In the Footsteps of Thomas Paine:
Francis Neilson and the Liberal Tradition

Edward J. Dodson

[July 2005]

Over the course of time, there have been many thoughtful individuals drawn to the philosophy and principles of cooperative individualism as they struggled with their own feelings about what is just and right and moral. I have described Thomas Paine as the architect of cooperative individualism because he, above all others before him, provided us with a framework for creating societies that secured and protected individual liberty within a cooperative socio-political framework. Paine's efforts influenced many others who followed. Henry George's intellectual contributions are equal to those of Paine, and the torch he raised during the late nineteenth century burned bright for a generation.

Among those most deeply affected by Henry George's insights was one man who, like Thomas Paine, was born and raised an Englishman, but was drawn to leave the land of his birth to seek a different sort of existence in the United States. This was Francis Neilson.

Francis Neilson was born in 1867, in a small town near Liverpool, England. He was the eldest of nine children in a family of very modest means. At the age of fourteen he left school to make his own way, and four years later decided to join the millions of other Europeans migrating to the United States. After finding work as a laborer and eventually as a clerk in New York City, he settled down to a long period of self-education. In the 1880s, Neilson acquired a copy of Henry George's book, Progress and Poverty, and soon adopted George's ideas on political economy as his own.

Neilson was driven to accomplishment. One side of his personality took him down a path toward success as an actor, director, playwrite and novelist. At the same time, he was pulled by a strong moral sense of right and wrong and of obligation. Returning to England during the Boer War, Neilson felt compelled to do something constructive. He offered his services to the Liberals, and for two years from 1906 to 1908 he took on the task of editor of The Democratic Monthly. Along with other Liberals sympathetic to Henry George's proposals, he vigorously campaigned for the taxation of land values and for free trade. In Neilson's view, "the land campaign … was the dominant political question in England form 1908 to 1911."[1] In 1909 he was elected to the House of Commons, where he served for six years, and for much of that time also served as president of the United Committee for the Taxation of Land Values. The land campaign stalled, however, in the face of formidable opposition from the landed interests but also, Neilson believed, because of Britain's destructive attempts to preserve empire.

Neilson's theatrical interests brought him back to the United States in 1915. While on the passage across the Atlantic, he found himself in deep thought about the future and what he do with his own life. As he later wrote:

"Since the beginning of the war, I felt a great change had taken place in me. My thoughts on life and the plans I had made on entering politics were completely shattered. They were like wreckage strewn upon a beach after a fierce storm. There was nothing of self-pity in this; just an objective taking of stock."[2]

"…I made a survey of the chief political events that had taken place in Europe since I came of age. I wanted to know why men were slaughtering one another by the thousands in Europe and in Asia. In this review I singled out many contributing causes: the work of concessionaires, the competition for markets, the imperial aggrandizements of the chief States, the ambition of politicians, and the deepening poverty of the lower classes of workers. All these, I noted, were in the economic and political fields."[3]

He was leaving the Old World behind, to place his hopes for the future on life in the United States, whose leaders were was still committed publicly to a policy of neutrality toward the warring powers. His American friend, Albert Jay Nock, had returned to the United States from England earlier in the year, carrying with him Neilson's manuscript for the book, How Diplomats Make War, a manuscript that would catapult him to the forefront of the anti-war movement. He was in this regard encouraged by the publication in The New Statesman of George Bernard Shaw's article, Common Sense About the War, about whom he wrote:

"The indomitable courage of the man enabled him to survive the bitterest criticism, and he throve on opposition. Indeed, it may be said his opponents polished his armor and sharpened his sword."[4]

Neilson had started working on How Diplomats Make War literally days after the outbreak of hostilities. Now, in the United States, his publisher convinced Neilson to allow the book to be published anonymously to remove any hint of subjectivity that would be attached to a book written by a member of Britain's Parliament. Not long thereafter Neilson resigned from Parliament, although his own statement suggests he made this decision for ethical reasons other than Britain's entry into the war:

"To me it seemed most unfair to draw money when I could not attend the sessions."[5]

By the end of 1915 the first printing of How Diplomats Make War had been completely sold. The second printing now carried Neilson's name as the author. British authorities confiscated the book, although it was reviewed in a few English newspapers. Translations soon appeared in Swedish, German and Italian. Neilson went right to the heart of the matter as he attacked the motives, sincerity and honesty of the heads of government and others who had orchestrated the war:

"All wars we are told are fought in the interest of the people. It is their land, their nation, their homes, that are at stake. It is their pride, their honour, their patriots, that are called upon by recruiting statesmen when a diplomatic squabble is to be settled by the force of arms. …But what do the people, the workers, get in return for all the vast sacrifices they make?"[6]

He ended with a dire warning:

"Society will need a new basis when this war is over. Each day tendencies are shaping into efforts. Already the Government works along the very socialistic lines it poured contempt upon a few years ago. Reversion is the dominant note of the period. Swift some teachers have been to point the moral of the change to many artisans. Statesmen go whither the currents take them."[7]

Americans became increasingly interested in what this Englishman had to say regarding the war. Neilson was hired to deliver a series of lectures, beginning in Chicago. This was followed by additional lectures at a number of colleges and universities. His engagements completed, Neilson returned to New York, where he was dismayed to find "just as many warmongers … as there were in England." Yet, in New York, he also found company with leaders of the Single Tax movement, including Lincoln Steffens and Clarence Darrow, about whom he wrote:

"Both revealed to me that in nearly all their work they were actuated by their love of fundamental justice. …Therefore, …we could ignore the popular notions of crime and reform of it, and go straight to fundamentals, in an endeavor to find the basic wrong which will not be set right until the minds of the people themselves possess a knowledge of how injustice has shaped their destiny."[8]

However, the Henry George-influenced quest for just law was quickly being overtaken by the threat of U.S. involvement in the war. Neilson's pacifist views were now becoming anathema to the new national mood. Neilson adapted his message somewhat to avoid conflict with Federal authorities in the United States. He now looked to the future and the possibility of a Europe united under one democratic government.

After his lecture engagements ended in mid-1917, Neilson took up residence in a Chicago hotel. His relationship with his wife was less than ideal. She now decided to return to Britain with their children, and so they were divorced. Not long thereafter he married for a second time, to Helen Swift (daughter of Gustavus Swift, the founder of the meat-processing firm). Just as the First World War was coming to its conclusion, Neilson was asked to take over as editor of the Chicago newspaper, Unity, which had a small but international circulation.

Neilson's old friend Albert Jay Nock joined him in Chicago in 1919 for a brief visit. Nock had suggested to Neilson's new wife "the idea that The Nation might be bought and made into a completely new vehicle" to showcase Neilson's writings. The Nation was owned by Oswald Garrison Villard, and, although at a later meeting Villard expressed no interest in selling, Neilson convinced him to move The Nation in a new direction. As Neilson recalled:

"I told him that the publication lacked a definite economic policy and should pursue a severely critical attitude toward the political State. Villard agreed but asked who could write such articles. I told him that Nock would fill the bill. Thus, it was arranged that Nock should join the staff of The Nation and Mrs. Neilson would be responsible for his salary."[9]

In the interim, Neilson completed a book, The Old Freedom, critical of Wilsonian policies as being in opposition to true, individualistic liberalism. Then, after Nock returned for another visit in the autumn of 1919, Nock convinced Helen Swift to finance the start of an entirely new periodical, with Neilson at the helm and Nock in charge of putting it together. This was The Freeman, and its first number was published in March of 1920. Neilson credited Nock with its early success, although Neilson devoted a large portion of his time and energy during that first year writing for The Freeman.

Accompanied by his wife, Neilson then returned to Europe, where he became deeply involved in the post-war work of the Union of Democratic Control, formed to bring pressure in every country to restructure European politics. Many of these individuals had read and been instrumental in getting How Diplomats Make War translated into their own language. The Neilsons' time spent in Germany convinced him of the inevitability "that an even more dreadful war would convulse Europe." He comments in his autobiography on the large numbers of Americans who had come to Berlin in a "scramble to buy art treasures, while the market was falling rapidly." While in Berlin, Neilson - with remarkable ease -- gained access to diplomatic records, which provided material for articles in Unity on the war, later published in book form as Duty To Civilization. This material expanded on and supported much that was in How Diplomats Make War. He also found time to meet with Albert Einstein, with whom he had become acquainted during Einstein's visit the year before to the United States and the University of Chicago. Their conversation in Berlin ranged across a wide range of subjects:

"…World War I, diplomacy, the British Constitution, and free trade. He had read my book, How Diplomats Make War, in the German translation, and he gathered sufficient information from it to satisfy him that no one nation was solely responsible for the war. I tried to persuade him that the world of political economy needed his mind as urgently as the world of physics and mathematics. He was keenly interested in free trade because he regarded it as a peace movement. We spent quite an hour on the question of his devoting some time to economic questions."[10]

After reading a copy of the Treaty of Versailles, Neilson became convinced that another war was not long off the horizon. He decided on a course of action that would bring pressure on the leaders of Britain and France to revise the treaty. Back in Britain, the ranks of "old-fashioned Liberals" were dwindling, as Labour was poised to assume power. Neilson found himself rather philosophically isolated in this new political environment. So, after completing his tour of the continent, he returned to the United States and to New York. His attention returned to editing The Freeman, and he enlisted his wife to contribute articles and stories. Despite this, Neilson soon concluded The Freeman's "days were numbered." The list of subscribers was too small to make the project financially viable. Nock could not carry on much longer on his own, but Neilson was unable to recruit others with the desired qualifications to come aboard. The decision was made to curtail publication after March, 1924. Soon thereafter, the Neilsons returned to Chicago to become immersed in other interests. Of The Freeman years and its contribution to the history of intellectual thought and literature, he wrote:

"The editors were free to publish what they considered to be essential information for the readers and, apart from the editorial policy itself, individualist and socialist, Tory and Liberal, capitalist and laborite found an avenue of expression."[11]

Now, with The Freeman behind him, Neilson concentrated on writing plays and pursuing other cultural interests. His financial condition suffered greatly when the U.S. stock market crashed in the Fall of 1929, but not enough to bring ruin. Gradually, Neilson recovered a good portion of his initial losses, although he never felt very financially secure even in his later years.

In 1930, Neilson was approached by the new president of the University of Chicago, Robert M. Hutchins, with a proposal to deliver a series of lectures on "Religion, Science and Art" at the university. The attendance was unexpectedly small; however, Neilson continued on and completed the course of some thirty lectures. Neilson then joined with Hutchins in the latter man's effort to focus attention on what they both agreed was a serious erosion in the quality of education offered by the nation's colleges and universities. Hutchins set down his observations in the book The Higher Learning in America, and Neilson engaged every major critic in debate over the issues. "The further I carried my correspondence with them," he recalled, "the more certain I became that Hutchins' subject was somewhat foreign to their minds. They were all grimly opposed to metaphysics, and not one seemed to realize that all men are metaphysicians at some time during their lives."[12]

Neilson's interest in education also extended to the effort to bring Henry George's ideas before the public. Whenever possible, he gave time to the Henry George School in Chicago, about which he later wrote:

"Anyone and everyone interested in fundamental economics was welcome and, so far as I know, it was the freest congregation of students with a single objective in existence. No fees were charged, and all the teaching was done voluntarily. The students at the classes were invited to study Progress and Poverty."

"Few organizations could carry on such an extensive program on such a small budget. The work was voluntary, with the exception of three or four persons. Of course, printing, circulation and postage expenses had to be met, and the donations from sympathizers usually covered the cost of these services."[13]

One the characteristics of the Henry George School that most impressed Neilson was its openness to people of different races, religions and cultural backgrounds. For Neilson, the school "was democratic in the true sense of the term."

Neilson's long attachment to the principles espoused by Henry George also brought him to put his writing talents to work on a serious book, published in 1933 with the title The Eleventh Commandment. Shortly thereafter, Neilson and his wife escaped the Chicago winter to the valley of the Salt River in Arizona. Franklin Roosevelt was now in the White House, and Neilson was quick to challenge the new administration's interventionist activities:

"In Control from the Top I showed that the so-called Brain Trust was nothing but a group of Fabians whose purpose was to steer the administration toward a form of collectivism - one that would enable them, through a system of doles, to bribe the voters to keep them in power."[14]

Ironically, the senior member of Roosevelt's group of advisers at this time was Raymond Moley, who was also associated with the surviving remnant of Henry George supporters centered in New York. Moley shared many of Neilson's views and eventually broke with Roosevelt. A diary entry he made in1936 after a meeting with Roosevelt conveys his grave concerns: "I was impressed as never before the utter lack of logic of the man, the scantiness of his precise knowledge of things that he was talking about, by the gross inaccuracies in his statements."

A second book, Sociocratic Escapades, critical of the Roosevelt program, followed in 1934. Neither book found a receptive audience in the atmosphere of desperation that had settled upon Americans. They were, however, a statement of principles, upon which an alternative course might be pursued. And, as Neilson recalled, "the book had a vogue among the Georgists" and some within the academic community. Neilson would build on this theme in another work, Man At The Crossroads, published in 1938. On this project, Neilson found support and encouragement from Robert M. Hutchins. Yet, mainstream publishers were not interested in a book attacking the New Deal, and Neilson was forced to have the book published by a firm without the means of distribution. "That, however, was not a stumbling block," he later wrote, "because I knew the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation was a medium through which any book of mine on fundamental economics would find readers." Man At The Crossroads stands the test of time and deserves to be read, studied and discussed today. In search of the just society, Neilson emerges as a champion the supremacy of the rights of the individual:

"Now I say there are no rights without duties. A right is an obligation which insures the rights of others. Take away the rights of a thinking individual and he will have not time to think of duties. Indeed, it may be said: no rights, no social obligations. And we can call on history of all the civilizations of the past to support that verdict. What was the Nemesis of nations? Surely it was slavery, the abrogation of rights of the individual. …My contention is as follows: conscious of the value of his own rights, a man cannot fail to protect them by assuring his fellows that he places an equal value on their rights and that it is his duty, arising form his knowledge of the value of his own right, to act with regard to the rights of others as if they were his own to protect."[15]

His Georgist ties were firmly established and would be throughout his life:

"The Foundation was devoted to the circulation of Henry George's works, and its list of clients in this country and in other parts of the world was unique for my purpose. As I had not large ideas about the circle of readers that would be interested in my writings, I was only too glad to accept the Foundation as a sponsor of my book."[16]

During the second half of the 1930s, the Neilsons returned to England twice, the second time for the Coronation of George VI. It seems remarkable that although they were constantly on the move, Neilson was able to generate such an important body of political writing - in addition to his other writing interests. "In those three or four years I must have written three or four hundred thousand words on many different subjects," reflected Neilson. At decade's end, moreover, his Georgist associations were strengthened when he agreed to contribute articles for a new scholarly quarterly, The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, brainchild of Will Lissner. Neilson was now in his seventh decade, a time when the productive years of most individuals has passed.

The world's societies were only just emerging from the ravages of economic depression. The Japanese were already engaged in a war for territorial conquest on the Asian mainland, and both Italy and Germany were in the grips of fascist, militaristic regimes. Neilson's reading, more than his first-hand observations, caused him great concern that another war was about to erupt. Despite the character of Hitler and the Nazi regime, and despite the ambitions of the militarist-driven government in Japan, Neilson held to the view that a global war was not yet an inevitability.

"It is amazing to think of what terrific power the war-mongers have, once they set to work. The sowing of the seeds of strife between the spring of 1937 and the summer of 1939 - in about two years - should, in itself, provide a lesson for the people to remember."[17]

Neilson provided his own answers in the pamphlet, Why Hitler? written during 1939 just as Neville Chamberlain warned Hitler that Britain would declare war in the event of a German invasion of Poland. Neilson's wife thought the pamphlet would be perceived as anti-Semitic and convinced him to withhold it from publication. Instead, with the outbreak of war, he began to keep a journal "to record the daily events as they were reported in the dispatches." The end result was a five volume, critical analysis of the war as it progressed. He still found time to write for various Georgist publications, and in the spring of 1940 he also prepared an essay on "Henry George, the Scholar" which he later delivered "as a Commencement address to the Henry George School of Social Science in New York. He hoped this essay, published as a pamphlet, would reach a wider audience:

"Long before the appearance of the New Dealers that Roosevelt gathered round him, I had tested the economic intelligence of the type of academician who was afterwards collected into what was called the Brain Trust; and I had found most of them incapable of giving precise definitions of fundamental economic terms. Therefore, in dealing with George as a scholar, I intended to enlighten, if possible, the gentlemen who were taking payment for teaching their pupils political economy and who were lacking in a knowledge of the real meaning of such terms as land, labor, capital, and property."[18]

Daily work on The Tragedy of Europe continued, with three volumes published by 1943. His Georgist activity also remained vigorous during the war years -- writing for The American Journal of Economics and Sociology and delivering lectures at the Henry George School of Social Science in Chicago. He left no doubt in anyone's mind that in his view the writings of Henry George held the key to a prosperous and peaceful future to all of humankind:

"Progress and Poverty is primarily an economic work, but the presentment of the case is philosophic, historical, cultural, and spiritual. The very comprehensiveness of George's gospel contains the essential knowledge a man should have if he would know his relationship to the universe. Here for the first time he can learn the reason for his material distress. …Indeed, the character of ht writing and the imagery of the work reflect the understanding and joy that George must have felt in reading the Prophets and the sayings of Jesus."[19]

Yet, his thoughts could not leave for long the fate of Europe. As news of Nazi atrocities began to circulate, Neilson feared all Germans would be grouped together and held accountable as a people. He produced another pamphlet, Hate, the Enemy of Peace, to try to put these developments into what he viewed was the proper perspective. In the midst of the war, with so many families suffering the loss of loved ones, there was little public appetite for words sympathetic to the plight of any Germans, whether they had opposed the Nazi regime or not. Neilson was already gravely concerned over the world order that would emerge after the Axis powers were defeated.

Neilson's second wife died in 1945, ending many years of physical suffering. He left Chicago for New York, where he completed the fifth and final volume of The Tragedy of Europe, published in October of 1946. In New York, Neilson soon found himself meeting regularly with others "interested in science, philosophy, and the liberal arts." This included several prominent Georgists - Will Lissner, Lawson Purdy and Roy Foulke. Among the topics they discussed was Arnold Toynbee's 1954 work, A Study of History, which Neilson decided to review in depth. This review was published by The American Journal of Economics and Sociology as a Supplement to the April, 1955 issue. Of Toynbee's effort, Neilson wrote:

"One of the great difficulties in this task that Toynbee has undertaken is the conflict that ensues when the modern mind desires to interpret the history of the past in terms of present conditions. On page after page we meet examples of this, which tend to divert the reader's consideration away from the main point at issue. It is one of the most perplexing problems the historian has to contend with."[20]

His long association with Robert M. Hutchins and their commitment to classic liberal education resulted in another book, A Key to Culture, published in 1948 to be used in conjunction with the Great Books courses developed by Hutchins and Mortimer J. Adler. No sooner was this project finished than he was urged by admirers to begin work on a condensation of The Tragedy of Europe. The result was The Makers of War, published in 1950, focusing on "the events before Hitler's onslaught on Poland."

After the war, Neilson's pessimism over the prospects for true peace in the world came out in his writings. Others agreed and wrote to him expressing their appreciation for Neilson's objective presentation of the facts as they were revealed by the historical record. Even so, Neilson was genuinely amazed at the reception he received on return visits to Britain in 1948 and 1949:

"For such a rebel, a thoroughgoing pacifist, a leader of unpopular causes, to be welcomed by so many distinguished Conservatives and other men who were once high in the councils of the Liberal party, as it was known in my time, convinces me that the best of the Whig tradition still lives, though it is preserved by men who have passed their seventies."

"While it lives, whether in the soul of aging men or in those who are meeting middle life in a world of turmoil, there is hope that in England there may be a resurgence of spirit such as was seen during and after the Napoleonic Wars. All that is needed is the man who has the courage to go to the people and tell them the truth about affairs. The younger the prophet, the better. Is he to come from the Conservative ranks? There seems to be no prospect of one rising from the remnant of the Liberal party."[21]

As he neared completion of his autobiographical writing, he reflected on the time he had devoted in an effort to influence the course of history. His judgment is one reached only after a long life:

"The time spent upon the political platform in an attempt to educate the masses was ill spent. The bitter experience of three wars has taught me that the mass is not reformable. …"

"It is a relief to be free of the old political perplexities that harassed me for years. …I feel convinced that the only thing a man of my years can do after such a life as I have had, is to withdraw from the fray and seek the companionship of creatures that obey the ordinances of nature."[22]

Still in remarkably good health for a man in his late eighties, Neilson found a good deal of personal peace. He had a modest home constructed out on Long Island, New York, and retired to his books and his thoughts, accompanied by his long-time assistant Phyllis Evans and buoyed by his spirituality. He continued on until 1961, when he died quietly at the age of ninety-five. His ashes were returned to England.


1. Francis Neilson. My Life In Two Worlds, Volume Two: 1915-1952 (Appleton, Wisconsin: C.C. Nelson Publishing Co., 1953), p.138.
2. Ibid., p.1.
3. Ibid., pp.4-5.
4. Ibid., p.246.
5. Ibid., p.5.
6. Francis Neilson. How Diplomats Make War (New York: B.W. Huebsch, 1915), p.3.
7. Ibid., p.357.
8. Francis Neilson. My Life in Two Worlds, p.11.
9. Ibid., p.40.
10. Ibid., p.143-144.
11. Ibid., p.75.
12. Ibid., p.138.
13. Ibid., p.139.
14. Ibid., p.154.
15. Francis Neilson. Man At The Crossroads (New York: Robert Schalkenbach Foundation, 1938), p.125.
16. Francis Neilson, My Life in Two Worlds, p.161.
17. Ibid., p.167.
18. Ibid., pp.175-176.
19. Francis Neilson. "The Natural Law of Justice," In Quest of Justice (New York: Robert Schalkenbach Foundation, 1944), p.5. From a series of lectures delivered in 1943 and 1944 at the Henry George School of Social Science, Chicago, Illinois.
20. Francis Neilson. "Arnold J. Toynbee, A Study of History, A Review," The American Journal of Economics and Sociology (New York: Robert Schalkenbach Foundation. Supplement to Vol.14, No. 3, April, 1955), p.5.
21. Francis Neilson. My Life in Two Worlds, p.272.
22. Ibid., pp.291 and 292.