George, Henry

views updated May 23 2018

George, Henry


Henry George (1839–1897) grew up in Phila delphia. As the author of Progress and Poverty he became one of the most telling speakers for social protest anywhere in the world. His father was the son of an English immigrant who had succeeded as a shipper; his mother’s family had settled in the city before the Revolution. His father, a Democrat, was a customhouse clerk and for some years a publisher of Episcopalian sunday-school books; he sought to cultivate in his family both Democratic and low-church loyalties. Politically, young Henry George differed from his parents in that he was strongly opposed to slavery and voted Republican during the Civil War and the early Reconstruction period. However, he never abandoned his Episco palian sympathies: his lifelong belief in the triumph of justice secularized the millennial hope that he had learned as a youngster.

George’s family had little money to spare, and he left school when he was only 13. How ever, the deprivations he suffered were no worse than those of any child in a large family on a white-collar income. He learned how hard life could be for workingmen when, at age 15, shipping to India as a cabin boy, he witnessed a sailors’ mutiny. For George himself the trip was pure adventure. His next long voyage, in 1857, which took him to California, was also inspired by restlessness rather than financial need. It was not until he had been in California for about seven years and was responsible for supporting a wife and two children that his inability to find steady work as a printer made him directly aware of the desperation of poverty.

George’s journalistic career began with a job on the San Francisco Alta California in 1865; subse quently he worked on several other San Francisco papers, the Times, the Chronicle, and the Herald. In the late 1860s he returned to the Democratic party and became an adviser to Henry H. Haight, the state’s governor who was crusading against monopoly. Haight put George in charge of the Sacramento Reporter, a party organ, but in 1871 George returned to San Francisco as founder, proprietor, and editor of the independent Democratic Daily Evening Post. As a business venture (George’s only one), the paper failed, but it was a journalistic success. It provided George with the first platform from which he was able to develop fully his critical and reformist ideas.

George’s experience with journalists and journalism made him familiar with some of the problems of California’s spectacular and troubled economy, but it was several years before he found the “solution” to these problems. When he was still a printer in Sacramento, James McClatchy, the famous editor of the Sacramento Bee, acquainted him with the nation’s homestead policy and the frustrations of that policy. On the San Francisco Times, George fought against private domination of land ownership, arguing that as a legal entity the city of San Francisco had the true ownership of the land it occupied, by devolution of title from the king of Spain through the pueblo of San Fran cisco. This claim was put forward with some success to reduce the claims of land-grabbers and speculators.

While working for the Herald, George came face to face with a more general problem, that of technological monopoly. The paper sent him to New York to obtain contracts for telegraphing the news from the Associated Press by way of Western Union. The failure of the negotiations appeared to George to jeopardize the freedom of the press. Deeply disturbed, he experienced “a thought, a vision, a call,” and dedicated himself to combat the evil and want he had observed in New York. A few months later he had a second “vision.” Riding in the foothills above Oakland, he looked down on the flatland near San Francisco Bay, which the trans continental railroad had fantastically increased in value. “Like a flash it came upon me that there was the reason of advancing poverty with advancing wealth. With the growth of population, land grows in value, and the men who work it must pay for the privilege” (quoted in The Life of Henry George, by Henry George, Jr. [1871-1900] 1906-1911, vols. 9-10, p. 210).

As early as 1870, when he attributed to every man a “natural right” to a parcel of the earth’s sur face, George had begun to convert his reformist convictions into economic formulas. In 1871 his pamphlet Our Land and Land Policy (1871-1900, vol. 8) appeared, which was sizable enough to be considered his first book. It is a classic of economic criticism. George denounced both the prodigality of the national government in giving away the arable domain and that of the California state gov ernment, which permitted speculators to acquire much of the best land. He reasoned that in spite of past errors the homestead policy could yet be made to succeed if oversize holdings already granted were reduced by land taxes or inheritance taxes. Although he still accepted private property in land as a useful institution, George began to insist that “in nature” there is “no such thing as fee simple in land.” The following year, in the Daily Evening Post, he carried this crucial limitation on land ownership a step further: “The land of a country rightfully belongs to all the people of that country; …there is no justification for private property in land except the general convenience and benefit; …private rights in land should always be held subordinate to the general good” (Barker 1955, pp. 176-177).

Gradually George systematized his economic ideas. Some time in the 1860s in Sacramento he had attended a meeting on the protective tariff, a policy in which he had long believed, and he had made an impromptu speech against the tariff. Free trade thus became his first publicly announced economic doctrine, and one from which he never departed; in the Post he was to advocate it repeatedly and dogmatically.

He opposed land monopoly because it denied free and just access to the bounties of earth; concerning the new natural monopolies which had been created by technology he felt differently. He demanded in the Post that the latter be transferred from private to public ownership—railroads and telegraphs to be owned by the national government and gas and water systems by the cities. His goal was to turn from private to public advantage the benefits of all monopolies that were not artificial and deserving of destruction. His editorials favored trade unions, a policy of high wage levels (other California papers were deflationist), and a policy of reserving the arable domain to actual home steaders. Although in many of these ideas he was stimulated by socialists, he rejected the general doctrine of socialism.

When Progress and Poverty (1871-1900, vol. 1) first appeared in 1879, in San Francisco, the academic profession of economics was inchoate in the eastern United States and had no existence what ever in California. Economic thought in the east followed mainly the British classical school; the American nationalist school, of which H. C. Carey had been the principal figure, was a minority movement among economists, but its influence on Republican and national policy gave it disproportionate importance. The new analytical and institutional economics, then rising in Germany, Austria, and England, was little known at the time in America, and known not at all to George. Therefore, when George used and adapted the terms and logic of Smith, Ricardo, and John Stuart Mill, he was moving in an accepted tradition, and when he rejected the wages fund doctrine and the iron law of wages, he was merely revising the tradition, much as Francis A. Walker in the United States, and Mill himself had done.

The central four-fifths of Progress and Poverty is essentially a syllogism. The first premise appears in Book iii, “The Laws of Distribution.” There George stated his proposition that economic rent, being a product of monopoly—usable land is by nature monopolistic, not something replaceable— always reduces wages and interest. The second premise occurs in Book iv; on the basis of observation, George asserted that modern industrialism increases rent and that, as resource sites and urban sites rise in value, rent flowing into private hands creates social inequity, depression, and poverty. From these two premises—the first, that the land owner inevitably takes from the laborer and the capitalist and the second, that with private land ownership rent increases exacerbate social injus tice—George reasoned to his synthesis, “The Remedy,” presented in Book vi. It is the historic proposal to do away with private property in land, or at least with the private privileges of tenure. In the following three books, George spelled out the procedures involved in his “Remedy”: either land might be nationalized, or there might be taxation that would transfer economic rent from the landholder to the community (the latter alternative eventually became the “single tax”). The rent so placed at the disposal of the state could be distributed or invested, according to public interest.

The remaining one-fifth of the book contains the 15 pages of introduction and the 90 pages of conclusion, which may be called George’s moral and religious sequence. There the author restated his paradox—that modern material “progress” actually widens the gap between the economically privileged and the unprivileged—and he stated his belief that a socially just civilization can be based only on a Christian and democratic conscience: “Association in equality is the law of progress.”

It was in Europe that Progress and Poverty was first received with understanding, if not always with praise. Emile de Laveleye, the Belgian “so cialist of the chair,” discussed it with critical appreciation in the Revue scientifique de la France et de I’etranger (1880); Adolf Wagner of the University of Berlin was unfavorable; but Gustav Schmoller found freshness in the work, although he also found much to criticize. George wanted attention in the United States so much that even a highly critical review by William Graham Sumner in Scribner’s pleased him.

George’s early international reputation increased, however, not so much by reason of his writings as because of his involvement in public affairs abroad. By 1881 he had moved from California to New York, and the Irish World of that city sent him as correspondent to Ireland. Conditions in Ireland had not yet been improved by Gladstone’s land re form, and George hoped to affect the situation as well as to report it. He distributed Progress and Poverty in Ireland, as well as a pamphlet on The Land Question ([1881] 1906-1911, vol. 3). He also went to London, where he established an uneasy relationship with H. M. Hyndman, the wealthy Marxist; made friends with Helen Taylor, the lit erary executor of John Stuart Mill, who said that Mill would have accepted George’s ideas as an extension of his own; and became acquainted with Alfred Russel Wallace, the theorist of evolution who was also interested in land nationalization, and with other prominent men like John Morley and Joseph Chamberlain. George made the speech which George Bernard Shaw says converted him to social reform. George proudly assessed the long, semifavorable review of Progress and Poverty in the London Times as evidence that he was being taken seriously in high places.

The first visit to Europe led to four subsequent ones. The last one, in 1890, rounded out a trip that included a triumphant speaking tour in Aus tralia. As far as the influence of George’s ideas in the United Kingdom is concerned, the visits of 1883-1884 and 1884-1885 were the heyday. All the major British journals reviewed Progress and Poverty, and distinguished academic economists reacted to the book, albeit often negatively. Sir Henry Fawcett of Cambridge objected to George’s opposition to compensating the landlords whose property rights he would destroy; Alfred Marshall, while admitting “freshness and earnestness” in George, concentrated a barrage of statistics on weaknesses in his findings about wages; Philip H. Wicksteed, a Unitarian minister and distinguished economist, acknowledged a major debt to George; and Arnold Toynbee, the young pro-labor Oxford economist, tried just before his untimely death to refute George in public lectures in London. In Scotland, George discovered many admirers: the Land Restoration League there shared his prefer ence for land taxation as the best means of reform. Keir Hardie became the political link between George’s impact on Britain in the 1880s and the modern British Labour party. During an Oxford visit, the students treated George outrageously; at Cambridge, things went better. As J. A. Hobson observed in 1897: “…Henry George may be considered to have exercised a more directly powerful formative and educative influence over English radicalism of the last fifteen years than any other man” (p. 844).

After his return from Ireland, George’s activities in America took several directions. He wrote a series of articles for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News paper which was polemically directed against a previous series of articles on current problems writ ten by Sumner for Harper’s Weekly. In book form Sumner’s articles became What Social Classes Owe to Each Other, the recognized classic of social Darwinist thought. George’s articles, gathered and published as Social Problems (1871-1900, vol. 2), initially were better received than Progress and Poverty.

George also became active on the political scene. In 1886 a major New York City labor union persuaded him to be the Labor party candidate for mayor. He drew considerable support from early social gospelers, the labor unions, and recent im migrant voters. At the polls he came in second, close enough to the winning candidate to give credence to the charge that he would have won if votes had not been stolen. He did succeed in drawing maximum attention to his ideas and in consolidating his followers.

George’s next venture was the single-tax reform. Although the phrase “single tax” does not appear in Progress and Poverty, the reform idea does. It was George’s lasting conviction that land-value taxation could and should be used to transfer the whole product of economic rent from private owners to the community. A transfer of this kind would be politically easier to achieve in America than land nationalization and would have the same economic effect. George began using the term “single tax” during the mid-1880s, but it was a convert to his ideas, Thomas G. Shearman, a New York lawyer, who transformed the term into a slogan and the name of a reform movement. By 1888 single-tax meetings were being held in the principal cities on the eastern seaboard, in the Middle West, and in California. The long-term leaders of the movement —Louis F. Post, Tom Loftin Johnson, Warren Worth Bailey, William Lloyd Garrison n, Jackson S. Ralston, and Lawson Purdy—were already active, and before 1890, 130 single-tax organizations had appeared. The early movement was strained by an inner struggle between “single-tax, limited” men, like Shearman, who wanted only as much rent appropriated as was necessary for ordinary public services, and “single-tax, unlimited” men, like George, who wanted all the rent taken. After George’s death, the proponents of “single-tax, lim ited” predominated. The movement narrowed, but it endured. During the early 1900s its program was incorporated into municipal reform programs and enactments, conspicuously in Ohio; and during the 1910s it influenced Wilsonian, Democratic progres-sivism. From 1887 to the present, through organizations which have varied from clubs to schools to endowments, the movement has continuously pro moted land-value taxation and free trade.

During the 1890s, Henry George left the advo cacy of the single tax largely in the hands of others, as he had earlier abandoned labor politics. With the exception of his round-the-world trip and the final campaign for the New York mayoralty in 1897, he gave his time to writing three books, which were essentially testaments. In The Condition of Labor ([1891] 1906-1911, vol. 3) he chal lenged Pope Leo xm to permit Catholics to enter his movement; in A Perplexed Philosopher ([1892] 1906-1911, vol. 5) he fully dissociated himself from the materialism of Spencerian and like-minded belief in progress and repeated his program for land-value taxation; in The Science of Political Economy ([1897] 1906-1911, vols. 6-7), which he never completed, he tried, with new elaboration but without mastery of current modes of economic thought, to persuade readers that his economic theories were scientifically sound. These codicils never had the impact of his earlier books, although they too revealed George’s passion for justice and freedom and his intellectual boldness and gift for persuasion. The final statements rounded out a dedicated and prophetic life.

Charles A. Barker

[See alsoRent; Taxation, article onProperty Taxes; and the biographies ofMill; Sumner; Toynbee; Walker; Wick Steed]


Barker, Charles A. 1955 Henry George. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Cord, Steven B. 1965 Henry George: Dreamer or Realist? Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press.

De Mille, Anna A. [george] 1950 Henry George: Citi zen of the World. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Caro lina Press.

Geiger, George R. 1933 The Philosophy of Henry George. New York: Macmillan.

George, Henry (1871–1900) 1906-1911 The Writings of Henry George. 10 vols. Garden City, N.Y.: Double-day.→ Volume 1: Progress and Poverty. Volume 2: Social Problems. Volume 3: The Land Question; Prop erty in Land; The Condition of Labor. Volume 4: Protection or Free Trade. Volume 5: A Perplexed Phi losopher. Volumes 6-7: The Science of Political Economy; Moses: A Lecture. Volume 8: Our Land and Land Policy; Speeches, Lectures, and Miscellaneous Writings. Volumes 9-10: The Life of Henry George, by Henry George, Jr.

Hobson, J. A. 1897 Influence of Henry George in England. Fortnightly Review 68:835–844.

Laveleye, Emile de 1880 La propriete terrienne et le pauperisme. Revue scientifique de la France et de Vetranger 2nd Series 18:708–710.→ A review of Progress and Poverty.

Lawrence, Elwood P. 1957 Henry George in the BritishIsles. East Lansing: Michigan State Univ. Press.

New York, Public Library 1926 Henry George and the Single Tax: A Catalogue of the Collection in the New York Public Library, by Rollin A. Sawyer. The Library.

Nock, Albert J. 1939 Henry George: An Essay. New York: Morrow.

Young, Arthur N. 1916 The Single Tax Movement in the United States. Princeton Univ. Press.

Henry George

views updated Jun 27 2018

Henry George

The American economist and social reformer Henry George (1839-1897) popularized the "single-tax" reform movement.

Henry George was born in Philadelphia, Pa., on Sept. 2, 1839. He left school when he was 13 years old and spent 2 years as a clerk before becoming a seaman. After his arrival in San Francisco in 1858, he worked as a laborer, gold prospector, and printer. He married and started to raise a family and for several years experienced a desperate, grinding poverty.

In 1865 George became a journalist. In several newspapers, including the San Francisco Daily Evening Post, which he founded and edited (1871-1875), he criticized and exposed some of the major inequities of his day, such as speculation in public lands, the illegal actions of monopolies, and the exploitation of new Chinese immigrants in California. As a deeply religious and moral man, he felt that America could not condone such actions.

George studied economics and slowly systemized his thinking. In his editorials and writings he proposed various economic reforms, including public ownership of utilities and public-oriented industries such as railroads and the telegraph system. Still, he never embraced the ideology of socialism. His major work was Progress and Poverty (1879), which he infused with his strong moral passion for justice and his hatred of poverty. George claimed that private ownership of land was the root cause of poverty and also held up progress. It was morally wrong for people to become wealthy without working, but just from ownership of a natural resource that should be accessible to all people. He claimed that the rise of rents that went along with the growth of industry and progress forced wages to fall. For a "remedy" he proposed the nationalization of land or the taxing of land so highly that the economic rent would go to the community and be used for the public good.

George's simple solution, the "single tax," and his moral questioning of society's values and actions appealed to the people, though not to most economists, and made George famous. In the 1880s the single tax became the focus of a powerful reform movement. Local clubs were formed, and George propagandized for acceptance of the single tax. The idea even had a formidable impact on British radicalism in that decade.

George moved to New York in 1880, where his fame was such that he was asked to run for mayor as a reform candidate in 1886; he was narrowly defeated by Abram Hewitt but ran ahead of the Republican candidate, Theodore Roosevelt. Though in poor health, he was persuaded to run again, but he died before the election, on Oct. 29, 1897.

Further Reading

Charles Albro Barker, Henry George (1955), is a thorough study of George's life, and Edward J. Rose, Henry George (1968), is a good, shorter biography. Other studies include Henry George, Jr., The Life of Henry George (1900); Elwood P. Lawrence, Henry George in the British Isles (1957); and Steven B. Cord, Henry George: Dreamer or Realist? (1965). Robert L. Heilbroner discusses George in the context of 19th-century economic thought in The Wordly Philosophers: The Lives, Times, and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers (1953; 3d ed. rev. 1967).

Additional Sources

Barker, Charles A. (Charles Albro), Henry Georg, Westport, Conn., Greenwood Press 1974.

Cord, Steven B., Henry George, dreamer or realist?, New York: Robert Schalkenbach Foundation, 1984.

Geiger, George Raymond, The philosophy of Henry George, Westport, Conn.: Hyperion Press, 1975, 1933.

George and the scholars: a century of scientific research reveals the reformer was an original economist and a world-class social philosopher, New York: Robert Schalkenbach Foundation, 1991.

Jones, Peter d'Alroy, Henry George and British socialism, New York: Garland Pub., 1991.

Rather, Lois, Henry George—printer to author, Oakland Calif.: Rather Press, 1978. □

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