Abraham Lincoln on the Land Question
William Allen White
[an undated pamphlet published by Land and
ALL my life, I have been interested in the work that Henry
George has done in stirring up the American people to the sense
of injustice that rises out of the system of taxation. I believe
Henry George started more men to thinking seriously and
competently' about public problems, and particularly problems of
taxation, than any other American or his generation; perhaps
more than any other American in one hundred years. The Lincoln
pamphlet of which this is a foreword is most interesting, and
probably is entirely authentic. Its interest for me rises from
the fact that Lincoln, who was also an original thinker, seems
to have reached somewhat the conclusion that Henry George
reached. Lincoln and George saw the same country in their youth.
They saw the same evils, and it is not strange that they should
see the same solution for the evils. At least, it is of more
than passing moment to recall the fact that Abraham Lincoln was
deeply moved by the inequities of our system of taxation.
LINCOLN was early employed in Danville and Springfield in helping the
settlers in their struggles against the extortions and stealings of
the land sharks. His name was a terror to the infamous crew who as
soon as a settler filed his claim filed counter claims and compelled
the bonafide settlers to yield up a fee to retain their land and thus
save litigation. Other tricks were resorted to which made it a series
of battles between the homeseekers and the designing and grasping men
who sought to victimize them. Said Lincoln:
"I respect the man who properly named these villains
land sharks. They are like the wretched ghouls who follow a ship and
fatten on its offal."
He, more than any other man at the time, helped to break up this
system. These homeseekers were his special consideration. He served
them for small fees, frequently for no fee at all.
Through this early experience, Lincoln was learning the land
question. What he saw of the evils of land speculation and the greed
born of private control of natural opportunities made vivid object
lessons. Nor were they lost upon that wonderfully observant mind. As
one cannot be a voluntary beneficiary of an evil social institution
and maintain the same attitude toward it, he shrank with a moral
instinct that was part of the genius of the man from direct
participation in it.
Offered the opportunity by his friend Gridley, eager to help him, of
the purchase of a quarter section of land, which his friend assured
him would double in price within a year, Lincoln said:
"I am as thankful to you and appreciate what you do
for me in so many unselfish ways that no one knows of save myself.
Nevertheless, I must decline this kind offer of yours, which would
no doubt profit me and harm no one directly, as I view it. I have no
maledictions or criticisms of those who honestly buy, sell, and
speculate in land, but I do not believe in it, and I feel for myself
that I should not do it. If I made the investment, it would
constantly turn my attention to that kind of business, and so far
disqualify me from what seems my calling and success in it, and
interfere with the public or half public service, which I neither
seek nor avoid."
Lincoln saw the oppression to which the masses of men were everywhere
subjected. That keen brain and tender heart were alive to the
sufferings of mankind due to economic injustice. That he sensed the
cause is made plain in words that are unmistakable. That he would have
led the movement for the restoration of the rights of men to the earth
they inhabit, and that he would have brushed aside the subtleties of
some of our later day single taxers and gone straight to the heart of
the problem, is also clear from what he had to say, and from what we
know of his statesmanlike courage and the peculiar directness of that
keen and penetrating intellect.
But the question of chattel slavery lay like a stone in the way. That
removed, the monster of land monopoly was to be overthrown. And that
there may be no doubt of the keenness of his apprehension of the
nature of that struggle the following words furnish conclusive proof:
"On other questions, there is ample room for reform
when die time comes; but now it would be folly to think we could
undertake more than we have on hand. But when slavery is over and
settled, men should never rest content while oppression, wrongs, and
iniquities are in force against them."
That Lincoln saw the absurdity of treating the planet as private
property is proved by these words:
"The land, the earth God gave to man for his home,
sustenance, and support, should never be the possession of any man,
corporation, society, or unfriendly government, any more than the
air or water, if as much. An individual, or company, or enterprise
requiring land should hold no more than is required for their home
and sustenance, and never more than they have in actual use in the
prudent management of their legitimate business, and this much
should not be permitted when it creates an exclusive monopoly. All
that is not so used should be held for the free use of every family
to make homesteads, and to hold them as long as they are so
Lincoln saw the land question. He would have dealt with it in the big
way. There would have been no half-way treatment. He would have
announced the freedom of mankind, the New Declaration of Emancipation,
by announcing, as he does so plainly, that there is no such thing as
private property in land, any more than in the air and water.
He had no doubt of the principle he laid down. Of the method to be
pursued, he was not so certain. He said:
"A reform like this will be worked out some time in
He knew the movement would meet with opposition and he knew the kind
of opposition it would meet. He characterized those who would oppose
it in terms which will seem to some of the more timid souls amongst us
as shockingly offensive.
"The idle talk of foolish men, that is so common
now, will find its way against it, with whatever force it may
possess, and as strongly promoted and carried on as it can be by
land monopolists, grasping landlords, and the titled and untitled
senseless enemies of mankind everywhere."
It is pleasant to know that the spirit and mind of Lincoln are of us
and with us. He was a man who dealt with elemental things. He saw the
land question, saw it clearly; he saw the miseries that come from
treating land as unrestricted private property, and he would have
dealt summarily with the evil institution, and in this he expected to
have the opposition of "the senseless enemies of mankind
For the extracts from statements of Lincoln
made in this article, we are to credit a work in two volumes, "Abraham
Lincoln and the Men of His Time," by Robert H. Browne,
M.D., and for the discovery of this remarkable revelation, W. D.
Lamb, of Chicago.
Dr. Robert H. Browne was born in New York, was I an
abolitionist associated with Lovejoy, and read law with Davis,
Lincoln and Gridley at Bloomington, Ill. He was acting assistant
surgeon in the war of 1861 to its close, and after the war
practiced medicine in Kirksville, Mo., and was a member of the
Missouri Senate 1870 to 1874. We do not find a record of the
date of his death.
- Editors LAND AND FREEDOM.