Henry George(1839 – 1897) is a progressive hero that has been largely forgotten by time.  In his heyday, he was one of the most famous living Americans in the World.  Surpassed by only Thomas Edison and Mark Twain.  His most famous book was translated into dozens of languages and sold 3 million copies in his lifetime.  He was invited to speak and lecture all over the country and world, and his writings appeared in newspapers across the nation.  At his funeral in 1897, 200,000 paid their respects by filing past his casket(as a comparison, when President McKinley was assassinated 4 years later, only about 100,000 people filed past his casket.  So how did a 19th century printer, living in San Francisco , with no more than a 7th grade education become so famous?  And why was he forgotten?

Henry George went on a quest to find out why there is poverty among so much progress and wealth.  The result of his quest was a book called Progress and Poverty.  He started writing in 125 years this month.  Except for some anachronisms, the book could be mistaken for being written in any decade between then and now.  If you read it today, you could easily think it was written last year .  All the problems he describes are still problems today.  All the excuses that he debunks as causes for these problems are still repeated today.  Here is the opening of Progress and Poverty.

THE NINETEENTH CENTURY saw an enormous increase in the ability to produce wealth. Steam and electricity, mechanization, specialization, and new business methods greatly increased the power of labor.

Who could have foreseen the steamship, the railroad, the tractor? Or factories weaving cloth faster than hundreds of weavers? Who could have heard the throb of engines more powerful than all the beasts of burden combined? Or envisioned the immense effort saved by improvements in transportation, communication, and commerce?…


…Yet we must now face facts we cannot mistake. All over the world, we hear complaints of industrial depression: labor condemned to involuntary idleness; capital going to waste; fear and hardship haunting workers. All this dull, deadening pain, this keen, maddening anguish, is summed up in the familiar phrase “hard times.”

Does that not sound like it could’ve been written last year?  Change the century and replace the inventions with more recent inventions like robotics and computers, and this could be an Op-Ed in yesterday’s New York Times.

Henry George described the conditions of the poor as, in many ways, worse than ancient man.

Nevertheless, no one who faces the facts can avoid the conclusion that — in the heart of our civilization — there are large classes that even the sorriest savage would not want to trade places with. Given the choice of being born an Australian aborigine, an arctic Eskimo, or among the lowest classes in a highly civilized country such as Great Britain, one would make an infinitely better choice in selecting the lot of the savage.

Those condemned to want in the midst of wealth suffer all the hardships of savages, without the sense of personal freedom. If their horizon is wider, it is only to see the blessings they cannot enjoy. I challenge anyone to produce an authentic account of primitive life citing the degradation we find in official documents regarding the condition of the working poor in highly civilized countries.

Today, conservatives berate the poor for having cell phones and TVs.  They use it as evidence that poverty is not a problem in America.  Henry George had an insightful response that is still relevant to this day.

Yes, in certain ways, the poorest now enjoy what the richest could not a century ago. But this does not demonstrate an improvement — not so long as the ability to obtain the necessities of life has not increased. A beggar in the city may enjoy many things that a backwoods farmer cannot. But the condition of the beggar is not better than that of an independent farmer. What we call progress does not improve the condition of the lowest class in the essentials of healthy, happy human life. In fact, it tends to depress their condition even more.

Henry George was very progressive when it came to other cultures.  At the time, it was common to blame poverty on nature or racism.  For instance, the Irish were too dumb when they depended so heavily on potatoes, India and China were overpopulated.  These were popular myths for why these countries were or had so many poor.  Henry George demolished all of them.  All he had to do was point out how well off the elites were in each of these countries.

Another popular explanation of why the poor were poor, was based on good old fashioned classism.  That is, the poor are poor because they are lazy, criminally inclined, or just generally rude(sound familiar?).  Henry George had a great retort for these people too.

In society as presently constituted, people are greedy for wealth because the conditions of distribution are so unjust. Instead of each being sure of enough, many are condemned to poverty. This is what causes the rat race and the scramble for wealth. An equitable distribution of wealth would exempt everyone from this fear. It would destroy greed for wealth, as greed for food is destroyed in polite society.

On crowded steamers, manners often differed between cabin and steerage, illustrating this principle of human nature. Both had enough food. However, steerage had no regulations to insure efficient service, so meals became a scramble. In cabin, on the contrary, each was assigned a place, and there was no fear of not getting enough to eat. There was no scrambling and no waste. The difference was not in the character of the people, but simply in the arrangements. A cabin passenger transferred to steerage would participate in the greedy rush; a steerage passenger transferred to cabin would become respectful and polite.

In other words, the negative behavior attributed to the poor is not the reason they are poor.  Rather, the behavior is a result of being poor.  This argument, and all other arguments boiled down to a refutation of Social Darwinism.  The crude theory that the poor are poor because they suck, and the rich are rich because they are awesome.  Henry George expertly busted this mythology that the elite told themselves.

Finally, the reason I call Henry George the “First Progressive” isn’t just because he argued against Social Darwinism.  The reason is because he was the first popular figure to do so, that didn’t blame capitalism and turn to a marxist solution to solve the problem.  From his preface to the fourth edition to Progress and Poverty.

What I have done in this book is to unite the truth perceived by Smith and Ricardo with the truth perceived by Proudhon and Lassalle.  I have shown that laissez faire—in its full, true meaning—opens the way for us to realize the noble dreams of socialism.

He blamed what he called the “Land Monopoly”.  The details, and his solution, to the problem are too long for this already long post.  Just to give you an idea, he redefined the class fight from being capitalists VS. workers as Marx did, to Land(and other) Monopolists VS.  “real capitalists”workers.  His book is an easy read and is free on the web and as a pdf.  I think you’ll enjoy it if you give it a chance.(my only recommendation is to skip chapter 5 in book III – it’s a little convoluted)

As for why he has been largely forgotten, I can only speculate.  Maybe because he billed himself as an “economist” yet he expounded on classic political economy.  At the time of his writing, the world of economics was moving onto the “neoclassical” economics that we are more familiar with today.  Maybe the elite wanted us to forget about him.  Unlike figures like Adam Smith and Thomas Jefferson, they couldn’t “rehabilitate” his legacy to make him appear as a conservative.  Perhaps it is as innocent as later economic figures like John Maynard Keynes over shadowing his legacy.

Whatever the reason for Henry George being forgotten, it certainly isn’t because his work is no longer relevant, nor is it because his proposed solution was a bad idea(ever city, state, or province that has tried it has had enormous growth).    Here’s to remembering a man that deserves to be remembered.

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19 comments on “Henry George, The First Progressive

  1. Henry George was a tool of the money power. His emphasis on land was a distraction from the currency swindle. His activities resulted in a weakened labor movement. George was an opportunist team player not a bona fide labor leader. He betrayed the Haymarket defendants and sold his name to a scab cigar. You can’t believe the biographies written by his family and disciples. You can’t understand why a conservative house like Appleton would publish his books unless you understand the historical context of 1877 USA. The nationwide Great Insurrection was blazing in July, 1877 when George and his team of lawyers wrote Progress and Poverty. The Greenback movement was in full swing. George was a safe alternative to these two threats to the money power.

  2. One of the things that keeps us locked into the false choice between monopoly capitalism and monopoly socialism is the vitriolic attacks from both sides against those who advanced alternatives to either.

    Jesse’s comments fit that description and are confused, to say the least. George was closely supported by the Knights of Labor, led by Terence Powderly, which was by far the largest labor organization of the era. George was far kinder to the Haymarket Anarchists than Powderly was. Powderly’s own strike was destroye by these anarchist “supporters.”

    Progressives were generally at odds with anarchists and socialists, who used violence and militancy to greatly exaggerate their own importance. Werner Sombart, the most influential socialist of the time, made this clear when he wrote,

    [If Capitalism leads inevitably to socialism] the country with the most advanced capitalist development, namely the United States, would at the same time be the one providing the classic case of Socialism, and its working class would be the supporters of the most radical of Socialist movements. However, one hears just the opposite of this asserted from all sides and in all sorts of tones (of complaint if by Socialists, of exultation if spoken by their opponents); it is said there is absolutely no Socialism among the American working class and that those who in America pass as Socialists are a few broken-down Germans without any following.”


    Also, George had no “team of lawyers” and almost no following at all when he wrote Progress and Poverty. As for the money power, he denounced the gold standard and the creation of money by banks, and strongly supported the debt-free Greenback. He campaigned for William Jennings Bryan, while acknowledging that adding a silver standard was a compromise.

    Finally, the Haymarket trial transcripts are online. Those who think these anarchists were framed can read the whole thing, or search on the word “dynamite” for a real eye-opener. There are documents that the anarchists themselves admitted printing that clearly call for forms of violence that closely resembled the Haymarket bombing. They are just as thinly disguised as a Mafiosa comment like, “It would be a pity if something would happen to your family.”

    The bottom line is that right-wingers denounce him as socialist and left-wingers denounce him as capitalist. To anyone interested in transcending dogma, this alone should make him worth a second look.

  3. Thanks for bringing up Henry George’s relevance to today’s issues.
    Just a few clarifications:
    (1) The text reproduced above is actually from Bob Drake’s 2006 modernization of George’s 1879 classic Progress & Poverty. Drake described his text as a “thought by thought translation” into modern English. The original 1879 text is at http://www.econlib.org/library/YPDBooks/George/grgPP.html
    (2) George was a greenbacker too, tho he saw land as the more important monopoly. See http://www.monetary.org/henry-george%E2%80%99s-concept-of-money-and-its-application-to-21st-century-monetary-reform/2010/12 for details.
    (3) Why is Henry George “largely forgotten” today? Probably because his ideas were too dangerous. Mason Gaffney asserts that the main purpose of neoclassical economics was to obscure Henry George’s ideas. See http://w.masongaffney.org/publications/K1Neo-classical_Stratagem.CV.pdf.
    (4) As for “why a conservative house like Appleton would publish” Progress & Poverty, in fact the first publication was a small printing done by George and his colleagues in San Francisco. Appleton agreed to publish only because the plates were already made.

  4. You are obviously not a genuine threat to the existing order if you:

    *Get published by Appleton
    *Get funded by the richest man in america’s attorney who also happens to be the shadiest lawyer in the country
    *Get welcomed into the exclusive New York Reform Club, a collective brown nose to wealth.
    *Get trotted out all over England and Ireland and praised by the London Times.
    *Get in good with Henry Ward Beecher, William Lloyd Garrison Jr., and other major shills for money.
    *Get recruited by the Democratic party
    *Get invited to Delmonicos for a wealth-only party in your honor
    *Get published in the North American Review
    *Ignore the crime of 1873 and subsequent depession, leaving alone the money masters who caused this and only when the people have started insurrection, point out the land owners as scapegoats
    *Betray the priest who was defrocked and excommunicated for supporting you.
    *Betray organized labor including selling your name to a scab cigar
    *Promote ad hominem landlord attacks in Ireland while fighting against working class agitation at home
    *Change party loyalty and editorial position as you change newspaper jobs
    *Shill for the Democratic party in exchange for a cushy patronage job
    *Plagiarize the work of Patrick Edward Dove and others and claim it as your own
    *Fire the workers on your paper who sympathize with labor
    *Switch your main message from land reform to free trade to please your paymasters
    *Avoid the currency issue and deny its importance.
    *Slander Dennis Kearney and Benjamin Butler, bona fide working class political leaders
    *Speak and write against working class solidarity in every form
    *Avoid mentioning the great strike of 1877 even though you started writing your book as it was going on and a main message in your book is how strikes are ineffectual as agents of reform
    *Hob nob with the political elite in Britain including the Prime Minister.
    *Claim that you had no idea notorious lawyer Thomas Shearman, your funder and handler, was less than a perfect gentleman, when everybody knew he bribed judges
    *Base a refom movement on donations from the wealthy, and directions from their lawyers

    • I think you need to start providing links or citations. If you can’t provide any to support your assertions, no one is going to bother listening to you or bother even trying to debunk them.

  5. Most of Jesse’s accusations are blatantly false, more are misleading, some are trivial and the rest are just silly. Still, if you make enough empty charges, people cannot possibly answer them all without bogging down the discussion. That seems to be the strategy of polarizers from both left and right – make so many superficial attacks that the conversation degrades and people turn their attention elsewhere.

    All Jesse has demonstrated is that he is a very angry man.

  6. You need an accurate picture of America in 1877 when HG and his “helpers” wrote P and P.

    By trying to understand the life of George, I learned a great deal more about American life in his time. The greatest power on earth and by extension within the US at the time was the British Empire. The Empire had a tremendous stake in the US: in ownership direct and through stocks and bonds and also because the US was an upstart geo-political rival. In the global game played by BE, potential enemies are inflitrated and controlled before they get bigger and more powerful. It’s the same game played today by the US. The point of the BE was not necessarily direct political conquest and administration of other peoples/lands ala the Roman Empire. It was economic control that may or may not include poltical administration. The guys pulling the strings in London were capitalists. They wanted return on investment. They didn’t care how they got it; didn’t care what flag flew over the post office as long as they could own assets and get paid. If the Brits were directly in charge as in India, or simply pulling the strings, as in the US, it was all the same to the big shots in London. In 1877 the US had no international game except trade. No military presence overseas, no colonies, possessions. OTOH, the Brits had been playing global chess for centuries, first in their own backyard, then on the European continent and then the rest of the planet, wherever they could extract return on investment. There is no question they were directly involved inside the US; bribing, murdering, scheming, buying, blackmailing, lying, etc. They had motive, means, opportunity. Huge close base of ops in Canada. Big willing traitor cell with the NE Tories. Massive investment in US. Common language. Ease of movement inside the US. Nothing could be easier for british intelligence ops in 1877 than gadding about the US carrying out their schemes for control of the country. Nothing could be more urgently vital to their interests to do so. It’s a no brainer.

    So we have the Brits at the top of the food chain in the US. Then there are the home-grown plutocrats, although it would have been near impossible for any really rich guys in the US to be totally free from influence of Brit capitalists. London was the financial hub of the world. All international trade went through London. Its influence was inescapable if you were into banking, international trade, publicly traded stocks and bonds, etc.

    The way government works in a powerful capitalist system is that the rich guys get to run the government. Money talks. Not only in domestic areas like taxation and labor laws but also in foreign policy including spooky intelligence ops. Toppling leaders, bribing officials, assassinations, blackmail, public opinion control through news outlets, colleges, preachers. The capitalists in London tell the pols what they want done in some foreign land and then the secret agents get to work. And really in 19th Century America it was child’s play for them. We had little internal counter intelligence; plenty of liberal freedoms and nearly open immigration. It was wide open. The climate of greed worked for them. They had the money to buy and bribe to get what they wanted. It’s really a credit to their overreaching control that the idea of British infiltration and control in the US sounds so weird at first hearing. They’re our BFF even though we had a few family spats in the past. Right.

    So if you have a dominant secret power structure, you can assume that just about every important area in that system is initiated, approved, or tolerated by the dominant power. Or it belongs to the bona fide opposition that is fighting that power. There really is no middle ground. The DP is not going to simply allow something important to happen. Either they want it to happen or they are fighting it. In American history there is really one main power at odds with the DP and that is the labor movement. At times we can also count various patriotic elements. And of course both the labor movement and patriots were infiltrated by agents of the DP. So where does HG line up? He was obviously important. Somebody was spending a lot of money on his career, using a lot of ink, shipping him hither and yon to spread his message. Whose side was he on? He said he was the friend of labor. He was a candidate of the United Labor Party. He claimed to be a card carrying member of the printers union.

    We can’t simply say he was on nobody’s side. Impossible. Not in that place and time. Nobody rises that quickly to that prominence without either being in the pocket of the DP or by being at the forefront of opposition to the DP. He was either a vital threat to the DP and got as far as he did through support of the working class, or he was a tool of the DP. There is no third alternative.

    Henry George preached an alternative to the labor movement and an alternative to the anti-banker movement. He gathered to himself middle class would-be intellectuals who were essential to either side of the battle. If the MCI sit on the fence or side with the richies the labor movement is screwed. Labor movement needs leaders, writers, sympathizers that come from the middle class.

    The DP strategy to kill the power of labor:
    Isolate labor from middle class. make them look terrorist, crazy radical foreign.
    Give middle class would be revolutionaries something safe to support, debate, read up on.
    Hang a few labor leaders to scare off supporters.
    Infiltrate LM with Pinkertons to act as spies and agents provocateurs. Make LM look bad.
    Change to Australian ballot to make elections a personal act. Remove the group rally party atmosphere from elections. Out with the torchlight parades, monster meetings, party tickets.
    Create a safe stable center position for all the cowardly types who need to ease their consciences about not doing anything for justice.
    Reign in the most reactionary forces: the old self-righteous Puritan propertarians who only fan the flames of insurrection with their almighty bullshit. Promote moderate teachings from press, professors, preachers.
    Throw a few inexpensive bones to the masses to make it looks like things are getting better: enter Progressivism.

  7. Well, even in terms of George, you might disabuse yourself of your anti-union, pro-railroad view of him if you read “What the Railroads Will Bring Us,” in which he showed that the coming of rail would make rich Californians richer and poor Californians poorer.

    In Our Land and Land Policy,, published 6 years before the railroad violence in Pennsylvania, he decried massive grants to the Railroads, launching an independent progressive movement in California.

    In “Peace By Standing Army,” he protested Grover Cleveland’s calling the national guard against railroad strikers.

    Throughout his career, he opposed railroad and streetcar monopolies. Yes, his biggest financial supporter, Tom Johnson, had made his fortune in streetcar monopoolies, but donated most of that fortune to the cause and ended up with far less money than he had when George convinced him that he was living off of privilege. Johnson became mayor of Cleveland, has been ranked the second-best mayor in American History, and is Dennis Kucinich’s personal hero. His autobiography is especially enlightening.

  8. My view of George is that he was a rather vicious opportunist who said whatever he felt was expedient in advancing his own fame and fortune. That said, I can’t rely on his own words or those of his family. I have to look at his actions and the kinds of people he took money and direction from. I have to look at the consequences of his actions to discover what kind man he was.

  9. So, you are judging what he said as being expedient, but without examining his own words? If you did follow his actual words, you would see an amazing consistency. And if you examined his actions via biographers that were not of his family, you would see that he did not take directions from anyone.

    He stood fast against those who advocated violence, which made him a lightning rod for the embittered fringe. When you talk about “taking directions” your previous comments imply that you mean from Thomas Shearman. However, Shearman was a gold bug, and George denounced gold bugs.

    There is a problem in dealing with this embittered fringe, in that a person who rebukes them cannot merely be disagreeing or even merely be wrong. He must be selling out, becoming a capitalist tool, and so on.

    The fact is that the labor movement in this country was neither socialist nor anarchist, but progressive. Progressives opposed monopoly, while socialists welcomed it as a step toward the ultimate monopoly of socialism. Progressives opposed privilege, while anarchists proposed law. Progressives advocated reasoning toward a harmonious relationships of all, while anarchists and socialists agitated for class warfare.

    George was no anarchist or socialist, and can be condemned by those who judge everything against anarchist and socialist dogma. But the same is true of Powderly, who headed the largest labor organization, and of Gompers, whose American Federation of Labor displaced the Knights of Labor (with Powderly’s cooperation).

    The progressive movement, which grew out of the abolitionist movement, was based on uniquely American values – values that anarchists and socialists denounced as bourgeois. Contrary to the title of this article, I do not think George was the first progressive, but he was the foremost progressive economist.

  10. George’s inconsistencies:

    Democrat to Republican to Democrat to United Labor Party to Democrat

    Pro-socialist to anti-socialist

    Support for the Haymarket defendants to support for murdering them.

    For Father McGlynn to against Father McGlynn

    Pro labor to anti-labor

    Denouncing both major parties as hopelessly corrupt to joining the Democrats

    For Grover Cleveland to against Cleveland

    Leader of the United Labor Party, promising to never abandon it to totally abandoning it two months later.

    Demanding full LVT to advocating taxing a fraction of land value.

    Support for the Workingmen’s Party of California to denouncing the WPC.

    Preaching LVT as the first and most important reform and then switching to free trade as first priority

  11. Henry George was playing a game. He wanted to get rich and famous. He wanted a job. All his life he avoided pissing off the upper people who could help him. He took favors from them. He tried to help them. He let a bunch of lawyers coach him and help him write a book the lawyers wanted written. Henry’s role was to pretend to be on the side of the downtrodden working class. But the lawyers didn’t want somebody who would rally the workers together to demand immediate changes in their working conditions or in the laws. The lawyers wanted somebody to appeal to working men in a way that would sound good to them but wouldn’t get them organizing and demanding immediate relief. The lawyers decided that Henry should say that the system needs changing but that it may take some time and the best way to change is not to rally together and demand anything but to calmly discuss ways to improve the system until enough people see how good the improvements would be and then people will vote for the changes and all will be well. Far from a rabble-rouser, Henry will be a kind of intellectual idea guy who will propose a change in the tax laws which will start a chain reaction that will cure poverty. Because it’s an intellectual project, that leaves out most working men who either are too stupid to understand the theories or too busy working 60 hours a week to study up on it. The new movement therefore should be aimed at middle class guys who have the money and leisure time to study and discuss. After this class is won over to the new ideas will they lead the workers to the promised land.

    This scheme promised to never go anywhere as far as real reform but it could do a lot to divert attention away from working class efforts that put real pressure on elites.

  12. Henry George was a common man trying to succeed or maybe even make it big. He admires big shots for being successful and thinks the average laborer a brute. He’d like to become a respected comfortable member of the community and hang around with liberal intellectuals, maybe get a professor gig, write books, lecture, be admired, talked about; be an economic guru that doesn’t actually run for office but is the wise man of a reform movement. He supplies truth to the middle class leaders of the masses. Change comes peacefully by degrees as more thinkers are converted to the truth of his message. The truth comes through so irresistably because he expresses it with awesome logic and beautiful orginization. That’s who he wants to be.

    On one hand he is outraged by injustice and hates the rich. On the other hand he will pander to the rich to get ahead. He secretly envies them and want to join their class. He thrills to hobnob with the better sort of men and avoid the stink of the common rabble. In the system in which he lives the ruling class is brutal but a few of the lower orders have made the jump. This gives false hope to the millions. Our guy is one of them. George has a run of the mill middle class set of values and hopes. On the practical side, he wants to be successful, make money, get respect, provide for his family. He sees himself in the middle class of intellectuals. He wants to make good. He doesn’t see himself as the direct champion of labor or the underclass as much as a guy who would rally the middle class to a new idea. This in turn would naturally translate into political action and a better life for every producer including the least skilled.

    The lawyer group seduces George with this vision: This is who you are meant to be. Certain key men arrive in history at the right time and only need the courage to move into their pivitol position. You are called to be a great leader of vision, logic, justice. Not a demagogue pandering to the masses, stirring up hatreds, fanning passions of envy and revenge. Rather, you are a messiah of hope, calling your middle class intellectual brethern to take up the pen and the ballot. They will spread your message and disciples will spring up everywhere the word is disseminated. These others will give money and time and words to speed your gospel around the world. Change will come slowly but will surely come. You will be lionized as the prophet of a new millenium; the father of a beautiful new day for the human race. Songs, poems, plaques and statues will be made in your honor. School children will be taught that in the latter half of the nineteeth century a great thinker rose up and changed the world forever, lifting the burden of workers and ushering in a new era of prosperity and harmony. His name was Henry George.

  13. Jesse, I have no idea who you are, but from your comments I can’t believe you have actually read Progress and Poverty, in any edition. George was not perfect. and had some prejudices prevalent of his time, but this does not downgrade the genius of his thinking. I also find it strange that you psychoanalyze
    the motivations and character of man who died more than a hundred years ago and who you have never met. More than that you seem to have no idea of the basic philosophy presented.

  14. Hello, Clay. It’s OK if you don’t agree with my opinions including my opinion on Henry George’s state of mind. Just like it’s OK for Don Sullivan to give his opinion on my state of mind. He thinks I’m a very angry man. Here’s a few of the pertinent texts I have read:

    Progress and Poverty
    Protection or Free Trade, Henry George
    The Land Question, Henry George
    A Perplexed Philosopher, Henry George
    Social Problems, Henry George
    The Land Question, Henry George
    The Science of Political Economy, Henry George
    Henry George’s Thought, edited by Wenzer
    Single Land Tax Thought, edited by Wenzer
    The Life of Henry George, Henry George, Jr.


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