George, Henry (1839–1897)

Henry George, an American economist and social reformer, promoted a tax on land values that became known as the Single Tax. George advocated abolishing existing property taxes and tariffs and, instead, imposing a single tax or rent on the unimproved value of the land. George sought to encourage investment in new buildings and industrial facilities and to discourage land speculation and the concentration of land ownership. George died in 1897 after the peak of Populist protest had waned.

An 1869 conflict with the Associated Press and Western Union contributed to George's disdain for monopolies. The California Press Association and a rival publisher controlled access to the Associate Press wire and made access too expensive for George's employer and several other San Francisco newspapers. George's employer sent him to New York City to negotiate directly with the wire service. George failed to obtain favorable terms and tried to circumvent the syndicate. He made an arrangement for a Pennsylvania newspaper to send wire news to San Francisco using Western Union. The telegraph company, closely aligned with the Associated Press, a relationship of which George was unaware, quickly discovered his ploy. Western Union harassed George for months and finally made its services too expensive for his employer to bear. George assailed the monopoly for limiting freedom of the press.

In 1871, George published Our Land and Land Policy, National and State. In the tract, he argued that public lands should be distributed in 80-acre or 40-acre allotments rather than in the 160-acre allotments authorized by the Homestead Act of 1862. George believed the change would mean additional land for ordinary homesteaders rather than for speculators or investors. George called for the forced divesting of huge tracts of privately held land and advocated a tax to restrict the concentration of land holding.

The newly elected Democratic governor of California, William S. Irwin, appointed George to a patronage position as state inspector of gas meters in 1876. The position allowed George to continue to write.

A post–Civil War depression struck the United States from 1873 to 1878 and created an audience receptive to George's proposals. Progress and Poverty attracted readers throughout the United States and Europe. George moved to New York City in 1880 to write and lecture. He also lectured in Europe and Australia throughout the 1880s.

In the 1890s, Single Tax advocates and other nonconformists joined the Populist coalition. Many supporters of George's ideas joined the Farmers’ Alliance and voted for the People's Party. Single Taxers became an important part of the Populist movement in urban areas. George himself did not embrace Populism and preferred to concentrate exclusively on the tax issue. George, unlike many Populists, remained skeptical of government centralization.

George made several unsuccessful attempts at elected office. George campaigned for mayor of New York City in 1886 as the candidate of the United Labor Party, the political arm of the Central Labor Union. George finished second to the candidate backed by Tammany Hall's Democratic machine and ahead of the third-place Republican candidate, future President Theodore Roosevelt. George again represented the United Labor Party in the 1887 campaign for secretary of state of New York. George finished third in the election.

George ran for mayor of New York City as an independent Democrat in 1897. He died October 29, 1897, four days before the election.

Jeff Wells

See also: Crime of ’73 ; Depression of 1873 ; Depression of 1893 ; Gilded Age ; Homestead Act (1862) ; People's Party ; The Press and Populism ; Roosevelt, Theodore (1858–1919)


Barker, Charles Albro. Henry George. New York: Oxford University Press, 1955.

Cord, Steven B. Henry George: Dreamer or Realist? Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1965.

De Mille, Anna George. Henry George: Citizen of the World. Edited by Don C. Shoemaker. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1950.

George, Henry. Henry George: Collected Journalistic Writings. 4 vols. Edited by Kenneth C. Wenzer. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2003.

Hill, Malcolm. The Man Who Said No! The Life of Henry George. London: Othila Press, 1997.

Postel, Charles. The Populist Revolt. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Rose, Edward J. Henry George. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1968.

Thomas, John L. Alternative America: Henry George, Edward Bellamy, Henry Demarest Lloyd, and the Adversary Tradition. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press, 1983.