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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Henry George (1839–1897)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Robert Murray Haig (1887–1953)
 
IT is a peculiar fact that the most widely read American book in the field of economics, Henry George’s ‘Progress and Poverty,’ was written by a man who was not a professional economist. It is perhaps as strange that this man, who to such a marked degree succeeded in presenting obtuse material in a form attractive enough to charm thousands of those who seldom are drawn to serious reading, was one whose formal training was very inadequate and apparently ill-adapted to the development of ability as a writer. Henry George’s youth was spent under very difficult conditions; nevertheless it is in these conditions that one must search for many of the causes of his distinction, both as a writer and as an economist.  1
  George was the son of a publisher of religious books in Philadelphia and was one of twelve children. The father’s business, which had yielded a comfortable income, began to decline soon after 1839, the year of Henry George’s birth, and, largely because of this, the boy left school before he had reached his fourteenth year. After spending two years in minor clerical positions, he obtained his parents’ consent to go to sea and shipped as a sailor before the mast on an East Indiaman bound for Australia. The ship was in command of a friend of the family who had been especially requested to make the voyage sufficiently unpleasant to quench the boy’s nautical ambitions. This plan appears not to have been entirely successful, for, upon George’s return after more than a year it was only after great urging that he yielded to his parents’ desire that he remain ashore and apprentice himself as a typesetter. But these were years of depression in Philadelphia, and, finding employment difficult to procure, George’s thoughts soon turned westward. Toward the end of 1857, he found a way of reaching the Pacific coast by signing as steward on the United States lighthouse steamer “Shubrick” which was about to leave for San Francisco. So it came about that Henry George at the age of eighteen reached California, where he was to live until he was forty under conditions which awakened him to an appreciation of the evils involved in the private ownership of land and stirred him to initiate a battle against this form of privilege which has spread over the entire civilized world and whose issue is even yet far from a final decision.  2
  California at this time was developing at a tremendous rate as the result of the discovery of gold a decade before. Because of this fact, some of the disadvantages of the private ownership of land stood out with great clearness. The state had inherited a legacy of conflicting land titles from the Spanish and Mexican régimes, and the stupid land policy followed after the American occupation permitted the seizure of a huge portion of the state’s choicest land by speculators who withheld much of it from the market. Henry George was to witness the retarding and depressing influence of these factors.  3
  Conditions moreover were unstable and exceedingly dynamic. Sudden changes in fortune were taking place on all sides. New projects were constantly springing up and old ones abandoned. There was little co-ordination and evenness in the economic situation. Consequently, though wages were high, employment was irregular. The story of Henry George’s efforts to make a living illustrates the situation very clearly. He was constantly losing one position after a few weeks only to take up another which was no more permanent. His bitter personal experiences, for he was often without work and was reduced sometimes nearly to desperation, undoubtedly had a very profound effect upon the development of his economic philosophy.  4
  Hardly had he landed in San Francisco before he set forth on a fruitless quest to the Fraser River goldfields near Victoria, Vancouver Island. Returning after a few months, he found work first in a printing office and then as a weigher in a rice mill. But soon he set off once more in search of gold, tramping across country for several months but finally abandoning the project before reaching the goldfields. Returning to San Francisco, he once more took up work at the printer’s case. In 1861 he bought for a pittance a share in an ill-starred newspaper venture to which he contributed his labor for a considerable length of time. Shortly after the failure of this project, when without funds and without employment, he married an orphan against the wishes of her guardian and went to Sacramento to live. Here he remained for several years, but early in 1864, having lost his position, he returned to San Francisco. Here he set type, started a job-printing venture, peddled clothes-wringers, and solicited subscriptions to newspapers—anything to secure sufficient money to support his wife and child. In January, 1865, when his fortunes were at their lowest ebb, his second child was born. He was without funds, and not knowing where to turn to secure food for his sick wife, he begged from a stranger he met on the street. He stated afterward that, if he had been refused the five dollars he asked of the man, he “was desperate enough to have killed him.” It is not strange that one who himself had had such experiences as this should be keenly interested in the question of the distribution of wealth.  5
  During these years George had had little time for intellectual pursuits, but in his eagerness to improve his condition, he now began to read and to write upon miscellaneous subjects, hoping to secure a reporting and editing position. Occasionally he wrote for publication, but it was not until he was twenty-seven years old that he was entirely released from the composing-room by being made a member of the staff of the San Francisco Times. He was with this paper about a year, and was then sent East on a commission for the San Francisco Herald.  6
  The winter of 1868–1869 George spent in New York and he had the opportunity to observe economic conditions in the metropolis and to compare them with those in the far West. It was on this visit, he testifies, that he “saw and recognized for the first time the shocking contrast between monstrous wealth and debasing want,” and as the result of what was essentially a religious experience—“a thought, a vision, a call,” he described it—he vowed to “seek out and remedy” the frightful conditions among the poor. Soon after his return to California he went to Oakland as editor of the Transcript. Land speculation, based upon the prospects for the extension of the transcontinental railroad, was rife in the town, and values had risen to “extravagant figures.” Having had his attention called one day to some acreage far out from the town which was being held for an enormous price, he suddenly found what he felt was a solution of the problem which had been raised so acutely in his mind in New York. He says: “Like a flash it came upon me that there was the reason of advancing poverty with advancing wealth. With the growth of population, lands grow in value and the men who work it must pay for the privilege.” It was this seed thought which ripened into his little pamphlet ‘Our Land and Land Policy,’ published in 1871, and which developed into the fundamental thesis of ‘Progress and Poverty’ a decade later. He continued with newspaper work until 1876 when an appointment as State Inspector of Gas Meters removed for a time the most pressing of his financial worries and gave him sufficient leisure to read and to write. Early in 1879 he finished the book which was to make him famous.  7
  ‘Progress and Poverty,’ in spite of the enormous popularity which it later attained, made at first no appeal at all to the publishers. After submitting the manuscript to a number of houses, George decided that the only feasible plan was to print the book privately, and persuaded a printer-friend to make the plates and issue an author’s edition of five hundred copies. With the plates available he again sought a publisher, and at last persuaded Appletons to accept the book, the edition appearing early in 1880. Before the end of the year a second edition bound in paper was published. In 1881 the book was printed in serial form in Truth, a one-cent daily paper of fairly large circulation in New York. The first English edition appeared in 1881 and met with “astonishing success.” Two cheap paper editions appeared in England in 1882 and another in America in 1883. Translations soon began to be made. Thus it early became evident that the author’s confidence in his book was amply justified.  8
  This is not the place to undertake an exposition of Henry George’s views or to attempt a criticism of them. Suffice it to say that the publication of ‘Progress and Poverty’ marked the beginning of the present-day Single-Tax movement, and that the strength which the movement has developed is almost entirely due to the power and appeal of this book, coupled with the personality of its author. Henry George now (1880) moved to New York, and devoted the remainder of his life to spreading his gospel of land taxation. His activities carried him five times to England and once to Australia. He developed skill as a speaker so that his lecturing became perhaps as effective a tool for propaganda as his writings. His later books never attained the position of ‘Progress and Poverty,’ although his ‘Protection or Free Trade?’, published as part of the Congressional record, was circulated very widely. For a number of years he edited a weekly paper, the Standard, devoted to the interests of the Single Tax. Writing, lecturing, and editing, he set in motion forces which aroused interest in almost every civilized country.  9
  Early in life George had political ambitions, but these failed of realization. During his later years invitations to become a candidate for public office came to him several times, and he accepted because of the opportunity they offered to further his views on the land question. Thus in 1886 he became the labor candidate for Mayor of the city of New York, and ran second in a three-cornered fight which was won by Abram S. Hewitt. The following year he ran for Secretary of State of New York, but was badly defeated. Again in 1897 he was urged to become a candidate for Mayor, and, in spite of the fact that his health was broken and he was warned that to enter the contest would be highly dangerous, he consented and inaugurated a vigorous campaign. His strength proved adequate until five days before the election, but on October 28th, after an evening during which he delivered four addresses, he collapsed and suddenly died.  10
  Even twenty years after his death it is not an easy matter to appraise the influence and the value of the work of Henry George. He never was an economist’s economist, a fact which appears to have been a source of considerable disappointment to him. Although he won disciples by the thousand who accepted his book as a revelation and who labored for the accomplishment of his program with great fervor and devotion, the professional economists either ignored him or openly opposed him. Doubtless the explanation is partly that George’s fundamental theory was already familiar and that his criticisms of the classical political economy were attacks upon an explanation which was already realized to be inadequate. But probably more important was the conviction that George’s remedy was more serious than the disease; that his proposal was an attack upon what was after all a predominantly middle-class investment which would result in more evil than good. But if the economists have not felt themselves justified in hailing Henry George as the great and only prophet, they, as a class, have come to regard land as a peculiarly attractive subject for special taxation, and the various modified forms of George’s proposal have won a considerable number of adherents in academic circles.  11
  The value of George’s work is, however, not to be judged by the measure of its acceptance by economists. There is little doubt that the general movement toward land reform and the special taxation of land which looms so large in the modern programs of social reform should be mainly credited to the author of ‘Progress and Poverty.’ And although it appears to-day less probable than ever that the Single-Tax program will be adopted in the complete manner advocated by George, the tendency of progress in taxation is indisputably toward an arrangement which much more nearly approximates Henry George’s ideal than the existing system.  12
  The authorities mainly used are: ‘The Life of Henry George,’ by Henry George, Jr., (2 vols., Doubleday, Page and Co., 1911), and ‘The Single Tax Movement in the United States,’ by Arthur Nichols Young (Princeton University Press, 1916).  13
 
 
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