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The Man Who Raised Hell

May 2024
6min read

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.”

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.

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