Throughout his writing and political life Henry George had been the scourge of corrupt politicians and officials, mining interests, land speculators, labour contractors, monopolists of any kind, and he had fought a campaign against the overwhelming power of the railroad. He has been the opponent of power, and now he is persuaded that it was time to seek power. He’d tried to stave it off, but in 1886, just six years after moving to New York, he found himself making candidacy to become Mayor of New York, in the year the Statue of Liberty was raised.
Henry George certainly had his misgivings about what taking this candidature would do to his life’s mission. Hesitating, he demanded a petition signed by 30,000 pledged to vote for him. But when this was duly produced, he was in it. This honest man was immersed in the seedy and slimy world of politics.
The unions of New York City, as the United Labor Party, had decided that Henry George was the big name they wanted to front up for them as mayoral candidate. For some, George’s credibility as an economist and philosopher vanished at this moment, with his descent into the political mire.
The United Labor Party, though officially based on Georgist beliefs, was actually made up of different factions and there were internal rifts. The party included trade protectionists, certainly not George’s view, and there was a Marxist element. Karl Marx and Henry George were well known to each other; Marx thought that George’s ideas were a diversion on the road to utopia, and George thought that Marx’s ideas would lead to tyranny.
Party politics must have been an uncomfortable place for Henry George. Throughout his life of speaking and teaching that was to come, whenever he was introduced at a meeting as being on the side of the poor man, he always immediately contradicted this. At the end of his life, after his long journey of speaking, educating, he sounds exasperated when, once more being introduced as a great friend of labor, he says:
I have never claimed to be a special friend of labor. Let us have done with this call for special privileges for labor. Labor does not want special privileges. I have never advocated nor asked for special rights or special sympathy for working men!
What I stand for is the equal rights of all men!
HG’s Tammany Hall opponents sent someone to see him and tried to buy him off with the promise of a seat in Congress, assuring him that he could never become Mayor. And they could be sure of this statement, such was the grip they had on political life in New York. Henry George asked why they were bothered, since they were so sure. He was told that it was because he would raise hell. He replied that that was exactly what he intended to do.
The cockerel on the cigar box was his campaign icon and his campaigning cry was the democracy of Thomas Jefferson. Thomas Jefferson was one of the Founding Fathers, the third President, and the principal writer of the very famous words of the 1776 Declaration of Independence, the principles through which the US Constitution should be interpreted. The second sentence has become one of the most famous in history:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
And more later about this pursuit of happiness.
After a particularly bitter and nasty campaign, George came second in the vote. It was widely believed at the time that the election was fraudulently won by the Tammany Hall candidate. Certainly vote-rigging electoral fraud would have been quite usual in this kind of election in the US. It’s held that a secret ballot would have secured a certain win for Henry George, which is actually something that Henry George was the first to propose in the US, taking up the Australian example, and which his followers would bring about after his death. It’s easy to imagine the possibilities for influencing elections in a non-secret ballot for an organisation such as Tammany Hall. Such huge numbers of votes went to George that the New York Times called it an event demanding the most serious attention and study. A demand which went unmet.
So, Henry George should, all things being fair and equal, have been Mayor of New York City, the financial and intellectual capital of the nation, a very powerful position. And perhaps the course of history would have turned at this point, had the true result of this election stood. Maybe that would have let a cat out of the bag that could never be put back in again.
That’s our fantasy, anyway. Another view comes from Elbert Hubbard, who says:
Had he been elected mayor of New York, he could have done little or nothing for reform, for a mayor has only the power delegated to him by the ward boss and the genus heeler. Beyond this he can merely apply the emergency brake by the use of the veto.
What a genus heeler is, we couldn’t tell you, but maybe we get his drift. Anyway, that’s maybe so, but we prefer a phrase of HG’s from his later campaign for New York:
New York will become the theatre of the world and my success will plunge our cause into world politics.
But Henry George’s electoral defeat in New York would be a seminal moment as George, dragged reluctantly into politics, had nonetheless been so effective at creating a coherent working class political movement as to provide great inspiration for the Progressive Movement to come, which, as we shall see, would become the early builders of civic USA. Frederich Engels – father of Marxist theory along with Marx - called it an epoch-making day.
In 1886, a busy year, George had also published Protection or Free Trade, a brilliant defence of free trade, having to rewrite it after losing the first draft. (We can only imagine how that felt.) The following year he tried elections again, coming a bad third in the election for Secretary of State of New York. More failure.
Lindy Davies' essay, The Cat in New York, discusses New York today.