Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. IXXI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 18611889
Property in Land in the United States
By Henry George (18391897)
[Born in Philadelphia, Penn., 1839. Died in New York, N. Y., 1897. Progress and Poverty. 1879.Revised Edition. 1880.]
THE REPUBLIC has entered upon a new era, an era in which the monopoly of the land will tell with accelerating effect. The great fact which has been so potent is ceasing to be. The public domain is almost gonea very few years will end its influence, already rapidly failing. I do not mean to say that there will be no public domain. For a long time to come there will be millions of acres of public lands carried on the books of the Land Department. But it must be remembered that the best part of the continent for agricultural purposes is already overrun, and that it is the poorest land that is left. It must be remembered that what remains comprises the great mountain ranges, the sterile deserts, the high plains fit only for grazing. And it must be remembered that much of this land which figures in the reports as open to settlement is unsurveyed land, which has been appropriated by possessory claims or locations which do not appear until the land is returned as surveyed. California figures on the books of the Land Department as the greatest land State of the Union, containing nearly 100,000,000 acres of public landsomething like one-twelfth of the whole public domain. Yet so much of this is covered by railroad grants or held in the way of which I have spoken; so much consists of untillable mountains or plains which require irrigation, so much is monopolized by locations which command the water, that as a matter of fact it is difficult to point the immigrant to any part of the State where he can take up a farm on which he can settle and maintain a family, and so men, weary of the quest, end by buying land or renting it on shares. It is not that there is any real scarcity of land in Californiafor, an empire in herself, California will some day maintain a population as large as that of Francebut appropriation has got ahead of the settler and manages to keep just ahead of him.
Some twelve or fifteen years ago the late Ben Wade of Ohio said, in a speech in the United States Senate, that by the close of this century every acre of ordinary agricultural land in the United States would be worth $50 in gold. It is already clear that if he erred at all, it was in overstating the time. In the twenty-one years that remain of the present century, if our population keeps on increasing at the rate which it has maintained since the institution of the Government, with the exception of the decade which included the civil war, there will be an addition to our present population of something like forty-five millions, an addition of some seven millions more than the total population of the United States as shown by the census of 1870, and nearly half as much again as the present population of Great Britain. There is no question about the ability of the United States to support such a population and many hundreds of millions more, and, under proper social adjustments, to support them in increased comfort; but in view of such an increase of population, what becomes of the unappropriated public domain? Practically there will soon cease to be any. It will be a very long time before it is all in use; but it will be a very short time, as we are going, before all that men can turn to use will have an owner.
But the evil effects of making the land of a whole people the exclusive property of some do not wait for the final appropriation of the public domain to show themselves. It is not necessary to contemplate them in the future; we may see them in the present. They have grown with our growth, and are still increasing.
We plough new fields, we open new mines, we found new cities; we drive back the Indian and exterminate the buffalo; we girdle the land with iron roads and lace the air with telegraph wires; we add knowledge to knowledge, and utilize invention after invention; we build schools and endow colleges; yet it becomes no easier for the masses of our people to make a living. On the contrary, it is becoming harder. The wealthy class is becoming more wealthy; but the poorer class is becoming more dependent. The gulf between the employed and the employer is growing wider; social contrasts are becoming sharper; as liveried carriages appear, so do barefooted children. We are becoming used to talk of the working classes and the propertied classes; beggars are becoming so common that where it was once thought a crime little short of highway robbery to refuse food to one who asked for it, the gate is now barred and the bulldog loosed, while laws are passed against vagrants which suggest those of Henry VIII.
These are the results of private property in landthe effects of a principle that must act with increasing and increasing force. It is not that laborers have increased faster than capital; it is not that population is pressing against subsistence; it is not that machinery has made work scarce; it is not that there is any real antagonism between labor and capitalit is simply that land is becoming more valuable; that the terms on which labor can obtain access to the natural opportunities which alone enable it to produce are becoming harder and harder. The public domain is receding and narrowing; property in land is concentrating. The proportion of our people who have no legal right to the land on which they live is becoming steadily larger.
Says the New York World: A non-resident proprietary, like that of Ireland, is getting to be the characteristic of large farming districts in New England, adding yearly to the nominal value of leasehold farms; advancing yearly the rent demanded, and steadily degrading the character of the tenantry. And the Nation, alluding to the same section, says: Increased nominal value of land, higher rents, fewer farms occupied by owners; diminished products; lower wages; a more ignorant population; increasing number of women employed at hard, outdoor labor (surest sign of a declining civilization), and a steady deterioration in the style of farmingthese are the conditions described by a cumulative mass of evidence that is perfectly irresistible.
The same tendency is observable in the new States where the large scale of cultivation recalls the latifundia that ruined ancient Italy. In California a very large proportion of the farming land is rented from year to year, at rates varying from a fourth to even half the crop.
The harder times, the lower wages, the increasing poverty perceptible in the United States are but results of the natural laws we have tracedlaws as universal and as irresistible as that of gravitation. We did not establish the republic when in the face of principalities and powers we flung the declaration of the inalienable rights of man; we shall never establish the republic until we practically carry out that declaration by securing to the poorest child born among us an equal right to his native soil! We did not abolish slavery when we ratified the Fourteenth Amendment; to abolish slavery we must abolish private property in land! Unless we come back to first principles, unless we recognize natural perceptions of equity, unless we acknowledge the equal right of all to land, our free institutions will be in vain, our common schools will be in vain; our discoveries and inventions will but add to the force that presses the masses down!