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Henry George (1839-1897), Social Reformer
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America's Most Famous Forgotten Man

If dedication inspires you, check out the life of this thinker. You might not go on to experience all the adventures he had, but you might win more real world victories. An earlier version of this article appeared in The News-Press, Santa Barbara CA's major daily, on Labor Day in 1994.

by Jeffery J. Smith, 2 September 2011

While the issues of 1886 were similar to today's -- jobs, wages, benefits, working conditions -- the voters were different. A successful writer, as was Henry George, could become a working class hero. The factory worker of the last century, often less than a generation removed from the farm, understood the connection between available land and available jobs.

Henry George did not initiate his 1886 campaign for mayor of New York but was drafted by the unions. Even then he tried to avoid the pressures of a campaign by challenging the unions to collect 30,000 signatures in the few weeks before the filing deadline. The challenge seemed insurmountable; George felt safe. However, for his birthday, September 2, the workingmen broke all records in rising to the occasion. Henry George was their man.

The Republican candidate was Teddy Roosevelt (whose face now is on Mt. Rushmore). Later as president, TR borrowed a page from HG. Where George proposed sharing Earth, Roosevelt made Yosemite a park and signed the National Park Service into law. Where HG proposed shifting taxes from labor and capital to land, TR proposed a reform of the property tax so it'd fall less on improvements, more on location.

The Democrat was a puppet of Boss Crocker. Crocker, an acquitted murderer, headed the Tammany Hall political machine. Henry George outpolled both opponents, "upsetting all the plans of the powers that be," said Boss Crocker. The next morning, ballots for George could be seen floating down the Hudson River. Tammany Hall had fixed another election, making the Democrat mayor, a crime Boss Crocker confessed to on his deathbed 30 years later.

George may have been history's only populist economist. (While alive, Marx was not well-known outside of intellectual circles.) George authored Progress and Poverty (1879), the all-time best-selling work on economics in the English language. He proposed that society quit taxing human effort and start sharing the advantages of nature.

Born in Philadelphia in 1839, George ran away to sea at 14, saw Australia before it was colonized, saw the degradation of India where corpses rotted in streets and floated in the rivers, and prospected for gold in British Columbia.

Back in post-Gold Rush San Francisco, he married his first love, a young Australian of better means with whom he lived the rest of his life. On the brink of starvation while supporting his wife and kids, George was desperate enough to swallow his pride and go begging. If the one richly dressed man he stopped had not donated, George had been ready to mug him.

Working himself up from printer to newspaperman, George visited New York, representing his newspaper, to negotiate a deal with one of the major corporations of his day. The telegraph monopoly, Associated Press, refused to grant his paper a fair price. In the city, the wealthiest in the world, he was appalled and puzzled by the squalor amid the opulence.

George was a fiery orator, immensely important in an era before radio and television. At the peak of his fame, he was the third most popular public figure in America after Tom Edison and Mark Twain, who wrote an article for George's newspaper. For his critique of economics, George was offered a professorship at the University of California - Berkeley, despite being a high school dropout. Later, for his criticism of economists, the offer was rescinded.

Nicknamed the “Red Rooster”, George corresponded with and debated the famous figures of his era. He lectured to packed houses all over the world. In Ireland, where absentee English lords owned the country, George was arrested on trumped up charges and barely escaped with his life.

In 1897, George ran again for mayor of New York. Four days before the final election, this insomniac and chain-smoker of cigars collapsed on stage. The next day he died.

His funeral was the biggest ever accorded a private American citizen, surpassed only by those of Presidents Lincoln and Kennedy. To glimpse his coffin, 100,000 people lined the streets of New York City. The over-loaded transit system kept another 100,000 from entering Manhattan. It took all day for the procession to get to Brooklyn, where George's remains lie today.

His follower had some success. His son was elected to Congress. His granddaughter, Agnes de Mille, the choreographer, helped preserve his ideas. But times were changing. Society's focus was shifting urbanward, losing sight of the role of land in economies. Land became a blind spot for the public, while remaining the prime driver behind favor and fortune.

Modern Americans may yet rediscover George’s insights about the flow of payments for land and nature, how it creates winners and losers. Having lost so much -- environment, neighborhoods, commons, family time, economic opportunity and security -- more people are beginning to ask questions and seek answers about fairness. These open minds, know it or not, are bound to discover the Georgist understanding of how economies work, why they fail, and what we can do about it.

PS: For the latest on Georgist analysis, Australia's main daily, The Age, reviewed a documentary on land bubbles, "Real Estate 4 Ransom", by Prosper Australia that they called "arguably spot on. It’s also hard to argue the point that so much of the boom economy is based on perceptions of scarcity rather than reality." To see the review, click here .


Editor Jeffery J. Smith runs the Forum on Geonomics.

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