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January 6, 2012

Historical Echoes: Henry George – NYC Mayoral Candidate and Best‑Selling, Self‑Educated Political Economist

Amy Farber, New York Fed Research Library

In contrast to the staid popular image of today’s economists, Henry George (1839-97), a famous critic of protectionist economic policies, had a fascinating and tumultuous life. He was self-educated and held jobs as a deckhand, typesetter, warehouse worker, journalist, and editor. At one point, George was so poor that he resorted to begging in the streets. Yet he eventually ran for mayor of New York City twice. The first time, he got more votes than Theodore Roosevelt, although he lost the race. The second time, he died from a stroke during the campaign.

    He is most famous for his best-selling, self-published book Progress and Poverty: An Inquiry into the Cause of Industrial Depressions. Among other reforms, the book calls for abolishing restrictions on international trade. An essay in the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas’ Economic Insights chronicles George’s life and refers to Progress and Poverty as the most-read economics book in history.

    George proposed a long list of reforms (including a land tax) to help promote economic growth and avoid depressions. The New York Times’ “On this Day” column shows an anti-George political cartoon with the caption “Reform, by George!” The cartoon ridicules the fact that George compared the situation in contemporary America with that of France just prior to the 1789 revolution.

    On October 5, 1886, George accepted the United Labor Party’s nomination for mayor of New York City. The party platform endorsed land taxes, government ownership of railroads and telegraphs, higher wages, shorter hours, and better working conditions for laborers, as well as an end to police interference with peaceful assemblies.

    The New York Public Library has a digital collection of photographs and newspaper clippings relating to Henry George.

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