Henry George Wields His Pen
He had to do something. He wrote a newspaper editorial, surprising himself with its quality, and it attracted attention. He wrote another and another, they became a series. He sent one of these editorials to John Stuart Mill in England, whom he regarded as the greatest living intellect. Mill replied at length, addressing George as an equal, which was a huge encouragement.
These editorials became a 48 page pamphlet about what he knew. Pamphlets, always at the author’s expense, were very much the way new ideas were announced to the world in this day. But it was no good, he sold 21 copies and covered his costs, gave a few away, but the pamphlets were as lost on the wind.
He would have to explain it all properly, at length.
In 1871, he had a great platform to trumpet his news, as the editor of his own newspaper, The San Francisco Daily Evening Post. The paper took up neglected causes, constantly picking fights with those that the other papers let be, fighting injustice, corruption and monopoly power. George was constantly at war at this time. He had his victories, but he usually came off worse, he was up against too much money most of the time. At times, George could be in personal danger (though it sometimes reads like others were in personal danger from George.)
Henry George’s ideas continued to crystallise. He needed to distil his great vision, explain it properly, and he needed, as always, to feed his family. A long magazine article came from him on one long, fevered night of manic scribbling. When he’d recovered and discussed it with Annie, he found that he’d gone a long way in setting out what he wanted to explain. He started to put the book together in whatever time he could steal from the ever present demands of making a living.
In 1875 he took some involvement in politics, campaigning for Henry Haight, the Governor of California, now seeking re-election, who had become a powerful supporter of George.
The tentacles of Central Pacific Railroad had reached right into California and they were starting to squeeze. The Railroad owned or controlled most of the press, it bought influence in the legislature, it corrupted the courts, governed banks and manipulated politics to secure massive public subsidies for itself; its four owners received 25,000 acres of Californian land for each mile of railroad built. When they came looking for another round of public subsidies, Haight, with Henry George, went to war with Central Pacific Railroad.
We like pictures of trains, as well. This is a Central Pacific train.
Henry George now wielded a powerfully influential pen at the State Capital Reporter, and he used it to constantly prod at Central Pacific, doing much to raise awareness of what was happening and whipping up considerable opposition. There’s no doubt that Henry George could have made a very comfortable arrangement with Central Pacific, truly great fortunes were to be had, this was the way business was done and many others grasped this course; but that was never going to happen with Henry George.
Central Pacific Railroad, however, were not accustomed to letting things stand in their way. In typical manner, they just bought the newspaper, leaving George as the editor of the his opponents’ newspaper. Of course, he resigned. It was that naked, they just bought the newspaper and silenced his voice.
Of course, it didn’t silence him. But ultimately, the great railroad corporation put its full weight into hauling the election their way, and Haight and George, himself bidding for election to the California State Assembly, tasted bitter defeat. Failure for Henry George to rue, but some advancement also.
A nice episode during this time when he needed some kind of position which would enable him to pay the bills, there was some prospect he could take the position of Chair of Political Economy at the University of California. In an address to the professors of the university, his prospective employers and colleagues, he said:
For the study of political economy you need no special knowledge, no extensive library, no costly laboratory. You do not even need textbooks nor teachers, if you will but think for yourselves. All that you need is care in reducing complex phenomena to their elements, in distinguishing the essential from the accidental, and in applying the simple laws of human action with which you are familiar. Take nobody's opinion for granted, 'try all things: hold fast that which is good'. In this way, the opinion of others will help you by their suggestions, elucidation and corrections; otherwise they will be to you as words to a parrot.
All that array of professors, all this paraphernalia of learning, cannot educate a man. They can but help him to educate himself. Here you may obtain the tools; but they will be useful only to him who can use them. A monkey with a microscope, a mule packing a library, are fit emblems of the men and, unfortunately, they are plenty, who pass through the whole educational machinery, and come out but learned fools, crammed with knowledge which they cannot use, all the more pitiable, all the more contemptible, all the more in the way of real progress, because they pass, with themselves and others, as educated men.
George became a gas inspector instead. He landed for himself the cushy job of California State Inspector of Gas Meters, which paid the bills and gave him time to write. Now he had his chance.