Robert G. Ingersoll on Henry George (1886)
Vol I – Lectures
Not so much George – more Ingersoll.
HENRY GEORGE AND LABOR
Question. It is said, Colonel Ingersoll, that you are for Henry George?
Answer. Of course; I think it the duty of the Republicans to defeat the Democracy—a solemn duty—and I believe that they have a chance to elect George; that is to say, an opportunity to take New York from their old enemy. If the Republicans stand by George he will succeed. All the Democratic factions are going to unite to beat the workingmen. What a picture! Now is the time for the Republicans to show that all their sympathies are not given to bankers, corporations and millionaires. They were on the side of the slave—they gave liberty to millions. Let them take another step and extend their hands to the sons of toil.
My heart beats with those who bear the burdens of this poor world.
Question. Do you not think that capital is entitled to protection?
Answer. I am in favor of accomplishing all reforms in a legal and orderly way, and I want the laboring people of this country to appeal to the ballot. All classes and all interests must be content to abide the result.
I want the laboring people to show that they are intelligent enough to stand by each other. Henry George is their natural leader. Let them be true to themselves by being true to him. The great questions between capital and labor must be settled peaceably. There is no excuse for violence, and no excuse for contempt and scorn. No country can be prosperous while the workers want and the idlers waste. Those who do the most should have the most. There is no civilized country, so far as I know, but I believe there will be, and I want to hasten they day when the map of the world will give the boundaries of that blessed land.
Question. Do you agree with George’s principles? Do you believe in socialism?
Answer. I do not understand that George is a Socialist. He is on the side of those that work—so am I. He wants to help those that need help—so do I. The rich can take care of themselves. I shed no tears over the miseries of capital. I think of the men in mines and factories, in huts, hovels and cellars; of the poor sewing women; of the poor, the hungry and the despairing. The world must be made better through intelligence. I do not go with the destroyers, with those that hate the successful, that hate the generous, simply because they are rich. Wealth is the surplus produced by labor, and the wealth of the world should keep the world from want.
—New York Herald, October 13, 1886.
LABOR QUESTION AND SOCIALISM
Question. What do you think of Henry George for mayor?
Answer. Several objections have been urged, not to what Mr. George has done, but to what Mr. George has thought, and he is the only candidate up to this time against whom a charge of this character could be made. Among other things, he seems to have entertained an idea to the effect that a few men should not own the entire earth; that a child coming into the world has a right to standing room, and that before he walks, his mother has a right to standing room while she holds him. He insists that if it were possible to bottle the air, and sell it as we do mineral water, it would be hardly fair for the capitalists of the world to embark in such a speculation, especially where millions were allowed to die simply because they were not able to buy breath at “pool prices.” Mr. George seems to think that the time will come when capital will be intelligent enough and civilized enough to take care of itself. He has a dream that poverty and crime and all the evils that go hand in hand with partial famine, with lack of labor, and all the diseases born of living in huts and cellars, born of poor food and poor clothing and of bad habits, will disappear, and that the world will be really fit to live in. He goes so far as to insist that men ought to have more than twenty-three or twenty-four dollars a month for digging coal, and that they ought not to be compelled to spend that money in the store or saloon of the proprietor of the mine. He has also stated on several occasions that a man ought not to drive a street car for sixteen or eighteen hours a day—that even a street-car driver ought to have the privilege now and then of seeing his wife, or at least one of the children, awake. And he has gone so far as to say that a letter-carrier ought not to work longer in each day for the United States than he would for a civilized individual.
To people that imagine that this world is already perfection; that the condition of no one should be bettered except their own, these ideas seem dangerous. A man who has already amassed a million, and who has no fear for the future, and who says: “I will employ the cheapest labor and make men work as long as they can possibly endure the toil,” will regard Mr. George as an impractical man. It is very probable that all of us will be dead before all the theories of Mr. George are put in practice. Some of them, however, may at some time benefit mankind; and so far as I am concerned, I am willing to help hasten the day, although it may not come while I live. I do not know that I agree with many of the theories of Mr. George. I know that I do not agree with some of them. But there is one thing in which I do agree with him, and that is, in his effort to benefit the human race, in his effort to do away with some of the evils that now afflict mankind. I sympathize with him in his endeavor to shorten the hours of labor, to increase the well- being of laboring men, to give them better houses, better food, and in every way to lighten the burdens that now bear upon their bowed backs. It may be that very little can be done by law, except to see that they are not absolutely abused; to see that the mines in which they work are supplied with air and with means of escape in time of danger; to prevent the deforming of children by forcing upon them the labor of men; to shorten the hours of toil, and to give all laborers certain liens, above all other claims, for their work. It is easy to see that in this direction something may be done by law.
Question. Colonel Ingersoll, are you a Socialist?
Answer. I am an Individualist instead of a Socialist. I am a believer in individuality and in each individual taking care of himself, and I want the Government to do just as little as it can consistently with the safety of the nation, and I want as little law as possible—only as much as will protect life, reputation and property by punishing criminals and by enforcing honest contracts. But if a government gives privileges to a few, the few must not oppress the many.The Government has no right to bestow any privilege upon any man or upon any corporation, except for the public good. That which is a special privilege to the few, should be a special benefit to the many. And whenever the privileged few abuse the privilege so that it becomes a curse to the many, the privilege, whatever it is, should be withdrawn. I do not pretend to know enough to suggest a remedy for all the evils of society. I doubt if one human mind could take into consideration the almost infinite number of factors entering into such a problem. And this fact that no one knows, is the excuse for trying. While I may not believe that a certain theory will work, still, if I feel sure it will do no harm, I am willing to see it tried.
Question. Do you think that Mr. George would make a good mayor?
Answer. I presume he would. He is a thoughtful, prudent man. His reputation for honesty has never, so far as I know, been called in question. It certainly does not take a genius to be mayor of New York. If so, there have been some years when there was hardly a mayor. I take it that a clear-headed, honest man, whose only object is to do his duty, and with courage enough to stand by his conscience, would make a good mayor of New York or of any other city.
Question. Are you in sympathy with the workingmen and their objects?
Answer. I am in sympathy with laboring men of all kinds, whether they labor with hand or brain. The Knights of Labor, I believe, do not allow a lawyer to become a member. I am somewhat wider in my sympathies. No men in the world struggle more heroically; no men in the world have suffered more, or carried a heavier cross, or worn a sharper crown of thorns, than those that have produced what we call the literature of our race. So my sympathies extend all the way from hod-carriers to sculptors; from well-diggers to astronomers. If the objects of the laboring men are to improve their condition without injuring others; to have homes and firesides, and wives and children; plenty to eat, good clothes to wear; to develop their minds, to educate their children—in short, to become prosperous and civilized, I sympathize with them, and hope they will succeed. I have not the slightest sympathy with those that wish to accomplish all these objects through brute force. A Nihilist may be forgiven in Russia—may even be praised in Russia; a Socialist may be forgiven in Germany; and certainly a Home-ruler can be pardoned in Ireland, but in the United States there is no place for Anarchist, Socialist or Dynamiter. In this country the political power has been fairly divided. Poverty has just as many votes as wealth. No man can be so poor as not to have a ballot; no man is rich enough to have two; and no man can buy another vote, unless somebody is mean enough and contemptible enough to sell; and if he does sell his vote, he never should complain about the laws or their administration. So the foolish and the wise are on an equality, and the political power of this country is divided so that each man is a sovereign.
Now, the laboring people are largely in the majority in this country. If there are any laws oppressing them, they should have them repealed. I want the laboring people—and by the word “laboring” now, I include only the men that they include by that word—to unite; I want them to show that they have the intelligence to act together, and sense enough to vote for a friend. I want them to convince both the other great parties that they cannot be purchased. This will be an immense step in the right direction.
I have sometimes thought that I should like to see the laboring men in power, so that they would realize how little, after all, can be done by law. All that any man should ask, so far as the Government is concerned, is a fair chance to compete with his neighbors. Personally, I am for the abolition of all special privileges that are not for the general good. My principal hope of the future is the civilization of my race; the development not only of the brain, but of the heart. I believe the time will come when we shall stop raising failures, when we shall know something of the laws governing human beings. I believe the time will come when we shall not produce deformed persons, natural criminals. In other words, I think the world is going to grow better and better. This may not happen to this nation or to what we call our race, but it may happen to some other race, and all that we do in the right direction hastens that day and that race.
Question. Do you think that the old parties are about to die?
Answer. It is very hard to say. The country is not old enough for tables of mortality to have been calculated upon parties. I suppose a party, like anything else, has a period of youth, of manhood and decay. The Democratic party is not dead. Some men grow physically strong as they grow mentally weak. The Democratic party lived out of office, and in disgrace, for twenty-five years, and lived to elect a President. If the Democratic party could live on disgrace for twenty-five years it now looks as though the Republican party, on the memory of its glory and of its wonderful and unparalleled achievements, might manage to creep along for a few years more.
—New York World, October 26, 1886.
HENRY GEORGE AND SOCIALISM.
Question. What is your opinion of the result of the election?Answer. I find many dead on the field whose faces I recognize. I see that Morrison has taken a “horizontal” position. Free trade seems to have received an exceedingly black eye. Carlisle, in my judgment, one of the very best men in Congress, has been defeated simply because he is a free trader, and I suppose you can account for Hurd’s defeat in the same way. The people believe in protection although they generally admit that the tariff ought to be reformed. I believe in protecting “infant industries,” but I do not believe in rocking the cradle when the infant is seven feet high and wears number twelve boots.
Question. Do you sympathize with the Socialists, or do you think that the success of George would promote socialism?Answer. I have said frequently that if I lived in Russia I should in all probability be a Nihilist. I can conceive of no government that would not be as good as that of Russia, and I would consider no government far preferable to that government. Any possible state of anarchy is better than organized crime, because in the chaos of anarchy justice may be done by accident, but in a government organized for the perpetuation of slavery, and for the purpose of crushing out of the human brain every noble thought, justice does not live. In Germany I would probably be a Socialist—to this extent, that I would want the political power honestly divided among the people. I can conceive of no circumstance in which I could support Bismarck. I regard Bismarck as a projection of the Middle Ages, as a shadow that has been thrown across the sunlight of modern civilization, and in that shadow grow all the bloodless crimes. Now, in Ireland, of course, I believe in home rule. In this country I am an Individualist. The political power here is equally divided. Poverty and wealth have the same power at the ballot-box. Intelligence and ignorance are on an equality here, simply because all men have a certain interest in the government where they live. I hate above all other things the tyranny of a government. I do not want a government to send a policeman along with me to keep me from buying eleven eggs for a dozen. I will take care of myself. I want the people to do everything they can do, and the Government to keep its hands off, because if the Government attends to all these matters the people lose manhood, and in a little while become serfs, and there will arise some strong mind and some powerful hand that will reduce them to actual slavery. So I am in favor or personal liberty to the largest extent. Whenever the Government grants privileges to the few, these privileges should be for the benefit of the many, and when they cease to be for the benefit of the many, they should be taken from the few and used by the government itself for the benefit of the whole people. And I want to see in this country the Government so administered that justice will be done to all as nearly as human institutions can produce such a result. Now, I understand that in any state of society there will be failures. We have failures among the working people. We have had some failures in Congress. I will not mention the names, because your space is limited. There have been failures in the pulpit, at the bar; in fact, in every pursuit of life you will presume we shall have failures with us for a great while; at least until the establishment of the religion of the body, when we shall cease to produce failures; and I have faith enough in the human race to believe that that time will come, but I do not expect it during my life.
Question. What do you think of the income tax as a step toward the accomplishment of what you desire?
Answer. There are some objections to an income tax. First, the espionage that it produces on the part of the Government. Second, the amount of perjury that it annually produces. Men hate to have their business inquired into if they are not doing well. They often pay a very large tax to make their creditors think they are prosperous. Others by covering up, avoid the tax. But I will say this with regard to taxation: The great desideratum is stability. If we tax only the land, and that were the only tax, in a little while every other thing, and the value of every other thing, would adjust itself in relation to that tax, and perfect justice would be the result. That is to say, if it were stable long enough the burden would finally fall upon the right backs in every department. The trouble with taxation is that it is continually changing—not waiting for the adjustment that will naturally follow provided it is stable. I think the end, so far as land is concerned, could be reached by cumulative taxation—that is to say, a man with a certain amount of land paying a very small per cent., with more land, and increased per cent., and let that per cent. increase rapidly enough so that no man could afford to hold land that he did not have a use for. So I believe in cumulative taxation in regard to any kind of wealth. Let a man worth ten million dollars pay a greater per cent. than one worth one hundred thousand, because he is able to pay it. The other day a man was talking to me about having the dead pay the expenses of the Government; that whenever a man died worth say five million dollars, one million should go to the Government; that if he died worth ten million dollars, three millions should go to the Government; if he died worth twenty million dollars, eight million should go to the Government, and so on. He said that in this way the expenses of the Government could be borne by the dead. I should be in favor of cumulative taxation upon legacies— the greater the legacy, the greater the per cent. of taxation.
But, of course, I am not foolish enough to suppose that I understand these questions. I am giving you a few guesses. My only desire is to guess right. I want to see the people of this world live for this world, and I hope the time will come when a civilized man will understand that he cannot be perfectly happy while anybody else is miserable; that a perfectly civilized man could not enjoy a dinner knowing that others were starving; that he could not enjoy the richest robes if he knew that some of his fellow-men in rags and tatters were shivering in the blast. In other words, I want to carry out the idea there that I have so frequently uttered with regard to the other world; that is, that no gentleman angel could be perfectly happy knowing that somebody else was in hell.
Question. What are the chances for the Republican Party in 1888?
Answer. If it will sympathize with the toilers, as it did with the slaves; if it will side with the needy; if it will only take the right side it will elect the next President. The poor should not resort to violence; the rich should appeal to the intelligence of the working people. These questions cannot be settled by envy and scorn. The motto of both parties should be: “Come, let us reason together.” The Republican party was the grandest organization that ever existed. It was brave, intelligent and just. It sincerely loved the right. A certificate of membership was a patent of nobility. If it will only stand by the right again, its victorious banner will float over all the intelligent sons of toil.
—The Times, Chicago, Illinois, November 4, 1886.