Henry George's Influence
on Scottish Land Reform
John D. Wood
[Reprinted from Land & Liberty,
September-October 1987. Originally published in the Scottish
Historical Review, April 1984]
The author is a Scottish teacher. After
receiving his M.A. from St. Andrews University, where he majored in
American history, he entered the North American Studies Programme at
Edinburgh University. His M. Litt. thesis conpared the populist
revolts of the Mid-west and southern states of the U.S. with the
land reform agitation of Ireland and the Scottish highlands and
identified a transatlantic reform community centring on the
philosophy of Henry George. Mr. Wood's paper was published in the
Scottish Historical Review (April 1984).
ON THE 6th of January 1884, a short, middle-aged American dismounted
from the Liverpool train at Euston station to a tumultuous welcome
from a 3,000 strong crowd. Hoisted onto the roof of a four wheel cab
the American proclaimed the coming of "a great revolution",
then drove off to the hotel where he had been a guest for the past
three days. Henry George, soon dubbed the Prophet of San Francisco by
the Duke of Argyll, had well and truly "arrived".
Of the steady stream of American social reformers who stumped Britain
in the 19th century few occasioned so much controversy as Henry
George. Almost completely forgotten now he was for a time next to
Gladstone the most talked about man in Britain. To his supporters he
was a modern Wesley, the "new St. Paul of the political world".
The established press dismissed him as a communist, a "yankee
adventurer", and a "half-mad demagogue". The debate
centred on George's book Progress and Poverty held by Alfred
Russell Wallace the land nationaliser to be "undoubtedly the most
remarkable and important work of the century" and reviled in
other quarters as the "bloodiest treatise since the Chartist
Progress and Poverty was certainly that rare type of book -- a
best selling work of political economy. With sales of over 100,000
copies in Britain alone it replaced Uncle Tom's Cabin as a
trans-Atlantic classic. It represented a skilful fusion of the
orthodox economic theories of Ricardo and Mills with the more radical
notion of natural rights.
The book's starting point was man's God-given right to the land.
Private property in land was unjust as it restricted access to the
land. As technological progress increased industrial production, the
benefits, George argued, went not to the labourers or even to the
capitalists but to the landlords in the form of increased rent.
The remedy proposed in Progress and Poverty was the raising
by the state of a tax equivalent to the rental value of the land. Not
only would this "single" tax compensate the poor labourer
for his lost birth right to the land, but it would obviate the need
for other forms of taxation and be politically more acceptable than
full land nationalisation.
In a Britain shaken by economic depression and pre-occupied with the
so-called "land question", Progress and Poverty was
a literary bombshell. For George the book was the culmination of a
life of struggle and soul searching. It reflected his teenage
rejection in Philadelphia of the formal religion of his parents which
condoned slavery and his gradual commitment to a personal religion of
social reform. It drew also on his precarious early career as a
journeyman printer and on his crusade in the 1870s as editor of the
San Franciscan Post against land speculation and monopoly -- evils he
believed retarded the settlement of California and brought the eastern
disease of unemployment to the streets of San Francisco.
George's notoriety in Britain was due also to his close association
with the quasi revolutionary Irish Land League. He had spent much of
1882 in London and Ireland reporting the Irish Land War for the New
York Irish World. The Kilmainham Pact of May 1882 between the Irish
leader Parnell and Gladstone's Liberal government dashed any hopes
George entertained that the largely nationalist movement might provide
a vehicle for radical land reform in Ireland. George remained friendly
however with Michael Davitt the ex-Fenian founder of the Land League
who continued to urge land nationalisation.
On a jaunting car trip through the West of Ireland just prior to his
return home in October 1882 George was arrested and detained twice by
a nervous constabulary as "a stranger and a dangerous character."
The publicity surrounding the arrests, which raised a storm in the
House of Commons and led to an official apology by Earl Granville the
foreign minister to the United States government, brought George into
the political limelight as a vaguely menacing figure and heightened
interest in Progress and Poverty.
With his star rising George gained easy access to liberal and radical
circles in London. Helen Taylor the rather eccentric step-daughter of
John Stuart Mill, embraced his teachings whole-heartedly. He struck up
an uneasy friendship with the Marxist Henry Hyndman who attempted over
a number of years to convert George to Socialism. Herbert Spencer, the
philosopher, George dismissed as "most horribly conceited",
but he found Joseph Chamberlain stimulating. The latter, "electrified"
by Progress and Poverty, was shortly to introduce advanced
land reform measures into his Radical Programme.
The land campaign George mounted between January and April 1884 was
loosely organized by the London based Land Reform Union. It entailed
visiting over sixty towns including most major cities, and the
delivery of seventy-five lengthy speeches. Of all parts of Britain,
Scotland, which George reached in early February, proved the most
receptive to his message. It was here after all with the Crofters'
Revolt raging and the cities crowded with Highland and Irish exiles
that the unacceptable face of landlordism was most apparent and keenly
resented. The Presbyterian Scots moreover responded to the religious
strain in Georgism just as they had to the evangelizing of Moody and
Sankey the decade before.
"Preaching" first for the Rev. David Macrae in Dundee,
George travelled north to Wick and thence to Skye where he "bearded
landlordism in its den." George's LRU contact at this stage was
Dr. Gavin Brown Clark a founding member of the Highland Land Law
Reform Association (the leading pro-crofter organization) and later
Crofter MP for Caithness. Clark believed that George's presence in the
Highlands would advance the cause of land reform in that region. Local
HLLRA leaders disagreed, arguing that moderates would be put off by
the "drastic dose" proposed by George, and in vain urged the
latter to "mind his own business."
Landlord opposition reared its head in Skye where George, refused the
use of school and church halls, was forced to conduct his meetings on
the open hillside. The crofters welcomed him warmly, flattered perhaps
by American interest in their plight. At Glendale they removed the
horses from George's "machine" and dragged him forward to
the sound of their famous horns. At Kilmuir a cairn was erected in his
With John Macpherson the Glendale Martyr as interpreter, George
recommended passive resistance "on the Irish model" to
counter factor tyranny, and counselled against acceptance of all "half-way
measures." No matter how tenaciously the crofters asserted their
belief in the communal nature of land ownership, George reasoned
privately, they were too few in number to exert much political
pressure. The revolt, however, deserved encouragement as a reminder to
lowland city dwellers of "the iniquities of landlordism".
George was at his most prophetic in Glasgow, the birthplace of his
maternal grandfather John Vallance. What kind of "word" was
being preached in Glasgow, he demanded of a crowd in the City Halls,
which allowed such extremes of wealth and want to rub shoulders? How
could expensive church building and lavish spending on overseas
missions be reconciled with the fact that 41 out of every 100 citizens
of Glasgow were forced to live in single roomed tenement slums "that
would appal a heathen"? Low wages, want, vice, degradation were
not George asserted "the fruits of Christianity" but came
rather from "the ignoring and denial of the vital principle of
While in Ireland they did some "kicking against this infernal
system", George taunted, the devout Scots acted as though the
lairds had created the heavens and the earth. As a result the
Highlanders were being steadily pushed off the land to swell an
already overcrowded labour market. The single tax remedy, however,
would get at the landlord "dogs in the manger" and provide
free education, parks and pensions for all. "Moderation"
George declared in a rousing finale, "is not what is needed; it
is righteous indignation. Grasp your thistle. Take this wild beast by
the throat. Proclaim the grand truth that every human being born in
Scotland has an inalienable and equal right to the soil of Scotland!"
This severe tongue-lashing had the desired effect. Led by Richard
McGhee, an Irish-born Glasgow MP, William Forsythe, a lawyer, and the
veteran land reformer, John Murdoch, the Scottish Land Restoration
League, a purely Georgite body was established with branches in
Edinburgh and Aberdeen.
George welcomed the League's manifesto as a "lark's note in the
dawn." The Scottish reputation for logic and intelligence, he
declared to a Greenock audience, would help the world wide spread of
the movement. He intended the SLRL as a cross party pressure group, "a
nucleus where information could be gathered", and a mechanism for
articulating working men's grievances.
In the event the organization took a more direct political role and
although it failed to make a significant impact at municipal and
general elections it attracted a new generation of radicals such as
Keir Hardie and Shaw Maxwell, and provided an institutional stepping
stone to the establishment of the SLP in 1888.
Criticism of George had by this time reached fever pitch. The Glasgow
Herald piqued that an American should berate the Empire's second
city warned that "underlying the pulpy piety, persuasiveness, and
benevolence of Mr. George the hard shell of the revolutionist appears."
He was accused in the Greenock Herald of lining his own
pockets in the cause of reform.
Potential allies were put off by George's unwillingness to "buy
out" the landlords and the growing band of socialists were
puzzled by his reluctance to extend nationalisation from land to
capital. Indeed Marx dismissed him as a "panacea monger" and
his programme as "the capitalist's last ditch."
Most harmful to his historical reputation in Britain was the handling
George received by academic economists. Alfred Marshall of Cambridge
declared there was "nothing new" in his theories. James
Mavor, professor of political economy at St. Mungo's College was
shocked on meeting the American in 1882 to find him ignorant of both
Scots and French Physiocrats. George, to his credit, made no claim to
originality. It delighted him that his theory was "no mere yankee
invention." Wherever possible he referred to earlier land tax
writings to bolster his case freely recommending Patrick Dove's Theory
of Human Progression to an Aberdeen audience and cooperating with
Hyndman on the republication of Spence's The Real Rights of Man.
Razor-sharp with hecklers, George ruled never to counter critics in
writing, maintaining throughout his life that Progress and Poverty
answered all their points. The continuing success of the book with the
less literate vindicated this policy. To refine his theory in response
to criticism would weaken its propaganda force divorcing economics
once again from the man in the street.
At the bequest of his Scottish followers George broke this ruling
once to reply to an attack by the Duke of Argyll in the Nineteenth
Century Magazine. Argyll who had resigned from Gladstone's government
in protest over the 1881 Irish Land Act, was the leading Whig
landowner in Scotland and too grand a target to ignore. By subtly
confronting him with "the sins of his ancestors" and
contrasting Argyll's anti-slavery record with his attitude to the
crofters, George, in the eyes of his supporters at least, got the
better of the exchange.
George returned to New York in April 1884 well pleased at having "started
the fire in Scotland." He counselled the SLRL leadership by
letter vetoing their plans for a publicity tour of America but
encouraging them in a mysterious "Skye expedition". Perhaps
because it entailed "some risk of arrest" the scheme was
abandoned leaving George bemoaning the absence of strong leadership in
Scotland. This vacuum was filled in October 1884 when George, cabled
by the SLRL that a general election was imminent, crossed the Atlantic
Apart from an opening meeting in London, George devoted the whole of
his second tour to Scotland. It was an organizational disaster. Edward
McHugh, the Irish-born secretary of the SLRL, neglected pre-tour fund
raising and advanced publicity. This led to poor audiences and press
But George persevered with a gruelling tour schedule to score some
notable successes. By fraternizing on Skye with some marines of the "occupation"
force who had read Progress and Poverty George helped
highlight the futility of the govern-men's coercive policy. His
reputation amongst the crofters as "Henry Seoras" who "caused
the great men to tremble throughout Europe and America" was
growing. In the smaller lowland towns by-passed in the Spring he was
also well received. "The land question", he wrote to an
English friend, "will never go to sleep in Auchtermuchty."
Above all the hearty welcome for Michael Davitt amongst the
Anglo-Scots at George's London meeting augured well for a future
Celtic land reform alliance.
Without the hoped for general election to give political focus to his
campaign, George intensified the religious element in his message. His
famous Sunday sermon on "Moses" helped reinforce his weekday
speeches without offending Sabbatarian sentiment. Moses provided an
inspiring example George believed of an individual's ability to
transform society. The Mosaic Codes, moreover, while clearly divinely
inspired, were concerned not merely with access to the afterworld, but
with the daily life and condition of the Israelites.
The Jubilee for instance by allowing for periodic land redistribution
prevented monopoly. This contrasted markedly George observed with the
Scottish Calvinist outlook which regarded suffering as the
unchangeable dispensation of Providence and had resulted in clerical
inaction during the Clearances.
This scriptural approach while easily grasped by Scottish audiences
proved something of a double edged sword. A heckler in Greenock cited
Abraham's purchase of land for forty sheckels as justifying private
property in land. The Tory Northern Chronicle deemed it irreverent for
George to "teach the most high a lesson in political economy"
and criticised his making capital out of the "religious instincts"
of the Highland people.
Parodying his close identification with Moses, the Scotsman urged
George to lead the "indigent crofters ... to the promised land at
Winnipeg." Despite such mocking, George's Social Gospel was well
received amongst the more socially conscious of Scottish clergy
including the crofter's champion the Rev. Donald MacCallum of
Waternish and it motivated the Rev. Duncan Macgregor of Chicago to
establish his Scottish Land League of America.
George's British success was due in no small measure to his
speech-making ability. He was, according to George Bernard Shaw, "deliberately
and intentionally oratorical" holding his audiences with "a
killing gaze in the manner of Athenian orators of old." At the
same time his sentences were short and incisive. Consideration of
political economy was limited to a few simple principles illustrated
with local examples.
Edinburgh citizens were made aware of the £25,000 annual ground
rent drawn by the Heriot's Trust and of the financial burdens imposed
on them by the grant of parkland to former Lord Provost Warrender.
Similarly George urged a Greenock audience to contemplate the
municipal problems which could be solved with the £100,000 rent
paid to Sir Michael Robert Shaw Stewart. Even opponents paid tribute
to George's sincerity on the platform.
Added to this was the apocalyptic strain permeating George's writings
and public utterances. In Progress and Poverty he had warned
of a time when "the sword will again be mightier than the pen and
in carnivals of destruction brute force and wild frenzy will alternate
with the lethargy of a declining civilization." Immediate land
reform was imperative George argued if such a catastrophe was to be
avoided. This sense of urgency and expectation was given substance in
the Scotland of 1884 by the Third Reform Act. By enfranchising the
crofters amongst others the Act threatened a political revolution in
the Highlands with a real possibility of radical land reform to
George's reputation peaked in Britain by the end of 1884 and two
years later in America with his Labor candidacy in the New York
mayoralty election. His condemnation of the Chicago Anarchists in 1887
lost him considerable socialist support on both sides of the Atlantic.
His influence on the radical wing of the Liberal Party, however,
proved more enduring. In 1889 he returned briefly to Britain as an
informal adviser and field general of the Liberal land reform
strategy. The taxation of land values remained high on the Liberal
legislative agenda and fueled the Lloyd George People's Budget
controversy of 1909.
George was an important transitional figure in the history of
transatlantic social reform. His assault on the stagnating science of
political economy helped to break down deep-seated antagonism to
economic action by the state. Although the single tax was essentially
a piecemeal programme it attracted a wide spectrum of radicals and
encouraged the nascent British socialist movement. By shattering
working-class illusions about American democracy George also helped
initiate a fruitful and often overlooked period of cooperation between
American and Scottish labour.
At the same time, George represented the culmination of the
mid-nineteenth century humanitarian reform tradition. He drew his
inspiration and his insistence on immediate reform from the principles
of radical abolitionism. Indeed his campaign was an attempt to extend
the moral logic of Garrisonian anti-slavery to the problem of private
property in land. His skill in arousing British working-class
consciousness was due partly to his membership of the fourth estate
and partly to his own struggle for self-education. He was as William
Morris noted "a man rising from among the workers." His
modesty, sincerity and almost mystical religious conviction impressed
all who met him.
Late in life he was interviewed by a reporter from the New York Sun.
Charles Dana, the paper's editor refused to print the result. Instead
he summoned the reporter to his sanctum telling him, "you sound
like Wendell Phillips reporting Saint John the Baptist. I told you to
see a Mr. Henry George."