Henry George and the Crisis of Inequality

Henry George and the Crisis of Inequality: Progress and Poverty in the Gilded Age

Edward T. O’Donnell
Copyright Date: 2015
Pages: 376
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/odon12000
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  • Book Info
    Henry George and the Crisis of Inequality
    Book Description:

    America's remarkable explosion of industrial output and national wealth at the end of the nineteenth century was matched by a troubling rise in poverty and worker unrest. As politicians and intellectuals fought over the causes of this crisis, Henry George (1839-1897) published a radical critique of laissez-faire capitalism and its threat to the nation's republican traditions.Progress and Poverty(1879), which became a surprise best-seller, offered a provocative solution for preserving these traditions while preventing the amassing of wealth in the hands of the few: a single tax on land values. George's writings and years of social activism almost won him the mayor's seat in New York City in 1886. Though he lost the election, his ideas proved instrumental to shaping a popular progressivism that remains essential to tackling inequality today.

    Edward T. O'Donnell's exploration of George's life and times merges labor, ethnic, intellectual, and political history to illuminate the early militant labor movement in New York during the Gilded Age. He locates in George's rise to prominence the beginning of a larger effort by American workers to regain control of the workplace and obtain economic security and opportunity. The Gilded Age was the first but by no means the last era in which Americans confronted the mixed outcomes of modern capitalism. George's accessible, forward-thinking ideas on democracy, equality, and freedom have tremendous value for contemporary debates over the future of unions, corporate power, Wall Street recklessness, government regulation, and political polarization today.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-53926-5
    Subjects: History, Sociology, Political Science, Economics

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  4. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. xvii-xxviii)

    More than a million people gathered in New York City on October 28, 1886, to witness the unveiling of the completed Statue of Liberty. Among those present were President Grover Cleveland, various members of Congress, representatives of the French government, and other foreign dignitaries. The theme of this grand civic occasion, as well as of the many speeches and editorials that marked it, was the celebration ofprogressand the health and vitality of the American republic. “We will not forget,” proclaimed the president, “that Liberty has here made her home.” The editors of theNew York Timesconcurred, gushing,...

  6. PART I. The Making of a Radical, 1839–1879

    • 1 “To Be Something and Somebody in the World”
      (pp. 3-32)

      Henry George was born in Philadelphia on September 2, 1839. His mother, Catherine Pratt Vallance, came from an old family from that city. His father, Richard Samuel Henry George, published religious books for the Episcopal Church.¹ Henry grew up in a tiny, two-story brick house on Tenth Street located, as George later recalled, “almost within the shadow of Independence Hall.” The Georges eventually moved when the house became too small for their ten children.²

      Philadelphia in the Age of Jackson was second only to New York City in terms of commerce and population. In the early decades of the nineteenth...

    • 2 “Poverty Enslaves Men We Boast Are Political Sovereigns”: PROGRESS AND POVERTY AND HENRY GEORGE’S REPUBLICANISM
      (pp. 33-66)

      As Henry George evolved as a radical reformer in the early 1870s, his personal life took a turn for the better. With Annie’s health finally restored and his career track firmly established for the moment, George sent for his family. Together after nearly two years of separation, they reestablished their happy home life in a house in San Francisco’s Mission District, not far from theDaily Post. Successful at last—not just financially, but in the realm of influencing public opinion as well—George was able to fulfill a goal he established for himself nearly ten years before in that...

  7. PART II. The Emergence of “New Political Forces,” 1880–1885

    • 3 “New York Is an Immense City”: THE EMPIRE CITY IN THE EARLY 1880s
      (pp. 69-96)

      It had been eleven years since Henry George’s last his visit to New York City, when the extremes of poverty and plenty so disturbed him. Now, as he detrained in Manhattan in August 1880, what did he see? What had changed since then? What had remained the same?

      To begin with, New York was bigger, both in terms of land mass (through annexations) and population (from 942,000 in 1870 to over 1.2 million in 1880). Across the East River, the nation’s third most populous city, Brooklyn, claimed nearly 600,000 residents (table 3.1). Physically, New York remained a city of red...

    • 4 “Radically and Essentially the Same”: IRISH AMERICAN NATIONALISM AND AMERICAN LABOR, 1879–1883
      (pp. 97-127)

      With the dawning of 1881, George’s optimism proved well founded. In early January, D. Appleton’s sent word that it had sold every copy ofProgress and Povertyand were preparing another printing. “At lastit begins to look as though it has really taken,” he wrote to a friend with a mixture of relief and cheerfulness. “My book is getting to be regarded here as thephenomenalone.” Indeed, it had achieved a unique status: no work on political economy had ever sold one thousand copies in America or Great Britain in its first year. Now that the general public...

    • 5 “Labor Built This Republic, Labor Shall Rule It”
      (pp. 128-166)

      In the fall of 1882, with the Irish Land League no more, Henry George set sail for New York City. His year in Ireland had been a spectacular success in terms of promoting his book and enhancing reputation in both Great Britain and America. If he did not realize it then, he would soon discover that his most enthusiastic following in the United States was among poor, urban workers. As soon as word spread that he was returning to the city, the CLU resolved to tender him a grand public reception upon his arrival.¹

      Patrick Ford, Robert Blissert, P. J....

  8. PART III. The Great Upheaval, 1886–1887

    • 6 “The Country Is Drifting into Danger”
      (pp. 169-200)

      In April 1886, the New York Academy of Design unveiled its spring exhibition of paintings and sculptures. Of the many pieces on display, one large painting drew particular attention from both critics and casual viewers alike. Robert Koehler’sThe Strikedepicted a vivid scene of industrial discontent inspired by events the artist witnessed during the Great Uprising of 1877. Set in an unidentified industrial town, the painting captures a moment of confrontation as workers pour out of a factory to gather outside the office of their employer. The work is fraught with tension and an atmosphere suggestive of impending violence....

    • 7 “To Save Ourselves from Ruin”
      (pp. 201-239)

      Within days of the CLU’s decision to consider reviving the United Labor Party, talk of a Henry George nomination began to circulate. On August 1,John Swinton’s Paperhit the newsstands with a banner headline calling upon organized labor to nominate Henry George for mayor:

      A fitter candidate could not be found. He is as true as steel. He embodies the aspirations of the masses. He is a worker, a printer, a unionist, a Knight of Labor, a man of business experience; and it will not be held against him that he is a native of the country, and the...

    • 8 “Your Party Will Go Into Pieces”
      (pp. 240-276)

      Although they lost the big prize, the city’s workers interpreted the astonishing tally of 68,110 votes against extreme odds and an active political machine working against them as a moral victory and maybe something more. “It was an unprecedented uprising of the working classes which shook this city,” optimistically declared John Swinton. “It was a revolt that signifies the opening of a new political era.” The election, he argued, raised the consciousness of the masses to the real source of their oppression, to the true meaning of democracy, to the full scope of their rights as citizens of a republic,...

  9. Epilogue
    (pp. 277-282)

    The disastrous ULP campaign of 1887 marked the end of one phase of Henry George’s public life and the dawning of another. For the next ten years, George focused on winning the hearts of the American middle class to his single tax program. Although the term never appeared inProgress and Povertyand was only used once or twice by George in passing until late 1887, it soon came to serve as the slogan of his movement. Apart from its simplicity, the term had the appeal, according to George, of dispelling the misapprehension that his plan involved socialist land confiscation....

  10. Notes
    (pp. 283-328)
  11. Index
    (pp. 329-348)