Henry George

The truth that I have tried to make clear will not find easy acceptance. If that could be, it would have been accepted long ago. If that could be, it would never have been obscured. But it will find friends – those who will toil for it; suffer for it; if needs be, die for it. This is the power of truth.

Henry George was born in 1839 to lower-middle class parents as the second of 10 children.  George’s father was a devout Episcopalian and initially enrolled his son in the Episcopal Academy in Philadelphia with the intent of training him to become a preacher. However, George disliked the ministry as a profession and he convinced his father to hire a private tutor. This, combined with his habit of avid reading and attending lectures at the Franklin Institute, gave Henry George a well-rounded early education. He was a quick study and avid learner, but had difficulty focusing in classes and performed poorly in a formal academic environment. At the age of 14 George dropped out of school to work as a clerk at an importing house. Less than a year later in 1855, when he was only 15 years old, he went off to sea working on the ship Hindoo as a foremast boy. On this ship he sailed between Melbourne, Australia (then a British colony) and Calcutta, India (also a British colony). Seeing the differences between the two territories, one relatively wealthy and open, the other poor and crowded, caused Henry George to seriously contemplate political economy for the first time.

In 1858 he arrived in San Francisco where he met his wife, Annie Corsina Fox, with whom he would later have four children. He began working as a typesetter for the San Francisco Times, a job for which he had a natural aptitude but which initially earned him little. The first four years of his life as a newspaperman were spent in extreme poverty. At one point he recounted, “I came near starving to death, and at one time I was so close to it that I think I should have done so but for the job of printing a few cards which enabled us to buy a little corn meal. In this darkest time in my life my second child was born.” When this event happened he had no money, no food, no way to provide his wife with any care; he was alone in a bare lodging with a helpless suffering woman and a newborn baby. In a desperate state of mind he left the house and took to the last resort of the destitute. “I walked along the street and made up my mind to get money from the first man whose appearance might indicate that he had it to give. I stopped a man, a stranger, and told him I wanted five dollars. He asked what I wanted it for. I told him that my wife was confined and that I had nothing to give her to eat. He gave me the money. If he had not, I think I was desperate enough to have killed him.” However, as time went on his reputation grew and his economic condition improved, which allowed more time for him to study and develop his own economic theories. As a typesetter, George had the ability to send in his own editorials to the newspaper. These editorials were so well appreciated that one of them, entitled What the Railroads will Bring Us, became required reading in California schools for decades. By 1871 he was well-enough off to start his own newspaper, the San Francisco Daily Evening Post

As an enthusiastic political newspaperman, George was an anti-monopoly Democrat who spent his editorial energies decrying monopoly interests, corrupt officials, land speculators, and labor contractors. Then, in 1871, he had a political epiphany. While travelling to San Francisco one day, he “asked a passing teamster, for want of something better to say, what land was worth there. He pointed to some cows grazing so far off that they looked like mice, and said, “I don’t know exactly, but there is a man over there who will sell some land for a thousand dollars an acre.” Like a flash it came over 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 more for the privilege.” It was here that he made the vital connection. When land increases in value, those who own the land benefit. However, as the amount of land was fixed, the benefits from this increased value were concentrated in the hands of the few. Furthermore, as land became more costly, so too would the ability to work and live on the land. This increasing land value enriched the speculators and landlords at the expense of both workers and employers, who had to pay more in rent in order to live and run businesses and other productive enterprises. Henry George made the succinct argument that because rent comes out of wages, any increase in rent would result in a commensurate decrease in wages. Rather than embracing the popular view of his time that the interests of the capitalist and the laborer were opposed to each other, Henry George saw them as being in harmony. When the laborer was more productive, the capitalist saw an increase in his return on investment, and the laborer saw an increase in their wages. However, because land was monopolized, the gains society saw through increased productivity were instead absorbed by the landlord, who benefited at the expense of society while contributing nothing in return. Thus, Henry George argued that land, a God given resource, cannot be privately owned in good faith. Rather, land should be made common property through the implementation of a land value tax, which would make land speculation impossible, and take for the use of society that which was produced by society.

“This right of ownership that springs from labor excludes the possibility of any other right of ownership. If a man be rightfully entitled to the produce of his labor, then no one can be rightfully entitled to the ownership of anything which is not the produce of his labor, or the labor of some one else from whom the right has passed to him. . . When nonproducers can claim as rent a portion of the wealth created by producers, the right of the producers to the fruits of their labor is to that extent denied.”

Henry George, Progress and Poverty

In 1879 Henry George would publish his economic treatise in a book entitled Progress and Poverty: An Inquiry into the Cause of Industrial Depressions and of Increase of Want with Increase of Wealth. At the time of its publication the country faced growing populist anger about the economy. The belief that the businessman, the capitalist, were at inherent odds with the laboring class was popular. Economic growth was evidently unequal: there were those who made millions and lived in mansions while but a few streets over the poor were dying in the streets. Naturally, many wanted a more equitable society. Many reformers railed against the owners of big businesses as exploiters who kept the laborers from the fruits of their labor. Progress and Poverty, however, made a different case; that rent was theft from the masses by the few. This thesis made the book the most important economic treatise in the history of the United States: other than the bible, Progress and Poverty was the best selling book in the nation. This propelled Henry George to new heights of popularity and reverence. 

In 1880, now a popular political speaker and writer, Henry George moved to New York City. There he became a journalist for the Irish World and departed for Ireland and the United Kingdom, where he covered the Irish Rent Wars and campaigned for the common right of man to land through land value taxation. He met with great success- his speeches were attended by thousands, and he was invited to meet some of the great men of the time- Parnell, Herbert Spencer, and Tennyson, among others. When he returned, he was at the height of his popularity. Finding no effective political champion for his ideas, he elected to run for mayor of New York City in 1886 as a candidate of the United Labor Party. Despite being an outsider with no political experience running against the corrupt machine politics of Tammany Hall in New York City, his campaign was startlingly popular and attracted attention across the nation. However, when the votes were counted, Henry George was narrowly defeated (possibly as a result of election fraud) by Abram Steven Hewitts, the Tammany Hall candidate, coming ahead of a young upstart named Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.  This narrow defeat dealt a blow to his political fortunes, and while he retained his popularity as a speaker and writer, he was never again an effective political candidate. But he was far from discouraged and ran for office again in 1887, this time for New York Secretary of State, and was again defeated. Despite these setbacks, George continued to give speeches on his political and economic views to packed crowds until 1890, when he suffered a stroke after completing a world tour explaining the connection between poverty and rent. Against the strong wishes of his doctors he ran again for mayor of New York City in 1897. During the campaign he suffered another stroke, and having never fully recovered from his first, Henry George died on the campaign trail just four days before the election.

The news of his death brought thousands of his supporters to his funeral in Grand Central Park. Over 100,000 people attended his funeral in the park, as well as an additional 100,000 packed outside who had to be held back by police. He was memorialized across the nation, particularly in New York and in his old home state of California, as an insightful economic thinker and a tireless champion of the poor. His ideas would go on to have a lasting impact on some of the most important men of the opening 20th century, including Sun Yat-Sen, Aldous Huxley, Winston Churchill, Louis Brandeis, and even Martin Luther King Jr. Unfortunately, the rise of communism and the Cold War led to a long forgetting by the western world of Henry George’s fundamental insight: that the expropriation of land rents by private persons is the source of economic inequality and stagnation. But the truth remains, and with it the possibility of true progress towards economic justice through the efforts of those who are willing to toil for it.

Picture timeline of Henry George