One of the most influential Americans you never heard of rides the crest of a labor uprising in Gilded Age New York City.
Between 1877 and 1879, Henry George (1839-1897), a self-educated printer, wrote a lengthy book entitled Progress and Poverty, which became the bestselling book on political economy in the 19th century. George grappled with the question of why the century's explosion of productivity was not bringing widespread prosperity but instead a growing gap between rich and poor. The specifics of his theories are less important than his challenge to the prevailing social Darwinist orthodoxy that poverty was the fault of the poor, rights of ownership and contract were sacrosanct, and government should leave business to its own devices. George's contention that poverty was in large measure the result of misguided public policy and that government should regulate business in defense of traditional American values paved the way for the progressive movement of the next century. It also helped inspire a wave of labor union activism that saw George run for mayor of New York City in 1886 atop a workers’ party. He bested a young Theodore Roosevelt but lost to the Tammany candidate. O'Donnell (History/Holy Cross; 1001 Things Everyone Should Know About Irish American History, 2006, etc.) ably illuminates the rise and collapse of local labor unions in the 1870s and ’80s, fueled by the empowering arguments of George and a number of contemporaries. However, George focused intently on land monopoly, and O'Donnell never fully clarifies how his reforms were intended to work or why, apart from George's fiery pro-union rhetoric, urban workers found his program compelling. While one might expect the period's "crisis of inequality" to resonate with similar current concerns, the circumstances of the eras are so different that the author does not attempt to draw explicit links between the two.
Nevertheless, this is a captivating portrait of the struggle between labor and capital during a formative period in the quest for workers' rights.