The Prophet of San Francisco

Louis F. Post

[Condensed from The Prophet of San Francisco, published in Chicago, 1904]

Henry George was born in Philadelphia on 2nd September, 1839. Passing from the public school into the high school, he remained in the latter only five months. He worked for two years as an office boy, after which at the age of sixteen he shipped as a sailor before the mast on board an East Indiaman. Having made a voyage as far as Australia and back, he learned the printers' trade in Philadelphia and then went to sea again.

His voyages brought him to California. From San Francisco he worked his way to British Columbia to join the gold-seeking adventurers of 1858 on the Frazer River. The expedition failed and he returned to San Francisco, where he soon afterwards married and where all his children were born.

For many years he endured galling poverty, which could not be charged to indolence or thriftlessness. He was a hard worker, and was given to no vices unless smoking is a vice. As he began to use his pen, however, his circumstances improved. For this change he was well equipped. During all the years since his withdrawal from the Philadelphia High School he had read widely, and had trained himself by close study and arduous practice in clear and forcible as well as inspired writing on serious subjects.

In a visit he paid to New York in the late '60's, his mind was fully awakened to the enormity of the social problem. As the centre of American progress, New York was to his patriotic imagination the place where the beneficent effects of progress should be most pronounced and most plainly visible. Whoever knows New York from the inside can appreciate the depth of his disappointment. Material prosperity he found, not only up to his expectations but far beyond them. Wealth was abundant and comfort luxurious. But the wealth was not distributed; the comfort was not diffused. At one extreme were fabulous riches; at the other was poverty so degrading that its victims had lost all hope of escape and much of the desire for it; while between the two were a harrowing fear and a paralysing dread of poverty which seemed worse if possible than poverty itself.

George's literary abilities were recognized by Noah Brooks, who called him in 1866 from a printer's case on the San Francisco Times to a reporter's desk. In a little while the new reporter had become an editorial writer for the paper; and, under the editor-in-chief who succeeded Brooks, had risen in six months to the post of managing editor. He wrote also for the magazines, and an article in the Overland Monthly in 1868 gave the first indication of the views with which his name was later to be associated.

At the end of 1871 George with the aid of William M. Hinton established the San Francisco Evening Post. It was the first paper west of the Rockies to sell at one cent. The success of the newspaper was so great that the resources of the proprietors were strained, and with their limited capital they were unable to enlarge the plant. A millionaire senator offered to lend the money required. After the paper had been running successfully for four years, at a time of temporary financial stringency in San Francisco, the senator demanded instant repayment of his loan or immediate possession of the paper. The reason for this was not a business one. Tight as money was with others it was not so with him. He offered to continue George in the editorship on condition that he reversed its policy toward the Pacific railroad ring and supported that monopoly. George declined the offer.

Later, Governor Irwin appointed him to a post in a State department. It gave him comparative leisure, and he applied himself industriously from August, 1877, till March, 1879, to the writing of Progress and Poverty.

At first his manuscript was rejected by publishers, and he was compelled to resort to an author's edition, much of the type of which he himself set. This brought at last one publisher's offer in the United States, and that brought one from England. The book went slowly at first but soon gained headway, and within four years it had sold to the extent of hundreds of thousands of copies in both countries. It has been translated into nearly every civilized tongue.

The Irish Land Question, now called The Land Question, soon followed. After that Social Problems appeared. This is a series of essays which were first published in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper. His next book was Protection or Free Trade. It had been delayed by the loss of the manuscript when the first draft was nearly completed. Some years later came The Condition of Labour, an open letter to Pope Leo XIII in reply to his Encyclical on Labour. His next book was A Perplexed Philosopher, a criticism of Herbert Spencer and a review of his philosophy in so far as it concerned the land question. Finally, but not until after the author's death, The Science of Political Economy was published by his son.

In 1881 George moved from San Francisco to New York. Afterwards he travelled through England, Scotland, Ireland and Australia, speaking before large audiences in all those countries.

In 1886 he became the candidate of the labour organizations of New York for Mayor of that city. His nomination was made in response to a petition signed by 34,000 voters. Alarmed by this, the two branches of the Democratic Party sank their differences to nominate Abram S. Hewitt. The election resulted in a victory for Hewitt with 90,552 votes. Theodore Roosevelt, afterwards President of the United States, received 60,435; George received at least 68,110 - but his friends had good reason to believe that the corrupt electoral machine had him counted out.
In 1897 on the creation of Greater New York he became again the candidate of the labour organizations to oppose Tammany Hall. The incessant exertions of writing, travelling and speaking had greatly enfeebled him. His doctor warned him that the campaign in all probability would be fatal to him. Yet he went into the fight partly because the working men urged him to it, and partly because he believed that his candidacy would save the city from dishonour and would promote the cause that was always uppermost in his mind.

The strain was too great. Early in the morning of 29th October, 1897, four days before the election, the end came. He had spoken at several meetings the previous evening. At one the chairman introduced him as "the great friend of labour." George was no demagogue. He played neither to the gallery nor to the boxes. Coming feebly forward, his voice gaining power, however, and expanding till it filled the hall, he exclaimed: "I have never claimed to be a special friend of labour. Let us have done with this call for special privileges for labour. Labour does not want special privileges. I have never advocated nor asked for special rights or special sympathy for working men. What I stand for is the equal rights of all men."


This account is mainly condensed from The Prophet of San Francisco, by Louis F. Post, Chicago, 1904.