John R. Commons (1862-1945) – Economist, Progressive, Labor Advocate, Professor and Author



John R. Commons
Photo: Social Security Administration


*Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 1989 Monthly Labor Review.

John R. Commons contributed in one way or another to practically every piece of social and labor legislation that has been enacted in the 20th century. Either directly or through students and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin, Commons made his mark on such diverse aspects of American labor as apprenticeship, vocational education, workers’ compensation, job safety, factory inspection, social security, unemployment compensation, unionism, collective bargaining, civil service, and – not least – the administration of labor law.

Commons belongs in Labor’s Hall of Fame because he was the first great American economist—or perhaps better, social scientist—to put his science in the service of improving the conditions of labor. ‘More than any other economist [Commons] was responsible for the conversion into public policy of reform proposals designed to alleviate defects in the industrial system.’ Indeed, Commons understood better than most not only that injustice hurt working people, but also that the alleviation of injustice was essential to the stability of the society as a whole.

How to Cite this portion of the article (APA Format): Barbash, J. (1989). John R. Commons (1862-1945) – Economist, progressive, labor advocate, professor and author. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved [date accessed] from

Life & Career:

John R. Commons was born on October 13, 1862 in Hollandsburg, Ohio, but he grew up in Indiana. Upon graduating high school, Commons worked numerous jobs, including as a teacher at an elementary school, until his family could afford to send him to Oberlin College. He graduated from Oberlin in 1888 and then attended Johns Hopkins University for further study under economist Richard T. Ely.

Commons spent the next several years teaching at various universities, including Wesleyan, Oberlin, Indiana, and Syracuse, until he was appointed to the U.S. Industrial Commission to spearhead research on immigration in 1901. Just a year later, Commons became the assistant secretary of the National Civics Federation, where he investigated on taxation and labor-management reconciliation.

In 1904, Commons accepted a position, offered by his mentor Richard Ely, at the University of Wisconsin in labor economics. While there, Commons served as a member of the Wisconsin Industrial Commission (1911-1913), the U.S. Commission on Industrial Relations (1913-1915), and the Wisconsin Minimum Wage Board (1919-1945). In addition, Commons was the associate director of the National Bureau of Economic Research (1920-1928) and the chairman of the Unemployment Insurance Board of the Chicago Trades (1923-1925).

The first quarter of the twentieth century in Wisconsin can be characterized by progressivism. Leaders sought to address the new problems associated with an increasingly industrial and technological society with innovative answers, called “The Wisconsin Idea.” As a part of this movement, Commons partnered with Robert M. La Follette to draft the Wisconsin Civil Service Law in 1905 and the Public Utilities Law in 1907. Furthermore, Commons researched and authored policy for workplace safety regulation and unemployment compensation. Edwin Witte and Arthur Altmeyer, two of Commons’ students, continued his work and created the Social Security program in the 1930’s.

Commons believed that economics alone was insufficient to explain the behaviors of working people, so he looked to history, sociology, psychology, and law to gain a more holistic understanding. Recognized for his scholarship in labor history and economics, Commons is especially known for his belief in collective bargaining and pragmatic compromise. He was active in drafting legislation which he believed could bring about social reform. His 10-volume Documentary History of American Industrial Society and four-volume History of Labor in the United States cemented his reputation in the field and promoted his theory that the evolution of the labor movement had resulted from changes in the market structure.

Commons retired from the University of Wisconsin in 1933 and died in Fort Lauderdale, Florida on May 11, 1945.


Wisconsin Historical Society (n.d.). John R. Commons, (1862-1945). Wisconsin Historical Society. Retrieved September 29, 2016 from

Wisconsin Historical Society (n.d.). Progressivism and the Wisconsin Idea. Wisconsin Historical Society. Retrieved September 29, 2016 from

Documentary History of American Industrial Society

How to Cite this portion of the article (APA Format): Social Welfare History Project (2016). John R. Commons (1862-1945) – Economist, progressive, labor advocate, professor and author. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved [date accessed] from


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *