Francis Neilson and the Runnymede Tradition
[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
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
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.