George Henry Evans (1805-1856), American social radical, was a leader in the first stirrings of labor unrest and an advocate of the free distribution of western lands to homesteaders.
George Evans was born in Herefordshire, England, on March 25, 1805. At the age of 15 he, his father, and brother emigrated to the United States, settling in New York State. George was apprenticed to a printer. His wide reading, especially in the works of Thomas Paine, made him a confirmed atheist and a social radical who believed that every man had an inalienable right to the "materials of Nature," including land and water.
Evans soon founded The Man, the first of his many radical publications. He immersed himself in the labor movement in New York City, helped found the Workingmen's party, and became editor of its magazine, the Advocate. He believed that all individuals should have equal education and equal property, though he soon retreated to advocating simply an equal amount of land for every person. The Workingmen's party achieved small successes in New York elections, and the movement spread to other states. But the party (as with most radical movements) soon dissolved into feuding factions, and by 1835 reform efforts were concentrated on building labor unions. When the Panic of 1837 struck the nation, the union movement collapsed.
Evans waited out the depression years on a farm in New Jersey. He published History of the Origin and Progress of the Workingmen's Party (1840) to explain the party's failure and to lay philosophical foundations for further reform. He argued that public lands should be free, that each American had an inalienable right to his part of them, and that if the lands were opened to the public most of America's problems would disappear. The panacea of homesteads was intended to make the West serve as a "safety valve" for the laboring men of the East. He theorized that, if surplus workers went west to farm, a balance in the supply of and the demand for urban labor would be effected, thus forcing higher wages and improved conditions for the workers.
Evans helped organize the National Reformers to implement his agrarian principles. In the late 1840s he and his associates urged politicians to back the movement for free western lands. He published many pamphlets and continued in the reform movement until his death. He did not live to see the passage of the Homestead Law or to witness its failure to solve the nation's problems.
An account of Evans's life and work is included in John R. Commons and others, eds., A Documentary History of American Industrial Society, vol. 7 (11 vols., 1910-1911). Information is also available in John R. Commons and others, History of Labour in the United States, vol. 1 (4 vols., 1918-1935); Stewart H. Holbrook, Dreamers of the American Dream (1957); and most histories of United States labor movements.