The Menace of Privilege Chapter One first half
|December 11, 2001||Posted by Staff under Archive, Progress Report, The Progress Report|
The Menace of Privilege, by Henry George Jr.
We are pleased to present, in its entirety, a very rare yet significant book written by former Congressman Henry George Jr. This bold, privilege-bashing book, full of careful analysis, was published in 1905, before George ran for Congress — yet the forces of privilege were unable to stop democracy from advancing George to his years of service in that body.
The Progress Report has already published, months ago, George’s excellent preface to his book. We recommend that you read it first by clicking here. Each Thursday we will present a new installment. Your comments and reactions are, as always, humbly sought and welcomed.
Hanno T. Beck, Publisher
THE LAND OF INEQUALITY
NOTHING can be more surprising to the thoughtful observer than the social inequality existing in the United States–a country which Mr. Bryce says Europeans early in the nineteenth century deemed to be preëminently the land of equality; which inspired De Tocqueville’s descriptions and speculations; and which provoked Americans themselves to constant boastings.
Except for the slaves and Indians, there was at the beginning of the Republic full political and approximate social equality. The country was new and unappropriated. Beyond the narrow rim of settlement along the Atlantic seaboard lay the free, virgin and seemingly illimitable West. All who would might come; and coming, could find opportunity to make for themselves and their families an independent, if rugged, living. The American Commonwealth was then in the pioneer stage. Few material privileges existed. Nature, being for the most part unappropriated, offered her milk and honey freely and bountifully to all.
Work was the rule. It was the common means of subsistence, the badge of responsibility and respectability. The printer, Benjamin Franklin, the surveyor, George Washington, the lawyer, Thomas Jefferson, the sailor, John Paul Jones, the merchant, John Hancock, were American types of manhood and practical citizenship. “In America people do not ask, ‘What is he?’ but ‘What can he do?’” wrote Franklin in 1782, while representing the Republic in Europe. “In short,” he continued, “land being cheap in that country, from the vast forests still void of inhabitants, and not likely to be occupied in an age to come, in so much that the property of a hundred acres of fertile soil full of wood may he obtained near the frontiers (in many places, for eight or ten guineas) hearty young laboring men who understand the husbandry of corn and cattle, which is nearly the same in that country as in Europe, may easily establish themselves there. A little money saved of the good wages they receive there while they work for others enables them to buy the land and begin the plantation, in which they are assisted by the good will of their neighbors and some credit. Multitudes of poor people from England, Ireland, Scotland and Germany have by this means in a few years become [relatively] wealthy farmers, who, in their own countries, where all the lands were fully occupied and the wages of labor low, could never have emerged from the poor condition wherein they were born.” (“Information to those who would remove to America,” Franklin’s Writings, Bigelow Edition, Vol. VIII, pp. 175-176.)
The precepts of industry, honesty and thrift of Franklin’s “Poor Richard’s Almanac” pointed to the almost certain road to competence and respite from toil in old age. And even though this meant living in the pioneer state for many, it did not mean want and suffering. “In every part of North America,” wrote Franklin in 1788, while President of the Supreme Council, virtually Governor, of Pennsylvania, “necessaries of life are cheaper than in England. Scarcity is unknown there. . . . The price of labor in money being higher than in England, and provisions cheaper, the actual wages, that is, the amount of necessary articles which the day laborer can buy, is so much the greater.” (“Reflections on the Augmentation of Wages which will be occasioned in Europe by the American Revolution,” Franklin’s Writings, Bigelow Edition, Vol. X, p. 53.)
And thus, while the mass of men by their labor could obtain a living that afforded all the necessaries and many of the comforts of life, with independence and self-respect, there were no private fortunes as we speak of private fortunes to-day. “The truth is,” said Franklin, “that though there are in that country few people so miserable as the poor of Europe, there are also very few that in Europe would be called very rich; it is rather a happy mediocrity that prevails. There are few great proprietors of the soil and few tenants. Most people cultivate their own lands, or follow some handicraft or merchandise, and few are rich enough to live idly upon their rents and incomes.” (Franklin’s Writings, Bigelow Edition, Vol. VIII, p. 172.)
John Adams, writing to a friend in Massachusetts at the time of Washington’s election as commander-in-chief in 1775, described the latter as “a gentleman of one of the finest fortunes upon the continent.” Washington’s Virginia plantations, his homestead at Mount Vernon, his slaves, and his lots in the future city of Washington were the chief parts of his possessions, and were worth perhaps half a million dollars. He had, moreover, various tracts of land in other parts of Virginia, and also in Pennsylvania, New York, Kentucky and the Northwest Territory. It is probable that, all told, his estate was at the time of his death worth about three-quarters of a million — a considerable fortune in those days of general equality, but comparatively no fortune at all in these days.
John Hancock was reputed to be the richest man in Massachusetts at the Revolutionary period. His uncle, Thomas Hancock, with whom John was in partnership in a mercantile business, died in 1764, leaving to John, immediately and collaterally, property and enterprises judged to be worth not less than $350,000, one of the largest fortunes acquired in Boston up to that date. John Hancock was then twenty-seven. Like his uncle, he was a money-maker, but against his gains lie suffered heavy losses preceding and during the Revolution. It is probable that at his death, in 1793, at the age of fifty-six, he was not much richer than his uncle’s’ will had made him; say, something more than $350,000.
Thus we have two instances of the richest men in the early days of the Republic: George Washington in the South, worth three-quarters of a million; John Hancock in the North, worth a third of a million. Although we should not think of classing them among the wealthy men of our day, there were then but few comparable with them. The standard of what constituted riches was low.
On the other hand, real poverty was casual and nowhere deep or chronic. The reason of this was plain. The easy access to land made it a comparatively simple matter for all men to get subsistence. Because of this accessibleness to good land, wages were high — much higher than in Europe, as Adam Smith in the “Wealth of Nations” points out (Book 1, Chap. VIII). Whenever any were dissatisfied with the wages obtained by following trades or in working in any way for others, they could, as Thomas Jefferson said, quit such vocations, take up some land, and “go to laboring the earth” for themselves. (Letter to J. Lithgow. Jefferson’s Writings, Ford Edition, Vol. III, p. 269, note.)
Benjamin Franklin bears the same testimony. In a brief essay written before the Revolution he asserted that, notwithstanding the rapid increase of population both by births and immigration, “so vast is the territory of North America, that it will require many ages to settle it fully, and, till it is fully settled, labor will never be cheap here, where no man continues long a laborer for others, but gets a plantation of his own; no man continues long a journeyman to a trade, but goes among those new settlers and sets up for himself, etc. Hence labor is not cheaper now in Pennsylvania than it was thirty years ago, though so many thousand laboring men have been imported.” (“Observations concerning the Increase of Mankind and the Peopling of Countries,” Franklin’s Writings, Bigelow Edition, vol. IV, p. 225.)
This “importing” of labor, to which Franklin refers, arose from the very high wages demanded for continuous service. Laborers were brought from Europe under indentures binding them to their employers for terms of from one to five years. The exchange of American for European conditions was most advantageous. (M. Meusnier submitted to Thomas Jefferson proof-sheets of an article on the United States which be proposed to publish in the “Encyclopédie PoIitique.” On the proofs Jefferson wrote some notes, among which he said, June 22, 1786: “Indented servants formed a considerable supply. These were poor Europeans who went to America to settle themselves. . . . So desirous are the poor of Europe to get to America, where they may better their conditions, that, being unable to pay their passage, they will agree to serve two or three years on their arrival there, rather than not go. During the time of that service they are better fed, better clothed, and have lighter labor than while in Europe. Continuing to work fur hire for a few years longer, they buy a farm, marry, and enjoy alI the sweets of a domestic society of their own.” Jefferson’s Writings, Ford Edition, Vol. IV, p. 159.)
This practice continued for many years. On the ground of economy and certainty, Washington in 1792 advised the use of this expedient in engaging laborers to work upon the public buildings, grounds and streets of the Federal capital city on the Potomac River which Congress had ordered to be built and to bear his name. (Letter to the Commissioners of the Federal District, Ford’s “The Writings of George Washington,” Vol. XII, p. 215.) Not only were wages and the standard of living among laborers higher in America than in Europe, but there was little poverty and little crime. Such poor as existed were taken care of. “From Savannah [Georgia] to Portsmouth [New Hampshire],” said Jefferson, “you will seldom meet a beggar. In the large towns, indeed, they sometimes present themselves. They are usually foreigners who have never obtained a settlement in any parish, I never yet saw a native American begging in the streets and highways.”(“Notes on Virginia,” Jeffersoft’s Writings, Ford Edition, Vol. III, p. 239.)
And several years later, while Minister to France, Jefferson explained to one of his French friends that in the ten years of his attendance as student and practitioner at the bar of the Supreme Court of Virginia there, never was a trial for robbery on the high road, and that he never heard of one in any of the other States, except in the cities of New York and Philadelphia immediately after the departure of the British army, “when some deserters infested those cities for a time.” (Letter to M. Claviere, Jefferson’s Writings, Ford Edition, Vol . IV, p. 402.)
It is to be admitted that Franklin deplored the “emptying out” of the jails of Europe upon us, for some of the European cities transported their long-term prisoners to America both before and after the Revolution. But many of these prisoners had been political offenders and the large majority of those guilty of other crimes soon buried their past in the habits of industrious and law-abiding citizenship. In this land of promise they commenced new and better lives.
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