The Printer’s Question
So, our teacher, Henry George. A fine looking fellow, we think. Would the truth he revealed be any less true if his face were covered in warts? It would not. Would his insight be any less true had he expressed it less well? It would be no less true, but we’re grateful for his wonderful gifts of communication, that we see the cat so well.
And we’re a little shy of putting our own photos up here, so there can be no better visage to stand for us than his, for he is the leader of this band. This band are here to un-hush him.
As has been pointed out to us, and we know Henry George would agree, celebrating his life is really not the point, the point is the insights and ideas that he saw and the Remedy he stated. But we’re just a band, so we feel free to be quite fascinated by Henry George himself, the man whose hushing up consumed so much effort.
Our introduction to him was finally reading his masterpiece, Progress and Poverty, and, having been enlivened, magically transported to the most genuinely truthful place we’ve ever been, from there we became increasingly intrigued to find out something about the author of this book, a book which clearly comes from the heart of someone who was full of love for humanity.
We had been surprised and impressed to learn that this book had sold two or three million copies at the time and is still the best-selling book on politics and economics ever. And that Henry George’s funeral drew 100,000 mourners. What kind of man was this? A man who was described at the time as being the third most famous person in the US, (after Thomas Edison and Mark Twain) but has become almost entirely forgotten by history.
(Mark Twain was also of a mind that his age was corrupted by the curses of land speculators, scandalous politics, and unethical business practices. Thomas Edison, too, had much to say beyond electricity and was an adherent of Thomas Paine, one of many who had seen the very same thing that Henry George saw, long before George put it all together properly, more of which later.)
Henry George came to devote his life to a great question – perhaps the greatest question. This seed of a question arose in him as a young man and it grew in the soil of poverty, his own and the many like him. And he confronted this question as it increasingly consumed him. He vowed to find the answer to it, the actual cause of the something that was clearly wrong about the world.
Henry George was born in 1839, at 413 South Tenth Street in Philadelphia, a short walk from where the Declaration of Independence had been signed. He doesn’t seem to have taken to schooling and left for good at 14, working in odd jobs, and throwing himself into self-education, absorbing many books of all kinds. There was also time to swim and skate and generally have an active time. He found himself drawn to the wharves and piers of the city and heard the call of the sea, the road that leads to everywhere.
When he had turned 15, a chance came up for him to join a ship, The Hindoo, an old East Indiaman. He didn’t exactly run away to sea, he asked his dad if he could go. The family had fallen on hard times, and young Henry was insistent, and it was agreed.
In 1855, young Henry George went to sea in this ship:
These were the days of real sailing, hoisting the sails and stuff, and seamanship was a rough and dangerous business.
This poster isn’t for the journey he took, but this was the ship. We’re going to take any excuse for a picture of a ship because we like pictures of ships. We’re miserable landlubbers and we’ve read a few Joseph Conrad novels between us to imagine we have a flavour of the hardship and often absolute terror of voyages in ships like this. And The Hindoo was a creaking old wooden ship of 600 tons that had battled her way across the world’s oceans many times. The cargo was half a million feet of timber, felt to be close to an overload for a ship her size.
The Hindoo’s rudder fell off a little way out from New York, but improvisations and repairs were done, and she reached Melbourne without further incident, laying up there for a month. Melbourne was a town in depression following a gold rush, full of idle, dejected people. The next call was Calcutta, and an eye-popping sail up the Ganges, seeing many sights wondrous to Western eyes. He saw the grand houses of the English by the riversides, he saw bamboo huts and strange boats and was, at first, startled to see corpses floating downstream carrying crews of crazed black birds which ripped them apart with murderous beaks. He saw fantastic luxury and prestige, elephants ablaze with jewels, and he saw that most human life here was clinging to existence.
After a year and so away, he returned home with a pet monkey on his shoulder. He had now seen some exotic places, and something of how the world was working. It must have been a mighty experience for a teenager, exciting and enchanting, punishing and exhausting.
He trained as a printer on his return to Philadelphia, and did well because of his ability to rastle the dic., meaning that he could find his way around a dictionary and so correct mistakes.
He heard a conversation in the print shop one day, an old printer making the point that in old countries wages are low, while in new countries they are always high. It’s really nice to think of people having conversations like this at work. Henry had been around a bit and was well-read and could see that the point the printer was making was certainly so. How could that be explained? This question would henceforth flicker in him.
Henry George in 1858
He enjoyed the company of good friends in Philadelphia, and they would debate stuff with each other. During this time he gained great merit on a topsail schooner laden with coal going to Boston and was paid the full rate of an able seaman but, unfortunately, we’ve not been able to find out what this ship was and get a picture of it. But it would have been something like this:
As before, Henry George’s walks always took him to the docks. He was familiar with every ship in the Delaware River and, as a man who knew how to swab the mainmast and reef the topsail in a squall, he was acquainted with their sailors. He was keen to hear all he could of what they were seeing in far-off lands. News from California was particularly interesting.