On October 5, 1886, Henry George accepted the nomination of the United Labor Party for the mayor of New York City. Although a quixotic effort, both labor’s attempt to create an alternative to the two party system and the reformist ideas of Henry George were emblematic of how Americans attempted to understand the shock of industrial capitalism during the Gilded Age.
The rise of industrial capitalism after the Civil War disturbed many Americans, not because they opposed capitalism but because they thought it was going to create a relatively fair system. The promises of free labor ideology turned out to be lies for most Americans, as the power of corporations to control all aspects of American life meant that both factory labor and farm labor were denied the fruits of their work.
Into this void came many ideas. Most Americans believed the system of capitalism worked, but that it just needed a single tweak to reconstitute the equality of opportunity they believed it would bring. As the analysis of capitalism was not very sophisticated among most native-born Americans, the solutions to these problems tended to focus on the one thing that we could do that would fix everything. That could be the 8-hour day, Chinese exclusion, Bellamyism. Obviously Marx and Engels, not to mention many other socialists, had developed far more complex analyses of the problems of capitalism, but those would not become prominent in the U.S. for another decade, as they tended to arrive with the waves of immigrants that would begin in the 1880s.
Henry George made one of the most important forays in solving the problem of industrial capitalism. George started his political life as a Lincoln supporting Republican in the Civil War but soon came to criticize the growing system of industrial capitalism, especially the dominance of railroads over American life, as well as the perfidious influence of Chinese labor on white wages. In 1879, George published Progress and Poverty, arguing for the Single Tax as the surest way to bring corporations under control. The single tax was a basic property tax. At its core was the idea that people earned the value of own their own labor, but that land was a common resource for all and should essentially be quasi-socialized with very high taxes on large landowners. George’s ideas quickly spread beyond the U.S. and were especially popular with the English and Scottish working classes, as well as the Irish resisting British domination.
Cartoon of Henry George fighting corruption, 1886
George had moved to New York in the early 1880s and became an obvious candidate when laborites and socialists decided to form a working class challenge to the duality of Tammany Democrats and plutocratic Republicans who both disdained a strong labor movement. His mayoral campaign generated a tremendous amount of enthusiasm. His campaign lasted less than a month, but he gave over 100 speeches around the city. Here is a bit from his acceptance speech, which you can read in full here. It gives you a good sense of George’s appeal:
See how we are crowded in New York. London has a population of 15,000 to the square mile. Canton, in crowded China, has 35,000 inhabitants within the same area. New York has 54,000 to the square mile, and leaving out the uninhabited portion it has a population of 85,000 to the square mile. In the Sixth Ward there is a population of 149,000 to the square mile; in the Tenth Ward, 276,000; in the Thirteenth, 224,000, including roads, yards, and all open places. Why, there is one block in this city that contains 2,500 living beings and every room in it a workshop. There is in one ward a tenement covering one quarter of an acre, which contains an average of 1,350 people. At that rate a square mile would contain 3,456,000. Nowhere else in the civilized world are men and women and children packed together so closely. As for children, they die almost as soon as they enter the world. In the district known as the Mulberry Bend, according to Commissioner Wingate’s report, there is an infant death-rate of 65 per cent, and in the tenement district he says that a large percentage of the children die before they are five years of age.
Now, is there any reason for such overcrowding? 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 they pay 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. Did you ever think, men of New York, what you pay for the privilege of living in this country? I do not ask what you pay for bricks and mortar and wood, but for rent, and the rent is mainly the rent of the land. Bricks and mortar and wood are of no greater value here than they are in Long Island or in Iowa. When what is called real estate advances it is the land that is getting more valuable; it is not the houses. All this enormous value that the growth of population adds to the land of this city is taken by the few individuals and goes for the benefit of the idle rich, who look down upon those who earn their living by their labor.
But what do we propose to do about it? We propose, in the first place, as our platform indicates, to make the buildings cheaper by taking the tax off buildings. We propose to put that 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, just upon the same principle that a man who goes to a hotel and hires a room and takes the key and goes away would have to pay as much for it as if he occupied the room and slept in it. In that way we propose to drive out the dog in the manger who is holding from you what he will not use himself. We propose in that way to remove this barrier and open the land to the use of labor in putting up buildings for the accommodation of the people of the city. (applause) I am called a Socialist. I am really an individualist. I believe that every individual man ought to have an individual wife, and is entitled to an individual home. (applause) I think it is monstrous, such a state of society as exists in this city. Why, the children, thousands and thousands, have no place to play. It is a crime for them to play ball in the only place in which they can play ball. It is an offence for them to fly their kites. The children of the rich can go up to Central Park, or out into the country in the summer time; but the children of the poor, for them there is no playground in the city but the streets; it is some charity excursion which takes them out for a day, only to return them again to the same sweltering condition.
The United Labor Platform also had a provision against police interference in strikes, a reaction to police repression during the Haymarket violence, not to mention the remembered police violence of Tompkins Square a decade prior. George faced a rising Republican by the name of Theodore Roosevelt, a man who also stood for reform, albeit of a different kind. The Democrats responded the George threat with Abram Hewitt, who attacked Roosevelt as a tool of the plutocrats and set himself as a responsible working class voice, claiming that socialists and anarchists controlled the ULP. In the end, Hewitt won with 41 percent of the vote. George finished second with 31 percent and Roosevelt trailed in third with 28 percent.
Anti-George image counseling labor to shed anarchists, 1886
This was an auspicious start for an independent labor political movement, but, like most 3rd party challenges in American history, it was made up of diverse forces that collapsed almost immediately after the election. Specifically, it split over socialism in 1887, with the expelled socialists creating an alternative political party. The ULP tried to revive in some form for several years, but it never again made a serious run as a real labor challenge to the 2-party system. George slowly migrated to the Democratic Party in the last years of his life, supporting Grover Cleveland because they both opposed high tariffs. George suffered a stroke in 1890, recovered enough to campaign for William Jennings Bryan in 1896, and then died of another stroke in 1897, a week before another mayoral election in New York where he became a candidate on an anti-Tammany Democratic ticket.
Henry George campaign poster, 1897
This is the 120th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.