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Where Is Henry George Now That We Need Him?
April/May 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 3
This California was to be George’s home for the next twenty years. Gold was still being discovered around the West, and soon after his arrival George set out for the latest reported strike, on the Fraser River in British Columbia, in the first of three unsuccessful mining ventures. Back in San Francisco, he found work as a printer at sixteen dollars a week, but nine dollars went for room and board at the respectably all-male What Cheer House, which, he wrote home, had a good library. The job was the first of many: the times were restless, and George was a particularly restless man.
In 1860, at twenty-one, he cast his first vote—for Lincoln (but, like Californians in general, he did not take part in the ensuing Civil War). A year later he married Annie Fox, an Australian-born orphan. The marriage was close and lifelong, and they had four children. George evidently enjoyed their respect, since two of them wrote biographies of their father and a third sculpted his bust. In their accounts, Henry George as parent comes through as impatient but affectionate, interested but absent-minded.
The first years of married life were hard. George kept losing or leaving jobs, his ventures in the printing business were all wrecked in the recurring storms that afflicted California’s economy, and the family moved so often that, he observed, they seldom had to clean house. One of George’s failures, a job-printing firm he started on a shoestring with two partners, left the couple—with one child, and a second on the way—in particularly difficult circumstances. On Christmas Day, 1S04, George wrote in the diary he intermittently kept: “Feel that I am in a bad situation, and must use my utmost effort to keep alloat and go ahead. … Saw landlady and told her I was not able to pay rent.” Mrs. George sold all her jewelry except her wedding ring, and persuaded the milkman to provide milk in exchange for printed cards. George recalled that “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.” There was no food in the home, and George went out on a desperate search for money. As he described it, “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.”
George never had to kill anyone, for he soon began picking up enough work as a substitute printer to support the family, though he was in and out of debt for many years. The privation that he had undergone when unable to find work in wealthy California had a profound effect on his thinking, as soon became evident, because around this time George began to write. His first published effort was a letter to the editor of Journal of the Trades and Workingmen in which he asked if it were possible to “check the tendency of society to resolve itself into classes who have too much or too little,” a question that was to be his lifelong concern. Another piece, a rather feverish editorial on Lincoln’s assassination, got George his first reporting assignments. He began attending political meetings, at one of which he spoke out in favor of free trade, the subject of one of his later books. Soon he was a typesetter, then a reporter, and finally a managing editor of the San Francisco Times , a job that lasted until August, 1868.
Later that year the San Francisco Herald sent George to New York to try to arrange for wire news service. The experience left a deep impression. George got a firsthand lesson in how the game of monopoly was played. The Associated Press, then the only wire service, refused the Herald ’s application, and when George enterprisingly started an independent news service, the AP arranged for Western Union, also a monopoly, to raise its rates for news transmission high enough to put the interloper out of business. The city taught him other lessons, too: “The contrast of luxury and want that I saw in New York appalled me, and I left for the West feeling that there must be a cause for this, and that if possible I would find out what it was.”
Back in California, George found his answer. Out riding in the hills near San Francisco, he “asked a passing teamster … what land was worth there. He pointed to some cows grazing off so far 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 [then an outlandish price for farm land].’ Like a Hash 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 then came to me and has been with me ever since.”