Henry George, A Son's Remembrance

Henry George, Jr.

[The Introduction to a booklet of the Addresses at the Funeral of Henry George, compiled by Edmund Yardley and published by The Public Publishing Company, Chicago, 1905]

On Sunday, October 31, 1897, police in outlying streets had to restrain the throng desiring to enter the Grand Central Palace, on Lexington avenue, between Forty-fifth and Forty-sixth streets. From an early hour in the morning two continuous columns of people moved through the main entrance, up the wide staircase, into the great hall of the building, and slowly passed a bier. The bier was simple, low and black draped. It stood at the head of a wide, central aisle, in front of a great platform hung with folds of black and ornamented with greens.

In front of the foliage and looking down upon the bier was a bronze bust of the dead man. It had been made by his second son and finished only a few months before. On one occasion during the work on that bust the father had remarked to his two sons: "When I am dead, you boys will have this bust to carry in my funeral procession, as was the custom with the Romans." And so the words had come to pass, for, without knowledge of this incident, some one had gone to the home at Fort Hamilton, brought the bust and set it up over the casket.

Why did Henry George speak of a funeral procession? Why did he suggest a matter so out of keeping with his accustomed retirement and modesty? Why should he think there would be any demonstration at his funeral? The reason was the same as that which caused him years earlier suddenly to halt in the middle of Broadway while in the act of crossing the street with one of his sons and, with entire irrelevancy to the topic about which they had last talked, exclaim: "Yes, I could die now." When his son asked him what his words meant, he roused as from a reverie, and walking to the sidewalk, answered: "I was thinking that I could die now and the work would go on. It no longer depends upon one man. It is no longer a 'Henry George' movement - a one-man movement. It is the movement of many men in many lands. I can help it while I live; but my death could not stop it. The Great Revolution has begun."

In like spirit he had said to his wife a few weeks before his death, as she sat beside him in his work room: "The great, the very great advancement of our ideas may not show now, but it will. And it will show more after my death than during my life. Men who are now holding back will then acknowledge that I have been speaking the truth. Neither of us can tell which of us will die first. But I shall be greatly disappointed if you precede me, for I have set my heart on having you hear what men will say of me and our cause when I am gone."

These incidents explain why this uniformly modest man referred to a funeral procession for himself. He believed, with all his soul believed, that he had found the way and the only way to rid civilization of its cancer - its extremes of wealth and want, that lead some to the madness and destruction of vanity, and multitudes into the suffering and brutishness of poverty. He believed the remedy lay in making all men equal before nature by the simple process of letting any who would, hold land, but compelling him to pay its entire rental value in the form of a tax into the public treasury. Each paying the full value of all the land he held, there would be no object in holding land not at once to be used, or in not using land to its highest capacity. On the contrary, all land, used or unused, being compelled to yield to the state its full annual value, the man who held valuable land idle would find that he had to pay as heavily on it as if the land were put to its highest use, since the value of the land itself, not its produce, would be the thing taxed. The land value tax would discourage - would kill - land monopoly. Enormous quantities of valuable land, in cities, towns and villages, in agricultural, timber, mining and grazing regions, would be thrown open to users. That is, land - good, accessible, valuable land - now held out of use in the expectation that increasing population will be compelled to pay a large advance for it, would become cheaper and easier to get.

And since all men are land users in some form, this would be a common benefit. Land being at the base of all production, all production would be wonderfully stimulated; and doubly stimulated when, the revenue received from ground rents being sufficient to satisfy the needs of government, all other taxes could be remitted. This would remove a mountain of taxation from the shoulders of labor. It would concentrate the revenue burden in a single tax resting upon land values. It would, in effect, give to the producer the full measure of that which he produced, while he that would not work, neither should he eat.

There then would be no spectacle of some men rioting in superabundance and other men, willing and anxious to work, unable to find opportunity to work. Then some would not be landlords and others landless. Then all would be equal before nature; all would have the same right to land. Present titles could remain, but the value would be shared by all. Such as possessed land having any advantage would pay the equivalent of that advantage in the shape of a tax into the common coffer.

This order of things would bring forth a race of free, independent, self-respecting, generous, high-spirited men, who would advance to new and undreamed of heights of civilization. With greater and greater ease they would satisfy the animal wants, and give more and more play to the development of the men-tat and moral natures.

This was the great idea that filled the soul of Henry George. It was the redemption of the world from involuntary poverty and from its grim daughters, suffering and sin. He had, he believed, pointed the way of salvation, and he was confident that the world would sooner or later come to believe with him. And with this conviction he went to his death.

Twenty-seven years before, Henry George, as a young newspaper correspondent, fresh from the "open West," had walked the streets of New York "sick at heart" at the depths of poverty he beheld in this proudest city on the continent. Moses had heard a voice from the bush calling him to lead the people out of the land of bondage. So this unknown young newspaper writer from San Francisco suddenly, there in the daylight, as he walked in the open street, felt a great spirit fill and thrill him, and a cry come within him to lead a new exodus - to lead the poor and oppressed out of their industrial bondage into a condition of peace and plenty. For surely, he reasoned, the Almighty, who has so beautifully adapted means to ends even to the tiniest atom, has not intended civilized men to be degraded to a station lower than beasts! He did not know how to reach the condition of peace and plenty, nor even where it lay; but he took a solemn vow that he would not rest until he had found both.

Nor did he rest. This great question "tormented" him and would not let him rest. And suddenly the answer came. The answer to the riddle of poverty lay in the monopolization of nature, in land speculation. Giving some men the land and shutting others away from it made one class the masters of the others; produced the evil contrast of riches and poverty. Tax away monopoly; tax the speculators out. Clear away the dogs in the manger. Cheapen and open land by taxing it out of the hands of the forestallers. Then all who wanted work would be able to get it; tramps and beggars would be lost and forgotten in the past.

And following the discovery came long years of thinking and writing and speaking. At first they were years of intense and lonely labor, when the hopelessness of reaching and moving men's minds almost killed the high purpose and turned effort to the study of self-ease. For the reception of the first writings had little to encourage and cheer; the audience for the first speech was only a "beggarly array of empty benches." But by degrees the audiences increased until multitudes felt the sincerity of the speaker and the truth of his message. Quietly the writings extended their sway, until even in England, the center of civilization, the institutions of privilege were aroused to take up the battle gage of the man whom one of its spokesmen scornfully styled "The Prophet of San Francisco." The movement for the resumption of the land for all the people by the institution of a single tax falling upon land values irrespective of improvements had come to be a world-movement, and Henry George's writings had won a circulation and believers such as no writings of the kind ever before had had.

The realization of this bore in upon him and filled him with a great joy that he should be given strength to bring hope into men's lives. Yet his task was not finished. He must lead to the end. Many came about him and urged him to be candidate for the Mayoralty of the City of New York. To his wife he said: "Will you fail to tell me to go into this campaign? The people want me; they say they have no one else upon whom they can unite. It is more than a question of good government. If I enter the field it will be a question of natural rights, even though as mayor I might not directly be able to do a great deal for natural rights, New York will become the theater of the world and my success will plunge our cause into world politics." And the wife had answered: "You should do your duty at whatever cost."

At whatever cost! What did that mean? It meant that three of his medical friends and a number of his intimates had reminded him of his breaking health, the result of years of enormous, incessant labors, and had warned him against serious results if he entered the political struggle. But he brushed the matter of his health and personal welfare aside as of small moment. To one of his medical friends who ventured to tell him that if he persisted the strain might prove fatal, he answered: "But I have got to die. 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."

And so, waving back all warnings from solicitous friends, he entered the New York City political contest, and became the candidate of the spontaneous party of Thomas Jefferson for the mayoralty. The opening meeting was in Cooper Union on the night of October 5. Henry George lay faint and panting for breath fifteen minutes before he went to the hall. He had the pallor of death when he stood up before the dense audience and in simple language explained the importance of the fight as it appeared to him. And he said respecting the nomination: "I would not refuse it if I died for it."

Only those close about realized the bravery of his words. But few others realized the great cost of the campaign. Yet to him there was no stay. He had heard the voice from the bush. He must lead the people out of the land of bondage -roust lead them to the last footstep, to the last breath. And so leading, he died, stricken by apoplexy on the morning of October 29, four days before the campaign closed - a campaign marked by intense excitement and feeling. The death stunned friend and foe. Then poured in the tribute which he had said would come when he was dead. To the watching world he had fought the greatest of battles and won the supreme victory: he had risked and met death to proclaim justice.

The interment was private, from the home at Fort Hamilton, November 1, in the lot on Ocean Hill in Greenwood. "From an early hour the day before, Sunday, the body lay in state in the Grand Central Palace. "Never for statesman or soldier," said one of the newspapers, "was there so remarkable a demonstration of popular feeling. At least one hundred thousand persons passed before his bier, and another hundred thousand were prevented from doing so only by the impossibility of getting near it. Unconsciously they vindicated over his dead body the truth of the great idea to which his life was devoted, the brotherhood of man."

In the afternoon the doors of the Grand Central Palace were closed. As the choir from Plymouth Church opened the public services with a simple hymn, a hush fell upon the multitude that crowded the great hall to its utmost. Then the service of the Episcopal church was read by the Rev. R. Heber Newton, the boyhood and manhood friend-the friend to whom the dead man had written but a few days before: "Vote for Low or vote for me, as you may judge best. I shall in any event be true. What doth it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his own soul?" Next the Rev. Lyman Abbott and Rabbi Gottheil in order recounted the peerless courage and the ancient wisdom of the man at whose bier they stood. And after them arose Dr. McGlynn, who had suffered years of excommunication from the Catholic church for the cause for which Henry George had died, and yet who had steadily gone on preaching the great truth until in the end he was reinstated and justified, with the ban lifted from his teachings. Henry George had called him "a Peter the Hermit," and "an army with banners." The clergymen preceding had spoken with earnestness, eloquence and power. To these qualities the priest added such moving passion of faith and hope that the great audience swayed with feeling. It cast off all funeral restraint and gave vent to emotion in applause. Nor did the applause cease when Dr. McGlynn had finished and John S. Crosby, a brother-at-arms in the campaign, arose and extolled the civic virtues of the dead man. Seldom have men spoken as those men spoke; seldom has there been such inspiration; seldom has a funeral gathering applauded with hope instead of melting into the cries and lamentations of grief. Truly the soul of the dead was marching on.