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Single Taxers descend on Dover

keystone cops and prisoner with lampshade on head

The incident prompted Delaware to change its constitution.

Economist Henry Georges had gathered a large following nationwide for his ‘single tax’ theory ever since he had outlined it in his 1879 book “Progress and Poverty.” His idea sounded simple enough: a government should tax land values as the sole source of government revenues. Period. No other taxes. That would be sufficient to fill government coffers.

The single tax would not be levied on the economic activity taking place on a given parcel of land, but on the land’s ‘underlying’ value. Georges assumed that governments would have to recalculate that value regularly, as some land, such as in a flourishing downtown area of a city, would have higher underlying value than, say, a swamp, where little to no economic activity could take place.

Advocates of Henry Georges’ theory—the Georgists, as they loosely called themselves—ultimately decided to test his tax ideas in a real life setting. 1896 was a presidential election year. A.H. Stevenson, a wealthy manufacturer in Philadelphia, had formed the Philadelphia Single Tax Society (PSTS) the year before. He envisioned targeting a state where the Society could push a referendum onto the 1896 ballot, calling for that state to convert to a single tax. 

Stevenson viewed Delaware as the perfect test state. It was close to Philadelphia, and could at first be heavily canvassed by Society members. Stevenson’s grander vision, though, was to attract stump speakers from across the country to come to Delaware. The state was small enough that speakers could saturate the various towns with their message. How hard could it be to pull a sizable following from Delaware’s existing parties?

Stevenson found out when he rolled into Dover in mid-August 1896. As a courtesy, he had applied to Mayor Fisher for a permit to hold a PSTS rally along one of the main thoroughfares of town. The mayor offered instead a permit to speak on The Green, an open area in the older, historic area of town. Stevenson didn’t like that idea, since foot traffic around The Green was far less than the originally requested spot.

photo illustration of keystone cop type policemen superimposed on Dover, De map

Stevenson, feeling he had a right to free speech in public, permit or no, went ahead and held his rally where he originally intended. He was careful to instruct his audience not to block sidewalks.

Fisher promptly arrested him on grounds, not of gathering without a permit, but rather for “noisy assemblage.” Stevenson was thrown into jail, no bail, for 30 days. 

It was clear to Georgists, following the unfolding situation from across the nation, that Fisher was in the pocket of Dover’s landed gentry, who were appalled at what they saw as a socialist land grab from the Single Taxers. Howls of protest against Stevenson’s unjust arrest appeared on newspaper editorial pages in Chicago, Philadelphia, Texas, and many more. 

The PSTS began sending pairs of new speakers to the spot in Dover where Stevenson had been arrested. The second any of them got up on a platform to speak, local Sheriff Shaw arrested them. Fifteen people were arrested before both sides lawyered up, and Delaware’s Governor Watson began negotiations with Stevenson and his cellmates.

Stevenson and his faction were released unceremoniously from Dover’s jail on a writ of certiorari, which simply orders a lower court to deliver its record in a case so that a higher court may review it. No apologies, no further explanations from Delaware officials at any level. Case closed.

The following year, delegates at Delaware’s 1897 Constitutional Convention hostile to the single tax movement placed in the constitution, by a vote of fifteen to two, Section 7 of Article VIII. This provision, according to its sponsor, was designed to prevent the legislature from putting in force “a system of taxation the object of which is the confiscation of land.” 

“Let us speak, in such positive terms in this convention, as will protect this little garden spot, as we will term it, against the ravages of those who entertain these new fancies, and want to make their tests here, for the rest of the people of the United States.”

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