George and Ohio’s Civic Revival

By Robert H. Bremner. Edited, with an introduction, by Will and Dorothy Lissner. Published in 1995 by the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation. Review by Lindy Davies

Georgists, I suspect, sometimes tend to forget what they have — and that’s too bad, because a great deal of high-quality work has been done over the years, work that can serve not just to enrich our advocacy but even to lift our spirits. I can’t claim to be immune to this. I have tended, in my capacity as Georgist Journal guy, to receive most of the “movement books” that have been published for the last two decades, but I haven’t read them all. One series that seemed destined for such treatment, I’m afraid, was the “George Studies” set of collected articles from the American Journal of Economics and Sociology, edited by the Lissners and published in four volumes by RSF through the 1990s. The series has an almost militantly unassuming design. The first book, whose title, George and the Scholars, appeared in plain white letters on a bizarre lime-green background, came in for ridicule from me and others (“George who?”). However, when the theme of our upcoming conference in Cleveland was announced, I realized that I had better read George and Ohio’s Civic Revival, the third title in the series. I settled in for a ten-hour bus trip to New York City, opened the book and got prepared to be bored out of my skull.

Well, one shouldn’t assume, should one? Who’d have thought that the 1950-era research of Bremner, a Professor of history at Ohio State University, on the single-tax-steeped movement against privilege and bossism in Cleveland and Toledo, would end up being a fascinating page-turner? I read it in a sitting, oblivious to onboard movies — and I recommend that you do so, too, before next August.

The “civic revival” in Ohio involved the enriching of popular governance in the growing cities of Cleveland and Toledo in the first decades of the 20th Century. What made this movement unique, and especially worthy of study in Bremner’s view, was the distinctive values of its four leading figures: Tom L. Johnson and Frederick Howe in Cleveland, and Samuel Jones and Brand Whitlock in Toledo. All four men shared the convictions that social problems stemmed from unjust social conditions, not from individual failings — and that directly appealing to the voters works best against entrenched privileged interests. The civic revivalists’ efforts were informed by their understanding of Henry George’s analysis; three of the four were staunch Single Taxers, and the fourth, Samuel M. Jones, had a sympathetic view that tended more toward a sort of Christian distributism. This clear focus on entrenched privilege and its fundamental sources gave the Ohio leaders a clarity and focus that, in Bremner’s view, set them apart from other progressive reformers of the time, and contributed to their considerable success.

The efforts of Samuel “Golden Rule” Jones in Toledo were primarily informed by his religious values. Jones tried to teach by example — to demonstrate that a successful business could nevertheless treat its workers as human beings. Jones opened his Acme Sucker Rod Company during the depression of 1894, yet he instituted an eight-hour workday, a $2/day minimum wage and an annual Christmas bonus of 5% of workers’ annual salaries. Workers gathered at “Golden Rule Park” on five acres next to the factory, for “discussion and music.” Jones felt that the “competitive system” was at the root of social problems, and that people had to be shown that there were other, more wholesome ways to organize economic life.

Tom Johnson, on the other hand — who was widely celebrated as “America’s finest Mayor” — clearly believed that systemic problems demanded systemic remedies. He made fortunes in the steel industry, benefiting from protectionism, and in the railroad business, reaping the rewards of monopoly. His association with Henry George and the single tax movement taught Johnson that such businesses damaged society’s progress toward “association and equality,” but he nevertheless continued to make money at them until he felt he had fortune enough to act independently; then he entered politics.

Although Bremner’s work is impeccably scholarly, it preserves a sort of old-fashioned readability that makes it refreshing. Bremner seems to write, not for posterity or to impress fashionable intellectuals, but to be read and understood. He tells a detailed story of intricate political struggles, making sure to keep in sight the moral and philosophical values that informed them. Although Johnson, Whitlock and Howe were fully committed to the need for Henry George’s remedy, they attacked with flanking maneuvers on the popular issues of gas and ice monopolies, and on the paramount controversy surrounding municipal ownership of street railways. The monopolists enjoyed widespread influence in political machines and in the press; the civic revivalists had no choice but to take their ideas directly to the people. Here is a (rather long) paragraph that illustrates both Bremner’s clear style and the revivalists’ strategic orientations:

The Civic Revivalists made municipal politics interesting to the people of Cleveland and Toledo because the issues they introduced were significant ones and because they had a graphic manner of presenting them. Municipal home rule was just a legal concept until the Civic Revivalists showed the people what the city could do for its citizens if it were not hampered by an outworn State Constitution and hamstrung by a rural-minded, privilege-haunted Legislature. Johnson’s talk of “the city on the hill” smacked of flag-waving, but as an instrument for harnessing popular idealism, “citivism” (i.e. municipal patriotism) was a commendable substitute for party loyalty. Municipal ownership was a vaguely disturbing socialistic theory until the Civic Revivalists brought it to down to earth with their “three-cent fare” slogan. After looking at Peter Witt’s maps and charts in the tax school, taxation became a fascinating problem to people who had only taken it for granted before. The golden rule policy put into effect in the police departments of Cleveland and Toledo by the Civic Revivalists gave the voters a practical demonstration of the theory that poverty was the chief cause of vice and crime. …the single tax philosophy helped people understand the concept of social value by pointing to the readily observable increase in land values with the growth of population. Johnson and the other civic leaders gave the word “privilege” meaning by identifying it with the unfair economic advantage enjoyed by landlords and franchise holders who have been granted a legal right to pocket the wealth created by the needs of society.

It was going so well — so why did Ohio’s civic revival not continue, and spread? Bremner takes care to point out that the movement did not abruptly die out, but continued through various local avenues for decades beyond the 1912 line at which he closes his study. However, the movement did have much to do with a cohort of vibrant individuals, who were not so easily replaced. Single taxers, including Whitlock and Howe, went on to wield considerable influence on the administration of Woodrow Wilson. Yet the First World War changed many political directions, and the single taxers found it hard to gain their former influence during the “Roaring Twenties.”

However, it may well prove that the rather terrifying problems faced by today’s Cleveland and Toledo, and many other cities, will provide an opportunity for a new “civic revivalism” to emerge. Certainly the success story of property tax reform in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania is a hopeful sign that deserves the widest possible exposure — and replication. Meanwhile, city after city desperately seeks some feasible strategy for revitalization. With that in mind, we can ponder Bremner’s concluding thoughts:

We are accustomed to hail the contributions of the frontier to American life and have been taught to ponder the significance of its closing. Yet expansion relates not to development in size alone but to growth in experience as well. At the very same time that the old agrarian frontier was disappearing the Civic Revivalists were opening up for democratic settlement the wastelands of urban, industrialized society. Frontiers are not necessarily, or even primarily, geographic areas. They are new environments, offering new problems, suggesting new experiments, and providing fresh ground for the reworking of the ideas we carry with us.

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