hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News December 2021-January 2022


A progressive pitch to the North Country

Maury Thompson


Detailed descriptions of appearance were important to journalism in the era before photographs were common.

So The Morning Star of Glens Falls reported on Sept. 17, 1887: “Among the passengers who alighted from the early north train at Fort Edward yesterday morning was a medium-sized man, with full red beard and a florid countenance that would indicate good living, He wore a Prince Albert coat and black derby hat, and, altogether, was a rather ordinary looking individual.”

The “rather ordinary looking individual” was Henry George, a well-known political economist and newspaper columnist who had lately become a political candidate. George was in town to speak at the Fort Edward Institute that morning and at the Washington County Fair at Sandy Hill (now Hudson Falls) in the afternoon.

He arrived from the Lewis County village of Lowville, where he spoke the previous day.
George was a leading voice in the 19th century Progressive movement and was best known for his 1879 book “Progress and Poverty.” He championed the equalization of wealth, ending monopolies, and protecting the secret ballot, among other issues.

Much of his speech at the Washington County Fair was devoted to his advocacy for replacing all taxes with a single property tax, which he argued would put the burden of government services on wealthy landowners. He also called for the government to take ownership of railroads.
George said he was not looking to overthrow the wealthy, but rather to make sure they carried a fair load of responsibility for public good.

“I would that we were all millionaires,” he said. “I do not dislike them. Let every man have the benefit of industry, but let us base our taxes on the value of land.”

George acknowledged that his championing of a single tax based on property value was unpopular with many of the farmers who attended and exhibited at the fair.

“It may be said that farmers would have to pay the bulk of the taxes under such a system as is proposed, but this is not true,” he said in his speech. “The land everywhere would be taxed according to its productive value. An acre of land in New York City would pay a tax several times higher than an acre of land in an agricultural district.”

George described farming as “the first of occupations,” The Granville Sentinel reported on Sept. 17, 1887.

And he argued that farmers who labored in their fields shared common interest with the laborers who worked in urban factories. Neither, he said, were receiving a fair share of wealth.

“We all know that the men who enjoy most of what labor produces today are not the men whose hard toil creates wealth,” he said. “Take the farmers of this country today as a body. Have they cause for discontent? Is not the farmer’s life far harder than it ought to be?”

In 1886, George had run for mayor of New York City on the United Labor Party line. He barely lost to Democratic candidate Abram Stevens Hewitt -- and placed well ahead of the Republican hopeful, the future president Theodore Roosevelt.

At the time of his 1887 visit to Washington County, George was running for New York state Secretary of State, which was an elected office at the time. He wound up placing a distant third in that race.

George said he wasn’t at the fair to talk politics, at least not as it was commonly understood.
“To talk politics in these days means to abuse the other side,” he said, according to The Morning Star. “The people whom I represent do not do that because they have something else to do. What we stand for is to sustain great principles that come home to every man and every woman in every country. We want to abolish poverty.”

George said he might run for president in 1888 -- if he could be sure he wouldn’t be elected. Ideally, he explained, he would lose the national race by one vote.

“I don’t want to be elected,” George said. “I can’t afford to be tied down for office. As it is now, I am free to go where I please and talk on the land tax.”

The fair managers paid George $100 (the equivalent of $2,911 in today’s dollars) and treated George to lunch. The payment was likely because of his ability to draw a crowd — and not necessarily because the fair management agreed with his philosophy.

“Mr. George was kept busy hand shaking from the time of his arrival on the grounds until half-past twelve o’clock, when he took dinner,” The Morning Star reported.
He spoke shortly after 1 p.m.

George left Fort Edward on the 5:45 p.m. train to Albany, where he was to take overnight passage on a steamboat to New York City. He was scheduled to speak there the next day.
George apparently attracted many curiosity seekers, but not many converts.

Six days later, between 200 and 300 people attended a United Labor Party organizational meeting at the Glens Falls Opera House.

Robert Crowe of New York City, a Mr. Moeller of Chicago, and John H. Quinlan of Glens Falls spoke about George’s philosophy.

“At the close of his address, Mr. Quinlan invited those in sympathy with the George movement to step forward and sign the membership roll,” The Morning Star reported on Sept. 24. “There was no response to this request, and all filed out of the room.”

Maury Thompson was a reporter for The Post-Star of Glens Falls for 21 years before retiring in 2017. He now is a freelance writer focusing on the history of politics, labor and media in the region.