1990 Notable Author

AddThis Social Bookmark Button

John R. Commons, 1862-1945

John Rogers Commons was a leading architect and the embodiment of the Wisconsin Idea. Although his most serious work was in the academic disciplines of economics and history, he continually advanced ideas that are of the greatest practical importance to ordinary people.

Commons was born in Hollandsburg, Ohio. His parents were abolitionists and active members in the underground railway. The influence of his parents and his experience working as a printer provided him with an introduction to reformist ideas. He was 20 before he started college and his schooling was further slowed by financial troubles and health problems. He graduated from Oberlin College and went on for graduate study under the great reforming economist Richard T. Ely at Johns Hopkins.

Commons' support for social and political reform made him a controversial figure and his academic career appeared to end when the trustees at Syracuse University voted to abolish his chair in sociology because of his "radical tendencies." Richard Ely brought Commons back to academic life. Ely had been recruited by UW (Madison) where he gained sufficient influence to be able to invite Commons to join him on the faculty. Unlike other universities of the time, Wisconsin encouraged faculty members to participate in reform activities. Commons became a friend and advisor of Governor (later Senator) Robert LaFollette who provided new opportunities for Commons to develop his ideas.

Commons achieved extraordinary success as an economic statesman. He conceived and often wrote the legislation that made Wisconsin a model of economic reform. This included progressive laws to regulate utilities and railroads, and the first workable legislation to establish workman's compensation and unemployment insurance. The major designers of the Social Security Act of 1935 were his students.

John Commons established the study of labor problems as a respected academic discipline. His writings on labor history continue to be recognized as the early classics of the field.

By his death Commons' academic influence was already on the wane as economics was becoming technical in orientation and narrow in scope. But, many of his public policy views had been incorporated into the mainstream of progressive political thought. Commons' ideas have proven to be prophetic and increasingly relevant to the challenge of creating a humane social and economic system.

Selected Writings:

The Distribution of Wealth. Macmillan, 1893.
"American Shoemakers, 1648-1885: A Sketch of Industrial Evolution." Quarterly Journal of Economics 24:39-84, November, 1909.
History of Labor in the United States. 4 vols. Macmillan, 1918-1935.
Legal Foundations of Capitalism
. University of Wisconsin Press. (1924) 1959.
Institutional Economics. University of Wisconsin Press, (1934).
Myself. University of Wisconsin Press, 1934.
Economics of Collective Action. Edited by K. H. Parsons. Macmillan, 1950. (Includes a thirty-page bibliography of Commons' complete works.)