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Throwing His Hat in the Ring: Henry George Runs for Mayor

Henry George’s 1886 mayoral campaign generated tremendous enthusiasm among New York City’s working people, particularly trade union members. George, author of the 1879 book Progress and Poverty, considered private land ownership to be the cause of inequality and advocated a “single tax” to remedy it. Although George campaigned for less than a month, he spoke more than one hundred times, sometimes addressing five or more labor unions and church groups in a single evening. His acceptance speech for the nomination of the United Labor Party, delivered at Cooper Union on October 5, 1886, conveyed George’s identification with organized labor and his desire to channel the ground swell of working-class activism of the mid-1880s toward electoral politics. Some sense of George’s rapport with his working-class supporters can be glimpsed in the audience reactions of “laughter” and “vociferous cheers” that a reporter for the New York World recorded in this account of George’s acceptance speech.

The step I am about to take has not been entered upon lightly. When my nomination for Mayor of New York was first talked of I regarded it as a nomination which was not to be thought about. I did not desire to be Mayor of New York. (Applause and cries of, “But you shall be.”) Ihave had in my time political ambition, but years ago I gave it up. I saw what practical politics meant; I saw that under the conditions as they were a man who would make a political career must cringe and fawn and intrigue and flatter, and I resolved that I would not so degrade my manhood. (Great applause and cries of “Bully for you.”) Another career opened to me; the path that I had laid before—that my eyes were fixed upon—was rather that of a pioneer—that of the men who go in advance of politics (applause), the men who break the road that after they have gone will be trod by millions. It seemed to me that there lay duty and that there lay my career, and since this nomination has been talked about my friends here and through the country and beyond the seas have sent me letter after letter, asking me not to lower, as they are pleased to term it, the position I occupied by running for a municipal office. But I believe, and have long believed, that working men ought to go into politics. (applause and cheers) I believe, and I have long believed, that through politics was the way, and the only way, by which anything real and permanent could be secured for labor. In that path, however, I did not expect to tread. That, I thought, would devolve upon others, but when the secretary of this nominating convention came to me and said, “You are the only man upon whom we can unite, and I want you to write me a letter either accepting or refusing to accept, and giving your reasons,” that put a different face on the matter. I had made up my mind to refuse, but when he came in that way I could not refuse. (applause) But I made my conditions. I asked for a guarantee of good faith of the men who put me forward; I asked for some tangible evidence that my fellow-citizens of New York really wanted me to act. That evidence you have given me. All I asked, and more.

(Then turning to the chairman and grasping his hand, Mr. George continued impressively:) John McMackin, Chairman of the Convention of Organized Labor, I-accept your nomination, and in grasping your hand I grasp in spirit the hand of every man in this movement. From now henceforward let us stand together.

Working-men of New York—organized laborers of New York, I accept your nomination. (enthusiastic cheering) For weal or for woe, for failure or for success, henceforward I am your candidate. (VOICE: "And the next Mayor, too.“) I am proud of it from the bottom of my heart. I thank you for the compliment you have paid me. Never in my time has any American citizen received from his fellow-citizens such a compliment as has been consummated to-night; never shall any act of mine bring discredit upon that compliment. (A VOICE: ”That we are sure of.") (Then dropping the chairman’s hand, and coming to the front of the platform again, Mr. George said, with much solemnity:) Working-men of New York, I am your candidate; now it devolves upon you to elect me. (CHORUS OF VOICES: “We will.”) In your name I solicit the suffrages of all citizens, rich or poor, white or black, native or foreign-born; if any organization of citizens sees fit to indorse your nomination, well and good; but as you have asked me for no pledges, so you may rely on me; I will make no pledge to any man or body of men. As you have nominated me unsolicited, I will solicit the indorsement of no other party. Whoever accepts me must accept me as the candidate of organized labor standing alone. And now it devolves upon you to elect me. You can; but look in the face what is against us. This, in my opinion, will be one of the fiercest contests that ever took place in this or any other American city. If money can beat me, I shall be beaten. Every influence that can be arrayed against me will be used. There will be falsehood and slanders, everything that money and energy and political knowledge and experience can command. Don’t imagine that those who have their hands in the pockets of this city through their control of the municipal departments will give up easily (laughter); don’t imagine that the politicians who have made a business of politics for years and have grown fat upon it will allow the working-men to smash their machines without trying their utmost to prevent it. But I do believe, as your chairman has said, that we shall win in spite of all. And I believe it because I see, in this gathering enthusiasm—a power that is stronger than money (prolonged applause), more potent than trained politicians; something that will meet and throw them aside like chaff before a gale. (renewed applause).

Standing now as your candidate for the Mayoralty of New York City, it is meet and fitting that I should say something with regard to the office to which you propose to elect me. It is an important office; it is a powerful position, but any man who obtains it will be fettered by a bad system. Our system of government here is very bad. What we should have is one similar to that of the United States—one executive, responsible to the people, and the heads of the various departments appointed by him removable at his pleasure and responsible to him. Then you will have somebody to call to account. Under our present system you have dual commissions, commissions of three, or four, or five persons, and the consequence is you can fix no responsibility anywhere. These men have to provide for their friends, and therefore there are all sorts of trading and dickering. Nevertheless the Mayor of New York has large powers, he has absolute power in appointing commissioners, though he has no power, as he ought to have, to remove them, with the exception of two very important commissioners—the Commissioners of Accounts; these he may appoint and remove at pleasure. Their business is to go through the departments and see that everything is all correct. But the Mayor has a greater power, the power of visitation and inquisition, finding out how things are going; and he has another great power, that of appealing to public opinion. If elected, as I believe I shall be elected, Mayor, I will do my utmost to discharge its duties faithfully and well-I will do my utmost to give you an honest and a clean government. (applause) I will do my utmost to bring about such changes in legislation as will remedy defects which have been proved, and I will enforce the laws.

I want this to be distinctly understood—that when I take the oath of office as Mayor of New York I will be Mayor of the whole city. (prolonged cheering, ending with three rounds and a tiger from some men in the rear) I will preserve order at all risks; I will enforce the law against friends as fully as against enemies. (applause) But there are some things that, if I am Mayor of New York, I shall stop if I can prevent them. There will be no more policemen acting as censors of what shall be said at public meetings. (This last word seemed to be anticipated and was drowned in a tempest of applause.) I will support to the utmost of my power and my influence the peace officers of the city, but if it is in my power to put a stop to it I will put a stop to the practice which seems to be common among many of the hoodlums of the force, of turning themselves into judge, jury, and executioner, and clubbing anybody whom they think ought to be clubbed. Without fear and without favor I will try to do my duty. I will listen as readily to the complaint of the richest man in this city as I will to the complaint of the poorest. (A VOICE: “The rich have nothing to complain of.”) Some of them are under the impression that if I am elected they may have. No: you are right about it. The rich in this city have very little to complain of. Corrupt government always is and always must be the government of the men who have money. Under our republican forms, while we profess to believe in the equality of all men, the rich have virtually ruled the administration of the law. It reminds me of an old fable I used to read in a French book. There was a terrible pestilence among the animals once upon a time. The lion made proclamation and called all the beasts together. They were suffering for their sins, he said, and ought to investigate who it was that provoked the wrath of Heaven, and then offer him up as a sacrifice. And so all the animals met. They elected the fox as chairman. (laughter) The lion said he was a great sinner; that he had eaten many flocks of sheep, and even once eaten a shepherd. (laughter) The fox said to the lion that the sheep ought to be complimented to be eaten by his majesty, and as for the shepherd, it served him right, “for evidently,” went on the fox, “he had been throwing stones at your majesty.” And then the wolf and the hyena and the tiger and so on confessed their several sins, until it came to the fox, who said he had eaten a great many chickens, but they crowed so in the morning that they disturbed him very much. Lastly came the donkey, who said that as he was carrying a load of hay to the market for his master he turned around and took a mouthful. “Wicked monster,” cried the fox. “But I was hungry,” continued the ass. “He had forgotten to give me my breakfast.” "That makes no difference," cried the fox, and it was unanimously decided that it was the sin of the ass that brought the pestilence (laughter), and all the animals fell on him and tore him to pieces by way of sacrifice. It is so with many rich criminals and it is so on the other side of the question. The Theiss boycotters are still in prison. Is there not something in the State of New York that recalls that battle of the animals? (A voice near one of the doors here shouted out, “Mr. George, there are three or four ex-convicts who have been sent here as heelers for Tammany Hall.”) I should not be at all surprised at that.

The politicians whom you have disturbed by your nomination, and a good many of the respectable journals, think very poorly of this movement, because they term it, “class movement.” They dislike to see class movements in our politics; they would rather you would go on in the old way voting for Tammany Hall, or the County Democracy, or the Republicans. Class movement! What class is it? The working class! Do you ever ask yourselves how it is that the working-men came to constitute a class? In the beginning all men had to work. Is it not the dictate of Scripture: “Thou shalt earn thy bread by the sweat of thy brow”? Nature gives to man nothing. Without work nothing can be produced. Work is the producer of all wealth. How, then, is it that there came to be distinctively a working class? How is it that that working class is everywhere the poorer class? It is that some men devise schemes by which they can live without working, by throwing the burden of their work upon their fellows. An English writer has divided all men into three classes—working-men, beggar-men, and thieves (loud cheers)—and this is correct. There are only three ways of getting the product of labor—by working for it, by having it given to you, and by stealing it. (laughter) If this is a class movement, then it is a movement of the working class against the beggar-men and the thieves. ( applause) A class movement! No. (cheers) It is what Gladstone said of that great movement on the other side of the water—it is a movement of the masses against robbery by the classes, and is it not time that there should be in this city of New York some such movement as this? The political condition of this city—the metropolis of the western world—is to-day a hissing and a reproach through all the monarchies of Europe. Go over there on the other side and venture to say one word against their aristocratic institutions and see how quickly you will be met with the retort that there is no place where there is such open-faced corruption as in this city of New York. Speak to an Englishman about his rulers and see how quickly he will answer you to your disadvantage. (A VOICE: “To hell with them”) Oh, no! Not to hell with any country. The man who is in this labor movement truly and heartily, the man who feels its spirit and its impulse, becomes a citizen of the world (loud cheers), a worker for the emancipation of the race. All over the world the working classes are brothers. (cheers) The quicker and sooner they recognize that, the quicker the day of redemption will come. I sat on the platform last night when Mr. Justin McCarthy delivered his masterly address, and I was very pleased to notice the charity to all men that was manifest throughout it. Ireland is not struggling for its rights alone but for the rights of the English people as well. The Land League movement has brought out the burning declaration of the land for the people, and is doing its work on both sides of the sea.

But to come back to our own government and time. This government of New York City—our whole political system—is rotten to the core. It needs no investigation to discover it. An assemblyman ordinarily “puts up” more than he can honestly expect to get back in salary. The ordinary expenditure of a candidate for Congress, I am told, is about $10,000, and he can make the expenses of his campaign go as high as $80,000. Even our judges pay some $20,000 for the privilege of running. It is well understood that a candidate for Mayor must be prepared to spend $75,000, and it is said that, in a recent campaign, the candidate spent something like $200,000. Look how money flows everywhere. This morning we read of Alderman Diwer barbecuing an ox and letting beer run like water—and this distance from election. Is this vast amount of money thrown out for simple salaries? The money that is habitually spent in campaigning in this city is put in as a business investment (applause)—money out to get money in. Corruption!

Just consider, for a moment, the contemptuous manner in which this movement of our working class is treated. And why? Just because they think we haven’t the “sinews of war.” Because, as Mr. “Fatty” Walsh says, “Those labor fellows ain’t got no inspectors of election.” And under the beautiful system of local politics here, one rogue is turned out and another let in. Does that improve things? Do you suppose that Mr. Rollin M. Squire was a sinner above all other office-holders in this city? (cries of “no”) Is not the present incumbent applying the same old official axe—chopping off Tammany heads and putting in County Democrats in the same good old fashion? Is it not well understood that without some such deal tickets cannot be got up nor candidates run? Look at the outcry that has gone up over this movement. The cry of alarm “The Democracy must unite,” is heard everywhere. How has the party of Jefferson and of Jackson fallen when its two local wings must be called upon to unite, and even the power of the National Administration brought in to help that unity! And against what? Against the working man! Why don’t they unite, then, when the obligation is so imperative? Because the difficulty lies in parcelling out the spoils—in giving out the offices and getting the proper kind of pledges. As to the principle of the thing, they care nothing for that. Isn’t it time that fresh breath was infused into this corruption?

In this movement of ours there is hope of better things. In a city where it has long been held that a man must be rich, very rich, to hold its highest office, you have put up a poor man. (cheers) In a city where it is a standing rule that a candidate must disburse money, you propose to furnish your own money. And you have a candidate who is free from pledges. Can your Johnny O’Briens say that when their candidate is nominated? (cries of “no, no”) If the much hoped for union of Tammany Hall and Irving Hall and the County Democracy does take place, can it be said of their candidate that he stands free of pledges as to how he will parcel out the jobs in his gift? Remember that until you can elect men who are free you cannot expect an unfettered administration.

This movement aims at political reform; but that is not all. That is not the entire significance of my candidacy. We aim, too, at social reform. (applause) As declared in the platform you heard here to-night we aim at equal rights for all men. Chattel slavery is dead, but what we do tonight is to unfurl again the standard of the equal rights of man, to take up again the sentiment of the Declaration of Independence. (applause) Upon us devolves the duty of overthrowing that more insidious form of slavery which results in industrial slavery. This movement is a revolt of the masses not simply against political corruption, but against social injustice. (applause) And is it not time, and is this not the place? (cries of “yes,” and applause) Look over our vast city, and what do we see? On one side a very few men richer by far than it is good for men to be, and on the other side a great mass of men and women struggling and worrying and wearying to get a most pitiful living. In this big metropolis in this year of grace, 1886, we have a vast surging class of so-called free and independent citizens, with none of whom the wild, Red Indian, in anything like his native state, could afford to exchange. We have hordes of citizens living in want and in vice born of want, existing under conditions that would appall a heathen. Is this by the will of our Divine Creator? (A VOICE: “No.”) It is the fault of men (applause), and as men and citizens on us devolves the duty of removing this wrong; (applause) and in that platform that the convention has adopted and on which I stand, the first true step in that direction is taken. Why should there be such abject poverty and destitution in this city on the one side and such wealth on the other? There is one great fact that stares in the face anyone who chooses to look at it. That fact is that the vast majority of men and women and children in New York have no legal right to live here at all. Most of us—99 per cent at least—must pay the other one per- cent by the week or month or quarter for the privilege of staying here and working here.

See how we are crowded in New York. London has a population of 15,000 to the square mile. Canton, in crowded China, has 35,000 inhabitants within the same area. New York has 54,000 to the square mile, and leaving out the uninhabited portion it has a population of 85,000 to the square mile. In the Sixth Ward there is a population of 149,000 to the square mile; in the Tenth Ward, 276,000; in the Thirteenth, 224,000, including roads, yards, and all open places. Why, there is one block in this city that contains 2,500 living beings and every room in it a workshop. There is in one ward a tenement covering one quarter of an acre, which contains an average of 1,350 people. At that rate a square mile would contain 3,456,000. Nowhere else in the civilized world are men and women and children packed together so closely. As for children, they die almost as soon as they enter the world. In the district known as the Mulberry Bend, according to Commissioner Wingate’s report, there is an infant death-rate of 65 per cent, and in the tenement district he says that a large percentage of the children die before they are five years of age.

Now, is there any reason for such overcrowding? There is plenty of room on this island. There are miles and miles and miles of land all around this nucleus. Why cannot we take that and build houses upon it for our accommodation? Simply because it is held by dogs in the manger who will not use it themselves, nor allow anybody else to use it, unless they pay an enormous price for it—because what the Creator intended for the habitation of the people whom He called into being is held at an enormous rent or an enormous price. Did you ever think, men of New York, what you pay for the privilege of living in this country? I do not ask what you pay for bricks and mortar and wood, but for rent, and the rent is mainly the rent of the land. Bricks and mortar and wood are of no greater value here than they are in Long Island or in Iowa. When what is called real estate advances it is the land that is getting more valuable; it is not the houses. All this enormous value that the growth of population adds to the land of this city is taken by the few individuals and goes for the benefit of the idle rich, who look down upon those who earn their living by their labor.

But what do we propose to do about it? We propose, in the first place, as our platform indicates, to make the buildings cheaper by taking the tax off buildings. We propose to put that tax on land exclusive of improvements, so that a man who is holding land vacant will have to pay as much for it as if he was using it, just upon the same principle that a man who goes to a hotel and hires a room and takes the key and goes away would have to pay as much for it as if he occupied the room and slept in it. In that way we propose to drive out the dog in the manger who is holding from you what he will not use himself. We propose in that way to remove this barrier and open the land to the use of labor in putting up buildings for the accommodation of the people of the city. (applause) I am called a Socialist. I am really an individualist. I believe that every individual man ought to have an individual wife, and is entitled to an individual home. (applause) I think it is monstrous, such a state of society as exists in this city. Why, the children, thousands and thousands, have no place to play. It is a crime for them to play ball in the only place in which they can play ball. It is an offence for them to fly their kites. The children of the rich can go up to Central Park, or out into the country in the summer time; but the children of the poor, for them there is no playground in the city but the streets; it is some charity excursion which takes them out for a day, only to return them again to the same sweltering condition. There is no good reason whatever why every citizen of New York should not have his own separate house and home; and the aim of this movement is to secure it. We hold that the land belongs to the entire people. We hold that the value of the land of this city, by reason of the presence of this great population, belongs to us to apply to the welfare of the people. Everyone should be entitled to share in it. It should be for the use of the whole people, and for the beautifying and adornment of the city, for providing public accommodations, playgrounds, schools, and facilities for education and recreation. Why, here is this building in which we are assembled, the Cooper Institute; its superintendent told me only a little while ago they accommodated only about one tenth of the young people who are flocking here to get an education to enable them to make a livelihood. Instead of relying upon the beneficence of individuals, we, the people of New York, ought to furnish the institutions ourselves. We ought to have in this city of New York twenty such institutions as this. What the platform aims at is the taking for the use of the people all that value and benefit which result from social growth. We believe that the railroads of this city ought to be taken properly and legally by the people and run for the benefit of the people of New York. (applause) Why should it not be so? Any individual putting up a big building, such as the Norse building, the Cyrus Field building, the Western Union building, puts in an elevator. But he does not put in that elevator a man with a bell-punch strung around his neck to collect fares. He gains the advantage in the increased value of his building. So we could take their railroads and run them. We could take those railroads and run them free, let everybody ride who would, and we could pay for it - out of the increased value of the people’s property in consequence. These are but steps, but the aim of this movement, and this is its significance, is the assertion of the equal rights of man—the assertion of his equal and inalienable right to life and to all the elements that the Creator has furnished for the maintenance of that life.

Here is the heart of the labor question, and until we address ourselves to that the labor question never can be solved. These little children who die in our tenement districts, have they no business here? Do they not come into life with equal rights from the Creator? In the early days of New Zealand, when the English colonists bought land from the natives, they encountered a great difficulty. After they had bought and paid for a piece of land, the women would come with babes in their arms and would say: “We want something for these babes.” The reply was: “We paid you for your land!” Then they who had parted with the land answered: “Yes, yes, yes, but you did not pay these babes. They were not born then.”

I expect, my friends, to meet you many times during this campaign, and expect to make my voice heard in all parts of this city. I am ready to meet any questions that may be addressed to me, and to do whatever in me lies for the success of our ticket. (applause) I am your candidate for Mayor of New York. (vociferous cheers, followed by three cheers and a rattling tiger) It is something that a little while-ago I never dreamt of. Years ago I came to this city from the West, unknown, knowing nobody, and I saw and recognized for the first time the shocking contrast between monstrous wealth and debasing want. And-here I made a vow, from which I have never faltered, to seek out and remedy, if I could, the cause that condemned little children to lead such a life as you know them to lead in the squalid districts. It is because of that that I stand before you tonight, presenting myself for the chief office of your city—espousing the cause, not only of your rights but of those who are weaker than you. Think of it! Little ones dying by thousands in this city; a veritable slaughter of the innocents before their time has come. Is it not our duty as citizens to address ourselves to the adjustment of social wrongs that force out of the world those who are called into it almost before they are here—that social wrong that forces girls upon the streets and our boys into the grogshops and then into penitentiaries? We are beginning a movement for the abolition of industrial slavery, and what we do on this side of the water will send its impulse across the land and over the sea, and give courage to all men to think and act. Let us, therefore, stand together. Let us do everything that is possible for men to do from now until the second of next month, that success may crown our efforts, and that to us in this city may belong the honor of having led the van in this great movement. (great enthusiasm and cheering )

Source: Henry George, Acceptance Speech, as reported in the New York World, New York Tribune, New York Star, and New York Times, 6 October 1886. Edited and reprinted in Charles W. Lomas, The Agitator in American Society (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1968), 48–58.

See Also:A Christ-like Character: A Catholic Priest Champions Henry George