Movements for Change: Nationalists and Single Taxers

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Movements for Change: Nationalists and Single Taxers


Opposing Big Money. The rapid growth of monopolies, first in the railroads and then in basic industries such as oil refining and steel production, came as a shock to many Americans. As monopolies drove out small business by undercutting their prices, a deep-rooted suspicion of the concentration of wealth and power spread among American middle-class voters and consumers. During the 1880s and 1890s reformers offered a range of new solutions to the problem of rapid industrialization, hoping to restore a more harmonious balance between city and country, employers and employees, large and small businesses. Many hoped to distribute the nations expanding wealth more fairly and to dilute the concentration of power in the hands of a few corporations. Two of these reform movements came from individuals whose best-selling books galvanized readers across the country.

Henry George and the Single Tax. In 1871 Californian Henry George, a newspaperman and printer, published Our Land and Land Policy, a pamphlet in which he set out his doctrine of a single tax. George argued that land values rose not solely because owners made improvements on their land but also because population growth increased the demand for it. The amount of land could not be added to, and as more people competed to own a fixed amount of land, its value rose. George reasoned that a single tax on the increased land value, taxing what he called the unearned increment, would benefit society as a whole by sharply reducing the disparity between the wealthy and poor. George elaborated on his single tax in his best-selling book Progress and Poverty (1879). Soon, Single-Tax Clubs were established across the United States, attracting reformminded individuals who believed the single tax alone could restore a more egalitarian society. George himself twice ran unsuccessfully for mayor of New York City, dying in 1897 during his second attempt.


By most any account the White House was in a disgraceful state of disrepair at the end of the nineteenth century. The budget for maintenance of the presidents residence was appropriated by Congress, and testy legislators used that power to keep the chief executive humble. Presidents who protested ran the risk of seeming, in the electorates judgment, to have misplaced priorities. People may have thought that palaces were for kings, but the official presidential residence fell so far short of palatial splendor that some presidents were ashamed to entertain foreign heads of state there.

The White House, which seemed spacious in Jeffersons day, was uncomfortably cramped during the presidencies of Garfield, Cleveland, Harrison, and McKinley. Because the space was available years earlier, an array of bureaucratic offices had moved into the White House, with little regard for the presidents privacy or safety. Areas formerly reserved for guests were turned into offices. Because of its heavy use, the building required a high level of maintenance, which was neglected. The plumbing was archaic by post-Civil War standards; the ceilings sagged; and the walls reportedly creaked eerily, perhaps the result of the refurbishing that took place after the building was burned during the War of 1812. The house was also damp and drafty, causing illness and even deaths of some preCivil War presidents, in the view of Theodore Roosevelt, who insisted on remodeling after he took office in 1901.

Frances Cleveland complained about the dreariness of the presidential living quarters during her hus-bands first term; in 1886, his second year in office, she had married President Cleveland in the Blue Room, which had been substantially spruced up for the occasion. At the time there was a single telephone in the White House and a staff of seven, of whom five were assigned to help the first lady with the taxing responsibilities of entertaining a parade of dignitaries. Caroline Harrison, whose husband was chief executive between Clevelands two terms in office, complained more effectively. She got Congress to grant funds for interior renovations, including repair of hazardous wiring, and she had a telephone switchboard installed. She also got authorization to have an exterminator deal with the rats that infested the building. When Cleveland was elected to a second term in 1892, the living quarters were too cramped for his growing family. Mrs. Cleveland redecorated the Red Room and had the living quarters painted and newly wallpapered. Still, she was more comfortable else-where, and the Clevelands lived in their own home, except when official duties required the presidents presence on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Edward Bellamys Nationalist Vision. New Englander Edward Bellamy offered another solution to the problem of economic disparity. Bellamy believed that the process of forming monopolies was a natural one and would lead to an efficient, single corporate enterprise that could be operated in the national interest by the government. In 1888 Bellamy published a utopian novel, Looking Backward, 2000-1887, in which Julian West falls asleep in 1887 and wakes up in the year 2000 to discover that a new, just society has fully done away with the social and economic inequities of late-nineteenth-century industrialism. In the year 2000 all businesses have been Consolidated into a single enterprise operated by the government, and everyone finds suitable employment in the Industrial Army. Furthermore, every citizen accepts responsibility for his or her fellow citizens in mutual obligation of citizen to nation, and nation to citizen. Looking Backward became a best-seller, selling more than three hundred thousand copies within the first two years of its publication. In 1890 more than five hundred thousand Americans nationwide, including many leading reformers, belonged to Nationalist Clubs. Though the Nationalist and Single-Tax movements

faltered, their existence revealed Americans anxiety about the emerging industrial economy and the growing energies of political reform.


John L. Thomas, Alternative America: Henry George, Edward Bellamy, Henry Demorest Lloyd, and the Adversary Tradition (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983).