Thomas Gaskell Shearman's
Natural Taxation (1895 and 1911)
and Charles Bowdoin Fillebrown's
Principles of Natural Taxation (1917)
Two Early Georgist Tracts

H. William Batt


It may be heresy among the Georgist community to say so, but I believe that there are many expositions of the Georgist system that are easier to understand than the works of Henry George himself. To my way of thinking, George's work, even if very articulate English for its time, is still hard to read sometimes because of its very Victorian style. English prose was changing fast a century ago, and the writing just a few years after George is far easier to absorb. Reading some of these works recently, I decided that they are worth being more widely shared, this for two reasons: 1) because I do find them easier to read and 2) because their illustrations and contextual discourse resonates with so much else that I have been exposed to in later years. I elected to read them aloud using a speech recognition program to record my speech onto the computer. Then I made the minor corrections necessary for their being made available online in digital form.

The first tract that I read was by Charles Bowdoin Fillebrown (1842-1917), whose book Principles of Natural Taxation appeared in 1917, published in both New York and London. This book, some fifteen chapters in 280 pages, traces land taxation thought as it was understood at that time - not terribly different than how we understand it today - and is also a chronicle of the public and academic struggles over its merits as it was seen in its heyday. It's a fascinating book.

Fillebrown, a prominent Boston attorney, was president of the Massachusetts Single Tax League from 1896 to 1907, wrote and spoke extensively during those years about the single tax. This organization counted among its members many of the notables of Boston, like William Lloyd Garrison, II, son of the famous abolitionist, who was as passionate an advocate of the single tax as his father was for ending slavery. Boston was then a hotbed of "single tax" advocacy. A banquet of the Single Tax League, held in 1902, allowed eminent economists of the state to discuss the idea. ("The Theory of Distribution," by F.Y. Edgeworth, Quarterly Journal of Economics, volume 18, 1904 pp. 159-219: at www.ecn.bris.ac.uk/het/edgeworth/distribu.htm.) George Geiger (Philosophy, p. 444) recounts that the exurbs of Boston had three "single tax" enclaves - known as Tahanto, Shakertown and Trapelo - established in the second decade of the 20th century . Harvard's Widener Library lists some dozen works by Fillebrown, most on the single tax- what he called the "Natural Tax" (see below), the others on the geneology of his family and his eminent ancestors. His works on taxation were both books and pamphlets, some updated in several editions, and he was for over years a driving force of advocacy in Boston.

Fillebrown's Chapter 9, "The Burdenless Tax," offers an explication of land value taxation I have found nowhere else so early or so clearly. He also backs it up with references to several other academic authorities. The narratives given in chapters 12 and 13 are extensive histories of land tax activity. Chapter 12 is an account of all the places on earth that had adopted the single tax til that time - an enumeration that compares not unfavorably with today. The infighting among academics draws his attention in Chapter 13, with an account of the fall-out with Herbert Spencer as well as his differences with Professor Seligman.

Fillebrown was very much a colleague of Thomas Gaskell Shearman (1834 - 1900), to whom he pays extensive tribute. Two whole chapters of Shearman's Natural Taxation are reprinted, complete, in Fillebrown's treatment, in addition to an extensive accessible biography of this notable disciple of Henry George. The extensive encomiums quoted are probably due to the controversies that Shearman involved himself in, the most notable being Reverend Henry Ward Beecher's most loyal defender and friend in a 1875 sex scandal. (Rev. Beecher was accused of having an affair with one of his married parishioner, a Mrs. Tilton, in a never resolved episode. See a book by Altina Laura Waller, Reverend Beecher and Mrs. Tilton: Sex and Class in Victorian America, U Mass Press, 1982.) Shearman was the senior partner in a powerful New York law firm, one still bearing his name today. He was active in many realms of the law in New York and Boston, was highly regarded, and wrote prolifically.

But there is so much other material in Shearman's book that it is worth having accessible the whole volume for itself. Shearman's Natural Taxation was published originally in 1895, but updated with an additional chapter to answer critics in 1911. I leave it to others to decide whether Shearman in any way deviated from George's basic world view; I find any differences inconsequential while at the same time offering many more immediate insights and many more illustrations and data. Shearman is the person to whom the term "single tax" is first attributed.

Natural Taxation proved to be a highly influential work, hardly selling in the numbers that Progress and Poverty did, but very respectably. It is filled with data, numbers which make a strong case for his "natural tax." That research, given the limitations of data at that time, is very broad-brush, but it suggests ways of exploring the potential for land value taxation that are useful even today. Unfortunately, the difficulty in dictating tables of numbers into machine readable format limits my facility for putting it all into the digitized text, and I have omitted the more extensive tables from Chapters 2, 5, 6, 10, and 12. The reader will have to search out the original book if he wishes so detailed a level of information. The book makes sense even so, without the tables, and provides many arguments which George himself may have mentioned only obliquely.

What I find most helpful about Shearman's Natural Taxation is its organization: chapters addressing, in turn, the situations of farmers, of widows and orphans, the matter of tax shifting, the adequacy of a land tax, its basis relative to improvements and personalty, and not least, the economic justice of it all. His final chapter, added in a second edition some fifteen years later, deals with objections raised to natural taxation. He takes on the greatest critics of the era, treating their arguments point by point in a way that is concise and comprehensible.

One criticism raised by our modern critics is that we are fixated on the life of Henry George, the man, rather than exponents of an idea. I have come to believe that this criticism has merit, having now been a part of the movement for some nine years. Bringing these two old works to greater attention, and all the other figures which Charles Fillebrown cites in his work, puts our movement on a broader base. It will help to demonstrate that we are proponents of an idea, indeed a whole world view and vision of both economics and social justice. I hope that having these long, almost forgotten, works more easily available online, will help to further our arguments in this regard.