The Man Who Raised Hell

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George did not believe in state ownership of private property, and he considered Karl Marx “the prince of muddleheads.” There is nothing godless about his radicalism. Indeed, it is a radicalism that draws much of its energy from the conviction that God did not intend mankind to be miserable: “If an architect were to build a theater so that not more than one-tenth of the audience could see and hear, we would call him a bungler and a botch. If a man were to give a feast and provide so little food that nine-tenths of his guests must go away hungry, we would call him a fool, or worse. Yet so accustomed are we to poverty that even the preachers of what passes for Christianity tell us that the great Architect of the universe … has made such a botch job of this world that the vast majority of the human creatures whom He has called into it are condemned by the conditions He has imposed to want, suffering, and brutalizing toil. …”

The ideas of Henry George seemed especially threatening in 1886. Boycotts and strikes led by the Knights of Labor had been widespread in the hard times of 1884–85, and the unrest had culminated in a flurry of violence on May 3 and 4, 1886. On May 3, people had been killed when police intervened in a strike at the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company. The next day, seven policemen had died when a bomb exploded in their midst as they moved to break up a crowd that had gathered for a protest meeting in Haymarket Square in Chicago.

It was no wonder, then, that the candidacy of Henry George prompted Abram Hewitt to evoke “the horrors of the French Revolution and the atrocities of the Commune” and to denounce “the ideas of anarchists, nihilists, communists, socialists, and mere theorists”—with the clear implication that George could not deny being a theorist, though he might deny everything else.

The high point of the campaign was a speech that George made to an enormous crowd at the Cooper Union on October 5. “Why should there be such abject poverty in this city?” he asked. “There is one great fact that stares in the face any one who chooses to look at it. That fact is that the vast majority of men and women and children in New York have no legal right to live here at all. Most of us—ninety-nine percent at least—must pay the other one percent … for the privilege of staying here and working like slaves.”

George’s radicalism drew much of its energy from the conviction that God didn’t intend mankind to be miserable.

In New York, as in San Francisco, George suggested, real estate speculation allowed a few members of the community to build undeserved fortunes at the expense of the many: “Now, is there any reason for such over-crowding? There is plenty of room on this island. There are miles and miles and miles of land all around this nucleus. Why cannot we take that and build houses upon it for our accommodation? Simply because it is held by dogs in the manger who will not use it themselves nor allow anybody else to use it, unless he pays an enormous price for it—because what the Creator intended for the habitation of the people whom He called into being is held at an enormous rent or an enormous price.”

The solution, George argued, was simple—a single tax “on land exclusive of improvements, so that a man who is holding land vacant will have to pay as much for it as if he was using it.” This scheme would leave intact the right to the private ownership of property, and it would reward the landowner who has worked to improve his property. But it would not reward the speculator. “We propose,” George told the crowd in the Cooper Union, “to drive out the dog in the manger who is holding from you what he will not use himself.”

The election was held on November 2, 1886. Hewitt triumphed with 90,552 votes, to 68,140 for George and 60,435 for a chagrined Teddy Roosevelt. George and many of his supporters always believed that fraud at the polls cost them the election. “Of course,” the Tammany boss Richard Croker said years later, the city’s political establishment “could not allow a man like Henry George to be Mayor of New York. It would upset all their arrangements.”

Though it took place long ago, the election raised issues that continue to vex us. “The march of invention,” Henry George wrote in 1879, “has clothed mankind with powers of which a century ago the boldest imagination could not have dreamed. But … wherever the new forces are anything like fully utilized, large classes are maintained by charity or live on the verge of recourse to it; amid the greatest accumulations of wealth, men die of starvation and puny infants suckle dry breasts. … The promised land flies before us like the mirage. The fruits of the tree of knowledge turn, as we grasp them, to apples of Sodom that crumble at the touch.”

The rhetoric is old-fashioned, yet the association of poverty with progress remains, from one perspective,“the riddle which the Sphinx of fate puts to our civilization,” and Henry George remains a voice that American business would prefer to forget. In New York City in the winter of 1985–86, the only overt reminders were a few thousand people sleeping in the streets, at the same time that the stock market soared to record heights and executives who led their companies to disaster routinely floated to earth on million-dollar parachutes.

For a more detailed discussion of George’s life and ideas, see David Hapgood’s “The Tax to End All Taxes,” American Heritage, April 1978.