Preserving American Freedom

The Evolution of American Liberties in Fifty Documents

Letter from Joseph Fels to C. W. Post, October 5, 1909

Letter from Joseph Fels to C. W. Post
Author(s): 
Recipient(s): 
October 5, 1909
COPY JG C W Post Esq Battle Creek Mich. U. S. A.
My dear Sir
I am just favoured by yours of the 27th; and you so little understand conditions here that I am impelled to make an immediate reply while the matter is fresh in my mind.1
You say "the English people are paying the price for compromising with wrong these many years past in allowing the lower order to gain possession of the power which it always uses detrimentally." By this you intimate that "the Socialists and Labor Unions are dictating the policy of the Government." You never were more mistaken in your life! And you say what you do say influenced by your own experience in the U.S. without for a monent deciding in your own mind what has been the actual cause of your having had this kind of experience.
Perhaps you will allow me to tell you that economic conditions in all English-speaking countries are more or less of a muchness. The presence of landlordism, and the private ownership of land values, as well as the control and ownership of monopoly and special privilege, are the causes of the trouble here,2 as well as the considerable beginning of the troubles there;3 and if labour - which is usually the underdog in the fight under present conditions, both over there as well as here - turn and fight the employer, it is because the working classes are, in the long run, at the mercy of the monopolist! They feel the blow, but don't know what originally caused it!
You seem to assume that the mere investment of capital means the general prosperity of a country. I give you credit for knowing that this is not the case, if you will take the trouble to think about it.
My firm in Philadelphia has been in business, and my father before me, perhaps since you were born. We now employ about a thousand people in the Philadelphia works. We have always taken advantage of every improvement in machinery, and every invention we could get hold of, connected with our manufacturing department. We have never had a day's trouble with Labour Unions or individual workers, or any sign of a strike or lock-out, or, in fact, any other labour difficulty, and
1.
Source Information: 
Letter from Joseph Fels to C. W. Post
Fels, Joseph, 1854-1914
Post, C. W. (Charles William), 1854-1914
The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA
Joseph and Mary Fels Papers (Collection 1953)
Box 1, folder 4
Letter from Joseph Fels to C. W. Post
Author(s): 
Recipient(s): 
October 5, 1909
C.W.P. p. 2
this because we recognise the fact that, as a firm, we are protected by an unjust tariff which gives us more profit than we ought to own alone, added to a monopoly in the thing manufactured.
We appreciate the fact that the people who helped to create this great business would, under other conditions, actually own a part of the results, and so we give it to them voluntarily by paying the highest wages of any soap manufacturers in the world, by giving them an eight-hour day, and by dealing with our employees on the fairly humane platform by recognising our obligations to them, as well as to the public who buy our goods.
The business men's statement (which you were so good as to say interested you somewhat) is a fair statement of the truth [?] for which an increasing number of intelligent people are working in all civilised countries.
I wish you would go a little further, and take the trouble to read Henry George's "Progress and Poverty", which may whet your appetite to read others of his works, such as "Protection or Free Trade" and "Social Problems".
Under separate cover, I am sending you "Inspired Millionaires",4 the reading of which may tune your mind into less bitter feelings towards things that you perhaps have not hitherto given the consideration which they deserve.
I am frank to say that in writing you first, I had some idea that I could interest you in some public reforms I myself am somewhat immersed in on that side. I refer to the agitation for the single tax, as it is known there, or the taxation of land values, as known here, and I am most anxious to have the co-operation of other men of affairs.
This question of agitating for the opportunity to free men is not an English question merely, it is quite as much an American question - indeed, a Battle Creek question! No amount of insistence by successful business men, who take advantage of monopoly, can wipe out their obligations to their fellow men, or put them on a pedestal where they cannot be attacked by their own consciences, or the execration of the common people, whom they may seek to dismiss by stigmatising them as socialists, labour unionists or what not among the workers. The development of socialism, as you see it there, and trade unionism, are simply signs of the times, and are meant to be wiped out when saner counsels prevail than at present. These counsels now resolve themselves into "Every man for himself, and the devil take the hindmost"!
Let me assure you that in this old country the labour people, and the Labour Party in Parliament have done more than the present Government to push the latter on into making it possible that thousands of business men can intelligently sign the business men's statement I sent you.
In conclusion, I am not writing as a Foreigner, but as an American
Source Information: 
Letter from Joseph Fels to C. W. Post
Fels, Joseph, 1854-1914
Post, C. W. (Charles William), 1854-1914
The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA
Joseph and Mary Fels Papers (Collection 1953)
Box 1, folder 4
Letter from Joseph Fels to C. W. Post
Author(s): 
Recipient(s): 
October 5, 1909
C.W.P. p. 3.
and as one who loves his country as much as most people do. All my agitation for the reforms so dear to me are being pushed forward on this side with the avowal in every instance than I am an American, and so far I have received the greatest possible consideration from all I have come into contact with.
I am hoping to come across there within the next 90 days, and should then be glad to have a personal talk with you.
Believe me Yours very truly
Source Information: 
Letter from Joseph Fels to C. W. Post
Fels, Joseph, 1854-1914
Post, C. W. (Charles William), 1854-1914
The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA
Joseph and Mary Fels Papers (Collection 1953)
Box 1, folder 4
About This Document: 

The arguments in this document are representative of one of the 20th century's central questions: How should society adapt to industrialized capitalism? Joseph Fels and Charles William Post, the well-known soap and cereal tycoons, offered two potential answers. Post asserted that wealthy and successful members of society deserved to exercise their power unencumbered, and that redistribution of wealth and the existence of labor unions only served to damage a nation's economy. Fels, on the other hand, believed deeply in workers' rights and social equality despite having been made rich by the very systems he condemned.

Soon after Fels had become wealthy by selling his signature Fels-Naptha soap, which used naphtha as a solvent to clean clothes more effectively, he began searching for ways to fight against societal injustice. He stumbled across Progress and Poverty, by the economist Henry George, and gradually devoted his life to philanthropy at the expense of his business. George's theory of the single tax, also referred to as the land value tax, was based on the principle that land has a universal, unchanging value. Placing a single tax on land would lift the tax burden from other industries, and, he hoped, entice businesses to expand. George envisioned a society where citizens would pay one large tax based on their rented land that would be used to provide free education, medical care, and infrastructure—a utopia where every laborer was accountable to his or her community. Fels invested much of his fortune into making George's ideas into a reality.

By the time Fels sent this letter to Post in 1909, his experiments in utopian single-tax colonies had failed, but his commitment to George's ideology was unwavering. As is evident in the letter, Fels was keenly aware that he owed much of his success to a system that richly rewarded executives who profited from illegal monopolies and exploitation of their employees while denying most laborers basic protections, let alone a share of their companies' profits. Not only did he strive to provide ideal working conditions for his own employees, but he attempted to use the money he had amassed in the private market to reform society so that other entrepreneurs would not be able to exploit the underprivileged. Eventually, the United States would settle into an economic system that combined the liberties and limitations expressed by Fels and Post, a free market tempered by unions and safety nets.

Sources:

Arthur P. Dudden, Joseph Fels and the Single-Tax Movement (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1971).

Arthur P. Dudden, "Joseph Fels of Philadelphia and London," Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 79 (1955): 143-166.

Joseph and Mary Fels Papers (Collection 1953), Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Finding aid

Philip S. Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States, vol. 4, The Industrial Workers of the World, 1905–1917, new ed. (New York: International Publishers, 1965).

Henry George, Progress and Poverty: An Inquiry into the Cause of Industrial Depressions and of Increase of Want with Increase of Wealth, 50th anniversary ed. (New York: Robert Schalkenbach Foundation, 1940).