Elbert Hubbard wrote, in his book, Little Journeys to Homes of Reformers:
California was another America, hopelessly separated from us by an impassable range of forbidding mountains, reinforced with desert plains, peopled only by hostile savages. But the sea was an open highway to this land of enchantment. California called!
HG worked his way to California as a ship’s steward on a lighthouse steamer, The Shubrick, taking six months to sail around the tip of South America and up the other side.
Having endured a nasty storm on the way down the east coast of America, Henry George arrived in San Francisco in 1858. He had some plans, they didn’t work out, so he joined the 300,000 other 49ers, (from 1849, when it was all starting) that were drawn by the California Gold Rush. George’s experience here was chastening and a typical 49er experience. He lived like a tramp (bum) and he didn’t make a dime, nor a brass farthing.
Elbert Hubbard says:
The gold-fever got into the blood of Henry George, and his savings became a shining mark for the mining shark. A thousand men lose money at mining where one strikes pay-gravel. Henry George was one of the thousand.
Witnessing the development of this gold seam and this new land of California continued to feed this nugget in his hungry mind.
Elbert Hubble tells us that, at a time when he had some money, he boarded at a peculiar hotel called The What Cheer House. One of its peculiarities was a thousand volume library, the only public library in San Francisco, and this was worth the board for him. An English traveller left a copy of Henry Thomas Buckle's History of Civilization. The hotel owner tried it but didn’t get on with it, and sent it over to that red-headed printer; he can get something out of it if anybody can.
Henry George stayed up until two the next morning interrogating this book, and came across a statement of Buckle’s which set his mind astir:
Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations has influenced civilization more profoundly than any other book ever written, save none.
The next day he raced to the library and there it was, The Wealth of Nations. He read it, and read it again, and again. Hubble opined:
Whether Buckle's statement is correct or not, this holds: Adam Smith's "Wealth of Nations" influenced Henry George more profoundly than any other book he had ever read.
(Actually, Henry George himself seems to deny this in something he later said about when he first read Adam Smith, but we think there is some sort of truth expressed in this story. Who knows? There are differing versions around many little details of HG’s story.)
As a 21 year old, he was one of six printers who bought out a newspaper and ran it together, but all it brought him was further hardship. He later observed:
I worked until my clothes were in rags and the toes of my shoes were out. I slept in the office and did the best I could to economize, but finally I ran in debt thirty dollars for my board bill.
Annie Corsina Fox, 1860
Henry George was always overflowing with ideas and ventures, and though they never quite worked, he always had a great confidence in himself, even in adversity. And so it was that in 1861, with one coin in his pocket, he asked Annie Corsina Fox to marry him, and he eloped with her in a borrowed suit, she bringing just the poetry books which Henry had brought for her and which they had read together.
Henry and Annie decided to pool their poverty in the interests of progress, as Hubble had it, (Hubble clearly a man who enjoyed a bit of wordplay.)
Children soon followed, and some desperate times for George’s family to the point where he was looking at the fact that he couldn’t feed his young children. The early 1860s were a very grim time in America, and doubtless some families did starve in this land of plenty and helplessly watched their children fade away from hunger.
In 1864 he says:
I came near starving to death, and at one time I was so close to it that I think I should have done so but for the job of printing a few cards which enabled us to buy a little corn meal. In this darkest time in my life my second child was born.
In a bare room with a new-born baby, a helpless woman who had just given birth, no food, no money, George tore off into the street, and finding the first man who looked like he could afford it, more or less mugs him for $5. Being reduced to this action marked him deeply.
He lived with the wretched pang of desperate need, he chased after work, moving to different towns for work and trying all sorts of things, walking the streets for days trying to sell stuff like clothes wringers and selling little. He walked with the mystery of poverty, no doubt turning the world around in his head as he tramped the streets with his wares. He picked up bits of work here and there, a hard, soul-destroying existence. He’s trying to organise himself, keeping a pocket journal, writing:
December 25. Determined to keep a regular journal, and to cultivate habits of determination, energy and industry.
This all rings a bell with some of us, making notes like this to ourselves, and also where he says:
‘1st. To make every cent I can.’
‘2nd. To spend nothing unnecessarily.’
‘3rd. To put something by each week, if it is only a five cent piece borrowed for the purpose.’
‘4th. Not to run in debt if it can be avoided.’
But Henry George, for most of his life, would never avoid it for long.
He kept reading, searching, trying to understand the world. Switched on by ideas found in books, he read the economic writers of his time and he found a maze of confusions and contradictions and inconsistent conclusions. He found basic errors in thinking being made even among those he considered masters, such as John Stuart Mill and David Ricardo, with whom he shared adherence to Adam Smith.
The question was still forming in his mind. He lived in a wide and empty country blessed with fabulous riches, but every so often, in a regular rhythm, hard times would fall upon the land, and the vast mass of people were left scrabbling for crusts of bread. It was an accepted fact of life, but there had to be a reason for it, there was a reason for everything in nature. Beyond the workings of Adam Smith’s invisible hand, what was the true fundamental reason behind such vast inequalities in the distribution of wealth?
Henry George just managed to feed his family through those hungry years and things were picking up by 1865. He said at this time:
I am now afloat again, with the world before me ... I am starting out afresh, very much crippled and embarrassed, owing over $200. I have been unsuccessful in everything. I wish to profit by my experience and to cultivate those qualities necessary to success in which I have been lacking ...
We can relate to that feeling, also.
HG starts writing properly in 1865. Starting as a printer at The Alta. Shattered by the murder of President Abraham Lincoln, he wrote an emotional tribute overnight, which he left into the editor’s tray. The editor was greatly impressed and made the piece The Alta’s headline the next morning. From now on he would be paid for writing.
The Alta Office in San Francisco, 1855
He then involves himself in what he realised afterwards was a madcap undertaking. With the USA busy with their Civil War, Emperor Napoleon III had sent a military expedition to Mexico, in the name of free trade but actually after the silver. George, having been unable to volunteer for the Civil War, and perhaps unable to contain his lifelong travel lust, joined an irregular militia to deny Mexico to Napoleon. He was ostensibly going as a war correspondent for The Alta, but was actually designated First Lieutenant. A sizeable company was sworn in at the dock, and the secretly provided ship was eventually boarded, with 10,000 rifles on board. Straight away, a customs vessel dropped anchor in front of her, and that was thankfully the end of that. HG soon realised that other elements of the expedition would have had him tied up with piracy, which, indeed, was later flung at him by opponents.
Joining The San Francisco Times, he swiftly progressed from printer to journalist to managing editor, increasingly consumed by questions about wealth and distribution. The Transcontinental Railroad was approaching California, linking it with the rest of the United States. In an 1868 article What the Railroad Will Bring Us, he wrote:
The truth is, that the completion of the railroad and the subsequent great increase of business and population, will not be a benefit to all of us, but only to a portion ... As California becomes populous and rich, let us not forget that the distribution of wealth is even a more important matter than its production.
The article went on to give a strikingly accurate prophecy of what would happen in California.