Francis Neilson and the Runnymede Tradition

Will Lissner

[Reprinted from The Freeman, November, 1940]

What a man believes with all the fervor of his being is an excellent guide, I think, for an estimate of the sort of man he is. On this account it is altogether fitting that the credo of Francis Neilson should, be that one which, in other phrasing, perhaps, was the credo of the great Christian humanists: "It is not governments or political parties which hold men in chains; it is their own benighted minds which enslave them."

In a certain sense this is what Mr. Neilson has had to do for himself, although he did it very clearly, much earlier than most of us attain to the stature of freemen. He was born in Birkenhead in Cheshire, England, in 1867, and, as was customary in the Victorian era for one who was not destined for the Church, the Army or the service of the State, he was nurtured under private tutors.

His education really began when he struck out for himself, something which was no more customary in his youthful environment than it is in our own day. He came to America, where he was to spend half a long life-time at eighteen. It was not a soft snap he was seeking tout rather a wide range of experience, no matter how much it demanded of him; and this the country afforded. He worked at various jobs, on the wharves and as store clerk, writing articles and acting as a "super" on the New York stage.

During these early years he studied assiduously, immersing himself in the great issues of his time and developing a sprightly curiosity about their backgrounds in .the history of ideas. He was an inveterate attendant at labor meetings. And it was at one of them, in Union Square in about 1888 or 1889, that he first heard about Progress and Poverty. The speaker's remarks set Neilson to obtaining a copy of Henry George's masterpiece and the young Englishman read it carefully. "It was this book that gave me the zeal to go after knowledge," he recalls. "No matter where I went, for years, I studied it conscientiously. Here was the reply to Marx; here was the reply to the protectionists."

It was around this time that he first devoted himself to journalism, becoming first the critic of a theatrical magazine and then serving as a reporter for The Sun and The Recorder. The theatre interested him and he sought to acquire mastery of the dramatic art, working as an actor with the Gillette and Frohman companies, and then serving as stage director for Daniel Frohman at London from 1897 to 1901 and for the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, from 1900 to 1903. Meanwhile he began writing the stream of plays that have come from his pen.

As a publicist he has had at least an equally notable career. In England, where he had been since 1897, he took an active part in the political movements of his time and he was finally persuaded to go into politics. He formed the League of Young Liberals and in a day when the Liberalism of the great English Radicals of the Nineteenth Century was making its last stand he achieved an influence held by few men in English political life.

In the Budget of 1909, the British Government called for a valuation of the land of England and levied sundry taxes upon the value. Mr. Neilson played an important part in drawing up the Land Values Manifesto and a key role in the innumerable debates of the Radical Liberals.

Persuaded in 1910 to take a seat in the House of Commons he carried on the good fight there and in 1912 he returned to the United States to extend it. When he went back to England he accepted the presidency of the English League for the Taxation of Land Values, which was at the point of making history when the war intervened.

As a colleague in Parliament of Winston Churchill, Sir Edward Grey, Lloyd George and Sir John Simon, he saw from behind-the-scenes how politicians, through secret treaties and crafty negotiations, involve their peoples in war. In 1914 he wrote his sensational expose, How Diplomats Make War. The merit of the book can be seen in its history; a fifth printing has just been issued and there have been editions in Swedish, German and French.

Returning to America in 1915, he settled down for good, starting the stream of serious works that have been of incalculable aid toward helping men free themselves of their chains. Among them, such works as The Old Freedom, The Eleventh Commandment, and Man at the Crossroads, must be accounted, powerful weapons in the struggle against the oppression of ignorance. More important still there was his collaboration in the old Freeman, that weekly journal of opinion which rallied into a cohesive force all thinking men and meanwhile set standards for weekly journalism to which our present-day journals, vainly for the most part, still aspire.

And now, in the midst of literary assignments, he has found time to join the general staff of the movement for the liberation of the free spirit of man, the board of trustees of the Henry George School of Social Science in New York, that self-sacrificing group of men and women who are responsible for the policies of the significant adult educational movement that the school has launched throughout the country. It is no new association for the group of thinking men and women who comprise the School, of course; Neilson's Control from the Top, and his Sociocratic Escapades appeared during its first years and profoundly stimulated their efforts. That they should now be more closely linked by the bonds of trusteeship is, I think, the natural outcome of that guiding principle, that credo, which has determined the course of the career of Francis Neilson.