Warren Edwin Brokaw

  • Warren Edwin Brokaw, “The Only Unpardonable Sin,” The Pacific Monthly 15, no. 6 (June 1906): 763-767.
  • Warren Edwin Brokaw, “Who Should Possess the Wealth of the World?,” The North American Review 214, no. 3 (September 1921): 431-432.
  • “Write, Let Children Starve,” New York Times (December 22, 1908): 1.

The Only Unpardonable Sin

By Warren Edwin Brokaw

LUTHER BURBANK is reported by W. S. Harwood, in “New Creations in Plant Life,” as saying that “ignorance is the only unpardonable sin.” The statement, as it stands, is too sweeping in its scope. Ignorance is that condition which results from ignoring, and there are as many kinds of ignorance as there are ways to ignore and things to be ignored. Ignorance falls naturally into three classes: that which is due to lack of opportunity to acquire knowledge; that which results from misconceptions — whatever their cause; and that which comes from neglect or refusal to learn when there is opportunity. The last may properly be called willful ignorance. If, then, we modify Luther Burbank’s statement so as to read, “Willful ignorance is the only unpardonable sin,” it will stand the test as an impregnable truth.

Years ago, in discussion with a socialist at the home of a mutual friend, near St. Paul, Minnesota, I chanced to remark that there was but one cause for all the misery and injustice in this world. Instantly the socialist asked, What is it?” My prompt reply was: “Ignorance.”

All the years of my study since then have but confirmed that opinion. It is true, as Patrick Edward Doye says: “It has been well said that ‘error is the cause of human misery’: and as surely may it be said that knowledge is the antidote of error, and the means of man’s redemption from misery.”

The fact that a person has knowledge of one subject—accurate, clear, and profound knowledge—is no evidence that va has knowledge on other subjects. In fact, the tendency of modern methods of education has been to so narrow the range of the specialist’s study as to make va exceedingly ignorant of other subjects—often of allied or collateral subjects winch have some necessary bearing on va’s specialty.

It has thus often transpired that those who are looked to as the highest authorities on—those having the deepest insight into—any given subject, are also looked to as authorities on subjects of which they are densely ignorant. Too often they assume that their knowledge on the one qualifies them to speak with authority on the other, and they then resent any attempt to set them right, ignoring plain truths by so doing, and thus committing “the only unpardonable sin.”

According to Harwood,” Luther Burbank is unique among men in his knowledge of nature and in his manipulation and interpretation of her forces.” “Speaking of the making of a blue rose, * * * a lesser man would have hastened forward on the road that leads to this strange floral wonder; but, despite the novelty and the fascination that always surrounds the development of a new creation, he would not enter in upon it when so many greater and more valuable things for the advancement of the world lay before him. So everything that he does must have, if possible, a definite practical end in view—it must help the world along.”

Persons, as well as plants, are a part of “nature,” and equally subject to the orderly trend of material forces, a trend which is invariable, as Luther Burbank recognized when he said: “Nature never lies.” This trend, as he has demonstrated with plants, fixes those characteristics which are maintained by the environment for a few generations.

In order to break up old, and establish new habits, a sudden radical change is made by pollination or grafting. Then the plant is closely watched until the new habits are fixed, after which it will continue in its new way. Mere care and careful selection of seeds, cultivation, etc., will not break up the old habits, which he calls “heredity,” “the sum of all past environments.” He says that “similar environments produce similar results on the life-forces, even with the most distantly related plants or animals.”

In an article in the Chicago Tribune, Luther Burbank said:

“We in America form a nation with the blood of half the peoples of the world within our veins. We are more crossed than any other nation in the history of the world; and here we meet exactly the same results that are always seen in the much-crossed race of plants; all the best as well as all the worst qualities of each are brought out in their fullest intensity, and right here is where selective environment counts. All the necessary crossing has been done, and now comes the work of elimination, the work of refining, until we shall get an ultimate product that will be the finest human race that has ever been known.”

Whatever may be true as to the crossing of races of persons in America, the crossing of races of plants by Luther Burbank was guided by his intelligence, and with some definite object of his in view. The essential element of the work was the thought of Luther Burbank. The “work of elimination,” of “refining,” of “selective environment,” was directed by the intelligence and will of Luther Burbank, not by the plants. But what outside higher intelligence is to step in and do similar work for persons? None. Persons have what plants have not—the power to consciously choose and change their own physical environment.

But persons, as well as plants, tend to follow the line of least resistance and greatest attraction in their activities. Luther Burbank selects one or two plants from among thousands or millions and then destroys—burns up—the rest, thus freeing the selected ones from an environment of their influence.

Such a method cannot be applied to persons. And since all changes of environment of persons must be made by their own conscious or unconscious efforts, ideal results can only be attained by first having ideal conceptions to be realized—conceptions consistent with conditions which the orderly trend of the forces of nature make possible. This requires much more serious and careful thought than is necessary for the development of new or better forms of plant life.

It is evident, from Luther Burbank’s remarks, that he has not given this subject much thought.

Harwood says that “the very heart and spirit of Mr. Burbank’s method are directly opposed to any monopolistic control of his new fruits.” “Success to him means the accomplishment of the greatest possible good for the greatest possible number of people.” “His life work has been primarily twofold in its sweep: first, embracing the widest possible service to the world; and, second, accomplishing this service under the most exacting and persistent adherence to scientific truth.” The proprietors of privileges, who are reaping the benefits of his work, do not constitute “the world.” Scientific truth is, necessarily, rational, logical. If, by “the world “is meant “the people on earth,” to accomplish “the widest possible service” to them, “under the most exacting and persistent adherence” to the rational, logical, trend of truth, R knowledge of the forces dictating the equilibrium of equity is prerequisite.

If mere ignorance was “the only unpardonable sin,” then Luther Burbank would be guilty of committing it: but it is not. Luther Burbank has been too busy in his chosen field of investigation to thoroughly study sociology. His experience in plant study early taught him to look to nature, rather than to the schools and books, for knowledge. He uses books, but cannot rely on them as he can on nature. The student of sociology will find the same to be true in that field. From the standpoint of the desire to really benefit all the people of the world, Luther Burbank’s labors have been, and are, up to date, a complete failure. He has but added to the misery and degradation of the people. I will prove it.

Never were truer or more vitally important words uttered than those of Henry George’s:

“Improvement, no matter how great, and reform, no matter how beneficial in itself, cannot help that class, who, deprived of all right to the use of the material elements, have only the power to labor. * * * Hence, let other conditions be what they may, the man who, if he lives and works at all, must live and work on land belonging to another, is necessarily a slave or a pauper.”

Can anybody successfully refute this? Land tenure systems throughout all civilized countries tend to the concentration of the control of land hi the hands of a few. Every improvement in the knowledge and processes of production and distribution of wealth but adds to the power of those few to squeeze tribute from the masses. Can this be refuted?

To the thinker I have proved my point. All that Luther Burbank has done merely tends to the increase of wealth, but, as Henry George pointed out, so long as competition for employment on the part of persons who are powerless to employ themselves tends to force wages to the minimum that gives the laborer but a bare living, this is all the ordinary laborer can get. Better and more prolific fruit trees and plants, and greater varieties, from the same efforts, make it possible for laborers to give more of their time to earning tribute money with which to enrich the proprietors of privileges. If Harwood is correct in saying that success, to Luther Burbank, means the placing of more and better fruit and flowers within the reach of more people—that is, of making life more enjoyable for them, then he is not succeeding, and never can, so long as land tenure systems do not secure equitable human relations.

If Luther Burbank’s object is the diffusion of benefits—not the enrichment of a few—then the more he does in his present line the more he tends to defeat his object. On this point he is ignorant. But the time has come, now that he has publicly expressed himself on the sociological subject, and touched the vital point—the question of environment—him to be ignorant will be to commit part, is no longer excusable.

A very little investigation and reflection will show him that his chief object is balked by the power of property in privileges, and that, if that really is his chief object, it is imperative that he understand the sociological problem, so as to be able to speak as correctly concerning its solution as he can now regarding plant life. Once he has the opportunity to know the truth on this subject of most vital importance to all persons, ignorance on his part will thereafter be willful—henceforth for him to be ignorant will be to commit “the only unpardonable sin.”

Ignorance—ignorance which can be dissipated only by the spread of knowledge—is the only real barrier to an equitable land tenure system.

In the Equilibrium of Equity we have a simple and complete solution of the problem. By means of it Equal Freedom in the use of the earth can be attained. It will settle the land question—fix it for all future time. Once a knowledge of it becomes general, its application will be very easy and simple. The total abolition of property in privileges— which is involved in the application of the Equilibrium of Equity—will make it impossible for any person or number of persons to oppress others. The fulcrum will thereby be removed, and there will no longer be any place on earth on which the lever of oppression can rest.

Imagine, for the moment, that the people of the United States do, as Luther Burbank has repeatedly done, show “supreme indifference to precedent,” and decide to ignore all past precedents and legislation, and to begin afresh, wholly unhampered by laws or customs. Suppose that they decide to base all their rules and regulations regarding their relations to each other on the principle of equal freedom; and that they begin by agreeing that equal freedom in the use of those portions of the earth held in exclusive possession (seeing that unbalanced exclusion is an infringement of equal freedom) may be secured by each exclusive possessor contributing to the maintenance of free highways in proportion to the advantages of such exclusive possession; that they secure this equalization of advantages by issuing notes (of various denominations) to those who do the actual work of maintaining the highways, the notes representing definite amounts of labor and made receivable in lieu of direct labor on the highways. Suppose they arrange that the actual work of building and repairing the highways be let out by contract to the best bidders. Suppose they stop there. Would they not have attained the equalization of advantages of exclusively possessed locations—thus securing equal freedom in the use of such; and free highways, that is, highways open to the equally free use of all; and a currency the units of which represented a defined unit of effort?

There being no other regulations there would be no “corporations” or “franchises,” and no special privileges of any sort. There would be no property in—no ownership of—anything except products. From whence, then, could anyone get any power to collect tribute from another—any power to compel another to work for va without va giving the other an equivalent effort?

Such would constitute the restoration of the Equilibrium of Equity. I submit that the most searching scrutiny of it will fail to show how it would be possible for anyone to rob or oppress another under its application; or that anything more is necessary in the line of action of the “body politic” in order to so change our environment as to produce “the finest human race that has ever been known.”

Can anyone who claims to take any interest whatever in the improvement of the conditions of persons on this earth; in the righting of wrongs; in the abolition of injustice; in the “salvation “of persons from sinning—can any such person neglect to consider—to study—the Equilibrium of Equity, after reading the above, and escape the burden of responsibility imposed by willful ignorance?

In minor matters ignorance is often excusable on the ground that the conditions of human life on this earth do not permit one to test all knowledge for one’s self in the brief span of one’s existence here. But in a matter which concerns all—a matter in which the ignorance of some involves the slavery of others—a matter in which it is impossible for anyone of us to escape exerting some influence either for or against equity—a matter of the supremest importance to every person; namely, the basis upon which all the relations of persons to each other on this earth are, or ought to be, established: in such a matter ignorance, in the face of opportunity to learn, is wholly inexcusable. And the responsibility now rests, and will continue to rest, on those who, having opportunities to know, ignore these opportunities.

It matters not whether the excuse is that ” it is a lucky thing if a university president has a chance to learn anything after he gets into that office”; or that of a doctor of divinity who says, “I am sorry that 1 cannot promise to study the proposition,” “I have a thousand things to do which must be done, and new work cannot be undertaken”: or of the editor who says, “I am so driven with work”; or the merchant or laborer who says, “I haven’t time”; or the “reformer” who says, “You can’t get the people to see it,” or that socialism or some other ism is coming first.

Freedom must be either equal or unequal. There are but these two ways possible. Unequal freedom necessarily involves oppression—slavery. Pigs do not grow on thistles; nor can inequitable methods produce equity. If we are ever to have Equal freedom, we must work for it—not for something else. The fact is susceptible of logical proof, that each and every movement for so-called reform which does not aim directly at the total abolition of property in privileges is postponing the attainment of equal freedom. No sincere reformer can afford to bear the responsibility of willful ignorance of the vital principle of equal freedom.

Of what use to humanity are the labors of D.D.’s, editors, university presidents, floral experts, and the like, so long as the power of appropriation not only exists, but is legalized, and backed by the policeman and soldier: aye, by a militia which, in the United States, now includes every able-bodied man between the ages of eighteen and forty-five, liable to be called upon by the President to take up arms in defense of the proprietors of the privilege of appropriation? So long as these public instructors are not laboring to overthrow this power, are they not laboring to strengthen it? In the nature of things—seeing that freedom must be either equal or unequal—how can it be otherwise?

I wish it was within my power to bring so vividly to the perceptions of every sane adult person such a realizing sense of the personal responsibility of each that none could escape feeling the necessity of at once consciously choosing either to defend inequity—injustice and oppression—or to work for equal freedom. The immediate work for equal freedom is necessarily confined to the spread of knowledge about it, by arousing discussion and investigation.



“Is There Enough Banking,” by Samuel Spring in a recent number of this Review, is thought provoking. But, although he touches upon some very thought provoking facts, he does not follow up the leads. He seems rather to skim over the surface of his subject and arrive finally at a way station that gets us nowhere.

He tells us that: “Misfortune, unemployment, sickness, the needs of a large family—these setbacks every year reduce great numbers of thrifty and steady workmen to conditions of piercing need.” What an astounding statement! Surely, it calls for investigation. When we know that all wealth is produced by human work, isn’t it passing strange that “great numbers” of the “thrifty and steady” among these should “every year” be reduced “to conditions of piercing need”? If such is the fate of the thrifty and steady, what, one may well ask, must be the fate of the unthrifty and unsteady?

No doubt we need credit facilities. But, for what? For “investment chances”? Hardly. What the steady and thrifty worker and farmer need is facilities for exchanging their work when stored in the various forms of wealth they produce.

Those who do the work of the world should possess the wealth of the world. For all wealth is made by them out of the natural resources. If there is anyone who should be able to escape ” piercing need ” it surely should be the steady and thrifty worker. For human work is the only thing that can pay for anything.

If Mr. Spring would recognize this fact he might find in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations a hint of the kind of credit facilities workers need—a system of accounts and currency the unit of which would represent a definite unit of human work. Given such a unit, mutual banking would provide them ample credit facilities. For whoever postpones payment—and work is the ultimate payment—must give the creditor satisfactory evidence that payment will be made. Checks issued against their mutual banks could perform this function, if based on a work unit.

W. E. Brokaw.


To illustrate how difficult it is to get otherwise sensible persons to give proper attention to any idea that has not received public notice I give below a bit of correspondence, omitting names for obvious reasons. Here is a man, whom another considers “an expert”, jumping to conclusions drawn from a very superficial glance at a manuscript of over 500 typewritten sheets of matter, the result of 35 years of wide and very careful study and discussion. Isn’t it about time each of us did our own thinking and relied upon our own judgment? That is the only safe foundation for a democracy. The delegation to others of such a function is the bulwark of bureaucracy. These are serious problems; and .serious times; and we should consider them in all seriousness. It makes a whole lot more difference which way we are going than how fast we go. That old railroad maxim is good for us to heed: Be sure you are right, THEN go ahead. Going ahead before that is often very dangerous.

Please refer to your letter of Nov. 28th. In the meantime I came into possession of your MS and as I have not a great deal of practical experience in economic matters along scientific lines, I gave the MS to an expert in that line, Mr. —————-, to look it over and report.

I think the most simple way to give you his criticism is to enclose his letter which he wrote me, in original, and I leave it to you to answer him direct, as his address is given in the letter.

On the spur of the moment, when I first saw your idea, and feeling intuitively its fairness, I expressed my sentiments to you, but since that time I have discussed the idea with quite a few of my friends, and after reflection and reasoning. I have come to the conviction of questioning its practicability. In other words, I cannot imagine or conceive in my mind how it will work out practically, and I have told Mr. ———— several times about it.

Dear ——— I spent an hour looking over that MS but could not afford to strain my eyes further in an unprofitable search thru a worn out mine for anything worth getting.

From names I saw, e. g., Pearl Andrews, and a few readings I recognize it as a last century idea which had reached its highest development in the mind of Josiah Warren, and worked out in a masterful manner by S. P. Andrews. It is purely Utopian and whimsical. I used to-preach it myself together with Mutual or Free Banking as a means for its realization.

My, my, it’s as dead as Jonathan Edwards or Colon Mather’s religion.

What matter you may say, if its principles are true? The principles of nude life and nut diet may be true, and an individual here and there may live it out, if he withdraws from Society. But think of anybody trying to turn back present life to such primeval conditions, as a practical program for present evils. There were excuses for those last century—pre-Marxian Utopians; but once Marx and the modern Socialism that has grown from the Scientific foundations laid by Marx, there is no excuse for anybody coming forward with such fantastic schemes.

Socialism is a loose word. We old “filosof” anarchs used to claim to come under its meaning, but whatever its meaning may be, any scheme or program that undertakes to solve the Social economic question must come to grips with Socialism, before it can deserve a hearing. From now on—thanks to our capitalist enemy’s effort to suppress—the fight is between Capitalism and Socialism, and time and effort would be wasted in looking into last century exploded Utopian schemes. That Mr. Brokaw is a noble, self sacrificing friend of humanity, may be true; and the more the pity that his ability and effort should be wasted as it is. I remember his name as a free trader—and as a man claiming to know something of economics. I would have expected to hear of him as advancing, and not as troglodyte.

Following is the reply I sent to both:

Dear Sir: Mr. ———— has just sent me your letter to him of Dec. 18, saying, “I leave it to you to answer him direct.”

One might spend much mote than an hour looking over that MS without ever seeing a word of the main thot I was developing in it. In fact, the first seven chapters only lead up to the point I was making, which was brought out in the 8th. In the 10th I met fully the argument of both the philosophical (Tucker) anarchists and the Marxian socialists.

You say, “I used to preach it myself, together with Mutual or Free Banking as a means for its realization. ” Which proves that what you have in mind is not at all what I am preaching. As I have shown in The Equitist, Wm. B. Greene’s mutual banking proposed basing issues of money on land security: and Josiah Warren was pleased when he found that his time notes were accepted in payment for laud. But the kind of money I am advocating could not be used to pay for land nor be secured by land. A dollar which is merely a receipt for an hour’s work and a promise to do an hour’s work in return cannot bin- or sell anything else. Neither S. P. Andrews nor Josiah Warren ever advocated such a dollar. Andrews made “repugnance”, as George made “toil and trouble”, the test by which to measure “cost”, and both repudiated the sole test of time worked, which I rely upon.

Seeing you have accepted Marxian socialism as your infallible guide after having been a “philosophical anarchist”, it would be useless for me to try to convince a man of your age of the fallacy upon which Marx based his arguments. But I am sending you a very brief criticism I made in The Equitist of his arguments of value and price.

One may find in my MS quotations from most all kinds of theorists, for I find some good ideas in all. But that does not prove that lam preaching their doctrines. I have long been accustomed to having my ideas condemned as impractical while at the same time admitted to be correct in theory. I need but quote Herbert Spencer in reply: “To plead the desire of being practical, as a reason for transgressing the moral law, is to assume that in the pursuit of benefit we must break thru the bonds within which only benefit is obtainable.” And he called the law of equal freedom the moral law. I accept it as such.

Here are two questions for all socialists and communists, questions to which I have never been able to get satisfactory answers from any of them: Can persons be equally free where some govern others? Bearing in amid that majority rule is the government of some by others. 2d. Does the title or “right” of ownership originate in the act of production or in the act of legislation? Bearing in mind that all government of majorities and minorities is “the act of legislation”.

What Warren and Andrews, Marx and George, and all the other former students of the subject failed to see was the fact that a unit of account that is redeemable in results must necessarily compel some to pay others for permission to use natural resources. I know of no other writer who ever advocated the principles of the equitist proposition before they were published in that proposition.

Communism—and the Marxians in Russia and the U. S. are now openly out as communists—is more to be compared with the troglodyte type than what I advocate. The most primitive of all human societies was communism. But all evolution, as Spencer pointed out, is from the homogeneous to the heterogeneous, the tendency always to greater and greater differentiation and individualization; so that movement now toward communism is retrogression, not progress. The adoption of what I propose would make even the apparent necessity for collectivist control unnecessary.

To call a thing impractical is merely to say that people will not do it. But people WILL do ANYTHING that they become fully convinced is the most beneficial for them. It is wholly a matter of convincing them. The only question to be determined, as to practibility, is whether it will do what is claimed if it is put in practice. I am prepared to prove that it will.

Human nature is more to be trusted with equal freedom than with compulsory combination. Sincerely yours for EQUITY.—W. E. Brokaw.

Bay View, Washington.


Man and Wife Found Among Manuscripts—One Boy Is Dead.

Special to The New York Times.

LOS ANGELES, Dec. 21.–Leonard Brokaw, a boy 8 years old, is dead, and his two sisters, aged 10 and 12, are in critical condition, as a result of starvation, The father, Warren Edwin Brokaw, the “single taxer,” admits that his children went hungry while he and his wife wrote books on balanced land culture.

The Brokaws live in a little, poorly furnished cottage at 1,385 Morton Avenue, Pasadena. When the authorities called they found no food in the house but a, few crusts, while the tables in the almost bare rooms were heaped with books and typewritten manuscripts. The mother of the children also was in a weak state from lack of food. Brokaw said that when they ran out of provisions the entire family picked some figs in the yards.

Brokaw is a disciple of Henry George. Mrs. Brokaw shares the views of her husband. She was formerly Estella Blackman, leader of the Women‘s Single Taxers, with headquarters at Mauch Chunk. Penn., while Brokaw was editor of The Single Tax Courier in St. Louis.

They met at the single tax conference in Chicago in 1893, and were married a year afterward. For six years Brokaw has been writing “The Science of Equity,” and his wife a novel entitled “The Soul of the `World.”

Christmas Present Comes Too Late

Son of Single Tax Advocate Dies of Starvation While Father
Date: 1908-12-24; page 4.
Paper: Grand Forks Herald

Minneapolis, Dec. 23.—A Christmas present of $5 sent by Isaac L. Brokaw, 808 Emerson avenue north, a compositor employed on the Minneapolis Journal, to his brother, Warren Edwin Brokaw, of Pasadena, Cal., arrived too late to save the life of Leonard Brokaw, the 8-year-old son of the California man. The boy died of starvation and ptomaine poisoning according to telegraphic dispatches, and the lad’s two sisters, 10 and 12 years old, are believed dying from the same cause.

Warren Edwin Brokaw was once editor of the Single Tax Courier of St. Louis, and an intimate associate of Henry George. He was noted as of the most ardent advocates of single tax in the country. His wife is a former leader of the Women’s Single Tax propaganda in the east.

When the Minneapolis man learned of the death of his nephew and that his Christmas present of $5 had not reached his brother in time to save the boy’s life, he at once wired $10 more.

The father of the dead boy reached the last degree of poverty while trying to work out the theory of balanced land tenure. The family has had but little food and has been living on an annual income of $300 of which $100 went for interest on mortgages. Other expenses cut down the annual food supply to $25. The children ate some figs picked from a tree, and became very ill. The poisoning is said to have hastened the death of the boy already in the last stages of starvation. According to the neighbors, quoted in the dispatches, Leonard, the child, did not taste a bite of food for three days before his death, and had but little for three weeks. Salvation Army officers sent a basket of food to the residence when they heard of the plight of the family, it is reported, but Brokaw refused to accept the donation until all animal food had been removed.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.