BEGINS WRITING AND TALKING
1865-1866 AGE, 26-27
Thus while he was doing hap-hazard type-setting, and trying to interest carriage builders in a new wagon brake, he was also beginning to write. The first and most important of these pieces of writing mentioned in the diary notes – on "the use of time" – was sent by Mr. George to his mother, as an indication of his intention to improve himself. Commencing with boyhood, Henry George, as has been seen, had the power of simple and clear statement, and if this essay served no other purpose than to show the development of that natural power, it would be of value. But as a matter of fact, it has a far greater value; for while repeating his purpose to practise writing – "to acquire facility and elegance in the expression" of his thought – it gives an introspective glimpse into the naturally secretive mind, revealing an intense desire, if not for the "flesh pots of Egypt," at least for such creature and intellectual comforts as would enable him and those close to him "to bask themselves in the warm sunshine of the brief day." This paper is presented in full:
Essay, Saturday Afternoon, March 25, 1865
"ON THE PROFITABLE EMPLOYMENT OF TIME"
"Most of us have some principal object of desire at any given time of our lives; something which we wish more than anything else, either because its want is more felt, or that it includes other desirable things, and we are conscious that in gaining it we obtain the means of gratifying other of our wishes.
"With most of us, this power, in one shape or the other – is money, or that which is its equivalent or will bring it.
"For this end we subject ourselves to many sacrifices; for its gain we are willing to confine ourselves and employ our minds and bodies in duties which, for their own sakes are irksome; and if we do not throw the whole force of our natures into the effort to gain this, it is that we do not possess the requisite patience, self-command, and penetration where we may direct our efforts.
"I am constantly longing for wealth; the wide difference between my wishes and the means of gratifying them at my command keeps me in perpetual disquiet. It would bring me comfort and luxury which I cannot now obtain; it would give me more congenial employment and associates; it would enable me to cultivate my mind and exert to a fuller extent my powers; it would give me the ability to minister to the comfort and enjoyment of those whom I love most, and therefore, it is my principal object in life to obtain wealth, or at least, more of it than I have at present.
"Whether this is right or wrong, I do not now consider; but that it is so I am conscious. When I look behind at my past life I see that I have made little or no progress, and am disquieted; when I consider my present, it is difficult to see that I am moving towards it at all; and all my comfort in this respect is in the hope of what the future may bring forth.
"And yet my hopes are very vague and indistinct, and my efforts in any direction, save the beaten track in which I have been used to earn my bread, are, when perceptible, jerky, irregular and without intelligent continuous direction.
"When I succeed in obtaining employment, I am industrious and work faithfully, though it does not satisfy my wishes. When I have nothing to do, I am anxious to be in some way labouring towards the end I wish, and yet from hour to hour I cannot tell at what to employ myself.
"To secure any given result it is only necessary to rightly supply sufficient force. Some men possess a greater amount of natural power than others and produce quicker and more striking results; yet it is apparent that the abilities of the majority, if properly and continuously applied, are sufficient to accomplish much more than they generally do.
"The hours which I have idled away, though made miserable by the consciousness of accomplishing nothing, had been sufficient to make me master of almost any common branch of study. If, for instance, I had applied myself to the practice of bookkeeping and arithmetic I might now have been an expert in those things; or I might have had the dictionary at my fingers' ends; been a practised, and perhaps an able writer; a much better printer; or been able to read and write French, Spanish or any other modern or ancient language to which I might have directed my attention; and the mastery of any of these things now would give me an additional, appreciable power, and means by which to work to my end, not to speak of that which would have been gained by exercise and good mental habits.
"These truths are not sudden discoveries; but have been as apparent for years as at this present time; but always wishing for some chance to make a sudden leap forward, I have never been able to direct my mind and concentrate my attention upon those slow processes by which everything mental (and in most cases, material) is acquired.
"Constantly the mind works, and if but a tithe of its attention was directed to some end, how many matters might it have taken up in succession, increasing its own stores and power while mastering them?
"To sum up for the present, though this essay has hardly taken the direction and shape which at the outset I intended, it is evident to me that I have not employed the time and means at my command faithfully and advantageously as I might have done, and consequently, that I have myself to blame for at least a part of my non-success. And this being true of the past, in the future like results will flow from like causes. I will, therefore, try (though, as I know from experience, it is much easier to form good resolutions than to faithfully carry them out) to employ my mind in acquiring useful information or practice, when I have nothing leading more directly to my end claiming my attention. When practicable, or when I cannot decide upon anything else, I will endeavour to acquire facility and elegance in the expression of my thought by writing essays or other matters which I will preserve for future comparison. And in this practice it will be well to aim at mechanical neatness and grace, as well as at proper and polished language."
Of the two other pieces of writing spoken of in the diary notes, the "article about laws relating to sailors," has left no trace, but a copy of the one for the "Journal of the Trades and Workingmen," has been preserved. It was a long letter to the editor, signed "H.G." urging working men to think about political and social questions, and find if it be possible to "check the tendency of society to resolve itself into classes who have too much or too little." In closing, its author said:
It was about this time that in addition to the writings mentioned in the diary, Henry George wrote a fanciful sketch entitled "A Plea for the Supernatural," which was published in the "Californian" and soon afterwards re-published by the Boston Saturday "Evening Gazette."
The "Californian" was a San Francisco weekly literary paper founded in 1864, and which, under the editorship of Charles Henry Webb and the contributing pens of Mark Twain, Bret Harte and a lot of other bright writers, had a brilliant, if short, career – being spoken of as having "lived to be three years old and never died." A.A. Stickney, a printer friend, who, while they were in Sacramento working on the "Union" together, induced George to join the Odd Fellows' Order, had bought into the "Californian," and it may have been through his influence that the young printer's sketch was published. But however published is not important, nor is the sketch itself, further than to furnish cumulative evidence of the feverish energy the young man was evincing in pursuit of his purpose to practice writing – a spirit forming one of his most marked characteristics when acting upon an important resolve. He had proved to himself that he could write, and the use to which he put his power came suddenly, unexpectedly and in a way to affect his whole after life.
The Civil War was now about over. On April 9, 1865, Lee's army surrendered. The South, worn out by the terrific struggle and by starvation, lay prostrate, and the whole North and West indulged in demonstrative rejoicings over the prospect of peace and harmony throughout a reunited country – when, on the night of April 14, flashed the appalling news that President Lincoln had been shot. Never before was seen such excitement in excitable San Francisco. This deed seemed like the last desperate act of the slave-power, and all manner of rumours of a vast Southern conspiracy of assassination were afloat. The next day general business was suspended. It was now known definitely that the President, while sitting in a proscenium box at Ford's Theatre, Washington, witnessing the comedy, "Our American Cousin," was shot in the back of the head by John Wilkes Booth, an actor, who had stealthily approached from behind, and brandishing a knife, had leaped from the box to the stage, crying out in the hearing of the dumb-stricken audience, "Sic semper tyrannis: the South is avenged!"
When news came that Lincoln had died of his wound excitement in San Francisco ran mad. To many the first impulse was to destroy the newspapers which had fostered secession; and the "Democratic Press" edited by Beriah Brown, the "Occidental" edited by Zachariah Montgomery, the "Monitor," a Catholic weekly, edited by Thomas A. Brady, and the "News Letter" edited by Frederick Marriot had their plants demolished and cast into the street. Mr. George had been terribly wrought up over the news of the assassination, and talking about the "copperhead" newspapers with Ike Trump and others, had determined to lead an assault upon the "News Letter"; but when he reached the spot he found Trump gallantly leading a party that were hurling type, furniture and machinery into the street with such a spirited and liberal hand that little remained to be done to complete the job.
After this physical venting of feeling, higher sentiments took possession of the young printer, for next day he sat down in his little Perry Street home and wrote out new thoughts that were surging through him. He put them in the form of a newspaper communication, which he addressed to the editor of the "Alta California," the paper on which he had been setting type when opportunity afforded. When the communication was finished he took it to the office and slipped it into the editor's box. Next day it appeared with an editorial note preceding it, for the editor had learned who the writer was. Communication and note appeared as follows:
[The following stirring article on the great patricide of the age was written by a printer in the office of the "Alta California"]:
SIC SEMPER TYRANNIS!
"A man rushed to the front of the President's box, waving a, long dagger in his right hand, exclaiming, 'Sic semper tyrannis!'"
"Alta" despatches, April 15
"What a scene these few words bring – vivid as the lightning flash that bore them! The glitter and glare, curving circle and crowded pit, flash of jewels and glinting of silks – and the blanched sea of up-turned faces, the fixed and staring eyes, the awful hush – silence of death!
"And there, before all – before all mankind forevermore – stands, for an instant, the assassin, poised for the leap, the gleaming steel in his right hand, and his cry of triumph, of defiance, ringing throughout the house, 'Sic semper tyrannis!'
"Is it a wonder they are spellbound! They came to laugh at a comedy – and a tragedy is before them which will make a nation weep – and whose mighty import centuries may not guess! Their frightened eyes look on a scene in the grand drama whose first act was the creation and whose last will be the procession of the white-robed and the shouts of the redeemed. Well may they gaze, awe-stricken, speechless, for the spirits of the mighty dead, and generation after generation that shall be, look with them, and the past that has gone, and the future that is to come, join their voices in the shout, 'Sic semper tyrannis!'
"Poised there for an instant, that black, daring heart – that spirit incarnate of tyranny and wrong – feels the import of the act, and with voice of inspiration, shouts its own doom – 'Sic semper tyrannis!'
"Amen! and thus it will be. They have struck down the just because of his justice, and the fate they have fixed upon him shall be theirs!
"What fitting time! Good Friday! At this very moment, before bare and black-draped altars, sounds the solemn wail of the Tenebrae, and mournful music bears the sorrow which shall burst into the joy of the resurrection – for, on a day of which this is the anniversary, One died that there might be life, and Death and Hell heard their doom. And now (as close as human type may approach the divine) again has Evil triumphed, and the blood of its victim sealed its fate.
"While the world lasts will this scene be remembered. As a martyr of Freedom – as the representative of the justice of a great nation, the name of the victim will live forever; and the Proclamation of Emancipation, signed with the name and sealed with the blood of Abraham Lincoln will remain a landmark in the progress of the race.
"In the hearts of a people whose number shall be as the sands of the sea, his memory will be cherished with that of Washington. And to the ends of the earth – from the frozen sea of the North to the ice fields of the South, in every land on which the sun in his circuit shall look down, whenever the standard shall be raised against a hoary wrong, his name shall be a watch-word and an inspiration.
"And when, on plains and uplands where now the elephant and spring-bok roam, farms shall be tilled and homes arise; and on great lakes and rivers, now the haunts of the hippopotamus – a thousand paddles shall beat, the mothers of nations yet unborn shall teach their children to call him blessed!
"Sic semper tyrannis! Blazoned on the shield of a noble State by the giants of the young republic, their degenerate sons shall learn its meaning! The murderer's shout as Lincoln fell, it will be taken up by a million voices. Thus shall perish all who wickedly raise their hands to shed the blood of the defenders of the oppressed, and who strive, by wickedness and cruelty, to preserve and perpetuate wrong. Their names shall become a hissing and a reproach among men as long as the past shall be remembered; and the great sin in whose support they spared no crime is numbered henceforth with the things that were. Sic semper tyrannis! Amen.
A few days later the editor of the "Alta" engaged the printer as a special reporter to write in conjunction with others a description of the Lincoln mourning decorations throughout the city, and this was the first newspaper writing for which Henry George received pay. But he had more than a reporter's thoughts in him; and again he sat down in the parlour of his little Perry Street home and wrote a communication to the editor and signed it with his initials. It was on the character of Lincoln. This, like the former one, he put in the editor's box. Next morning he looked to see if it had been printed, and lo! like Ben Adhem's name, "it led all the rest." It did not bear his signature, nor was it printed as a letter to the editor, for it had been made the chief editorial of the paper. A few short extracts will suffice:
"He was not of those whom God lifts to the mountain tops, and who tell of His truth to ears that will not hear, and show His light to eyes that cannot see – whom their own generation stone, and future ones worship; but he was of the leaders who march close before the advancing ranks of the people, who direct their steps and speak with their voice.
"... No other system would have produced him; through no crowd of courtiers could such a man have forced his way; his feet would have slipped on the carpets of palace stairs, and Grand Chamberlains ordered him back! And, as in our time of need, the man that was needed came forth, let us know that it will always be so, and that under our institutions, when the rights of the people are endangered, from their ranks will spring the men for the times."
This experience led to the "Alta's" agreement to take from Mr. George some news letters relative to a Mexican liberating expedition in which he was about to embark. While the United States were engaged in their civil war Napoleon III had sent an army into Mexico to establish an imperial government and place Austrian Arch-duke Maximilian on the throne. The resistance of the Mexican patriots under Juarez excited strong sympathy through all that part of the United States adjacent to Mexico; and ardently desirous of striking a blow for that republic, especially as circumstances had prevented him from engaging in the war in the United States against slavery, Henry George joined an expedition that was being organised to help the Juarez party. He talked it over with his wife, with whom now, after three and a half years of wedded life and extreme trials of poverty, he was sealed in the closest possible relations of confidence and affection. Though the prospect of parting and the danger he would run were sore to bear, and though the peril of being left destitute with two babies was imminent, she would not withhold him, but on the contrary did what she always afterwards did – encouraged him to follow the promptings of what he conceived to be his duty.
He, therefore, arranged with the "Alta California" people to send his wife whatever money should come from the news letters that he should write, which he thought would he sufficient to maintain her; and then with his wife, took the new baby to St. Patrick's Catholic church, in deference to her, and had him baptised Richard Fox, the first name after his father and the second in honour of his wife's family. Then the couple went back to their home, and kneeling down beside their babies prayed together; after which, kissing his darling ones good-bye, the young man set off for the meeting place. He has described this:
A little later Henry George helped in the establishment of the Monroe League, which was to send an expedition to the Mexican patriots, a newspaper man named Linthicum to head it. They swore men in on a bare sword and the republican flag of Mexico, and Mrs. George was sworn as the only woman member. Nothing came of the League, though its failure is not explained. By this time Mr. George saw a good opening in Sacramento to set type on a contract for State official work, and so he went there, taking his family with him and settling down at house keeping. Touching his personal matters he wrote to his Sister Caroline (December 3):
For nearly a year Henry George, following his trade of type-setting, continued at State work. He lived quietly, and since his wife and he had modest habits, very comfortably. He had joined the Odd Fellows' Order during his former residence in Sacramento, through the advice of his printer friend, A.A. Stickney; and now in 1866 he joined the National Guard, though he soon dropped out of it; and a literary organisation, in which for a while he engaged in discussions on public questions. One of these discussions was of great importance in his life, since it marks another stepping-stone in his thought &ndash: his conversion from a belief in the protective principle to the opposite principle of the entire freedom of trade. In "Protection or Free Trade?" Mr. George has spoken of his strong protection views at this time.
The way in which this belief was changed is more fully explained in another place:
Mr. Mills says that he remembers "with reasonable distinctness the incident referred to by Henry George":
But while this period marked what he considered a great step in right thinking, Henry George did not neglect writing. It was now that he wrote for Edmund Wallazz's paper, the "Philadelphia Saturday Night," the account of the Shubrick burial under the title of "Dust to Dust." The sketch was republished by the "Californian." For the latter publication he also wrote a fanciful sketch entitled "The Prayer of Kohonah – a tradition of the north west coast." Both of these, like the Lincoln article, gave proofs of a vivid imagination and a high order of descriptive power, and it is certain from casual notes in his pocket diaries during the next two or three years that he was thinking of writing a novel; so that perhaps it wanted but the accident to have turned his abilities and energy into the realm of fiction instead of to a search for the eternal verities underlying social order.
But public affairs attracted and absorbed more and more of his attention, and he gave vent to his sentiments in the "Daily Union" through the medium of letters to the editor, which he signed with the nom de plume of "Proletarian"; and in September, 1866, when printing became slack, he wrote for San Francisco newspapers a number of letters relative to the State fair then being held in Sacramento. Then his newspaper ambition took a leap forward. A daily paper to be named the "Times" was to be started in San Francisco, and he made application for a writing position upon it. A letter to his father (August 8) told about it:
He was not destined to go to Philadelphia in the following spring, for fortune threw upon him larger responsibilities than he had dreamed of.