Henry George, a Life that Inspired a Movement
America’s Most Famous Forgotten Man
Henry George (1839-1897) Social Reformer
Pre-script: Even establishment entities, such as the Federal Reserve, occasionally feel compelled to tell the story of his life …
In 1886 in a hot union hall crowded with workingmen, the evening’s master of ceremonies called for quiet in order to introduce the Labor Party’s nominee for mayor of New York City. Having won the crowd’s attention, the mc proceeded to give the usual complimentary introduction.
As the party’s standard-bearer approached the podium, a strong voice hollered from the audience, “Hail Henry George, friend of the workingman!” The partisans applauded in enthusiastic accord. The candidate stopped in his tracks and turned to the assembly. As the din quieted down, he bellowed back, “I do not stand for the privileges of workingmen.”
Astonished, the unionists stood dumb struck, worried they’d been tricked. Tension filled the air. Henry George, a short but determined man, looked the surly faces over and hollered, “I stand for the rights of all men!” Instantly the rally broke into loud cheers and clapping. George went on to deliver one of the most memorable political speeches of the day.
While the issues of 1886 were similar to today’s – jobs, wages, benefits, work conditions – the voters were different. A successful writer, Henry George, became a working class hero. Altho’ a life-long member of the printers’ union and a friend of Samuel Gompers, founder of the AFL-CIO, George’s position was that laborer and capitalists were natural allies; their common enemy was the monopolizer of land. 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.
Lacking personal ambition, Henry George had not initiated his mayoral campaign 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.
Also running in the election was a Democrat, a puppet of Boss Crocker. Crocker, an acquitted murderer, headed the crooked Tammany Hall political machine. 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 improvement, more on location.
Henry George defeated both opponents, thereby in the words of Boss Crocker, “upsetting all the plans of the powers that be.” Tho’ winning more votes, George lost the election. The morning after, ballots for Henry George could be seen floating down the Hudson River. Tammany Hall had fixed another election, letting the Democrat become mayor, a crime Boss Crocker confessed to on his deathbed 30 years later.
Besides the temporal powers opposing George, so did secular ones. The Roman Catholic Church, the largest private landowner in the world, joined the fray. Among the many grassroots activists working on George’s campaign was a Catholic priest, devoted to the Old Testament idea of the earth belonging to all humankind. First the Vatican warned Father Ed McGlynn, then, when he continued campaigning, defrocked him. In an attempt to steal George’s thunder, Pope Leo XIII in 1891 released his own version of land reform in Rerum Novarum.
Why was Henry George so popular with voters and such anathema to the ruling elite? He stood for justice. He reasoned from logic. And he drove himself with tireless energy. He was a self-made American, not in business but in science, the field of political economy.
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 and popular in other languages, too. He proposed that society quit taxing human effort and start sharing the advantages of nature.
George explained the consequences of the closing of the frontier. Without free land to absorb “surplus” labor, wages would drop. And they did. He explained the nature of wages. It’s not, as was then thought, an advance from capital. It’s an earned current in the income stream. George warned that economic injustice must brew up demagogues, such as Adolf Hitler, and an underclass of “new barbarians”, as in today’s U.S. cities.
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.
The life of Henry George reads like a Hollywood script. Born in Philadelphia in 1839, he 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 worked as a printer then as a newspaperman. 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 a 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.
George first found fame for a eulogy he wrote upon the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln shared George’s views on the danger of over-concentration of landholding. When land-reformer Benito Juarez led the Mexican people against the French-imposed ruler, Maximilian, Henry George rallied a troop of militants to set sail for Mexico. Outside the port of San Francisco, they were turned back by the U.S. Coast Guard.
George was dubbed “The Prophet of San Francisco”, the city where he lived while writing Progress and Poverty and other articles that enshrined his name. George co-founded the San Francisco Public Library.
Representing his newspaper, George visited New York 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 moved by the squalor amid the opulence. Why the worsening poverty amid advancing technical competence? He turned the full powers of his intellect to solving the riddle. His remedy was the Single Tax on land values to end monopoly.
George was a fiery orator, immensely important in an era before radio and television. 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.
At the peak of his fame, George was the third most popular public figure in America after Tom Edison and Mark Twain who wrote an article for George’s newspaper. He corresponded with and debated the famous figures of his era.
Eventho’ an important public figure, George was a devoted family man. While a mature man away from home on the lecture circuit, he wrote passionate love letters to wife of 30 years.
In 1897, George ran again for mayor of New York. His doctor warned him that the strain would kill him. Tho’ in poor health, George continued to chain-smoke cigars. Four days before the final election, George collapsed on stage. The next day he died.
Eulogies began to pour in from all around the world, straight from the gallery of the greats. 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.
Next generation, some of his supporters succeeded in politics. 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 investment of the rich.
Even more so than in George’s day, de-taxing labor would benefit workers. Today in the U.S., the average American works from January 1 to mid May to pay off all the obvious and hidden taxes. While no longer a working class hero, unions could do worse than to remember kindly Henry George and his remedy – de-tax effort, de-tax earnings, and collect Earth’s worth for social advancement.