Henry George was a self-helped man, if ever there was one. When less than fourteen years of age, he left school and started to earn his own living. He never afterward returned to school. In adolescence, his eager mind was obsessed by the glamor of the sea, so he began life as a sailor. After a few years came the desperate poverty of his early married life in California, as here described. His work as a printer led to casual employment as a journalist. This was the first step in his subsequently life-long career as an independent thinker, writer, and speaker.

An apparent failure in life, he was obliged when twenty-six years of age to beg money from a stranger on the street to keep his wife and babies from actual starvation. But his misery may have been of incalculable value to the human race, for his bitter personal experience convinced him that the times were out of joint, and his brain began to seek the remedy. The doctrine of single tax, already on trial in some parts of the world, is his chief contribution to economic theory.

From "The Life of Henry George, by His Son." Doubleday, Page & Company, 1900.

Thus heavily weighted at the outset, the three men opened their office. But hard times had come. A drought had shortened the grain crop, killed great numbers of cattle and lessened the gold supply, and the losses that the farming, ranching, and mineral regions suffered affected all the commercial and industrial activities of the State, so that there was a general depression. Business not coming into their office, the three partners went out to hunt for it; and yet it was elusive, so that they had very little to do and soon were in extremities for living necessities, even for wood for the kitchen fire. Henry George had fitfully kept a pocket diary during 1864, and a few entries at this job-printing period tell of the pass of affairs.

"December 25.—Determined to keep a regular journal, and to cultivate habits of determination, energy, and industry. Feel that I am in a bad situation, and must use my utmost effort to keep afloat and go ahead. Will try to follow the following general rules for one week:

"1st. In every case to determine rationally what is best to be done.

"2nd. To do everything determined upon immediately, or as soon as an opportunity presents.

"3rd. To write down what I shall determine upon doing for the succeeding day.

"Saw landlady and told her I was not able to pay rent.

"December 26, 7 A. M.:

"1st. Propose to-day, in addition to work in office, to write to Boyne.

"2nd. To get wood in trade.

"3rd. To talk with Dr. Eaton, and, perhaps, Dr. Morse.

"Rose at quarter to seven. Stopped at six wood yards trying to get wood in exchange for printing, but failed. Did very little in office. Walked and talked with Ike. Felt very blue and thought of drawing out. Saw Dr. Eaton, but failed to make a trade. In evening saw Dr. Morse. Have not done all, nor as well as I could wish. Also wrote to Boyne, but did not mail letter.

"January 1 (Sunday).—Annie not very well. Got down town about 11 o'clock. Went with Ike to Chinaman's to see about paper bags. Returned to office and worked off a lot.

"January 2.—Got down town about 8 o'clock. Worked some labels. Not much doing.

"January 3.—Working in office all day. De Long called to talk about getting out a journal. Did our best day's work."

From time to time they got a little business, enough at any rate to encourage Trump and George to continue with the office, though Daley dropped out; and each day that the money was there the two partners took out of the business twenty-five cents apiece, which they together spent for food, Trump's wife being with her relatives and he taking his dinner with the Georges. They lived chiefly on cornmeal and milk, potatoes, bread and sturgeon, for meat they could not afford and sturgeon was the cheapest fish they could find.[1] Mr. George generally went to the office early without breakfast, saying that he would get it down town; but knowing that he had no money, his wife more than suspected that many a morning passed without his getting a mouthful. Nor could he borrow money except occasionally, for the drought that had made general business so bad had hurt all his friends, and, indeed, many of them had already borrowed from him while he had anything to lend; and he was too proud to complain now to them. Nor did his wife complain, though what deepened their anxieties was that they looked for the coming of a second child. Mrs. George would not run up bills that she did not have money to meet. She parted with her little pieces of jewellery and smaller trinkets one by one, until only her wedding ring had not been pawned. And then she told the milkman that she could no longer afford to take milk, but he offered to continue to supply it for printed cards, which she accepted. Mr. George's diary is blank just here, but at another time he said:[2]

"I came near starving to death, and at one time I was so close to it that I think I should have done so but for the job of printing a few cards which enabled us to buy a little cornmeal. In this darkest time in my life my second child was born."

The baby came at seven o'clock in the morning of January 27, 1865. When it was born the wife heard the doctor say: "Don't stop to wash the child; he is starving. Feed him!" After the doctor had gone and mother and baby had fallen asleep, the husband left them alone in the house, and taking the elder child to a neighbour's, himself went to his business in a desperate state of mind, for his wife's condition made money—some money—an absolute and immediate necessity. But nothing came into the office and he did not know where to borrow. What then happened he told sixteen years subsequently.

"I walked along the street and made up my mind to get money from the first man whose appearance might indicate that he had it to give. I stopped a man—a stranger—and told him I wanted $5. He asked what I wanted it for. I told him that my wife was confined and that I had nothing to give her to eat. He gave me the money. If he had not, I think I was desperate enough to have killed him." [3]

The diary notes commence again twenty days after the new baby's birth and show that the struggle for subsistence was still continuing, that Henry George abandoned the job-printing office, and that he and his wife and babies had moved into a smaller house where he had to pay a rent of only nine dollars a month—just half of his former rent. This diary consists simply of two half-sheets of white note paper, folded twice and pinned in the middle, forming two small neat books of eight pages each of about the size of a visiting card. The writing is very small, but clear.

"February 17, 1865 (Friday) 10:40 P.M.—Gave I. Trump this day bill of sale for my interest in office, with the understanding that if he got any money by selling, I am to get some. I am now afloat again, with the world before me. I have commenced this little book as an experiment—to aid me in acquiring habits of regularity, punctuality, and purpose. I will enter in it each evening the principal events of the day, with notes, if they occur, errors committed or the reverse, and plans for the morrow and future. I will make a practice of looking at it on rising in the morning.

"I am starting out afresh, very much crippled and embarrassed, owing over $200. I have been unsuccessful in everything. I wish to profit by my experience and to cultivate those qualities necessary to success in which I have been lacking. I have not saved as much as I ought, and am resolved to practice a rigid economy until I have something ahead.

"1st. To make every cent I can.

"2nd. To spend nothing unnecessarily.

"3rd. To put something by each week, if it is only a five-cent piece borrowed for the purpose.

"4th. Not to run in debt if it can be avoided."

"1st. To endeavour to make an acquaintance and friend of every one with whom I am brought in contact.

"2nd. To stay at home less, and be more social.

"3rd. To strive to think consecutively and decide quickly."

"February 18.—Rose at 6 o'clock. Took cards to woodman. Went to post-office and got two letters, one from Wallazz and another from mother. Heard that Smith was up and would probably not go down. Tried to hunt him up. Ran around after him a great deal. Saw him; made an appointment, but he did not come. Finally met him about 4. He said that he had written up for a man, who had first choice; but he would do all he could. I was much disappointed. Went back to office; then after Knowlton, but got no money. Then went to Alta office. Smith there. Stood talking till they went to work. Then to job office. Ike had got four bits [50 cents] from Dr. Josselyn. Went home, and he came out to supper.

"Got up in good season.

"Tried to be energetic about seeing Smith. Have not done with that matter yet, but will try every means.

"To-morrow will write to Cousin Sophia,[5] and perhaps to Wallazz and mother, and will try to make acquaintances. Am in very desperate plight. Courage!

"February 19 (Sunday).—Rose about 9. Ran a small bill with Wessling for flour, coffee, and butter. After breakfast took Harry around to Wilbur's. Talked a while. Went down town. Could not get in office. Went into Alta office several times. Then walked around, hoping to strike Smith. Ike to dinner. Afterward walked with him, looking for house. Was at Alta office at 6, but no work. Went with Ike to Stickney's and together went to Californian office. Came home and summed up assets and liabilities. At 10 went to bed, with determination of getting up at 6 and going to Bulletin office.

"Have wasted a great deal of time in looking for Smith. Think it would have been better to have hunted him at once or else trusted to luck. There seems to be very little show for me down there. Don't know what to do.

"February 20.—Got up too late to go to the Bulletin office. Got $1 from woodman. Got my pants from the tailor. Saw Smith and had a long talk with him. He seemed sorry that he had not thought of me, but said another man had been spoken to and was anxious to go. Went to Alta office several times. Came home early and went to Alta office at 6 and to Call at 7, but got no work. Went to Ike Trump's room, and then came home.

"Was not prompt enough in rising. Have been walking around a good part of the day without definite purpose, thereby losing time.

"February 21.—Worked for Ike. Did two cards for $1. Saw about books, and thought some of travelling with them. Went to Alta before coming home. In evening had row with Chinaman. Foolish.

"February 22.—Hand very sore. Did not go down till late. Went to work in Bulletin at 12. Got $3. Saw Boyne. Went to library in evening. Thinking of economy.

"February 26.—Went to Bulletin; no work. Went with Ike Trump to look at house on hill; came home to breakfast. Decided to take house on Perry Street with Mrs. Stone; took it. Came home and moved. Paid $5 of rent. About 6 o'clock went down town. Saw Ike; got 50 cents. Walked around and went to Typographical Union meeting. Then saw Ike again. Found Knowlton had paid him for printing plant, and demanded some of the money. He gave me $5 with very bad humour.

"February 27.—Saw Ike in afternoon and had further talk. In evening went to work for Col. Strong on Alta. Smith lent me $3.

"February 28.—Worked again for Strong. Got $5 from John McComb.

"February 29.—Got $5 from Barstow, and paid Charlie Coddington the $10 I had borrowed from him on Friday last. On Monday left at Mrs. Lauder's [the Russ Street landlady] $1.25 for extra rent and $1.50 for milkman.

"March 1.—Rose early, went to Bulletin; but got no work. Looked in at Valentine's and saw George Foster, who told me to go to Frank Eastman's [printing office]. Did so and was told to call again. Came home; had breakfast. Went to Alta in evening, but no work. Went to Germania Lodge and then to Stickney's.

"March 2.—Went to Eastman's about 11 o'clock and was put to work.

"March 3.—At work.

"March 4.—At work. Got $5 in evening."

The strength of the storm had now passed. The young printer began to get some work at "subbing," though it was scant and irregular. His wife, who paid the second month's rent of the Perry Street house by sewing for her landlady, remarked to her husband how contentedly they should be able to live if he could be sure of making regularly twenty dollars a week.


Henry George's career as a writer should be dated from the commencement of 1865, when he was an irregular, substitute printer at Eastman's and on the daily newspapers, just after his severe job-office experience. He now deliberately set himself to self-improvement. These few diary notes for the end of March and beginning of April are found in a small blank book that in 1878, while working on "Progress and Poverty," he also used as a diary.

"Saturday, March 25, 1865.—As I knew we would have no letter this morning, I did not hurry down to the office. After getting breakfast, took the wringing machine which I had been using as a sample back to Faulkner's; then went to Eastman's and saw to bill; loafed around until about 2 P. M. Concluded that the best thing I could do would be to go home and write a little. Came home and wrote for the sake of practice an essay on the 'Use of Time,' which occupied me until Annie prepared dinner. Went to Eastman's by six, got money. Went to Union meeting.

"Sunday, March 26.—Did not get out until 11 o'clock. Took Harry down town and then to Wilbur's. Proposed to have Dick [the new baby] baptised in afternoon; got Mrs. Casey to come to the house for that purpose, but concluded to wait. Went to see Dull, who took me to his shop and showed me the model of his wagon brake.

"Monday, March 27.—Got down to office about one o'clock; but no proofs yet. Strolled around a little. Went home and wrote communication for Aleck Kenneday's new paper, Journal of the Trades and Workingmen. Took it down to him. In the evening called on Rev. Mr. Simonds.

"Tuesday, 28.—Got down late. No work. In afternoon wrote article about laws relating to sailors. In evening went down to Dull's shop while he was engaged on model.

"Wednesday, 29.—Went to work about 10:30. In evening corrected proof for Journal of the Trades and Workingmen.

"Thursday, 30.—At work.

"Tuesday, April 4.—Despatch received stating that Richmond and Petersburgh are both in our possession.

"Wednesday, 5.—Took model of wagon brake to several carriage shops; also to Alta office. In evening signed agreement with Dull.

"Saturday, 8.—Not working; bill for week, $23. Paid Frank Mahon the $5 I have been owing for some time. Met Harrison, who had just come down from up the country. He has a good thing up there. Talked with Dull and drew up advertisement. In evening, nothing."

Thus while he was doing haphazard 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.


"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 toward 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 toward 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.

[1] Unlike that fish on the Atlantic Coast, sturgeon on the Pacific Coast, or at any rate in California waters, is of fine quality and could easily be substituted on the table for halibut.

[2] Meeker notes, October, 1897.

[3] Henry George related this incident to Dr. James E. Kelly in a conversation in Dublin during the winter of 1881-82, in proof that environment has more to do with human actions, and especially with so-called criminal actions, than we generally concede; and to show how acute poverty may drive sound-minded, moral men to the commission of deeds that are supposed to belong entirely to hardened evil natures. Out of long philosophical and physiological talks together at that time the two men formed a warm friendship, and subsequently, when he came to the United States and established himself in New York, Dr. Kelly became Henry George's family physician and attended him at his deathbed.

[4] She was now a widow, James George having died in the preceding August.