Henry George

Milton Rugoff

[Chapter 9, "Critics and Cassandras" from the book America's Gilded Age,
published by Henry Holt and Company, 1989]

There were of course many Americans who were not content with their lot in the Gilded Age. Some languished on worked-out New England farms, others in the slums of cities and towns, in the hovels of poor whites and freed blacks in the South, in the log cabins of backwoodsmen or on homesteads on the prairie. Some were resigned to their fate or clung stubbornly to hopes and dreams. Others simmered with unfocused resentment or vented their grievances at local meetings or in petitions to their legislators. Only a few began, in farmers' granges, the early labor unions, or in the abolitionist or women's rights movement to join in some form of organized protest.

If such people were discontented, it was the discontent of the economically or socially deprived. But there were others, admittedly few, who enjoyed all or most of the benefits of the social system yet were deeply disturbed by the values and practices that were reshaping American life. Such critics, faced by the prevailing conviction that America was the best of all possible worlds, hardly achieved anything like the scope or influence of such European radicals as Marx, Engels, or Louis Blanc, and somewhat less than such English dissidents as Carlyle, Ruskin, and William Morris. The Americans were for the most part voices crying out not in a wilderness but in something like a county fair.

The most famous of the political economists was Henry George. His campaigns against the increasing concentration of wealth and on behalf of working people were the most systematic and intense of any American critic of his time. Although almost entirely self-educated, George achieved a grasp of economic problems and an acquaintance with history that would have done credit to a university-trained authority.

Although George's parents were people of some education, Henry, a bright, energetic youth, left high school after only a few months. He was scarcely sixteen when, in 1855, fascinated by the great sailing ships in the Philadelphia wharves, he left home and, like a number of Victorian youths of good families, went to sea. He sailed as a cabin boy on a merchant ship bound for Australia and India and was away for fourteen months. In Melbourne, when members of the crew asked for a discharge -- they wanted to go prospecting in the goldfields -- the captain had them arrested. Such incidents explain why, years later, as an editor of a San Francisco newspaper, George became known for his defense of seamen's rights. The rough life of deck and forecastle and what he saw in India of the extremes of poverty and riches sowed the seeds of many of his later views. On his return to Philadelphia, George found work as an apprentice typesetter, a training that was as much of an education to him as it would be to Walt Whitman and Mark Twain. But after his independence as a sailor, the restrictions put upon him at home, especially by his puritanical mother, led him, in December 1857, to ship out as a storekeeper on a steamer going around Cape Horn to San Francisco.

George found San Francisco alive with excitement over reports of gold in the Fraser River across the Canadian border. Infected by the gold hunters' fever, he hurried north but soon found that little gold was being brought out. Drifting back to San Francisco, he moved from job to job, setting type, working in a rice mill, and, although far from robust, doing farm labor. Returning to typesetting, he was admitted to the local typographical union and began earning a journeyman's wages. But he now wanted to work for himself, and in April i86i he and several other printers bought the San Francisco Evening Journal. Although they worked tirelessly, they could not compete with newspapers that received dispatches by the new transcontinental telegraph. After only eight months the partnership was dissolved.

He was now faced by another crisis: he had fallen in love with Annie Fox, an eighteen-year-old Australian girl who had been orphaned and was living with an uncle in California. The uncle, a prosperous, strong-minded man, was understandably opposed to his niece's penniless suitor. But George was an ardent wooer and the couple, defying Uncle Matthew, eloped, with Henry dressed in a borrowed suit and Annie bringing only a packet of books. Despite such a troubled beginning, the marriage would be marked by a lifetime of love and mutual respect.

Years of intermittent employment and chronic debt followed. George became so desperate when his wife was pregnant with their second child and they had no food in the house that he decided one morning to somehow get money from the first person he met. As he recalled many years later, "I stopped a man -- a stranger -- and told him I wanted $5. He asked what I wanted it for. I told him that my wife was confined and that I had nothing to give her to eat. He gave me the money. If he had not, I think I was desperate enough to have killed him."

At twenty-six, an insatiable reader and stimulated by what he had learned in printing shops, he began to write. Among his first efforts was a long letter to a labor journal warning against the tendency of the press to "pander to wealth and power" and of society "to resolve itself into classes who have too much or too little." Although strongly opposed to slavery, family obligations kept him from enlisting in the Union army. But the assassination of Lincoln moved him to write so impassioned a eulogy on the fallen President that a paper for which he had set type, the Alta California, featured it, and then engaged him to write several special articles. Almost overnight he was launched on his career as a journalist, serving as an editorial writer on the San Francisco Times and then as its managing editor.

Soon he found his major theme as a writer. In an article in The Overland Monthly, a journal edited by that new star on the western literary horizon, Bret Harte, he pointed up the widening gap between rich and poor, writing,

One millionaire involves the existence of just so many proletarians. …We need not look far from the palace to find the hovel. When people can charter special steamboats to take them to watering places . . . build marble stables for their horses, and give dinner parties which cost . . . a thousand dollars a head, we may know that there are poor girls on the streets pondering between starvation and dishonor.

George also began the first of his many battles against entrenched interests. The San Francisco Herald, unable to compete against the monopolistic news service run jointly by the Associated Press and Western Union, sent George to New York to set up an independent service. But Western Union soon raised its rate on dispatches from George's service and forced him out of business. The episode added a bitter personal note to his quarrel with all monopolies.

A blot on George's growing record as a defender of human rights was an article in which he joined the West Coast chorus, led by labor, against the admission of Chinese immigrants. To George, both as a union member and a student of economics, the immigrants, mostly men who came to work on contract for "coolie wages" and then returned home, were simply a disruptive factor. He ccnceded that as individuals they might be intelligent and teachable, but he echoed the most bigoted nativists when he said that as a group they were "utter heathens," treacherous, cruel, and filthy. He later acknowledged that this attack was crude, but he never repudiated it.

While in New York, George was appalled by the contrast between monstrous wealth and debasing want." In his travels across America he was also struck by the tremendous rise in land values. Once, while riding through the California hills on his mustang pony, he was astonished to learn that a landowner was asking $1,000 an acre. In a flash, as he describes it, he concluded that "with the growth of population, land grows in value, and the men who work it must pay more for the privilege." Inspired by this conclusion, he wrote a pamphlet, Our Land and Land Values, printed a thousand copies, and gave away most of them. It contained the kernels of his future masterwork, Progress and Poverty: all land is the gift of nature and should belong to all; increases in the value of land are unearned; therefore the fairest tax is a tax on land values.

Determined to spread the message, George and two other newspapermen established the San Francisco Evening Post in 1871. It attacked corrupt officials and monopolies and called constantly for an exclusive tax on land. It was only a four-page paper, but it lasted four years and earned George the post of secretary of the California delegation to the Democratic National Convention in Baltimore in 1872. He added to his influence by helping elect William S. Irwin governor of California. When, after leaving the Post, he sought a state job that would leave him time for the major work he was planning, the governor appointed him state inspector of gas meters.

At home George was a devoted father and husband, close to his children and confiding constantly in his wife. Although he belonged to no church -- perhaps a reaction to the excessive piety of his mother -- he was in spirit a religious man, insisting that social injustice, not a vengeful God, was responsible for mankind's burdens.

A speech George made at a major rally for Samuel Tilden in the 1876 presidential race went off so well that he became the principal speaker in the California campaign. Even more remarkable was his emergence as the leading candidate for the first professorship of political economy at the University of California. But when he delivered a lecture at the university in which he referred to the "learned fools" produced by colleges and criticized political economists for opposing every effort of working people to increase their wages and reduce their hours of work, he failed to get the appointment. The university authorities evidently did not relish being told that

the blasphemous dogma that the Creator has condemned one portion of his creatures to lives of toil and want, while he has intended another portion to enjoy "all the fruits of the earth and the fullness thereof" has been preached to the working classes in the name of political economy, just as "cursed-be-Ham" clergymen used to preach the divine sanction of slavery.

But he was deeply disappointed when he was denied the position.

With each article and speech, George cut deeper and wider. His concern with the larger economic problems was spurred by the nationwide depression and violent railroad strikes that staggered America in the late 1870s. It was also a difficult time personally for George: a fourth child, Anna, was born in 1877 -- she would become the mother of Agnes de Mille, the famous dancer and choreographer -- and income from his gas meter inspections declined as hard times reduced the number of meters.

It was in this atmosphere that he began writing Progress and Poverty. Working feverishly, he finished it in eighteen months. Several publishers in the United States and England turned it down because they thought it too "aggressive" or not salable. Finally he had a printer friend set it in type and plated. With this major expense covered, D. Appleton & Company agreed to publish it. Progress and Poverty had an extraordinary impact because of its immense conviction, moral fervor, patient detail, and its aim, at least in tone, at the common reader. Its main point, that landowners reaped unearned profit from every rise in the value of land and that a single tax on land would make all other taxes unnecessary, struck most readers as a revelation, even though the French Physiocrats, Herbert Spencer, and others had proposed it many years before. The weakness in George's approach was that he focused more on the agrarian society that was passing away than on the industrial society that was emerging. Thus he spoke of land as the source of all wealth and the private ownership of land as the chief obstacle to ending poverty. He deplored the "insane desire to get rich at any cost," and asserted that what drove men to "working, scheming, striving … long after every possible need is satisfied … [is] the sense that their wealth … makes them men of mark in the community."

Noting that Darwin's theories were encouraging an unlimited confidence in mankind's progress, he insisted that there were signs everywhere of corruption, imminent chaos, and decay: "The pillars of the state are trembling . . . and the very foundations of society quiver with pent-up forces that glow underneath! The struggle that must either revivify, or convulse in ruin, is near." Like a revivalist preacher, he terrified his audience with threats of doom and then lifted them up with a vision of a masterly economic solution.

The ultimate success of Progress and Poverty was astonishing, the publishers claiming that it had the largest circulation of any nonfiction work before 1900 except for the Bible. Not only were millions of readers with no previous interest in political economy captured by his arguments but in the coming years large audiences would welcome George on his lecture tours in America, England, and Australia, and such world figures as Sun Yat-sen, George Bernard Shaw, and Leo Tolstoy would testify to his influence.

Curiously, among both George's supporters and critics were people of distinctly conflicting views. Some conservatives went along with George because of his laissez-faire views of government control, his defense of businessmen's profits, and his opposition to all taxes except the one on land. But they attacked his land-tax and saw it as a first step toward the expropriation of all commercial property. They also pointed out that some land was owned by workingmen who had earned it by toil and sweat.

Radicals hailed George's plan because it was a tax on "unearned increment." But they faulted his program for not seeking to take over all the means of production and for not using a tax on wealth to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor. Some of George's basic assumptions and prophecies have, moreover, not stood the test of time. Challenging his prediction that wages would continue to fall, economists have argued that labor's share of the national income has remained fairly stable. They have also rejected his claim that a land tax alone would pay for all the services of governments and have challenged his charge that strikes are destructive and that a graduated income tax would lead to bribery and evasion.

When George, a year after publishing Progress and Poverty, moved to New York with the hope of getting a newspaper post there, he wrote to a friend, "I am afloat at 42, poorer than at 21." Despite the huge sale of his major work, he made only a few hundred dollars a year from it -- many copies were sold in very cheap editions - and not much more from his lectures.

Long troubled by the plight of the Irish people in their struggle with poverty and English rule, George published a pamphlet, The Irish Land Question, in 1881. It described Ireland as a conquered nation suffering from the same baneful land system that "prevails in all civilized countries." One result of the pamphlet was his engagement by the Irish World, a New York newspaper, to make a lecture tour in Ireland. Arriving in Ireland late in 1881, George and his wife became so friendly with Michael Lavitt, the militant rebel leader, that he was repeatedly detained and questioned by the police. Crossing over to England - it was the first of six increasingly successful tours he would make there between 1882 and 1890 - George attracted much attention by openly encouraging the radical land nationalization movement. On his return to New York he was welcomed by labor unions at Cooper Union and was the guest of honor at a banquet given by prominent citizens at Delmonico's.

Greatly encouraged, George pressed his attack on poverty, asserting, in Social Problems (1883), that there would be enough for everyone were it not for the failure of America to make full use of its labor resources. Carried away by his own fervor, he indulged in such sensational generalizations as:

The experiment of popular government in the United States is clearly a failure. …Our government by the people has in large degree become . . . government by the strong and unscrupulous. …In some sections bribery has become chronic, and numbers of voters expect regularly to sell their votes. …In many places it [the party machine] has become so strong that the ordinary citizen has no more influence . . . than he would have in China. . . . In our national Senate, sovereign members of the Union are supposed to be represented; but what are more truly represented are railroad kings and great moneyed interests. …And the bench . . . is being filled with corporate henchmen.

So great had George's reputation grown by 1886 that the labor unions of New York City invited him to become their candidate for mayor. Many years later George revealed that the Tammany bosses in New York, seeing a grave threat to their rule, guaranteed him a seat in Congress if he would withdraw. They declared that he could not win the mayoralty race but that his participation in it would "raise hell." George answered that he did not want the mayor's office but did hope to raise hell.

The campaign was a hectic one, with George making as many as fourteen speeches a day. His platform featured a steep tax on all unused land. All the major newspapers opposed him, calling him an "apostle of anarchy" and a dangerous fanatic who preached socialism, communism, and nihilism. The Democratic candidate, Abram Hewitt, a respected congressman, won the race with 90,000 votes, but George received 68,000 votes and came in ahead of a young politico named Theodore Roosevelt.

Annoyed by the charges that he was a socialist, George made clear how much he disagreed with socialism in his response to a papal encyclical, "The Condition of Labour." In his Open Letter to Pope Leo XIII (1891), he protested that the encyclical "gives the gospel to the labourers and the earth to the landlords," and then added:

We differ from the socialists in our diagnosis of the evil and … as to remedies. We have no fear of capital, regarding it as the natural handmaiden of labor; we look on interest as natural and just; we would set no limit to accumulation, nor impose on the rich any burden that is not equally placed on the poor; we . . . deem unrestricted competition to be as necessary as the free circulation of the blood. …We would simply take for the community . . . the value that attaches to land by the growth of the community.

Such statements left radicals confirmed in their view that George advocated only a slightly modified form of capitalism.

In 1890 George agreed to go on a lecture tour in Australia, drawn to it by its progressive government. It was a triumphal jaunt, but it lasted over three months and so exhausted him that on his return to America he suffered a stroke. He recovered quickly and soon plunged into his last major work, The Science of Political Economy. Left unfinished at his death, it is a massive patchwork summary of his economic and philosophic views. One of its most aggressive passages is another attack on professors of political economy. He accuses them of misrepresenting Progress and Poverty or treating it as beneath contempt, but he stoops to gratuitous insult when he charges that their criticism results from their loyalty to the "pecuniary interests" that support them.

It seemed to George, as to many progressive-minded individuals, that the century was closing in darkness and that the democratic principles that had triumphed with the election of Jefferson in 1800 were being overwhelmed a century later by the Hamiltonian faith in plutocracy and aristocracy. As his health failed, and especially after the death of Jennie, his thirty-year-old daughter, he came to feel that "life was a strife" filled with as many defeats as victories.

In a surprising display of confidence in George's leadership, several Democratic factions urged him in 1897 to run once again for mayor of New York. Despite warnings by his physician that a major campaign could prove fatal, he felt that it was his duty to run. His motive, he confided to his wife, was that his election would thrust his doctrines into the arena of world politics. At the height of the campaign he made thirty speeches in twelve days. The result was another stroke and his death five days before the election.

Henry George was an evangelist preaching faith not in a religious creed - although he would say, "There never was a holier cause" - but in a single economic measure. A visionary in the guise of an economist, he was dedicated to convincing mankind that the poor could be freed from their bondage and that governments could be financed entirely through one master stroke of legislation.

George's influence came from the seeming simplicity of his proposal and his passionate sympathy for the working classes. Most of all it came at a time when America had been confronted with a race of plutocrats who seemed able to subvert the system to their own advantage. But George's proposals, like most panaceas, were based on unsupported assumptions and an oversimplification of the problems of an industrial society.

Perhaps it was his very lack of formal education along with his experience of toil and poverty that enabled him to perceive the inequity in one of the oldest and most common economic arrangements - the private ownership of land - and to communicate with a larger audience than had been reached by any other social critic except Thomas Paine.