Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

"Though Not an Irishman": Henry George and the American Irish

Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

"Though Not an Irishman": Henry George and the American Irish

Article excerpt



Henry George's rise from an obscure editor in San Francisco to an internationally known economist and reformer represents one of the more remarkable stories of the nineteenth century. Formally educated only to age 14, he nonetheless published in 1879 a book that went on to become the century's best-selling work of political economy, Progress and Poverty. In it George examined the "great enigma" of the age: why the increase in material progress of the Industrial Revolution was accompanied by an increase in poverty. His conclusion - that land monopoly was to blame and that a "single tax" on land values was the solution - drew the attention of economists, labor leaders, politicians, reformers, and the general public in both America and Europe. In 1886, at the height of his fame, he ran (and nearly won) as a Labor party candidate for mayor of New York.

Yet George's eventual emergence as a public figure obscures the fact that in 1879-80 it appeared that few people might ever read his book. For months after its publication, George waited in vain for significant recognition. Undaunted, he made a momentous decision in mid-1880: to move from San Francisco to New York City in search of a larger stage from which to promote his radical reform agenda. There, in the communications, publishing, and media nexus of the nation, George believed Progress and Poverty would reach a larger audience. His intuition proved correct, and within two years of his arrival in New York, he was an international figure. But the city itself was not the only critical factor that accounts for his rise. Of even greater significance was his cultivation of a large Irish-American following.(1)

By all measures, the task of ingratiating himself to an Irish-American audience would seem daunting, if not impossible. After all, as an English-American Evangelical Protestant reformer from San Francisco and an outspoken advocate of free trade (which the Irish viewed as pro-British), he seemed to have more in common with the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher than with Tammany Hall "boss" John Kelly. Generally such personal characteristics garnered a public figure derision and scorn from Irish-Americans, not a mass following. What then, occurred in George's early years in New York to account for the fact that he managed to attract such wide support among Irish-Americans?

First, long before ever moving to New York City, George demonstrated an interest in the problems that plagued Ireland. In 1869, for example, George served as acting editor for a small Catholic weekly, The Monitor, in which he gave extensive coverage to Ireland's troubled social, economic, and political situation and the struggles of Irish immigrants in San Francisco.(2) Years later, just months after completing Progress and Poverty, he accepted an offer from the Sacramento Bee to write an article entitled "The Irish Land Question." Ireland at that moment had just suffered a disastrous harvest, and many feared that famine would once again visit the Emerald Isle.(3) Seeing in this agrarian crisis an opportunity to promote the land reform program articulated in his recent book, George jumped at the opportunity. Predictably, he concluded that Ireland (and much of the world) suffered from land monopoly and required radical reform. He called for the abolition of landlordism and its attendant inequality, crushing rents, and evictions. In so doing, he expressed the central demands of an emerging nationalist movement in Ireland and the United States known as the Land League. Aware of his potential to reach a sympathetic Irish-American audience, George soon sent 25 copies of Progress and Poverty to a friend in New York to distribute "to the radicals or the leaders of the Irish movement" residing there.(4)

One of those radicals turned out to be Patrick Ford, a man who would play a central role in developing George's fortuitous relationship with the American Irish. Ford, the founder and editor of the Irish World, the largest-selling Irish-American paper in the Gilded Age, was one of the most influential Irish-Americans of the day. …

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