The Man Who Raised Hell

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The unveiling of the Statue of Liberty was not the only event that stirred the passions of New Yorkers in 1886. That year also was marked by one of the most exciting may-oral contests in the city’s history—a contest that pitted one of the city’s foremost business leaders against one of the nation’s fiercest critics of business, with a future President thrown in for fun.

The candidates were a businessman turned congressman, Abram S. Hewitt, for the Democratic party; a twenty-eight-year-old firebrand named Theodore Roosevelt for the Republican party; and the author and reformer Henry George for the newly organized Labor party.

With his partner Edward Cooper (the son of the manufacturer and philanthropist Peter Cooper), Hewitt had introduced the first American open-hearth furnace in 1862 and had made the first American steel in 1870. A man of immense wealth and progressive views, he had helped to overthrow the notorious Tweed Ring in 1871 and had run his steelworks at a loss to protect the jobs of his employees during the depression years of 1873–78.

Roosevelt had been elected minority leader of the New York State Assembly at twenty-four and, at twenty-six, in 1884, had chaired a special committee of the legislature to investigate local government in New York City and County. Though more than a decade had passed since Boss Tweed had been dethroned, the committee had found that the city’s government remained “absolutely appalling.” Roosevelt had made headline after headline with evidence of “blackmail and extortion” in the surrogate’s office, “gross abuses” in the sheriff’s office, “no system whatever” in the Tax and Assessments Department, “hush money” paid to policemen, and an “undignified squabble for the spoils of office” in the Parks Department.

But it was Henry George, the hurler of some of the most powerful antibusiness thunderbolts in our history, who brought to the campaign the passion that makes it interesting a century later. When representatives of Tammany Hall tried to persuade him not to run on the grounds that “you cannot be elected, but your running will raise hell,” George replied: “You have relieved me of embarrassment. I do not want the responsibility and the work of the office of the Mayor of New York, but I do want to raise hell!”

Born in Philadelphia in 1839, the second of ten children, George had dropped out of school at thirteen and had survived a hard youth that included stints as an errand boy, a seaman, and a gold prospector. He was established as a journalist and editor in San Francisco when, on a trip to New York City in the winter of 1868–69, he “saw and recognised for the first time the shocking contrast between monstrous wealth and debasing want.” The contrast became the subject of the book that made him famous, Progress and Poverty , published in 1879.

New York made a profound impression on George: “In the progress of new settlements to the conditions of older communities,” he wrote a decade after his visit, “it may clearly be seen that material progress does not merely fail to relieve poverty; it actually produces it. In the United States it is clear that squalor and misery, and the vices and crimes that spring from them, everywhere increase as the village grows to the city.”

But what caused squalor and splendor to exist side by side in a city like New York? George had not known in 1869, but a year later, riding in the hills near San Francisco, he thought he found the answer. The population in the area was growing, a railroad was coming, and speculation had caused the price of land to soar: “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 more for the privilege. I turned back, amidst quiet thought, to the perception that … has been with me ever since.”

Out of that moment of quiet thought came, nine years later, one of the most fiery books in American literature. No one who read Progress and Poverty could doubt where its author stood: “This association of poverty with progress is the great enigma of our times. … So long as all the increased wealth which modern progress brings goes but to build up great fortunes, to increase luxury, and make sharper the contrast between the House of Have and the House of Want, progress is not real and cannot be permanent. The reaction must come. The tower leans from its foundations, and every new story but hastens the final catastrophe.”

In Social Problems , a collection of essays published in 1883, George continued his assault on the established order. A gift for vivid metaphor animated the attack:

“Did you ever see a pail of swill given to a pen of hungry hogs? That is human society as it is.

“Did you ever see a company of well-bred men and women sitting down to a good dinner … each, knowing that his own appetite will be satisfied, deferring to and helping the others? That is human society as it might be.”