The Single Tax and the Labor Movement


Peter Alexander Speek

[A Bulletin of the University of Wisconsin, No. 878, 1917, pp. 143-157]


The United Labor party as a new political organization, independent and distinct from all other organizations, had made its debut. Although the results were not so favorable as expected, the leaders nevertheless very soon calmed down, finding the 72,000 votes quite satisfactory for the first step of a new party, for they considered the votes received as pure singletax votes given by the people "animated by principle, who can be counted on in any circumstances and against all odds."[1] Henry George, speaking of the mayoralty campaign of 1886, said:

"But there of course rallied around me large elements who neither understood nor appreciated the principles which alone induced me to accept a political nomination. …This year - 1887 -- a vote for me was … a vote for naked principle … so uncompromisingly and unhesitatingly asserted as to drive off not only the Socialists, Anarchists, and cranks who constituted the 'progressive labor party' but also half-way men (reformers)."[2]

The conclusion which Henry George made was: "Let us push on the good work."[3] On this the Singletaxers agreed. But very soon arose the question as to how to proceed. According to a resolution of the Syracuse Convention they had to call a national conference of the party and to convert it into a national party. To do this was only possible through a national campaign in the presidential election. As to this there appeared a disagreement among the leaders. The majority, headed by McGlynn, were in favor of an independent national campaign, while Croasdale and Post opposed it. They favored in the presidential election the policy of holding of the balance of power and adopting independent political action only in states and congressional districts. Their views appeared in the Standard as early as the end of November.[4]

Now as to Henry George himself. Although he found some comfort in his belief that the 72,000 votes received in the state campaign were pure singletax votes, he was nevertheless greatly disappointed with the results of the campaign. The loss of so many labor votes in the city of New York and the great loss of the subscribers to the Standard were to him not only a blow to the advancement of the singletax theory but somewhat humiliating to his personal pride. In the Standard he again and again blamed McGlynn, McMackin, and Barnes for inducing him to accept the nomination for secretary of state. Furthermore, if he had had any hope to accomplish his reform scheme by the aid of organized labor, after the state campaign he had lost it. His disappointment with organized labor and labor parties made up, according to his expression, of "incongruous elements", was now complete. As the backbone of the United Labor party was still the labor element, he naturally considered that the career of the Singletax theory and of himself was closed as far as the United Labor party was concerned. He afterwards stated several times in the Standard that the United Labor party had collapsed in the state campaign of 1887.

As he did not oppose the idea of holding the balance of power in the national campaign, pointed out in the Standard by his closest followers, Croasdale and Post, he apparently already meditated swinging the forces of the United Labor party to the Democratic party in the coming presidential campaign, hoping successfully to agitate in behalf of his favored doctrines in the ranks of the Democratic party and to increase the circulation of the Standard for the sake of the same doctrines. But there was no immediate opportunity for such sudden change, and, moreover, the United Labor party and he himself stood on a strong singletax platform with some other radical demands -- a platform which had nothing in common with the Democratic party.

Very soon an opportunity came. President Cleveland sent a message to Congress on December 6 in which he advised a slight reduction of the import duties on some raw materials. It was far from being a free-trade message. It decidedly repudiated free-trade doctrine.

But Henry George laid hold of this message. He greeted it warmly and commented favorably upon it in the Standard, calling "all parties, despite themselves, to aid Cleveland in his good work."[5] He started at once to agitate in favor of the free trade doctrine, shifting his specific main issue, the singletax, to that of a subordinate one, free trade.

Some rumors began to circulate in the press that Henry George was abandoning the Syracuse platform and was going over to the Democratic party.

As a result of these rumors, which apparently were true in view of the new attitude of the Standard, McGlynn invited Henry George and his closest friends to an informal conference of the leaders of the United Labor party at Cooper Union about the middle of December. There were present McGlynn, McMackin, Barnes, George, Post, Croasdale, and Sullivan.

The tariff question was discussed at first. McGlynn, McMackin, and Barnes thought it to be the best policy for the United Labor party to ignore the tariff question in the coming presidential campaign, because this question, if raised, would split the party, and had been intentionally ignored in the previous campaigns and platforms.

George, Post, Croasdale and Sullivan believed that the tariff question in the presidential campaign could not be ignored, for it was becoming the main issue between the Democratic and Republican parties, and that the United Labor party ought to take also a definite stand on this issue.

McGlynn then asked Henry George if he should go into the presidential campaign on the Syracuse platform, to which Henry George answered that he should not. Then the ''McGlynn men" outlined the plan to call a national conference of the United Labor party and to make an independent presidential campaign in the following states: New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Indiana. To this plan the "George men" objected on the ground that an independent campaign in those states would mean helping the Republicans to beat the Democrats, which plan they called the "Butlerizing of the United Labor party."

McGlynn answered that the United Labor party ought to go into the campaign independently and fight the rotten Democratic Tammany Hall interwoven with the Catholic ecclesiastical machine, and that there was not any possibility for joining the forces of the United Labor party with that of the Democratic party.[6]

The conference ended without any agreement between these two leaders and their followers. The first formal split between them had occurred. The Standard made the tariff reform its main issue in the coming campaign. "We cannot ignore this minor robber (tariff duties), and to fairly get at the greater robber (economic rent of land) we must fight the little one."[7]

Henry George found now that the two-party system, which he criticized in the previous campaigns, calling both the Republican and the Democratic parties ''shamelessly corrupt and hopelessly decayed," constituted "the normal political division in every country,"[8] and that they might hold together for a considerable time, if even "the life of distinctive principle has gone out of them. … But to bring a principle into politics it is not always necessary to start a new party."[9] He denied now that it was altogether necessary for labor to go into independent politics, for "the real work of emancipating labor and bringing about reform is the work of education."[10]

Not to frighten the leaders of the Democratic Party by a newcomer as their competitor for spoils and not to give ground for belief that he had changed his course for some personal interests, he stated:

"I care little or nothing for party, for I regard parties not as ends but as means. I am not a political leader; and I do not aspire to be a political leader, not only for the reason that politics are not to my taste, but that I aspire to something much higher, a leadership of thought."[11]

The second conflict which resulted in the ousting of the "George men" from the United Labor party[12] occurred at a meeting of the Executive Committee of the Anti-Poverty Society on February 13, 1888. The George men constituted the majority of the Committee. As McGlynn, the president of the society, learned a few days before the meeting that they were planning to suspend him until the next general meeting of the Society, he had appointed to the Executive Committee about a dozen new members, mainly from his former parishioners, according to the power conferred upon him by the constitution of the Society. When the George men came to the meeting, they found about half a dozen new members in the room. To the explanation of McGlynn that he had appointed new members, E. J. Shriver, treasurer of the society, and Louis F. Post (both George men) replied with a protest, calling McGlynn's new appointment arbitrary. Meanwhile new members continued to come in, as did several bona fide members -- George men. Both factions had foresightedly reenforced themselves by a method of "packing" -- the McGlynn faction by new appointments, and the George faction by bona fide members. But McGlynn had the majority on his side. William T. Croasdale presided. E. J. Shriver moved that the president of the society be suspended for a "grave cause" (for attacking Henry George for his new course in politics) until a meeting of the Society. This motion was seconded and an exciting debate followed.

McMaekin and Barnes declared the motion out of order. But Chairman Croasdale ruled that the motion was in order. Barnes appealed from the decision of the chair. A roll call was taken by the chairman leaving out the bona fide and newly appointed members. This action evoked stormy protests. A motion then was instantly made to adjourn, and the George men left the room. The meeting was continued by the McGlynn faction alone. A motion was carried to expel the George men, who had just left the meeting.

A few days later the expelled George men of the Anti-Poverty Society gathered in a meeting as the Executive Committee of the Society, for the purpose of suspending McGlynn from the presidency. After a long discussion they abandoned this proposition and considered themselves as leaving the Anti-Poverty Society. It was obvious to them that a continuation of the struggle was useless, because the ranks of the Society were on the side of McGlynn. Not to make any further scandal, Henry George withdrew voluntarily from the Anti-Poverty Society.

The twenty-third assembly district organization of the United Labor party formally expelled Henry George for "abandoning the greater principle of the singletax for the lesser one of free trade, for having spoken of the party as a paper organization, and for supporting President Cleveland upon inspiration from Washington."[13]

Thus Henry George and his closest followers, a comparatively small number of men, not only had lost their control over the United Labor party, the Land and Labor organization, and Anti-Poverty Society, but were expelled from these organizations. The real cause of the split among the Singletaxers was neither theory nor doctrines, either of the singletax or of the tariff, for they all were convinced Singletaxers and Free-traders. It was the question of tactics, the new course of Henry George, his going over to the Democratic party, on which they split.

While Henry George was losing his popularity among the ranks of the United Labor party by his new course, McGlynn, the most popular man and hero on the Standard, was gaining influential power by remaining true to the original movement and its tactics. This and the strong personality of McGlynn explain why he so successfully opposed the new course of Henry George and outwitted him.

At a meeting of the Anti-Poverty Society on February 16, 1888, McGlynn stated:

"We are not going to allow ourselves to be made the wretched little bit of a tail to the Democratic kite. …If he (Henry George) comes back into the party again, even if he does not support Cleveland or the Democratic party, he will have to take a much humbler position in the ranks than he has heretofore held."[14]

To this Henry George replied:

"I am not ready to become the stalking horse and decoy duck of any political combination. …Yet it is because I have refused to surrender not merely my opinions but my firm convictions (the necessity to support the Democratic Party) that he (McGlynn) has assumed to excommunicate me from the United Labor Party, and to declare that, if ever permitted to come back, it must be to take a much humbler position. If the doctor will think, he will find it difficult to imagine a much humbler position than that which, out of deference to him, I have for some time occupied -- that of an ostensible leader in a party in whose managing counsels I have been utterly ignored."[15]


The national conference of the United Labor party met in the Grand Opera House at Cincinnati, on May 15, 1888. Present were eighty-six delegates from the various states, as follows: New York, 41; Ohio, 25; Kentucky, 5; Michigan, 5; Kansas, 3; Maryland, 2; Illinois, 1; Iowa, 1; Wisconsin, 1; Rhode Island, 1; New Jersey, 1.

The conference resolved itself into a convention. An attempt was made to fuse with the Union Labor party, formed in a previous year at a conference of labor and reformers' organizations at Cincinnati, but this attempt failed.

There was adopted a platform similar to that adopted at the Syracuse convention. It reaffirmed the Singletax as its main issue, advocated the issue by the government of legal tender notes, without intervention of banks, and the administration by government of railroads and telegraphs, and favored legislation reducing the hours of labor, prohibiting child labor and convict competition, providing for sanitary inspection of tenements, factories and mines, and repealing the conspiracy laws. It declared in favor of the Australian system of balloting, demanded the simplification of legal procedure, and denounced the Democratic and Republican parties.[16] It entirely ignored the tariff issue. Robert H. Cowdry of Illinois and W. H. T. Wakefield of Kansas were chosen as candidates for president and vice president, respectively.

The state convention of the United Labor party at New York was held in Cooper Union on September 19 and 20.

As there were current some rumors that several leaders of the United Labor party were in a deal with the Republican party, McGlynn, at a meeting of the Executive Committee of the United Labor party on September 25, introduced a resolution, which was adopted, declaring that all officers of the party must support the whole United Labor party electoral ticket.[17]

The County Convention of the United Labor party was held at Clarendon Hall on October 10. James J. Coogan, a furniture dealer, real estate man, and large employer of labor, was unanimously nominated for mayor of New York.


In the last copy of 1887 the Standard tried to show in an editorial that the Democratic party in the coming presidential campaign might get labor votes because the tariff reform was in the interests of labor.[18] It criticized the supposed desire of the leaders of the United Labor party to gather again all the labor elements in the party. It said:

"Now, what his (McGlynn's) committee are waiting and hoping for is the formation of one of these 'labor parties,' composed of politically incongruous elements which have time and again proved utter failures."[19] It then criticized the Union Labor party formed at a conference in Cincinnati on a platform "which was the result of the compromises of such a mixture of heterogeneous 'ists' and 'isms . . .' There are various indications that the committee of which Dr. McGlynn is head are planning to make a mergement of what they would call the United Labor party" with the Union Labor party, the Socialists and all the other so-called 'labor elements,' upon some sort of a hodge-podge platform."[21]

Henry George denied, merely on constitutional grounds, that the singletax could be made an issue in the national campaign. To this McGlynn replied that the Federal jurisdiction fully extends over the District of -Columbia and all the territories where the singletax can be realized by the Federal authority. Nevertheless, the tariff reform, put forth in the message of President Cleveland, was to Henry George the most important national issue in the coming presidential campaign. "I regard the nomination of Mr. Cleveland as a more important political event than anything that has occurred since the cease of the war," he wrote in the Standard. The Sun charged that the advocates of Mayor Hewitt's proposal that the city should build and run rapid transit railroads had practically become Socialists. Henry George rejected this charge and blamed the Republicans for being Socialists. "The protective tariff is Socialism pure and simple."[22]

The Mill tariff bill was reported to the house on April 2. The main changes were a somewhat higher duty on the poorer grades of unrefined sugar and a somewhat lower duty on the whiter grades. Henry George, commenting on this bill, expressed his satisfaction with it. "For the present time and situation it is probably better than a more radical bill would be."[23]

He strongly opposed a third candidate in the coming presidential campaign. "In such a campaign as this, any attempt to run a third candidate on a singletax platform would not only be idle but harmful."[24] Even a singletax platform demanding absolute free trade was to him "chimerical,"[25] because it would take away so many votes from the Democratic party in its practical struggle against protection. "Thanks to Grover Cleveland 's patriotism and courage, a grand opportunity is offered us to preach them (the singletax doctrines) through the ranks of a powerful party".[26]

He sharply criticized McGlynn for not understanding the singletax principle. McGlynn in a speech called upon the city tenants not to pay more than a fair building rent. This Henry George termed as a "crazy demagogic scheme"" of McGlynn who had "utterly lost his grasp upon principle."[28] He then asked: "What right have tenants more than landlords to the free use of land made valuable by the whole community?"[29]

The George men or the Singletaxers -- Free-Traders, as they now called themselves -- gathered in Cooper Union on August 7 for a conference. To avoid criticisms and other difficulties the call was issued only ''for those who have made up their minds to support Cleveland and Thurman, the matter for consultation will be only as to how this support can be most effectively rendered. …This will be not a meeting for speaking, but a meeting for consultation,"[30] -- so wrote Henry George, urging all singletax men in sympathy with the purpose of the conference to be present. The necessity of such conference Henry George explained by "the fact that men whose only aim in politics is the emancipation of labor and the abolition of poverty, are supporting Cleveland with all their might for the very reason that the advocates of the protectionist superstition are telling workingmen they should vote against him."[31] Thus was a step taken to bring the Singletaxers -- Free-Traders -- together to find ways and means to fight those who were telling workingmen not to vote for the Democratic party.

Louis F. Post was elected chairman. W. T. Croasdale then proposed a resolution requiring the gathering of signatures for a voting pledge for Cleveland, as had been done for Henry George at the beginning of the campaign of 1886. The pledge was entitled "The Singletax Cleveland Voters' Enrollment Blank."

This plan was adopted. A campaign committee of nine was then elected to gather signatures for the voting pledge, and also to provide for the holding of public meetings and the distribution of literature.

The leaders of the Democratic party in New York, although wanting the votes which Henry George could marshal for their party by his. influence in the campaign agitation, opposed his radicalism on the tariff question. A fear that his preaching of free trade might frighten voters away from the Democratic party made them pray, "Deliver us from our friends!"[32] and caused them to give out as a marching refrain in the parade of the Democratic party the following lines:

"Don't, don't, don't be afraid.
Tariff reform is not free trade!"[33]

There was much incrimination and recrimination by the leaders of the United Labor party on one hand and the Henry George people on the other. The former blamed the latter as acting by "inspiration from Washington" and as being "renegades," "traitors," and "in a deal with the Democratic party;" while the latter blamed the United Labor party leaders as being "protectionists sold out to the Republican party,'' and so forth.

As a matter of fact these mutual incriminations were very feebly founded, if founded at all. The honesty of purpose of Henry George and McGlynn could not be questioned. If McMackin and Barnes were somewhat uncertain, McGlynn, under whose control these two men were, sincerely believed in the correctness of his action for making an independent campaign of the United Labor party. Moreover, as a Singletaxer he was a convinced free trader. Ignoring the tariff issue in the campaign, he opposed both old parties, and if he hated the Democratic party more than the Republican, then there were certain causes which have been described. The same ethical credit was to be given Henry George. The radical change of his front was due to his entire disappointment in the power of organized labor, and to his desire to preach his doctrines through the ranks of the Democratic party. No direct personal interests nor pecuniary gains were considered by him.

Hardly anyone can hold either Henry George as a "traitor" or McGlynn as "sold out to the Republican party" on account of the fact that some minor leaders in their following desired office or publicity making for that purpose a "deal" with the old parties, Democratic or Republican.


In the presidential election on November 7, 1888, the United Labor party candidate, R. H. Gowdry, received only 2808 votes, of which 2668 were polled in the state of New York and the remainder, 140, in the state of Illinois. The United Labor party candidate for mayor of the city of New York, J. J. Coogan, received somewhat fewer than 10,000 votes.[34]

This was indeed a very poor showing for the United Labor party, and meant its downfall and disappearance from the political arena.

No better success had Henry George and his friends in stumping for the Democratic party, which was badly beaten by the Republicans. The Singletax Cleveland Voters' Enrollment Blank had brought in only about 11,000 signatures[35] over all the United States. The number of subscribers to the Standard, instead of an expected increase, had decreased. The financial help to the paper was far below that which was hoped for by Henry George. The free-trade doctrine, which was the main thing to him in the campaign, did not become a popular issue at all. The American masses favored protection, and it was not so easy to change their mind as Henry George thought. So his new course proved to be a failure as far as its direct main aims were concerned.

Commenting on the fact that the Democratic vote among farmers was weak, Henry George believed:

"If the Standard could have afforded to send the farmers of New York, early in the campaign, copies … for little time, it alone could have carried New York for Cleveland and Thurman."[36]

This shows that Henry George still maintained the idea that farmers were a very suitable element for his doctrines, notwithstanding the fact that all the previous campaigns had resulted in an opposite direction.

The utter failure of both factions in the national campaign ended the singletax agitation in the American labor movement demonstrating that the 72,000 votes given for Henry George in the state campaign the previous year were not pure Singletax votes which could have been counted on '' in any circumstances and against all odds." These votes were given rather for Henry George himself than for his singletax theory. The split among the Singletaxers themselves proved to be even more disastrous for the United Labor party than the ousting of the Socialists a year before. What confidence for the success of the United Labor party was left among its ranks was entirely destroyed by the split evoked by the sudden and radical change of political front on the part of Henry George. Moreover, this change injured his favorable popularity among the masses and greatly lessened his following.

The attempt to bring the singletax into practical polities and to make it the issue of organized labor did not succeed, and even the agitation through the ranks of the Democratic party failed to reach its direct aims, as the foregoing narrative shows. One may ask what was meant by all this trouble, and expenditure of energy and time, in the fervent prosecution of the singletax issue by Henry George and his friends. Had it no results whatever?

It had a far-reaching educational value: It aroused the minds of the masses, it stirred up the reformers, it excited the politicians, and it awakened an earnest discussion among academic circles, calling attention to the land problem and to the labor problem.

The singletax agitation was one of the events in the birth of the modern American democracy. The Socialists issued from the struggle with the conviction that it was much better for them to make political campaigns independently than to fuse with other, non-Socialist parties, and to the present day they have never again attempted fusion tactics.

The labor unions found through the whirlwind of the single-tax agitation, that it was better for them to confine their activities to the economic field than to "meddle" with the attempts of independent politics on some purely theoretical issue.

The Singletaxers themselves learned by their experience in the political campaigns that it was hardly possible for them to create a specific political party to prosecute their theory or to utilize some other party for the same purpose. In that respect they came to the conclusion that distinctive formal organization for their ends was perhaps "a little worse than useless, except as on occasion it might spring spontaneously out of large popular demands."[37]

They worked out their own specific method of propaganda, a system of loose conferences and agitation through literature and public speaking among all classes of the people in the nation, utilizing every opportunity. To this method they have adhered to the present time. But their gain from the movement was even more than that. They greatly popularized their theory, pushing it to the foreground as the leading issue of the mass movement. Every theory gets its weight and importance when it is applied to practice, and especially when it is backed by mass organizations. Although the Singletax theory as such was never accepted by organized labor -- at least by its vast majority -- it seemed to outsiders to be the real recognized issue of the labor movement, especially in the mayoralty campaign of 1886 and in the state campaign of 1887. This apparent support of the singletax by organized labor made it tremendously important, and, in the eyes of its opponents, even "dangerous." This explains the alarm of the old parties, their press, and the authorities of the Catholic Church in New York during and after the campaign of 1886, and the excommunication of Father Mc-Glynn, in particular.

But when the singletax ceased to be even an apparent issue of the mass movement, it became again quite a harmless theory. The authorities of the Catholic Church in New York found now that in the singletax theory there was nothing inconsistent with religion, that is, contrary to their previous statements, made after the campaign of 1886. McGlynn was reinstated in 1892, although he remained a convinced Singletaxer just as before, only with this difference, that he was no more a leader of organized labor in its political efforts.

Attention should be called to a quite important reform successfully prosecuted by the Singletaxers with the decisive aid of organized labor. This was the Australian ballot system. The serious agitation in favor of this reform was started shortly after the campaign of 1886. It was taken up by organized labor over all the Union and within a few years adopted in every state. This reform, as a direct gain for the democratization of the election laws in America, remains as a living monument to the single-tax agitation in the labor movement in the second half of the eighties.

Besides these practical, direct and indirect results, representing an important service of the singletax agitation and its leader, Henry George, to the rising democracy, this narrative has tried to show, on a small scale but somewhat in detail, the picturesqueness of the American mass movements, the constantly and rapidly changing environmental conditions, the shifting of theories, doctrines, and reform schemes, and the radical changes in the methods for their prosecution; in short, the colors and shades which distinctly characterize the young and rapidly developing American nation, ambitious as it is for achievements.


  1. Standard, Nov. 12, 1887, p. 1.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Standard, Nov. 26, 1887, pp. 1, 4.
  5. Standard, Dec. 10, 1887, p. 4.
  6. Standard, Feb. 18, 1888, p. 1.
  7. Standard, Jan. 7, 1888, p. 1.
  8. Standard, Feb. 4, 1888, p. 1.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. The George men were formally ousted only from the Executive Committee of the Anti-Poverty Society, but it practically meant the ousting from the United Labor Party.
  13. Standard, June 2, 1888, p. 1.
  14. Standard, Feb. 18, 1888, p. 3.
  15. Standard, Feb. 18, 1888, p. 1.
  16. Standard, May 26, 1888, p. 4.
  17. Standard, Sept. 29, 1888, p. 1.
  18. Standard, Feb. 18, 1888, p. 1.
  19. Standard, Feb. 18, 1888. p. 1.
  20. After the state campaign In 1887, Henry George refused to use capital letters in the name of the United Labor party.
  21. Standard, Feb. 18, 1888, p. 1.
  22. Standard, March 10, 1888, p. 3.
  23. Standard, Apr. 7, 1888, p. 1.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Ibid.
  26. 'Standard, Apr. 14, 1888, p. 1.
  27. Standard, July 7, 1888, p. 1.
  28. Ibid.
  29. Ibid.
  30. Standard, Aug. 4, 1888, p. 1.
  31. Loc cit..
  32. The Life of Henry George, New York, 1904, p. 512.
  33. Ibid.
  34. The Press, Nov. 8, 1888, p. 1.
  35. The Public, Sept. 1, 1911, p. 907.
  36. Ibid.
  37. The Public, Sept. 1, 1911, p. 889.