George, Henry (1839–1897)

by Bede Nairn

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

Henry George (1839-1897), social reformer, was born on 2 September 1839 in Philadelphia, United States of America, the first son of Richard Samuel Henry George and his wife Catherine Pratt, née Vallance. Brought up in a puritanical family George was educated at Mrs Graham's school, Mount Vernon Grammar School, the Episcopal Academy and after five months at high school became a messenger boy and then a clerk. In 1855 he sailed for Melbourne in the crew of the Hindoo, went on to India and thence to America in April 1856. In December he was in San Francisco where in 1858-59, between bouts of gold-prospecting, he worked as a typesetter. He joined the Methodists and on 3 December 1861 married Annie Corsina, Sydney-born daughter of Major John Fox and his wife Elizabeth, née McCloskey. Irregular employment kept them poor until he became managing editor of the San Francisco Times in 1866. By then he had perfected a simple but emotional literary style studded with biblical allusions. A maturing curiosity for social and political problems had emerged in 1865 when he turned from protection to free trade. In 1868 his article 'What the Railroad Will Bring Us' analysed the tendency to concentrate increasing national wealth in fewer hands, a conviction confirmed by a visit to New York. He was an active Democrat but his pamphlet, Our Land and Land Policy (1871), argued against private ownership of land, exposed the predatory nature of rent and stressed the need for a tax on land values only. In 1879 his definitive Progress and Poverty won him repute as a leading American reformer. In 1880 he settled in New York. In 1880-89 he made several visits to Britain and with the publication of Social Problems (1883) became an international figure.

George's theories spread to Australia chiefly through the Bulletin in 1883. In 1887 the Land Nationalisation League was founded in Sydney to propagate his and A. R. Wallace's beliefs. Reformed in 1889 as the Single Tax League it was led by F. Cotton, John Farrell, E. W. Foxall, C. L. Garland, (Sir) William Johnson and P. Meggy. In America in 1889 Garland arranged for George to visit Australia and with Farrell as campaign director he arrived in Sydney on 6 March 1890 in the Mariposa. His reforming appeal was still strong but his remedies had been devastatingly criticized even by Australians. His antagonism to socialism and trade unionism alienated much working-class and radical support at a time of political and industrial turbulence and his objections to private property frightened land-owners. Above all, his free-trade views, even in New South Wales, isolated him from the rising tide of protection. This diverse but powerful hostility was increased by the intense fervour of George's supporters: at a banquet on 7 March Garland had introduced him with 'Ecce Homo!' The result of his campaign in Queensland, Victoria, South Australia and New South Wales was negligible. The Bulletin especially, the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age helped to ensure that Georgeism had no future in Australia. He left in June 1890 and died on 28 October 1897 in New York and was buried in Greenwood cemetery, Brooklyn.

George's influence has been overrated by several historians and publicists. None of his doctrines was original and all were theoretically and practically flawed however beguilingly propagated. His views on leasehold and taxation of unimproved land value were held independently by many Australians and their partial legislative adoption owed little to George. His central ideas of the 'unearned increment' and single tax are now historical curiosities.

Select Bibliography

  • Henry George jun., The Life of Henry George (Lond, 1900)
  • L. F. Post, The Prophet of San Francisco (New York, 1930)
  • S. B. Cord, Henry George: Dreamer or Realist (Philadelphia, 1965)
  • L. G. Churchward, ‘The American Influence on the Australian Labour Movement’, Historical Studies, Australia and New Zealand, vol 5, no 19, Nov 1952, pp 258-77
  • F. Picard, ‘Henry George and the Labor Split of 1891’, Historical Studies, Australia and New Zealand, vol 6, no 21, Nov 1953, pp 45-63
  • J. M. Powell, ‘The Land Debates in Victoria, 1872-1884: Leases Versus Freeholds: A Preparation for Henry George’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, vol 56, part 4, Dec 1970, pp 263-80.

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Citation details

Bede Nairn, 'George, Henry (1839–1897)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/george-henry-3603/text5591, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 27 June 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

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