view of the fact that he had nearly won the mayoralty of New York City the year before with Socialist help, his defeat was particularly humiliating.

No man who led as active and public a life as George could avoid making occasional blunders, and the adulation he received would have hopelessly ruined a smaller man. George threw himself into politics and engaged in public debates ostensibly to publicize his cause, but he unquestionably enjoyed the limelight and the thrill of conflict. Yet despite his piques, his unconvincing rationalizations, his sectarian bickering, and his downright errors, his public record is impressively good.

Unfortunately, as many of his friends continually told him, the hours devoted to journalism and politics and the forum prevented him from rethinking the weaker portions of his theories and from writing the books he might have written had he allowed himself the necessary leisure. Even so, George did manage to find time to write several other important works besides Progress and Poverty, most notably Social Problems (1883) and Protection or Free Trade (1886), and his collected writings are well worth studying as a rich and perceptive expression of American progressive philosophy. The lesser writing of George derives, of course, pretty much from Progress and Poverty, for he never seriously modified any of these theories, but frequently they are specific and concrete where the parent book is general.


The nub of George's social philosophy is his sympathetic view of man. 'To him,' as a friend wrote after his death, 'every human being, no matter how high or how low, was an immortal soul with whom his own immortal soul could come into sympathetic contact. It was as easy for him to converse with a hod-carrier as with a philosopher.' This conviction of man's innate goodness led him, as it did most of the other middle-class reformers of Jeffersonian or transcendental origins, to accept an oversimplified psychology that exalted instinctive benevolence and played down human perversity, yet at the same time it saved him from the even more naive and untenable utilitarianism of the so-called realists who invented a dehumanized integer they called 'man' and created a folklore of their own.

Since man was a social animal, the virtues residing within him developed harmoniously only when he associated with others on a basis of equality. George did not discount the importance of individual genius, but he attributed progress to 'the larger and wider cooperation of individual powers; to the growth of that body of knowledge which is a part, or rather, perhaps, an aspect of the social integration I have called the body economic.' The experience of the race could be stored and transmitted only after individual man had merged with the social body, the great repository of human knowledge. Co-operation not only helped men to overcome social problems; it also quickened the religious spirit and the springs of human sympathy and dramatized the truth of mutual dependence. No one class could be emancipated, he kept insisting, at the expense of another; every person's happiness was the concern of all. And he regarded all legislation or pressures exerted for a particular body of people as dangerous to the interests of the whole.

According to George, it required no special knowledge to grasp these truths. One did not have to be a college graduate to reason correctly; indeed, he observed, 'There is no vulgar economic fallacy that may not be found in the writings of professors; no social vagary current among "the ignorant" whose roots may not be discovered among "the educated and cultured."' And the successive arguments he proposed followed logically from his initial premises about the duties and capacities of man.

The Social Darwinists, the followers of Spencer and his school, George felt, blurred these central truths with their specious talk of 'survival of the fittest' and 'nature's remedies,' and thereby sinned against the divinity in man. In valuing man for his muscles rather than his mind, in treating him like a commodity, 'a thing, in some respects, lower than the animal,' they made themselves culpable on practical as well as moral grounds, because, for George, the physical strength of the human frame counted as nothing when placed against the 'resistless currents' flowing from unleashed intelligence.

The Spencerians talked of progress (and George himself grew lyrical about technological advances) but they canceled out its human costs. George, like Parker and the other humanitarians, did not interpret the word 'progress' in its material sense or call progressive a civilization that excluded so large a portion of society from physical and spiritual benefits. Inventions and discoveries in themselves were not unmixed blessings so far as the workingman was concerned. They hastened the march toward monopoly; they made employer-employee relations increasingly indirect and impersonal; they deprived the worker of his independence; they cramped his mind and body. 'We are reducing the cost of production,' he wrote, 'but in doing so, are stunting children, and unfitting women for the duties of maternity, and degrading men into the position of mere feeders of machines. We are not lessening the fierceness of the struggle for existence.'

George no more hungered for the pre-industrial golden age than Parker did, but he was impressed by the findings of such men as Professor Thorold Rogers of Oxford, whose Six Centuries of Work and Wages (a work of immense influence among the progressives) confirmed George's contention that the workingman had lost more than he had gained by the industrial revolution. The great factories, housing thousands of hands, produced with miraculous economy as compared with the old handicraft system, and yet the modern worker performed the most monotonous labor 'amid the din and the clatter, and whir of belts and wheels,' and had about as much chance of becoming a master of the plant as of becoming 'King of England or Pope of Rome.' Circumstances remote from his personal life threw him out of work, and during the boom times he and his fellows could increase their share only by striking or threatening to strike.

The callous disregard for men in a country that mouthed the sentiments of the Declaration of Independence was reprehensible on moral grounds, but George also saw the dangerous political consequences of such an attitude. The industrial revolution, breaking the bonds that had formerly tied the individual to the community, had precipitated a kind of mass alienation, and produced a type of rootless man who could fall an easy prey to the demagogue. The 'dangerous classes politically' are not only the 'very rich' but the 'very poor':

It is not the taxes that he is conscious of paying that gives a man a stake in the country, an interest in its government; it is the consciousness of feeling that he is an integral part of the community; that its prosperity is his prosperity, and its disgrace his shame. …Men do not vote patriotically, any more than they fight patriotically, because of their payment of taxes. Whatever conduces to the comfortable and independent material condition of the masses will best foster public spirit, will make the ultimate governing power more intelligent and more virtuous.

The corollary was equally obvious. Deprive a man of that sense of identification, facilitate the piling up of huge fortunes, aggravate the tendency toward inequality, and you have a disoriented and menacing proletariat.

George assumed that the tendency toward concentration, which produced the disparities of wealth and divided society, was not necessarily an artificial one. As men associated together in larger groups, production naturally took place on a larger scale. But he refused to admit that the evils following in the wake of the factory system were either natural or inevitable. 'The concentration that is going on in all branches of industry,' he wrote in Social Problems, 'is a necessary tendency of our advance in the material arts. It is not in itself an evil. If in anything its results are evil, it is simply because of our bad social adjustments.' The whole question hinged on

whether the relation in which men a~ thus drawn together and compelled to act together shall be the natural relation of interdependence in equality, or the unnatural relation of dependence upon a master.

George's trustful acceptance of the principle of bigness may seem to contradict his defense of competition, but he had no difficulties in reconciling the ideas of co-operation and competition. The trouble heretofore, he argued, was the myth of the free market. A slave class cannot be said to compete. But once assure natural rights to everyone,

then competition, acting on every hand-between employers as between employed; between buyers as between sellers -- can injure no one. On the contrary it becomes the most simple, most extensive, most elastic, and most refined system of cooperation, that, in the present stage of social development, and in the domain where it will freely act, we can rely on for the coordination of industry and the economizing of social forces.

When competition failed to work properly and the economic machinery broke down, when the natural processes of concentration degenerated into hoggish monopoly, George never blamed the defective laws of nature. Political economists euphemistically disposed of depressions and unemployment by inventing concepts like 'overproduction,' but to George such reasoning was nothing less than blasphemous. How could there be overproduction with so many wants unfilled? Fallible men created artificial scarcity by interfering with the natural laws of trade-strangling production through monopoly, tariffs, and other hidden taxes-and by engaging in piratical ventures against the community. The waste in men and machines, the vice and crime accompanying and resulting from the 'masked war' of business, stemmed directly from 'our ignorance and contempt of human rights.' Nature remained bountiful. Plenty of work always remained to be done. Clearly, then, the blame lay with man himself, and he would never pull himself out of his mire until he took to heart the truth taught by both religion and experience-'that the highest good of each is to be sought in the good of others; that the true interests of men are harmonious, not antagonistic; that prosperity is the daughter of good will and peace; and that want and destruction follow enmity and strife.'

The salvation of society depended ultimately on a moral revival, but at the same time a society had to be constructed in which these benevolent virtues might be permitted to flourish. The Single Tax, George was certain, would transform disintegrative forces into life-giving ones, but in the meantime, the state had to quicken the ameliorative process. It was not the business of the state to make man virtuous, but it did have the responsibility of securing 'the full and equal liberty of individuals.'

George modified, with some reluctance, his earlier views on the role of governments. To the last he retained certain Jeffersonian prejudices against the large army and navy, expensive and undemocratic; and the abolition of the diplomatic service, he felt, 'would save expense, corruption, and national dignity.' He urged that we hold tenaciously to local liberties, for no outside authority, either state or national, knew as much about local affairs as the residents themselves. But as he observed the 'growing complexity of civilized life and the growth of great corporations and combinations, before which the individual is powerless,' he became convinced 'that the government must undertake more than to keep the peace between man and man-must carry on, when it cannot regulate, businesses that involve monopoly, and in larger and larger degree assume co-operative functions.' If any means of curtailing monopolies, other than federal intervention, had presented itself, George would have preferred it, but he could see no other.

Natural monopolies, he believed, ought to be taken over outright by the state instead of being regulated. Such a proposal might seem inconsistent with George's moderate views and his distrust of socialism, but he took the stand, anticipating some of the later reformers, 'that any considerable interest having necessary relations with government is more corruptive of government when acting upon government from without than when assumed by government.' The railroads provided a notorious illustration for this argument. Actually, the kind of governmental control George advocated really applied the free-trade principle to keep open the channels of trade. For, he concluded, 'if we carry free trade to its logical conclusions we are inevitably led to what the monopolists, who wish to be "let alone" to plunder the public, denounce as "socialism," and which is, indeed, socialism, in the sense that it recognizes the true domain of social functions.' Enlarging the sphere of government, he was perfectly aware, always carried with it an element of danger and he dreaded the hypertrophy of federal bureaus, but he expected the substitution of a single tax for all the myriad taxes hitherto collected to simplify the job of government and even permit it to extend its activities into the domain of public health, libraries, recreation, and scientific research.

Distrusting as he did large concentrations of power, he was finally persuaded by experience and observation that the welfare state had to come if the democratic individualism he believed in so passionately was to survive in America. The risks were great, but George concluded that the only thing to do was to load the state with popular controls and assume 'that there must be in human nature the possibility of a reasonably pure government, when the ends of that government are felt by all to be the promotion of the general good.'

America had no other course anyway. The frontier was gone, as George announced some years before Professor Frederick Jackson Turner, and with it our period of national probation. Now that we had impoverished our soil, dumped our fertility on European shores or flushed it into the sea, or allowed it to pass into the hands of absentee landlords, we had to resign ourselves to the consequences. The treasures we had exhausted during this national debauch were irretrievable. Meanwhile, we had aroused 'the aspirations and ambitions of the masses' while accelerating the tendencies that thwarted them, and we could no longer fall back on the consolation that our magical republican institutions would somehow carry us through. Forms meant nothing when the substance was gone.


Georgian philosophy spread during the 'eighties and 'nineties, taking root especially in the British radical movement and enlisting the support of many prominent Americans in business, politics, and the arts. George's trips to England and his Australian tour not only enhanced his reputation abroad but made him a more considerable figure for those Americans who needed a foreign seal of approval to convince them of George's greatness. After all, not many Americans were admired by Tolstoy, Ruskin, Shaw, Wallace, and Gladstone. Even Karl Marx felt George important enough to despise. And in this country he could claim the friendship of Mark Twain, Howells, Henry Demarest Lloyd, Hamlin Garland, William Jennings Bryan, Henry Ward Beecher, Samuel Gompers, and hundreds of other prominent men and women who admired his character and sincerity even though they may not all have accepted his entire program. Few reformers in our history have managed to attract so diverse a following and appeal to so wide a variety of groups whose interests ordinarily clashed.

Ex-President Hayes, visiting New York during the first George campaign for mayor in 1886, discovered to his great astonishment that a considerable number of respectable Republicans-well-dressed, well4ed men who carried gold-headed canes-planned to vote for George. The arguments they gave for supporting a radical like George coincided with Hayes's own views at this time: the dollar had acquired too much power and threatened the republic; monopoly (Hayes cited the Standard Oil trust as a notorious example) had grown too insolent. These men, disliking George's remedies, nevertheless found themselves for the time being on the same side as the labor unions and credited George with being 'a thoroughly sincere, honest man with the welfare of his fellow men at heart.' Whatever doubts he may have had about the Single Tax, Hayes believed that George was 'strong where he portrays the rottenness of the present system.' He placed George with the other 'Nihillsts' -- himself and Mark Twain and Howells and Abraham Lincoln-who 'opposed the wrong and evils of the money-piling tendency of our country, which is changing laws, Government, and morals, and giving all power to the rich and bringing in pauperism and its attendant crimes and wretchedness like a flood.'

But a political and economic program that tried to harmonize all interests and rigorously excluded ideas not in keeping with the views of its sponsors inevitably invited dissent from conservative and radical alike. George, in his turn, felt obliged to discipline the recalcitrant of both wings, and the skirmishes he engaged in during his last years revealed a talent for polemics as well as a zeal for his cause. Herbert Spencer had to be answered, and the Pope, too; and so did the Socialists and the Populists and the false ministers.

George blundered badly in the Haymarket affair when men like Howells and Bellamy and Lloyd behaved magnificently, and he sanctioned the execution and imprisonment of the anarchists without studying the case honestly or courageously. He blundered again in 1888 when he swerved to Cleveland and broke for a time with his friend, Father Edward McGlynn, a brilliant and incorruptible priest who had devoted himself to the Georgian movement and had risked excommunication for his beliefs. And yet George denounced Cleveland in 1894 against the wishes of his friends and bitterly criticized the use of federal troops in the Pullman strike. The Democratic party had reneged on its pledge to reduce the tariff and opposed the income tax that George, the leading Single Taxer, believed temporarily necessary. It had sponsored the anti-anarchist bill, which George (although the anarchists hated him and attacked him at every opportunity) called worse than the Alien and Sedition Acts. Finally, Cleveland had ratified the infamous extradition treaty with Russia and sealed the entrance to America against such great men as Kropotkin and Reclus. George joined other reformers and humanitarians in condemning these acts and demonstrated that his liberalism had not been tarnished by his association with property holders.

In 1896 he campaigned for Bryan, again grieving his conservative backers, and toured the Middle West as a reporter for the New York Journal. Once more his articles took on the radical tinge that had colored the essays he had written fifteen years before. George, like Bellamy and Lloyd, was actually neither a gold nor a silver man. He played down the money issue and chose to interpret the election as a struggle for power between a ruthless plutocracy, dominating their sham republic, and the people. Bryan, for all his limitations, represented Jeffersonian principles -- equal rights for all, special privileges for none; all other issues of the campaign were small compared to this. 'I shall vote for Bryan,' George confided to a correspondent, 'with greater satisfaction and firmer confidence than I have voted for a Presidential candidate since Abraham Lincoln.'

George had expected Bryan to win -- at least his articles give that impression -- but he did not let the disappointment of MeKinley's landslide discourage him. If the plutocracy still controlled the banks and the government, reform might begin in the municipalities, and George accepted the independent nomination for the New York mayoralty in 1897 with the idea that once again Jeffersonian principles might be injected into a political campaign. Exhausted already by his strenuous efforts of the last year, and looking, according to one report, 'like a racked and wounded saint,' George entered the New York race against the advice of his physicians. Such a step, they assured him, would undoubtedly kill him. He accepted the verdict quite philosophically, telling one of them that he knew he had to die sometime and that he preferred to die while serving the people. Five days before the election, for which he had campaigned in his usual vigorous spirit, George's spent body broke under the strain, and he suffered a fatal apoplectic stroke.

The city turned out to pay tribute to the dead reformer and thousands filed past his bier in the Grand Central Palace. They were honoring the man, if not the theorist, and spontaneously recognizing a leader who throughout his short life had consistently stood for what he called 'the principle of true Democracy, the truth that comes from the spirit of the plain people.' To his disciples, of course, George remained a saint and a social deliverer, but his humanitarianism and integrity carried over into groups of people who had never read the bible of the Single Taxers and who never would.

An indefatigable corps of followers remain today, propagandizmg Single Tax ideas and preparing for the millennium, but George's lasting greatness, fortunately enough, does not depend upon the validity of the Single Tax as a social panacea. 'Nobody,' as Bernard Shaw put it so well, 'has ever got away, or ever will get away, from the truths that were the centre of his propaganda: his errors anybody can get away from.'

George's criterion for the good society is still valid -- a society where the non-progressive forces do not dam up mental energy and where monotonous labor does not deprive man of his 'godlike power of modifying and controlling conditions.' Perhaps he asked for too much. Most certainly his own solution for the paradox of want amidst plenty enormously oversimplified the causes of man's plight -- a condition George so compellingly described. But he was right in trying to strike a balance between the claims of those who emphasized the necessity of personal regeneration and the environmentalists relying entirely on the results of external reform. He never divorced religion and science, for he was certain that the deeper religious instincts of the multitude, scarcely touched in modern society, would be reached only through a genuinely social application of scientific principles. No fairyland would grow up from a slag heap, no race of saints from festering slums. The geniuses who had distinguished themselves in the relatively short annals of human history betrayed, George believed, the vast untapped veins of power society had not begun to scratch. He hoped to exploit that hidden wealth by convincing his contemporaries of the practicality of the golden rule, by showing that through virtue men could be free.