Alfred Russel Wallace : Alfred Wallace : A. R. Wallace :
Russel Wallace : Alfred Russell Wallace (sic)

Land Lessons from America (S403: 1887)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: A couple of months after Wallace returned to England from his ten-month trip to North America in 1886-87, he made some observations regarding it at a public meeting of the Land Nationalisation Society. The proceedings were recorded and published shortly thereafter as Land Nationalisation Tract No. 18, Land Lessons from America. Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page, connect with:

    [[p. (3)]] Upon the invitation of the Council of the Land Nationalisation Society, a large number of members and friends attended a Conversazione at Essex Hall, Essex Street, Strand, on Tuesday, November 1st, at which Dr. A. Russel Wallace, F.R.G.S., President of the Society, was most cordially welcomed on his safe return from a recent visit to America. The assembly included Professor Upton, Dr. Macdonald, M.P., Mr. J. T. Stuart Glennie, Mr. T. Briggs, Mr. Geo. J. Knight, Mr. J. C. Durant, Dr. T. W. Rhys Davids, Mr. D. G. Fitzgerald, Mr. T. Pagliardini, Mr. J. G. McG. Ross, (of Alness,) Mr. F. L. Soper, (Treasurer of the Society,) Mr. J. Torr, Mr. R. Whiteing, Mr. Chas. Wicksteed, Rev. Philip H. Wicksteed, M.A., Mr. Howard Williams, Mr. S. D. Williams, and a number of ladies.

    Mr. William Jameson, (Hon. Secretary of the Society) read sympathetic letters from absent friends. Miss Helen Taylor (Vice President,) wrote:--"It would be an honour and a pleasure to me to join in welcoming Dr. Wallace on his return, and I can say from conviction that the value of his moral influence is felt by me in an ever increasing degree, in the work of Land Nationalisation." Professor F. W. Newman, (Vice President,) Mr. E. D. Girdlestone, B.A., (Vice President,) Mr. A. C. Swinton, (Vice President,) Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, Mr. Albert Bath, Mr. William E. Bear, Mr. Edward Clodd, Rev. G. Duncan, D.D., Rev. H. Price-Hughes, M.A., Mr. T. J. Hughes, (Adfyfyr,) Mr. William Saunders, Mr. J. Renwick Seager, Rev. Henry Simon, Rev. Henry Solly, and Mr. T. F. Walker were among the other writers.

    Mr. William Volckman, as a Vice President, expressed his great pleasure in offering the congratulations of so many friends to Dr. Wallace. There was no necessity for eulogy of Dr. Wallace, for his work was his best eulogy, both as a [[p. 4]] Scientist and a Land Reformer. Scarcely in the whole history of Science had there been a case in which a man so highly qualified stepped on one side in order that another man working in the same department, should have a free course to work in that field. It was scarcely necessary to say that he (the speaker,) alluded to Dr. Darwin. But in the other department which Dr. Wallace had taken up he had built up another reputation. In regard to land he was certainly one of the pioneer reformers. The great thing was to think on such a subject; many were beginning to do so, mainly through the opportunities Dr. Wallace had given them, in having cleared the way upon a very great and crucial question (cheers).

    Dr. Alfred Russel Wallace (who, on rising to acknowledge the welcome accorded to him, was received with loud and long continued applause,) said:--Ladies and Gentlemen, I have to thank you very much for the kind manner in which you have received me this evening, although I think my friend, Mr. Volckman, has departed a little from the principles he laid down, in going rather too much in the line of personal eulogy. However, as he distinctly said the more the eulogy the less the merit, I can accept all his remarks without feeling I have been overpraised. (Laughter.) As this meeting has been called with some reference to my recent visit to the United States and Canada, I think I may perhaps best occupy your time for a few moments in giving you some short account of what I saw and observed in America, in relation to the land question. (Hear, hear.) To those of my friends, or those present, who are not acquainted with the object and purpose of my journey to America, I may say that I went there to lecture on Natural History and not with any reference whatever to political questions. In the course of my sojourn there, which lasted ten months, I visited and lived for some time in many of the chief cities of America. In Boston and Washington--which were my headquarters during a portion of my visit--I stayed between two and three [[p. 5]] months in each. In Baltimore, New York, Cincinnati, and San Francisco, I stayed from one to two weeks; in Toronto and Kingston I stayed a week each, and in several other large towns in different parts of the country I stayed a few days. During this time I met with several men of great eminence in connection with both political and social questions. First of all there was our honoured friend and chief in this land question, Henry George. (Cheers). He was one of the first distinguished persons whom I met in New York, and I had the pleasure of attending one of the meetings which were held for the purpose of advocating his candidature as Mayor of New York, and of supporting him by a short speech on that occasion. (Hear, hear.) During the course of my journey I was very much thrown amongst scientific men, and I met with several who were the advocates of very advanced views, not only on political and social questions, but also on the land question. Although Henry George's supporters are mainly among the working classes, I found that there were a very considerable number of highly educated men in America who are his very warm supporters. (Hear, hear.) For instance, to name only one I found, one of the judges--Judge McGuire, of San Francisco, a man in the prime of life, of great activity--was a most earnest and powerful advocate of Mr. George's views; and Judge McGuire is a man who speaks out boldly on the subject and advocates his views in every way. And again I was surprised to find in Canada, Mr. Cartwright, the eldest son of Sir Richard Cartwright, one of the most eminent politicians--was, much to his father's disgust, a strong Georgite, and had got up a Georgite Society, and was one of the chief speakers and agitators on the subject. (Hear, hear.) There were many other earnest and advanced men whom I met in America. I may mention that I met in Washington Prof. Lester F. Ward--a gentleman who I think is perhaps the most intellectual man I met in America. He is well-known in the scientific world as an earnest and thorough botanist. But his special [[p. 6]] study is philosophical enquiries connected with social questions, and he has devoted himself for many years to the study of these subjects. A few years ago he published as the result of his many years hard work, two large volumes, entitled "Dynamic Sociology." In this work, which is in many respects one of the most remarkable which has appeared on this subject, he endeavours to lay down the true philosophical basis of sociological progress, to work out in some detail the principles that ought to guide men in their advance towards a more perfect social state. He does this, I must admit, in a rather generalised style, which is not exactly to my own taste. But there are many persons who avoid details and discuss principles only, and this is done in a most remarkable manner in this work. He is, as the result of his studies, practically a Socialist--(hear, hear)--a Socialist of a particular type. He believes--and in fact he adduces many examples from the American institutions to show--that the State or the community, if it is thoroughly organised and thoroughly instructed, can do an enormous deal for the advancement of the society over which it rules. He maintains that there is not the amount of danger that is generally supposed under state rule, if that state rule is thoroughly instructed and acts upon thoroughly sound principles, and that it is quite easy to find a sufficient number of educated, honest, and disinterested men to carry out the work when it is required to be done. Then again, another remarkable man whom I met was Prof. Eley, of the "Johns Hopkins" University of Baltimore, and Professor of Political Economy there, who has the reputation of being the most advanced political economist in America. He is a man of very advanced opinions, who approaches very nearly to our views on Land Nationalisation, although he has not perhaps quite reached them. Then again, I met another man, quite unknown here, but still a very remarkable man--Colonel Phillips--a gentleman who has been connected with the State of Kansas from its first foundation, and was for many years [[p. 7]] a special correspondent of the New York Herald. He has quite independently, as it were, worked out a land system of his own. He has published a very remarkable and interesting book, entitled "Labour, Land, and Law: A Search for the Missing Wealth of the Working Poor." This work, I think, can be obtained from the American publishers in London. It contains a vast mass of information, and is interesting not only in relation to the American land system but to the land systems of the whole world, and I can recommend it to any person wishing to increase his knowledge on this subject.

    Now I will call your attention for a moment to the remarkably favourable conditions under which America exists with regard to the land question. It possesses, in fact, advantages such as no other country in the world possesses, and, moreover, it possesses all those advantages which all except the most advanced land reformers ask for, for ourselves. Of course you know Americans possess an almost inexhaustible extent of land, a very large part of which is of marvellous fertility. I never perfectly understood the meaning and cause of the great wave of western emigration until I reached the great prairies west of the Mississippi and saw there hundreds and thousands of square miles of land of the most marvellous fertility. I was amazed to find that it was not only in the valleys and bottoms that the alluvial lands were rich, but that the whole of the undulating and slightly elevated surface of the country was rich also--not quite so rich as that of the bottom lands, but still marvellously fertile, consisting of rich loam of one or two feet in depth. But in the valleys it is sometimes as much as twenty feet in depth. This land produces magnificent crops, and a great deal of this bottom land has been worked continuously with corn crops for twenty or thirty years in succession and is by no means exhausted--in fact it is but slightly deteriorated. When such land can be had for almost nothing, how can you wonder that people flow, not [[p. 8]] only from Europe, but also, for many years past, from the Eastern States, where it is comparatively barren and rocky, to these wonderfully rich and fertile lands of the West. Then again America--although she has fundamentally the same land laws as we have, and recognises the most absolute private property in land, yet has none of those special disadvantages which we desire to remove. There is no such thing in America as primogeniture or entail. (Hear, hear.) Moreover, they have, and I believe always have had that which we want more than anything else--that which those who are opposed to land nationalisation specially ask for--a cheap transfer of land. That is so universal and simple a thing to Americans that they can hardly believe or realize--at least those who have not studied the subject--the difficult and complex mode of transfer in force in this country. Again, they have a most important system of complete registration, both for sales and titles as well as for mortgages on land. This again seems to them such a simple and elementary thing, that they really could scarcely believe me, and opened their eyes when I told them there was no such thing as a general register of mortgages in this country; that, when a mortgage was proposed on land, it was with the greatest difficulty that you could find out whether or not a previous mortgage existed. Now these three things--the absence of primogeniture or entail; cheap and simple transfer of land; and the complete registration of sales and mortgages--comprise the whole of the reform which the Liberal party as a party have usually asked for, or I believe ask for now. Then there is another thing that those who are more advanced than the Liberal party as a whole ask for, and that is, that ground rents should be universally taxed. (Hear, hear.) Now this complete taxation of ground rents exists in America to a most thorough and complete extent. Every particle of land under private ownership is taxed on its full selling value and the American owner very often thinks [[p. 9]] it is taxed above its value. Whether it is built on or cultivated it does not matter--the land is taxed to its full value. And you must remember that the land and property taxes there are not, as they are here, a mere fragment of the taxation of the country, for there they practically comprise the whole taxation of the several States. (Hear, hear.) You must remember that the States in America are completely independent--they are separate kingdoms (though without kings), they are self-governing Republics, and each one is as independent in its internal affairs as any country in Europe. But it is only the Federal, or central government that raises taxes by means of duties or other modes of fiscal taxation. The States themselves I believe without exception raise the whole of the taxation for their internal government by means of a tax on property, and in this tax on property, land and ground-rents of every kind is included along with personal property. Consequently ground-rents are taxed to their full value. Now having all this--which is all many of us here ask for--let us see what are the results. The results are very curious. To begin with. Land speculation, which we think is bad enough with us, is but a trifle here compared with what it is in America. In America land speculation is everywhere excessive. It is the great mode of making money, and it exists more or less all over the country wherever land is for sale and is not monopolised by great capitalists. This taxation on full values, however, usually causes very rapid changes of ownership. Men buy land on speculation for the purpose of selling it again quickly. They will not hold it long because if it is not used the taxes will eat it up. Then somebody else buys it and sells it again pretty quickly, and thus land is continually changing owners until it is used for occupation or cultivation or for building. But the result of this rapid change of ownership--of each person trying to make a profit, is, that land very rapidly acquires in America a price as high as in old settled countries like England and very often even higher. I was perfectly [[p. 10]] amazed to find the enormous prices which land brought in America, not only when in the centre of great cities, but even in the smaller places which are surrounded by a comparatively unpopulated country. I will give you a few examples of prices that land brings in America, which many of you may be able to compare with the prices obtained in this country in corresponding places. I have turned the prices from dollars into pounds. In Boston for instance, a considerable city of 360,000 inhabitants, in the best part of the suburbs, in the fashionable residential districts, land sells at £80,000 an acre, while in the central parts of the city it sells at double that--at £160,000 an acre. In small towns in Massachusetts the land sells at £300 or £400 an acre. When you get to the Far West, in the prairie states of Iowa and Kansas, you will find there--although the country is very scantily populated and the towns and cities are comparatively small--still the price of land runs up very rapidly. I stayed for some time in a growing city in Iowa called Sioux city, which has a population of 20,000. They were having what is called a land boom--every city tries its best to have one--we should call it a land fever; and the consequence was that land which sold at ten pounds an acre three years ago was selling at 150 pounds an acre. It was two miles from the City, and it was sold with the idea that the city would soon stretch out and reach it. In the residential suburbs the price obtained was £4,500 an acre, and in the centre of the city it was £40,000 an acre. In the town of Salina in Kansas, with a still smaller population of only 8,000, which was first settled by Colonel Phillips, about 30 years ago, in that little town, land in the suburbs is now selling at £4,500 an acre, and in the centre of the town at £30,000 an acre. Here also they had a boom and land had doubled in value in a few months. When this state of things prevails everybody with any money to spend or invest looks upon land speculation as the normal mode of making money, and you may easily imagine that anything like a system of [[p. 11]] land-nationalisation which would stop these speculations is not looked upon with favour. In fact it is this circumstance--that such an enormous proportion of the well-to-do people of the country either have made money by land speculation, or hope to do so--which is the great difficulty in the way of the spread of any true ideas in regard to land. (Cheers.) Then again the result of these speculations is that in the cities--in the suburbs of the cities, in the places where working men live, we find the land cut up into still smaller strips than in England, and the houses are built still more closely together. In the suburbs of the City of Washington I saw houses--what were called little villas--good mechanics' villas--which were built with a frontage of only 15 feet or two on a lot 30 feet wide; and even in the more populous and better parts of the city you find good houses built upon exceedingly narrow strips of 18 or 20 feet wide, running back in proportion a long distance, giving the idea of scarcity and dearness of land which is amazing to us in a country like America, where land is almost unlimited. Here you have private property making land the subject of speculation, producing all the evil effects, such as crowded cities and bad tenement houses, just as you have in our great cities at home. Then again, during the last 20 or 30 years there has been growing up in America a great system of landlord and tenant that is totally contrary to our old ideas of what America was. We were told that every farmer there was his own landlord; that every working man occupied his own house. This, however--since the war, at all events--has been changed; and now, there are nowhere in the world a greater number of great landlords than in America. There are scores of great landlords who own more than a million acres each. We read in American papers of the eviction of tenants wholesale, just as you read of them in Ireland; you have also there a condition of things which is beginning to stir up the Americans very much; there are about 20,000,000 acres of land held by foreign and non-resident landlords, and there [[p. 12]] are more than 1,000,000 tenant farmers in America; there are in fact far more tenant farmers in America than in this country. Here you have again another result, an inevitable result, of private property in land--a huge land monopoly, already producing such evil results as this in such a grand country as America. Notwithstanding all the great advantages they possess, we find houses crowded together, rents enormously high, and no gardens to the houses. One of the most disagreeable features of American houses to Englishmen is that there are no gardens; where there is a little plot of land, it is usually grass, with a few trees or shrubs, but no flowers or vegetables. It is thus clear, that as population goes on increasing, and as wealth goes on increasing in America, all the evils of landlordism which have arisen in Europe to so great and terrible an extent will necessarily arise in America. What I want particularly to call your attention to, and the purpose for which I have made these few remarks, is simply this, that the idea that the ordinary reforms asked for, such as the abolition of entail and primogeniture; simple transfer; complete registration; and even complete taxation of ground rents, will really do nothing whatever for us in regard to alleviating or abolishing the evils of landlordism. (Hear, hear.) Whatever we may do; whatever methods we propose for alleviating the troubles in which we find ourselves, it is quite evident that these methods will utterly fail: we have a proof that this will be so in what we see in America. That country has grown up with every advantage that is to be derived from the absence of those laws and customs which the ordinary land reformer wishes to get rid of, and yet, with all these advantages, we see the rapid growth of those very evils which some persons think they can abolish by introducing a system like that which prevails in America. It appears to me that this is one of those admirable cases of a great experiment made for us, from which we ought to learn an important lesson. (Cheers.) It is utterly useless, therefore, to go [[p. 13]] on advocating these petty reforms and thinking that they will produce any beneficial result. (Hear, hear.) I do not know that I need occupy your time any longer, (cries of "Go on,") except to say that I have derived very great pleasure from my journey to and travels in America, not only from the interesting facts which I observed with regard to the land, but also as regards the marvellous and wonderful energy of the people. (Hear, hear.) Everywhere there is a most tremendous energy shown, not only in making money individually, but also in improving and advancing by each community its own town, city, or state. There seems to be to that extent a wonderful amount of public spirit in America--more than you see here. (Hear, hear.) All these towns and cities are as it were in rivalry with each other; whatever advantages or improvements one possesses the other is determined to have also, no matter what it may cost. And the result is very curious--that many of the conveniences of life--of city life--which we are only just beginning to have in our great cities in England are spread all over America, even to the small prairie cities and towns. There, for instance, the tramway system is carried out to an enormous extent. In America the smaller towns of a few thousand inhabitants have tramways in every main street running at cheap rates. Then again, in every one of these towns--I was never in a town, however small, that was not publicly lighted with electric light, and if you speak to them about the cost of it, they say, "Oh, we must have it because other towns have it." And then the manner in which the telephone has been utilised in America has been something marvellous. Every town, without exception, has the telephone system at work, and in business offices as well as in private houses it is used; and in suburban villas the residents have telephones connected and do a large part of their business and shopping by means of it. These things are very striking, because they illustrate the wonderful power and energy of the people, one cause of the very rapid creation of wealth. And this rapid creation of [[p. 14]] wealth has enabled them to get over the difficulties that are now oppressing them, owing to the increasing monopoly of land, and the corresponding monopoly of other advantages, such as railways, which lead to an enormous increase of millionaires. These millionaires the people are beginning to see are an evil and a curse to the country, and they are beginning to see that they must adopt measures to in some way check this enormous growth of great fortunes, and this enormous growth of great landlords. (Hear, hear.) They see that the great landlords in large cities and the unchecked monopolies of the great speculators and millionaires are the seeds which will bring forth trouble at no distant date to the Great Republic of the West. (Great cheering.)

    Dr. Wallace then answered a number of questions asked by Mr. Durant, Mr. Briggs, Mr. Jameson, and others, and in so doing said: These questions enable me to supply an omission I made. Among the remarkable men I met in America, one of the most intelligent and advanced was Mr. Nordhof, of Washington, the author of the best book that has been written on American Communism, and the Washington correspondent of the New York Herald. He has personally visited all the Communistic Societies, has made friends with their chief men, and has sympathetically studied their social economy; and he has published the result in a very interesting volume, "The Communistic Societies of the United States." He is one of the few thorough land nationalisers in our sense that I met in America. He gives a most interesting account of these societies, and draws most interesting conclusions as to the results obtained by their forms of communism. He shows in fact that every one of them, without exception, succeeds at all events in saving the whole of their members from anything like poverty, hunger, or want. They, at all events, live well, and have plenty of meat and drink. There are some complaints no doubt; chiefly that they do not pay sufficient attention to the refinements of life; but, as he says, that may bye and bye come. [[p. 15]] Yet this one result--the absolute abolition of poverty and hunger--is surely an important result to produce. The fear expressed by some writers that men would thus become idle seems to be utterly baseless, for they are the most industrious people possible. (Hear, hear.) Another great beneficial result he finds in these communities is that they seem to have developed universal honesty, for many of these communities are manufacturing societies as well as agricultural, and wherever their goods are known they have the reputation for being thoroughly good and honest articles. (Cheers.) In this respect, at all events, communism contrasts most favourably with the system of competition.

    A resolution of thanks to Dr. Wallace for his address was moved by Mr. J. T. Stuart Glennie and seconded by Dr. Macdonald, M.P., and supported by Rev. P. H. Wicksteed. Dr. Macdonald said that the point which most struck him in Dr. Wallace's address was, that the great land reforms which Liberals talked about were already in operation in America; yet the overcrowding of the towns and cities there was just as bad as in England.

    Dr. Wallace having briefly replied, the Hon. Secretary, Mr. Jameson, in calling attention to the practical aims of the Society, stated that an attempt would be made to convert the existing Allotments Act into a Land Nationalisation Act, so far as the powers of the former extended. The Government had therein granted some compulsory powers over landlords to certain local authorities. He trusted that the Society would have the assistance of its friends in the House of Commons in enlarging those powers, and making them more effective than in the present Act.

    A number of friends were then introduced to Dr. Wallace and the very enjoyable proceedings terminated.

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