Main Body

Chapter VII. The Monopolist in Congress

A man of thirty-four at the high tide of a successful business career, learning every day to utilize special privileges to increase his wealth, and satisfying his natural aptitude for mechanics by working on inventions, tied up with numerous partners in big enterprises of various kinds, is somewhat bewildered as to just what his future course of action should be when his civic consciousness first asserts itself – at least this was my case. To all outward appearances, I went along much as before for some time after my conversion to Mr. George’s social philosophy. Then chance sent me off into a new field –one I had not the remotest intention of entering, though nearly all my progenitors of whom there is any historical record had been in it before me. Richard M. Johnson as vice-president of the United States had attained the highest office of any of these, the political activities of the other members of the family taking them into various southern State legislatures, to Congress and making governors of a few.

It was in the year 1888 while I was up the lakes on a fishing trip that I was nominated for Congress by the Democrats of the twenty-first congressional district of Ohio. In spite of my association with Mr. George and his ambitions for me – or rather for the cause through me – I was still very indifferent to matters political. I had never voted – a fact let me hasten to add which I never advertised in any of my political campaigns! The nomination was a complete surprise to me and I did not learn of it until after the convention had adjourned. I don’t know to this day why I was nominated. Of course my street railroad battles had brought me somewhat into the public eye and I think the Democratic managers believed that I would be a good spender. Mr. George urged me to accept, and after careful consideration I decided to do so.

This district was so strongly “protectionist” in sentiment that even the Democrats who had represented it had been protectionists; so the local managers advised me to be very careful in framing my letter of acceptance, saying that if I were not too radical they believed I might win.

With this warning in mind I was careful – to state my position exactly – and I did it in the following sentences:

“I am, as you all know, in personal belief a free trader and advocate making, as soon as it can be lawfully done, a radical change in the present system of taxation by which change the burden shall be shifted from the products of labor where it now bears heaviest onto the monopoly of natural opportunities to labor. This, I am well aware, is for the future and not yet in present issue. However, reluctant and personally diffident I have been and am to enter this campaign of principle as a candidate, I will do everything in my power to bring about a discussion that will demonstrate to the people that in freedom and not in restriction rest the true solution of the great problem of justice to all in bearing common burdens and of special privilege to none at the expense of the others.”

This letter of acceptance was my platform and it was probably at once the briefest and most radical platform put forth in that district since the adoption of protection. I was beaten by the Republican nominee, Theodore Burton, by about five hundred votes.

Two years later I was again a candidate for Congress; this time of my own volition, for I had become fully convinced that the most practical way to serve the cause to which I had committed myself was to bring the question into politics. W. W. Armstrong, editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, was also a candidate for the Democratic nomination, but after a contest I carried every ward in the city except one, and lost that by only a few votes. Mr. Burton, who had beaten me two years before, was a candidate for reelection and telegraphed a challenge to debate with me the issues of the campaign.

The committee was preparing a letter decline when it occurred to them to consult me about it. I told them I should certainly accept, that I was willing to get off the ticket if that was their wish, but I wasn’t willing to run before I had been hit. They received my decision with many misgivings. As the challenged party I claimed the right to name the terms of the contest, and in the final arrangement it was agreed that each side should make five ten-minute speeches in each debate.

In the two years which had elapsed since my first effort in Cooper Union, I had increased my time limit to ten minutes, and for that space I could talk like a whirlwind, though I probably could not have spoken longer at one stretch to save my life. Mr. Burton is a lawyer, a scholar, a master of English, a practiced speaker, if not an orator, but his style is deliberate and it was next to impossible for him to get fairly started under eleven minutes. We had four debates in public halls in various parts of the city with crowded houses at every meeting. The principal subject of discussion was the tariff. I went to the first of those engagements with an outward show of cheerfulness and confidence that I was very far from feeling, but I had no serious apprehensions after the first night. The ten minute rule saved me, and I won the election.

Mr. Burton refused to run against me two years later, and when he was the opposition candidate for mayor of Cleveland fifteen years afterwards he declined absolutely to debate with me in person.

Colonel O. J. Hodge was the congressional nominee of the Republicans in 1892 and now it was I who issued the debating challenge. Though colonel Hodge was accustomed to public speaking , having been a member of the Ohio legislature and speaker of the house of representatives, he refused my challenge, giving as his reason that I would pack the meeting against him, whereupon I proposed admission by ticket only and volunteered to give him all the tickets. Still he declined. One evening during the campaign I drifted into one of his meetings. A general invitation was extended to the audience to come forward and meet the candidate. I went up with the rest, was recognized by the crowd and importuned to speak. The audience was very cold when I commenced, but before I had spoken many minutes I felt a growing sympathy among them. Colonel Hodge and I left the meeting together and as we drove down town in my buggy he said I had served him a mean trick to come in and capture his meeting and wind up by carrying him off bodily. I was again successful and elected to Congress for a second term.

My congressional experience was a good school, and I felt that in a way it took the place of college in my life. It gave me an acquaintance with men of many types from all over the country, broadened my outlook, enlarged my vision, and increased my sense of responsibility. As Mr. George spent a great deal of time with me in Washington, I might carry the simile further and say it was like going through college attended by a private tutor. It is needless to state that his advice and assistance were invaluable to me. He took an active part in the distribution of all literature which went out under my frank.

John DeWitt Warner of New York, and Jerry Simpson of Kansas, both of whom were fellow members in my first term, were wholly committed to the single tax, and in my second term our little circle gained another adherent in the person of Judge McGuire of California. We four, with two others, Harter of Ohio, and Tracey of New York, had the pleasure of voting for the first outright single tax bill ever acted upon in a parliamentary body – a measure drawn by Judge McGuire.

Besides these gentlemen there were about twenty other members who were more or less familiar with the question, every one of whom admitted privately that Mr. George’s arguments were unanswerable, but very few of whom would commit themselves publicly. They took much the same attitude on this question that Speaker Reed charged the Democrats with taking on the famous “Reed rules.” In conversation with Mr. Reed one day when I remarked that I believed in his rules, he laughed and answered:

“Oh, yes, lots of Democrats say that to me, but I notice none of them says it publicly on the floor of the House.”

I replied that I had already said it publicly in my own district, for when my Republican opponent had tried to make the Reed rules an issue in our debates my answer had been that I didn’t know much about them, but what I did know I liked. It was manifestly silly to go to the expense of electing and maintaining members of Congress and then to permit them to be considered absent when they chose to refuse to answer to their names in roll-call. “Well, I’ll watch you,” said Mr. Reed.

At the very first opportunity I expressed my approval on the floor of the House and Mr. Reed and I enjoyed the situation more than some of my colleagues did. The latter complained frequently throughout my two terms that I embarrassed them. On the tariff matter, for instance, they said they could answer the ordinary objections of Republicans very well, but they couldn’t answer a Republican who pulled one of my speeches out of his pocket and said, “Well, here’s a member of your own part, Johnson of Ohio, who not only says the Democrats haven’t kept their party pledges but that they haven’t even tried to keep them.

I was an enthusiastic bicyclist, as I have already said, and Mr. George and I frequently took long trips together on our wheels. I taught Jerry Simpson to ride a bicycle and I can positively deny the basis of the tradition which came to be associated with his name in the popular mind. Jerry did wear socks.

My acquaintance with Mr. Harrison, who was President during my first term in Congress, dated back to the time when he had been our lawyer in Indianapolis, and my acquaintance with Mr. Bryan, who was one of the young members, had its beginning here.

My committee appointments could not by any stretch of the imagination be considered important. The Committee on the District of Columbia got pretty busy shortly after my appointment to it, however, and in less than five months we succeeded in having a resolution adopted providing for an investigation of the taxing methods of the District. This committee had discovered among other things that the assessment of land values was seventy-six million dollars when it should have been more than three hundred million; that small residence property was discriminated against, while vacant lots and valuable property were favored. The resolution stated these facts and authorized a select committee of three to inquire into the method of assessing land values. This committee consisted of Joseph E. Washington of Tennessee, James Wadsworth of New York, and myself as chairman.

As our work proceeded and the investigation went on more and more interest was taken in it by landowners who were paying less than their share of taxes. Towards the end of it they became thoroughly aroused. Assessors who cooperated with us at first and seemed to be in sympathy with the movement were soon won away or frightened away. It had some effect on the assessment which followed, but the greatest result was that it was the first time any comprehensive report had been made showing specifically the low assessment of valuable property, the high assessment of small homes and the utter futility of all attempts to tax personal or intangible property.

So far as I know this was the very beginning of a line of inquiry that has gone on extensively in this country since, is the heart of the Budget fight – the big question in English politics at the present time, — has been applied in part of Australia, in New Zealand and in Western Canada, and is to-day a recognized part of the taxing systems in these places. It was the first authoritative expression of any public body on this subject, and coming from a committee of Congress had a good deal of weight. There is no doubt that the tax laws of the future will be framed on the principles embodied in this report.

Its recommendations were based on this central truth, that a tax on the value of land is the only just tax. Analysis shows that the rental value of land does not arise from any expenditure of labor or investment of capital by the owner of the land. The value which the owner of the land may create by the expenditure of labor and capital is a value which attaches to buildings or improvement. The value which attaches to the land itself comes from the growth of the whole community. It was this growth and improvement of the community which made some land in the District of Columbia worth over three millions of dollars an acre. If the owners of this land had left it idle, if they had been absentees or idiots, this value would have attached to the land to the same extent and in the same manner, It came from a growth of population and general improvement and was primarily due to the fact that that particular place had been selected as the site of the national capital. Thus everyone who adds even temporarily to the population and business of Washington or any other city does something to add to the value of the land, something to increase a fund which may be taken to defray all the expenses of government without levying any tax on legitimate property or improvement, or which will in any way increase the cost of living. Every resident must directly or indirectly contribute to the rental value of land. In this way every resident, yes, every sojourner, may be said, in what he pays for the use of land, even though it be for a single night’s lodging, to pay a just tax sufficient to provide for the legitimate expenses of the local government and to make the most ample public improvements. But if individual land-owners are permitted to put the proceeds of this tax in their pockets, and taxes are then levied that fall on use and consumption, the body of citizens is really taxed twice. “The first and paramount consideration in taxation should be equality of burden,” and only by taking the rental values of land in taxes can such equality be secured.


Icon for the Public Domain license

This work (My Story by Tom L. Johnson) is free of known copyright restrictions.

Share This Book