Henry George

Ralph Henry Gabriel

[From "The Evolution of the Philosophy of the General Welfare State," Chapter 17 of the book The Course of American Democratic Thought, published by The Ronald Press Company, New York, 1940 and 1956]

In 1869, two years after Frothingham founded the Free Religious Association, a young California journalist named Henry George was in New York City attempting to establish a telegraphic news service from the metropolis to the Pacific Coast. In intervals between work he strolled about Manhattan fascinated by the evidences of increasing wealth and developing culture. Cornelius Vanderbilt, creator of the New York Central, rode about town behind as fine a pair of horses as America afforded. Edwin Booth had returned to the stage two years before after a voluntary exile due to his brother Wilkes' disgrace. On February 3, 1869, the great Hamlet opened Booth's Theatre on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Twenty-third Street, where night after night fashionable society applauded sumptuous Shakespearean productions. The young man from the coast was impressed by the brilliance of New York. But he was more interested in the city's blighted areas. Charles Dickens had once visited New York's Five Points and had published a description which made that slum notorious in two continents. In this area only a minority of infants had the misfortune to survive. Here youth decayed from what the inhabitants of the Points called with a wry picturesqueness the "tenement house rot." Vice and crime were normal ways of life in the Five Points and in other less celebrated slums. New York was a city of contrasts where Henry George faced the old riddle of civilization, the apparent partnership between progress and poverty. One day the sensitive young Californian, tramping the sidewalks, musing, saw suddenly revealed before him the pattern of a noble life. Many years later he told an intimate friend what happened. "Once, in daylight, and in a city street," he said, "there came to be a thought, a vision, a call -- give it what name you please. But every nerve quivered. And there and then I made a vow."[1] On that day Henry George dedicated himself to a search for the cause which without justice or mercy condemned little children to man-made hells. Dwight L. Moody would have called what happened to George a conversion. William James might appropriately have included the episode in his Varieties of Religious Experience. But, though George experienced conversion after the pattern of evangelical Protestantism, it was to a social rather than to a theological faith. The change was significant. It suggested that a new era was emerging which, in spite of its novelty, was keeping contact with American tradition.

Neither Henry George's mood nor his objective was new to the United States. For three decades before the Civil War that militant Unitarian friend of Emerson, Theodore Parker, had crusaded against the slum conditions of Boston. In the end his campaign to achieve righteousness had been deflected and had become a part of that larger movement to free the black man. Parker died on the eve of Sumter. But the battalions of freedom went on triumph in the Emancipation Proclamation. The outcome of the Civil War bred a confident hope that humanitarian objectives could he realized with equal finality. Out of this humanitarianism grew a new version of the doctrine of the free individual. The gospel of wealth emphasized freedom from control by the political State. A new rationalism, born of the religion of humanity, established the concept of social planning and proposed the State as the best instrument available to free men in their efforts to destroy social evils and to further human welfare. Henry George was only one of a growing company of postwar Americans who saw in poverty a new slavery, which, like the old, destroyed the souls of men. On that day in new York City George saw a vision of a new Gettysburg and a new Appomattox.

To say that the philosophy of Henry George was the outgrowth of his own experience is to repeat what is true of all thinking men. Yet, perhaps in a peculiar way the events of his life conditioned his thought. He was born in Philadelphia in 1839, three years after Emerson published Nature. In his youth evangelical Protestantism reached its American apogee. But Henry George's devout father and mother worshipped after the manner of the Episcopal faith. Family poverty prevented an advanced education while family piety fixed in the boy's mind the accepted patterns of religious and moral ideas. In 1855 young George, sailing as foremast boy to Australia and to India, experienced a new freedom and gained a new perspective. When he returned, he found the home atmosphere too stuffy, and, partly as a consequence. sought his fortune in the California of the vigilante days. A sailor's training and the printer's trade were his only skills. The coarse materialism of the mining camp and the raw coast cities erased the marks of his childhood religious training and left him a young man's skepticism, disturbed, however, at times by nostalgia for the old faith.

He had little success at first on the California frontier; yet, when twenty-two and virtually penniless, he married a Catholic girl of eighteen. Ill fortune pursued him in spite of his desperate struggles to maintain his home. Having neither food in larder nor money in pocket when his second child arrived, he went into the street of his home town and begged five dollars from a stranger. George knew how it felt to be poor and hungry. Ultimately a moderate success came, but he never knew economic security until after Progress and Poverty became a best seller. Four experiences conditioned his thought: his early religious training, the frontier moods of materialism and of individual liberty, personal poverty, and his discovery in New York City of the social extremes possible in an industrial age. Though he cheerfully recognized his debt to English classical economists, his philosophy was essentially an American product.

It sprang primarily from the democratic faith. George never got outside the bounds of that humanistic thought-pattern and from it he derived those social beliefs that made him a crusader literally until the day of his death. But he neither knew nor followed Emerson. Henry George chose Thomas Jefferson for his patron saint; one of the Californian's most cherished books was Jefferson's compilation of the sayings of Jesus. George went back to the eighteenth-century Enlightenment for the foundations of this thought. The doctrines of democracy for him were those of the Declaration of Independence. He thought in terms of equality as well as of liberty. "In our time, as in times before," said George in 1879, "creep on the insidious forces that, producing inequality', destroy Liberty. On the horizon the clouds begin to lower. Liberty calls to us again. We must follow her further; we must trust her fully. Either we must accept her fully or she will not stay."[2] George's faith never failed. Twenty-eight years later, on the eve of his death, lie repeated the democrat's creed. "I believe … that unto the common people, the honest democracy, the democracy that believes that all men are created equal, would bring a power that would revivify not merely this imperial city, not merely the State, not merely the country, but the world."[3] In one essential he departed from the democratic formula commonly accepted in the middle of the century; he did not see the hand of God in the course of American history. "It is blasphemy," declared George, "that attributes to the inscrutable decrees of Providence the sufferings and brutishness that come of poverty."[4] But Henry George's was no passive acceptance of the democratic faith; he sought to make it a power for righteousness in the land.

Progress and Poverty began with a religious experience in 1869 on the sidewalks of New York. As it took form in George's mind during the next ten California years, it led him to the discovery of God, not the God of the Methodist preachers he heard in California or of the Episcopalian rectors he knew in his childhood, but the Author of Nature of Thomas Jefferson and of the eighteenth-century Deists. For the philosophy of Henry George such a God was fundamental. In the beginning. George affirmed, the Author of Nature created the earth and man to live upon it and He endowed man with a natural right to use the earth. To buttress a position which was essentially his own, George fell back upon the authority of Herbert Spencer and pointed out that the Englishman had formulated the same idea in the first edition of Social Statics. Upon that natural rights major premise hung the entire philosophy of George. "It is not enough that men should vote; it is not enough that they should be theoretically equal before the law. They must have liberty to avail themselves of the opportunities and means of life; they must stand on equal terms with reference to the bounties of nature. Either this, or Liberty withdraws her light! Either this or darkness comes on, and the very forces that progress has evolved turn to powers that work destruction. This is the universal law.

If George's vow to discover the cause of poverty followed the pattern of a religious conversion, his discovery a few months later of the answer to his question conformed to the pattern of religious revelation. He was riding alone on horseback through a California countryside where new land offices, erupting like pimples from the plain, proclaimed the disease known as a boom. Everywhere men were grabbing what they thought were the most promising spots, each hoping that his land would soon be found in the center of a large and flourishing city. George rode on to the hills from which he looked back across an expanse of virgin country at cattle grazing in the distance. To make conversation he asked a passing stranger the price of land in the vicinity. "I don't know exactly," was the answer, "but there is a man over there who will sell some land for a thousand dollars an acre." "Like a flash it came upon me," wrote George in later years, "that there was the reason of advancing poverty with advancing wealth. With the growth of population land grows in value, and the men who work it must pay more for the privilege. I turned back, amidst quiet thought, to the perception that then came to me and has been with me ever since."[6] Every man, thought George, has a God-given right to use the earth. "Our primary social adjustment [the private ownership of land] is a denial of justice In allowing one man to own the land on which and from which other men live, we have made them his bondsmen in a degree which increases as material progress goes on. This is the subtle alchemy that in ways they do not realize is extracting from the masses in every civilized country the fruits of their weary toil that is bringing political despotism out of political freedom, and must soon transmute democratic institutions into anarchy."[7] George's reference to anarchy was not mere rhetoric. The nationwide labor wars of 1877 had for a few weeks thoroughly frightened the industrial East. German anarchists were appearing in America and were beginning to propagate their creed through pamphlet and press. Excitable persons began talking of possible social revolution. George published Progress and Poverty in 1879. After a discouraging start, it achieved a great popular success. By 1905 it was estimated that two million copies published in several languages had been sold. Henry George proposed a cure for American social ills which, avoiding both revolution and socialism, would conform to the tenets of the democratic faith. As a result wage earners and insecure small capitalists flocked to his standard. When anxious persons turned the pages of Progress and Poverty, they discovered that the author appeared to know his economic science. He spoke the language of Ricardo and of John Stuart Mill and gave life to their pale abstractions. He affirmed in phrases that all could understand that the social crisis which seemed to threaten the United States was the result of a failure to understand the nature of economic law.

Henry George hunted through the literature of classical economics for the theories and principles that might be useful to him. He rejected with the two Careys the Malthusian theory of population, but made Ricardo's law of rent the center of his economic discussion. Like William Graham Sumner and the other classical economists, Henry George was an ardent free trader. Turning to history, George argued that the reason for the failure of the ancient civilizations was the denial, through the permitting of private ownership in land, of the most basic of natural laws, namely, that all men must be as free to use the earth as they are to breathe the air. Given such freedom, the Malthusian doctrine breaks down because technological progress, George affirmed, will outrun population. George did not propose the complete nationalization of land but merely, as a practical measure, the appropriation by the State of the unearned increment in value which society itself brings about.

After the publication of Progress and Poverty, single tax clubs appeared in large numbers in England and America. By 1905 the pieces of "Progress and Poverty literature" from the pen of George alone were estimated by his son to have had a circulation of five million.

But the popularity of his social panacea is not the primary reason for the significance of Henry George. The implications of his doctrine rather than its formulation made 1879 an important milestone in the history of American social philosophy. George affirmed with Mathew and Henry Carey that, when economic laws ate understood and obeyed, they lead to social justice. Malthus, calling in war and famine to correct overpopulation, declared by implication that ethics has no place in science. George assumed that science leads to meliorism; he believed that the natural laws which underlie society will, when fully understood, be found to coincide with those of morals. Discover natural law, obey it, he declared, and society will be on the road to Utopia. He was frank about his Utopianism. "But if, while there is yet time," he said, "we turn to justice and obey her, if we trust Liberty and follow her, the dangers that now threaten must disappear, the forces that now menace will turn to agencies of elevation. …With want destroyed; with greed changed to noble passions; with the fraternity that is born of equality taking the place of jealousy and fear that now array men against each other; with mental power loosed by conditions that give to the humblest comfort and leisure; and who shall measure the heights to which civilization may soar? Words fail the thought! It is the golden Age."[8] Man, therefore, has his destiny in his own hands. By using the State as an instrument for taking one specific economic action, namely the single tax, he can create a new and ethically superior society. Man can be a social creator, taught George. The State can be transformed from a necessary evil into a beneficent instrument. Economics can be made to evolve from a static into a dynamic science. And ethics must be the guide for both economic and legislative action. Henry George proposed a nineteenth-century version of the eighteenth-century belief in the perfectibility of man. Life Jefferson, he put his faith in reason and in democracy. For the determinism of Malthus and Ricardo he substituted a creative humanism.

The world has never known a prophet more sincere than Henry George. From 1869 to 1897 his life was one unremitting crusade. He plunged in the late '80's into political reform and made a spectacular, though unsuccessful, run for Mayor of New York. He was called again to political service in 1897 when he was asked to lead the fight against Tammany Hall a second time. No longer robust, he sought medical advice and was told by his physician that vigorous campaigning would probably prove fatal. "But I have got to die," he replied to the doctor. "How can I die better than serving humanity? Besides, so dying will do more for the cause than anything I am likely to be able to do in the rest of my life."[9] His wife, who had made his home a singularly happy one, supported his decision. "You should do your duty at whatever cost" was her reply to his question as to whether to accept the proposed nomination. Five days before the election he suffered a fatal stroke of apoplexy. A hundred thousand mourners filed past his bier in Grand Central Palace and an equal number failed to gain admittance. The funeral cortege that followed his body to the City Hall and across Brooklyn Bridge to Greenwood Cemetery was one of the most remarkable of American tributes to a private citizen. The acclaim did not end with the century. "Henry George,'' said John Dewey in 1933 ''stands almost alone in our history as an example of man who, without scholastic background, succeeded by sheer force of observation and thinking that were directed by human sympathy, and who left an indelible impress on not only his generation and country but on the world and the future."[10]

Henry George was the evangelist of the new rationalism. An expanding and unregulated industrialism brought both good and evil to the American people. In the swiftly growing cities of the end of the century, populated by men and women drawn from the nations of the world, indifference, greed, and lack of knowledge of how to live in metropolitan centers compounded the evils of the time. George was a prophet who insisted that the evils were not necessary -- an indigenous prophet whose basic ideas came out of the American experience. Only in America could one man see in his lifetime the evolution from the empty frontier to the city slum. George, carrying forward the criticism of industrialism and urbanism that found early champions in Emerson, Thoreau and Theodore Parker, powerfully furthered an indigenous movement for reform that achieved national importance in the Progressive Era.