When his work was criticized by an Oxford professor as including “nothing both new and true,” Henry George agreed and responded that “Social truth never is, never can be, new; and the truth for which we stand is an old truth — a truth seen by men everywhere, recognised by the first perceptions of all men, only overclouded, only obscured in our modern times by force and fraud,” George’s take on land certainly backs this up. As a newspaper editor and author in the 19th century, he was able to popularize theories about land and rent that now bear the name ‘Georgism’. But, these truths were hardly novel, even if George’s explanation was the most thorough and comprehensive to be widely read at the time. Indeed, well before he put pen to paper, Black people in the United States had noted the ways in which private ownership of land was unjust and widely used to disenfranchise them. Well after George’s death Black people continue to be among the most effective proponents of his basic views, particularly on land and poverty.
Among the first people to make the case for a slave revolution in English, David Walker wrote Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World in 1830. The primary focus of the book is on the institution of slavery. However, Walker notes specifically the way that land ownership is used against Black people, even in states like Massachusetts that were without slavery. He asks:
“Can a man of colour buy a piece of land and keep it peaceably? Will not some white man try to get it from him, even if it is in a mud hole? I need not comment any farther on a subject, which all, both black and white, will readily admit. But I must, really, observe that in this very city [Boston], when a man of colour dies, if he owned any real estate it most generally falls into the hands of some white person. The wife and children of the deceased may weep and lament if they please, but the estate will be kept snug enough by its white possessor.”
His note on the fate of land after the death of its Black owner is particularly pertinent. Even where individual Black people were able to secure land titles, they rarely were able to keep them within families. The profits to be made accrued almost exclusively to white families. Walker also identified white desire to maintain a monopoly on land as a primary driver of the ‘colonial’ movement, which aimed to move freed slaves to Liberia or elsewhere, rather than allow them to live in the United States.
“Is there not land enough in America, or ‘corn enough in Egypt?’ Why should they send us into a far country to die? See the thousands of foreigners emigrating to America every year: and if there be ground sufficient for them to cultivate, and bread for them to eat, why would they wish to send the first tillers of the land away?”
Of course, at the time there was ‘land enough’ in America – on account of the violent dispossession of its first inhabitants – to house and establish an economic foundation for millions of white people, creating a larger independent working class than had previously been seen in feudal, aristocratic societies. However, this privilege was largely limited to white people, and in reality, to a subset of white people. What Walker identified was only the beginning of a process that continued well after his death.
During the debate over the future of western land, in 1856, Frederick Douglass’s newspaper identified the problem of land monopoly as responsible for many societal ills, long before George published Progress and Poverty. In an unsigned editorial – presumably representing Douglass’s opinion (if not by his own pen) – the paper proclaimed:
“We conscientiously believe that the welfare of the world demands the abrogation of land monopolies. Earth, air, fire and water, are essential to human existence, and should be free to all men, in virtue of their heaven descended right.”
The editorial lists many advantages of limiting landed estates: that they would make slavery unprofitable, promote education, and even encourage sobriety. These are largely the same outcomes that George himself predicted, as he traced many of the social ills of his society to the dispossession of the landless. While it is not a detailed policy proposal, it seems that by a ‘land limitation law’, the author is promoting a scheme more akin to land reform that occurred in post-war Japan or South Korea, rather than the sort of tax that George promoted. Nonetheless, the goal is the same – to break up landed monopolies without triggering violent revolutions or outright land seizure, decreasing the power of the very wealthy and promoting economic mobility.
After the Civil War, George’s views on land gained new urgency, as the practice of white land ownership became one of the key factors keeping “free” Black people in economic bondage. George’s sentiments were echoed by Timothy Thomas Fortune, a Black writer and editor of some of the most prominent Black newspapers of the time, including The New Yok Age and The Negro World.Fortune’s book Black and White: Land, Labor, and Politics in the South, published in 1884, is an examination of the political economy of the South, where he was born. Fortune largely follows George’s lines of thinking, and even cites him at several points. Ultimately, he finds, with George, that
“Monopoly of land is the curse of the race in every modern government. Being the one great source from which all wealth must and does spring, its concentration in the hands of a few men not only impoverishes the people, but seriously cripples the operations of government by curtailing the productive energies of the people and diverting into the coffers of individuals rental which should flow into the common treasury as taxes”
Fortune discusses both the impact of land monopoly on the landless and the desirability of publicly held rent. Not limiting his discussion to the South, Fortune adds “Every hamlet, town, city, and state in the Union is in the grasp of the individual land holder…His bulk has become mastodonian in proportions and his influence has shrivelled up the energies of the people.”
In Fortune’s telling, otherwise ordinary settlers, by virtue of hard work and the advantage of luck and first arrival, are able to dominate land ownership, using their initial land claims to create large estates. Naturally, Black people who lacked even de jure legal equality (in many cases excluded from living, even when free, in frontier States) were rarely included in this landowning class. Living in the height of the Gilded Age, Fortune traces the development of massive monopolies to the monopolization of land. He convincingly traces the roots of oligarchy to the ‘princely’ land grants made to a few railroad companies. Out of these initial monopolies came the massive agglomerations of capital that now manage to corner markets and draw interest far in excess of what is fair from their investments.
While Fortune maintained his membership and support of the Republican Party, as did most prominent African Americans of his day, he was more wont to criticize them than other prominent Black voices. During the Cleveland administration, and after seeing the Republican party in New York take African American votes for granted, Fortune was among the first prominent Black commentators to evince an openness to the Democratic party, “if the Democratic party pursues a broad, liberal and honorable course toward us”.
It took a half a century for anything of the sort to occur; the continued racism of the Democratic party and the failure of third party movements were a formidable barrier to real reform in the United States, and especially for uniting the landless white and Black voters, which both Fortune, in his book and George, in his New York mayoral bid, attempted to bring about.Ultimately, George and most of his white followers aligned more with the Democratic party, opposing protective tariffs, the gold standard, and the generally pro-corporate policies of the Republicans. The party, however, did not ‘pursue an honorable course’, as Fortune had hoped, and thus what could have been a formidable alliance between laborers of different colors failed to materialize. In the 1960s, however, Martin Luther King Jr became one of the most prominent spokesmen for Black concerns.His view of history and economics, in many ways, echoed that of his predecessors, andthe sentiments of David Walker 130 years earlier. When asked about continued African American poverty relative even to more newly-established groups a century after the end of slavery, King responded by noting that at the end of the Civil War:
“America was giving away millions of acres of land in the west and the Midwest. Which meant there was a willingness to give the white peasants from Europe an economic base. And yet it refused to give its black peasants from Africa who came involuntarily, in chains, and had worked free for 244 years any kind of economic base.”
King’s response gives a compelling explanation for why European immigrants were able to quickly surpass African Americans in wealth – they had access to resources the freed slaves did not. There were many other factors at work as well – discrimination in jobs, active, violent suppression of Black businesses, and more. However, King focused on land, understanding the ways in which inequality in land ownership (both rural and urban) has been used to systematically disadvantage Black people. Besides this discussion of land, King, like George, viewed the ultimate goal of political-economic policy to be not just economic growth but the elimination of poverty.
In his 1967 speech, “Where do we go from here?”, Dr. King cites George approvingly, in the context of eliminating poverty via a universal income. More important, when Dr. King begins to list the questions he wants his audience to ask, he takes on a distinctly Georgist tone:
“…one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. And you see, my friends, when you deal with this you begin to ask the question, “Who owns the oil?” You begin to ask the question, “Who owns the iron ore?” You begin to ask the question, “Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that’s two-thirds water?” These are words that must be said. ”
King’s examples, like all his words, are carefully chosen. He spoke not of oil derricks or iron foundries. Though he elsewhere is critical of capitalism, here it is not ‘capital’, in a Georgist sense, to which he objects. Instead, it is what George would term ‘land’ – those elements of the natural world that existed before and without the exertions of any human. The idea that oil and iron ore and the water supply fundamentally belong to the people – even if it is corporations that are refine and market the products made with them – is closely linked to the idea that the improvements on a piece of land belong to their improver, even as the land itself is rightful property of the community.
In ‘Justice the Object, Taxation the Means’, George describes a conversation with an Irish bishop about his ideas. After much interrogation, the bishop concludes,“What you say to me is nothing new; it is the old truth that through persecution and against force, though trodden down, our people have always held. What you say is not new to me. When a little boy, sitting by the peat fire in the west of Ireland, I have heard the same truths from the lips of men who could not speak a word of English.”
The set of ideas – about land, rent, and poverty, and the most just way to handle them – that bear George’s name was not original with him, as he was quick to assert. While Progress and Poverty, and George’s other works, provided the most complete elucidation of them to date, one would expect that if they were truly as intuitive and as transformational as George and his followers claim, they would have been grasped and promoted in various ways, particularly by oppressed people, throughout history and the world over. George clearly believed that the Irish holding his beliefs about land before they had been Anglicized was evidence of their universality and accuracy. The way in which the Black community in the United States also hold and promote many of the same beliefs, both before and after George himself wrote about them, is a testament to the same.