Primary Sources and Documents Related to Henry George
Henry George campaigning for Mayor of New York City as candidate of the United Labor Party, October 1886.
Praise for Henry George and the Crisis of Inequality
“This social biography of Henry George is a beautifully written, deeply researched, carefully argued, and analytically nuanced book. O'Donnell's own prodigious research, as well as his talent for synthesizing the findings of other scholars, makes this a social and political history of Gilded Age America as seen through the lens of Henry George's extraordinary life.”
-- Daniel Czitrom, Mount Holyoke College
“We have long needed a modern account of the ideas of Henry George, in the context of the vast inequalities of wealth of the Gilded Age, the rise of a powerful labor movement, and George's campaign for mayor of New York City in 1886. Edward O'Donnell has now provided it, in a fascinating book that shows how the social realities and conflicts of that era speak to our own unequal times.”
-- Eric Foner, Columbia University
“At a time when issues of social inequality have moved again to the forefront of political debate, it is good to remind ourselves that throughout the past two centuries, Americans have passionately contested the severe inequalities that went along with the spectacular economic development of the nation. In the nineteenth century, few voices were as powerful, and had as lasting an impact as that of Henry George. Edward O'Donnell's political biography is a brilliant introduction to George's life, ideas and politics--showing that inequality can generate political movements that challenge the rich and powerful. Highly recommended.”
-- Sven Beckert, Harvard University
Description of the Book
Henry George and the Crisis of Inequality: Progress and Poverty in the Gilded Age is a social biography of the reformer Henry George and his most important years of public activism in the 1880s. Born in 1839, Henry George grew up in Philadelphia and later moved top California where he became a journalist. In the 1870s he became deeply troubled by the increase in poverty and social tension across the nation even as industrialization benefitted many and enriched a few. He responded by writing a book -- Progress and Poverty (1879) -- that addressed the vexing question of, Why did industrial progress seem to increase poverty and social inequality rather than diminish it? His answer was land monopoly. Large corporations, Wall Street wizards, and land speculators, he argued, had seized control of the most basic resource needed for economic success and upward mobility. As a result, the average American worker and farmer found himself slipping into low paid wage work and despair, a process that threatened to destroy the republican society established by the Founding Fathers. His solution was the "single-tax" on land values. While not everyone supported this solution, vast numbers of Americans--especially wage workers--read Progress and Poverty and came to accept its critique of laissez-faire industrial society. As a result, in the early 1880s George went from obscure San Francisco editor to a nationally (indeed, internationally) recognized social reformer. The culmination of this remarkable rise came in 1886 when George was nominated as the candidate for Mayor of New York City by the United Labor Party. Whereas labor party candidates in this period usually garnered a few hundred votes, George stunned observers by polling over 68,000 and nearly winning the election (he finished ahead of the Republican candidate, the young Theodore Roosevelt).
Henry George and the Crisis of Inequality examines both the rise of Henry George and his influence on the era, but also the wider context of Gilded Age America and the social turmoil and bitter debates over how best to control an industrial system that produced unprecedented progress and wealth, but also unprecedented levels of poverty, suffering, and alienation. Through it all what emerges is a compelling case for seeing Henry George as one of the first and one of the most influential social reformers in the Gilded Age whose writings and activism prodded Americans to conclude that a laissez-faire economy and minimalist government, while appropriate for the agrarian economy of the Founding Fathers' generation, spelled doom for the modern American republic in the age of industry. In other words, Henry George played a key role in promoting the idea that some level of government intervention in the economy--what the next generation of reformers would call "progressivism"--was necessary for the maintenance of America's republican society and its revered principles of equality and the common good.
Read an Excerpt (from the Introduction)
More than a million people gathered in New York City on October 27, 1886 to witness the unveiling of the Statue of Liberty. Among those present were President Grover Cleveland, members of Congress, representatives of the French government and other foreign dignitaries. The theme of this grand civic celebration and the many speeches and editorials that marked it was a celebration of progress and the health and vitality of the American republic. “We will not forget,” declared President Cleveland, “that Liberty has here made her home.” The editors of the New York Times concurred, gushing, “On our shores … has been realized … with all its imperfections, the most successful and hopeful of all the social systems that have grown up in the history of mankind.” Chauncey Depew, a railroad magnate and powerful figure among the city’s elite, seized upon the occasion to deliver a speech lauding democracy and self-government as the best remedy for the social unrest then rocking the nation. “[T]he problems of labor and capital … of property and poverty will work themselves out,” he declared, “under the benign influence of enlightened law-making and law-abiding liberty, without the aid of Kings and armies, or of Anarchists and bombs” (N.Y. Times, October 29, 1886, 2).
Three days later in the same city a different set of citizens organized a very different event, the central message of which challenged the rosy assessments of a few days past. On the evening of Sunday October 30, 1886 thousands of spectators lined the sidewalks of lower Manhattan to witness one of the more extraordinary events in the city’s history—a “Monster Parade” of some 30,000 workers of virtually every rank, skill, and ethnicity marching in support of an insurgent political campaign. Outraged by an unprecedented campaign of repression by business and civic leaders against organized labor that spring and summer, workers had formed the United Labor Party (ULP) and selected the reformer Henry George as their candidate for Mayor. The motivation behind the campaign and parade was the conviction that the American republic was in crisis, its sacred principles of liberty and equality in jeopardy. Expressing this sentiment, the ULP’s announcement of the parade spoke of workers “unjustly deprived of the blessings which should be secured by [republican] society … because avaricious men have possessed themselves by means of unrepublican laws of the free gifts of nature.” The ULP parade and campaign represented an effort to secure, “equal rights, social reform, true Republicanism, and universal Democracy.” Days later Henry George stunned the city and the nation by nearly winning the election (John Swinton’s Paper, October 31, 1886, 1).
These two starkly different events, separated only by a few days, illuminate the dualistic character of the Gilded Age, a period defined roughly from 1865-1900. As the name suggests, many considered it a golden age, one marked by spectacular advances in industrial output and technological innovation that transformed the United States from a predominantly agricultural nation that ranked well behind England, Germany, and France to the world’s most formidable industrial power by 1900. Americans celebrated one astonishing achievement after another, from the completion of the transcontinental railroad (1869) to the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge (1883), from the laying of the Atlantic Cable connecting London and New York by telegraph (1866) to the unveiling of the Statue of Liberty (1886). Nowhere was this ebullient spirit more evident than at the world’s fairs held in Philadelphia (1876) and Chicago (1893), events that afforded superb opportunities to showcase the wonders of American technological genius. On these occasions and seemingly at any opportunity, Americans invoked the optimistic themes of progress, expansion, growth, and success, “[O]ur growth has not been limited to territory, population and aggregate wealth, marvelous as it has been in each of those directions,” offered President Benjamin Harrison in a typical address in 1889. “The masses of our people are better fed, clothed, and housed than their fathers were. … No other people have a government more worthy of their respect and love or a land so magnificent in extent… and so full of generous suggestion to enterprise and labor.”
And yet for many other Americans there was abundant evidence that there was more to this upbeat vision of national development than initially met the eye. Put another way, the name Gilded Age (a term coined by Mark Twain in 1873) also suggested a disturbing superficiality to all this evidence of progress. As with a gilded piece of jewelry, it suggested, one needed only to scratch the surface of the thin gold layer to find the cold, hard, black iron that lay beneath. When Americans looked beneath the surface of progress, they saw the darker consequences of industrialization, especially the immense power accrued by large corporations and the men who ran them, the growing number of workers living in squalid slums, and the frequent episodes of labor-capital violence (the period 1880-1900 witnessed nearly 37,000 strikes). If these were the trends of the future warned an aging Walt Whitman in 1879, then “our republican experiment, notwithstanding all its surface-successes, is at heart an unhealthy failure.”
Conservative middle- and upper-class Americans interpreted the increase in social turmoil and poverty in cultural rather than economic terms. Celebrating and embracing as never before laissez-faire individualism and its offshoot, social Darwinism, they determined that the greatest danger to the American republic was not the widening gap between the rich and the poor, but rather the possibility that the poor would mobilize collectively against their betters, either via the ballot or the bullet, and take what did not belong to them. Accordingly, they demonized the poor as unfit, grasping losers and took steps to sharply curtail charity which they deemed dangerous to the morals and manners of the needy. This spirit of social Darwinist hostility toward the poor was most famously captured in a widely reprinted sermon by Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, the nation’s most renowned preacher. Dismissing the claims of workers that they could not live in dignity on wages of a dollar a day, he asserted that too many workingmen “insist on smoking and drinking beer.” A frugal workingman could support his family on a diet of bread and water, argued Beecher, and “the man who cannot live on bread and water is not fit to live.” Central to middle- and upper-class Americans’ dismissal of the protests of workers was the conviction that these agitators had become infected with one of more of the varieties of European radicalisms like socialism, communism, and anarchism. The United States, they insisted, was a classless society. “[W]e have among us a pernicious communistic spirit,” wrote Allan Pinkerton, head of the Pinkerton Detective Agency in the wake of the great 1877 railroad strike, “which is demoralizing workmen, continually creating a deeper and more intense antagonism between labor and capital … it must be crushed out completely, or we shall be compelled to submit to greater excesses and more overwhelming disasters in the near future.”
Workers and farmers in the Gilded Age, however, offered a very different interpretation of the problems besetting the nation. In 1878, for example, the Knights of Labor adopted a Constitution, the preamble to which denounced the “recent alarming development and aggression of aggregated wealth” that if left unchecked “will inevitably lead to the pauperization and hopeless degradation of the toiling masses.” One of the most pointed and widely read analyses of the Gilded Age’s social turmoil was the book, Progress and Poverty, written in 1879 by Henry George, the man nominated by the ULP as labor’s candidate for Mayor of New York in 1886. The title of the book itself captured perfectly the vexing duality emerging in late-nineteenth century America: industrialization brought both great progress for some and increased poverty for many. “It is as though an immense wedge were being forced, not underneath society, but through society, wrote George. “Those who are above the point of separation are elevated, but those who are below are crushed down.” George warned that the very fate of the republic was at stake. “This association of poverty with progress,” he asserted, “is the great enigma of our times. ... It is the riddle which the Sphinx of Fate puts to our civilization, and which not to answer is to be destroyed.”
The year 1886, long known as the Great Upheaval, marked the highpoint of labor radicalism in nineteenth-century New York City and the nation. How did this remarkable mobilization by labor originate and how did Henry George come to assume so important a place in it? The former began nearly a decade earlier in the aftermath of the devastating depression years of the 1870s and took both ideological and institutional form. In the former case, the legacy of the 1870s—depression, wage reductions, unemployment, evictions, devaluation of skills, alienation from employers, and government repression of strikes—forced workers to challenge the veracity of antebellum free labor mantras and embrace toward new modes of thinking and action. Critical to this development was the rise of a small but influential group of socialists and the Knights of Labor that provided both organizational and ideological strength to workers.
In New York City, the capital of capitalism in the United States, labor activists faced an enormous challenge. The city’s great size, dynamic economy, and diverse ethnic and cultural demography made for difficult conditions in which to foster working-class solidarity and build a lasting labor movement. Nonetheless, out of the depression years of the 1870s, New York City experienced a remarkable resurgence in working-class activism. Workers benefited not only from the energy and leadership provided by the Knights, but also from the creation of the Central Labor Union (1882), an umbrella labor organization dedicated to elevating the class consciousness and solidarity of working men and women, organizing new unions, and coordinating strikes and boycotts. By mid-1886, after city and state officials responded to a wave of strikes and boycotts by arresting more than one hundred labor activists, the ranks of the CLU swelled to over 200 member unions representing more than 150,000 workers from the New York metropolitan area. It was a combination of confidence stemming from four years of successful activism and fury over the recent crackdown that led these workers to launch a full-scale political challenge that fall in the form of the United Labor Party. Similar efforts to crush working-class activism across the country in 1886 led labor activists in nearly 200 towns and cities to field independent labor parties and candidates.
If these events explain in part the rise of working-class mobilization in the 1880s and the Great Upheaval of 1886, how do we explain the rise of Henry George? Or, put another way, how did a middle-class English-American Protestant calling for land reform gain so widespread a following among landless, urban, wage-earners, especially Irish Catholics? George’s rise to prominence among American workers represents one of the most intriguing—and revealing—stories of late-nineteenth century labor history. George had been born in the Age of Jackson and reared on the principles of antebellum Christian perfectionism and free labor ideology. Yet he experienced in adulthood the hard times and frustrations of the hardscrabble years of the 1860s and 1870s. These influences and experiences placed him in a unique position from which to observe and interpret the revolutionary changes in social, economic, and political relations brought on by advanced industrial development.
A reform-minded newspaper editor living in California in the 1870s, he had become disturbed by the growing conflict between labor and capital and the increasing gap between rich and poor. The resulting book, Progress and Poverty: An Inquiry into the Cause of industrial Depressions and of Increase of Want with Increase of Wealth (1879), went on to become one of the most widely read and compelling works of the last half of the nineteenth century. Advocating radical land reform (via land-value taxation that came to be called the single-tax) as a means of eliminating the crushing mass poverty, restricted opportunity, and increased inequality that accompanied industrial progress, the book became immensely popular among urban working-class Americans. George’s work of radical republicanism hit the presses at precisely the moment that working-class Americans were struggling to refashion a traditional republican ideology rendered increasingly hollow in the face of modern industrial capitalism. Written in an engaging, easily understood style and employing traditional American political idioms and concepts infused with new, radical meaning, Progress and Poverty provided American workers with a new ideological framework with which to analyze their predicament—a framework similar to that offered by the Knights of Labor, but also different in important ways. It succeeded because it assured workingmen that a new social and political order was possible and that they were the key actors in the struggle to attain it.
Central to George’s growing popularity and influence on Gilded Age thought was his decision to move in 1880 from San Francisco to New York City. Not only did this change of venue allow him to promote the book, it also brought him into contact with a wide range of radicals, from Irish nationalists who sought to apply his radical land reform ideas to the situation of the Irish peasantry to socialists and progressive trade unionists. By the mid-1880s Progress and Poverty had become the largest selling book on political economy in American history. In the words of one contemporary economist, “Tens of thousands of laborers read Progress and Poverty who have never before looked between the covers of an economics book, and its conclusions are widely accepted articles in the workingmen’s creed” (Richard T. Ely, Recent American Socialism [Hopkins, 1884], 19).
So when New York City workers formed the ULP in late summer 1886, George quickly emerged as the most popular potential nominee. Accepting the nomination, George commenced one of the most energetic and democratic campaigns in the city’s history. The ULP lacked the money, experience, and access to institutional power enjoyed by the Republican and Democratic parties, but it nonetheless managed to garner a groundswell of support for George. The tens of thousands of workers and spectators who braved the drenching rain on the eve of the election to be part of the Monster Parade attested to this fact.
Two days after the parade, George and the ULP stunned contemporaries by finishing a close second to Democrat Abram Hewitt and ahead of third place finisher, Republican Theodore Roosevelt. Labor activists believed the results pointed to a dramatic resurgence of working-class political power, one destined to result in a national labor party. “It was an unprecedented uprising of the working classes which shook this city,” declared John Swinton, the editor of a weekly labor newspaper. “It was a revolt that signifies the opening of a new political era.” Observing events from across the Atlantic Ocean in London, Frederick Engels wrote, "The Henry George boom ... was an epoch-making day. ... The first great step of importance for every country newly entering into the movement is always the constitution of the workers as an independent political party, no matter how, so long as it is a distinct workers’ party. And this step has been taken, much more rapidly than we had a right to expect …"
But these optimistic hopes were soon dashed as the ULP collapsed one year later, riven by ideological factionalism, oddly much of it stoked by Henry George. Nationally the rising tide of worker mobilization, symbolized by the disintegration of the Knights of Labor, foundered in the face of internal dissention, a more unified front by business, successful co-optation of selected labor agenda items by the major political parties, and government repression.
But the story of Henry George and the Great Upheaval did not end in 1886-1887. While George the man lost credibility among working-class Americans, his ideas lived on among them—and increasingly among a growing number of middle-class reformers. Specifically, this meant the birth of the Single Tax movement that lasted well into the 20th century and still claims adherents throughout the world. More broadly—and more significantly—George’s advocacy of a radical break (even as he couched it in the familiar and comforting terms of American republicanism) from the nation’s liberal past in the form of abolishing private property and empowering the state in the name of establishing a cooperative society made a significant contribution to the emergence of a new liberalism or progressivism in American political culture.
(c) copyright Columbia University Press, 2015