The Tax To End All Taxes

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Such was the message Henry George wanted to preach. When the commercial publication of Progress and Poverty was finally assured, George boldly moved to New York, without money or job, to launch his book and himself. As a later chronicler of the single-tax movement, the historian Arthur N. Young, observed: “Scarcely anything in the history of social reform movements is more remarkable than the spectacle of this unknown California printer setting foot in New York City in 1880, poor in pocket, equipped solely with a book and the consciousness of a message, to become the founder of a new world-wide crusade against world-old evils.” The author himself professed the utmost confidence, writing to his eighty-one-year-old father in Philadelphia that “it will ultimately be considered a great book, will be published in both hemispheres, and be translated into different languages.”

Against all odds, George was right. Within a year Progress and Poverty was widely noticed and began to sell as no book on political economy had ever sold before. It was published in England,and eventually it was translated into more than a dozen languages, including Chinese, unknown on his fortieth birthday, at forty-two the California printer was on his way to world fame. His short, stocky Rgure, with reddish beard and high balding forehead, became familiar on the lecture platform. In 1881 George went to England and Ireland on the first of many lecture tours; he was also the correspondent of the New York Irish World . The Irish, and English radicals opposed to the exploitation of the Irish by English landowners, were particularly receptive to his views on land. Shaw, who dropped in on one of George’s lectures by accident, credited the event with making him a socialist, and most of the members of the reform-socialist Fabian Society came there by way of an earlier exposure to Henry George.

By 1884 George was churning out articles, writing his next book, Protection or Free Trade? , and lecturing to working-class audiences, many of whom had read the cheap edition of Progress and Poverty . His working-class support led to his race for mayor of New York in 1886. Although Samuel Gompers, head of the newly founded American Federation of Lahor, was one of his converts, labor was less interested in the single tax than in the idea that George was the only person who had a chance of defeating the dreary offerings of the two-party system. George didn’t particularly want to be mayor, but he saw an opportunity to “raise hell.” When the union leaders approached him, he said that, as a guarantee against “ignominious failure,” he would only run if they could produce thirty thousand signatures on a petition, a huge number at the time. The unions collected thirty-four thousand signatures, and Henry George formally accepted the nomination at the Great Hall of Cooper Union. The Democrats coughed up a relatively respectable figure, Abram S. Hewitt, and the Republicans nominated a rising young patrician politician named Theodore Roosevelt.

Now, Henry George in public office, mayor of the nation’s leading city, was quite a different matter from Henry George in the bookstores and on the lecture platform. Wealthy and landed interests joined against such a clear and present danger. All the press was against George, except the Irish World and the German-language Volkeszeitung , a socialist paper, though some reporters on the major papers moonlighted without pay on a pro-George campaign paper called The Leader . The Republicans were advised to withdraw Roosevelt in order to prevent George from winning, for if he did, in Hewitt’s words, they might as well “go out onto Henry George’s unoccupied lands and hang themselves.”

George ran vigorously, speaking to enthusiastic street crowds from the tailboards of carts. But in those days when each candidate had to supply his own watch over the vote counting, he suffered from a fatal handicap that had been diagnosed earlier by a Democratic party worker: “How can George win? He has no inspectors of election.” On Election Day, the returns showed George second, with 68,110 votes, only twice his number of petition signatures. Hewitt, the Democrat, came in first with 90,552 votes, and Roosevelt was third with 60,435. The consensus was that the election had been stolen, like others in the city’s history, and an expert in the RcId, Tammany boss Richard Croker, later commented: “Of course they could not allow George to win. It would upset all their arrangements.”