H-SHGAPE Question of the Week: Historical Figures from the GAPE

Jeremy Young's picture

Welcome to H-SHGAPE's Question of the Week! Each Wednesday, the list editors will ask a question about the Gilded Age and Progressive Era that we hope will provoke lively discussion. We encourage you to share your thoughts by typing in the "Post a Reply" box below the original post, or, if you're getting this by email, by clicking on the "Read More or Reply" link. Please include your name and affiliation in your responses. If you'd like to submit a question to be asked in a future week, please contact the H-SHGAPE Editor-In-Chief, Jeremy C. Young, at jeremy.young@dixie.edu. This week's question:

What historical figure from the Gilded Age and Progressive Era has the most contemporary relevance for today's discussions on race and/or economic equality? What can we learn from that individual?

In reading about contemporary questions of political economy, I've found myself often returning to the journalist, economist, and politician Henry George.

I don't recall learning much about George earlier in my career -- surely not at all as an undergraduate, and as near as I can tell hardly at all in graduate school. Yet he was hugely important in his own day; indeed, in his lifetime he may have rivaled Karl Marx as the most influential political economist in English-speaking countries (though I guess it's hard to measure this).

George's most celebrated work, "Progress and Poverty" (1879), was widely discussed and circulated throughout the English-speaking world. One of his central insights -- that ownership of urban real-estate was one of the primary drivers of economic inequality -- seems extraordinarily relevant in these days of the Trump and Kushner dynasties and run-away rents and real estate prices in major cities. Social scientists who point to the key role of housing discrimination and real estate equity in the wealth gap between African Americans and whites pay inadvertent tribute to George's insight. (Though George's interest in race was mostly to insist on the importance of white supremacy, especially over the supposedly debased Chinese workers whom his devotees in the US and Australasia were so intent upon excluding).

George's influence snuck up on me and became an important part of my arguments about the origins of Progressive-era conservation in my most recent book, "Escaping the Dark, Gray City." While he couldn't really be considered a conservationist, his concern with monopoly and landownership suffused later U.S. conservation thought, as did his concern about the alienation from wild nature of urbanites (themes which have also attracted attention in recent environmental histories by Aaron Sachs and Ian Tyrrell.)

Ben Johnson, Loyola University Chicago

I love Jacob Coxey. I think he's usually trotted out as a joke or crank, but his ideas and actions are worth taking somewhat seriously.

Dave Hochfelder
University at Albany, SUNY

Hello all,

I want to add Charlotte Perkins Gilman to this list. Her ideas in Women in Economics about paying women for housework were seventy years ahead of their time -- and that's really just the tip of the iceberg. I have students read something by her every semester.

Jeremy C. Young
Dixie State University