- Henry George and the Crisis of Inequality: Progress and Poverty in the Gilded Age by Edward T. O’Donnell
There is a reason Henry George is so often mentioned within scholarship on the Gilded Age, but so rarely given much attention. His vision of building a better republic by reforming tax policy defies many of the categories which we erect around the period. Was he a socialist? Yes, he believed in the nationalization of land, but no, he did not challenge capitalism or the private ownership of production. Far from encouraging “class consciousness,” he encouraged the building of a classless society. Was he a Liberal? Yes, he believed that the state was best positioned to provide for the flourishing of the people, but no, he believed in otherwise limited government. He aligned himself with “producers,” such as the Knights of Labor, the [End Page 87] Irish Land League, and Central Labor Union, and not statist reformers. He was a self-trained economic thinker, but he was neither part of the “German school” (like Richard Ely) nor the “English school” (like Adam Smith). He was an evangelical Protestant, nostalgic for the greater social equality within the antebellum agrarian republic, but he spent most of his American career in big cities. Moreover, his reporting in Ireland, on behalf of the Irish Land League, meant that he cultivated more allies among class-conscious, Irish Catholics than any other group. Henry George was a journalist whose “United Labor Party” and “Single Tax” movement maintained that if all Americans leased landholdings from the public treasury, municipalities would have the means to flourish and tenants (renting from the state) would have more money to spend. The more we reckon with the seeming contradictions that represent Henry George, the more we realize how little we know about ordinary people’s politics in the Gilded Age.
One can hardly sing enough praise about Edward O’Donnell’s remarkable biography of Henry George. O’Donnell takes readers on a well-paced and engrossing journey through George’s upbringing, his faltering career as a journalist in San Francisco, New York, and Ireland, the slow and steady popularity of Progress and Poverty, and his political career as a Single Tax advocate. The brilliance of the book is both in the context which O’Donnell builds to understand George’s influence, and in his thorough explication of George’s economic principles. O’Donnell paints George’s “Single Tax” idea as a middle way between those Populists and socialists interested in nationalizing resources, and those liberals and Republicans eager to protect the private ownership of industry through statist reform. Instead of categorizing him simply as a “liberal” (as others have), he shows how George’s politics represented a “big tent” that was attractive to a wide spectrum of Americans. His books were read by some of the most influential political and religious reformers of the nineteenth century, but his bid for political office in the Union Labor Party illustrated his alliance with a large number of socialists and labor radicals. O’Donnell emphasizes George’s ability to bring these groups together.
The book succeeds at synthesizing the large bodies of work on the history of labor and politics in New York City and the relationship between Irish American New Yorkers and the Irish Land League; it is also George’s best biography. In re-contextualizing the story of George’s run for New York City mayor, O’Donnell emphasizes not only the role of the Catholic Church (which categorically rejected him), but also the role of Tammany Hall in undermining George’s political platform. Yet, despite these powerful enemies, George won 31 percent of the vote and came in second place. O’Donnell frames this election as evidence for the wide support for challenging laissez faire capitalism in the aftermath of the railroad strike of 1877.
The book’s only limitation is its length. We do not get the chance to explore how the Single Tax idea was received...