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Commons, John R.

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

By Catherine A. Paul

John R. Commons
John R. Commons
Photo: Social Security Administration

John Rogers Commons was an institutional economist and labor historian who became a significant contributor to most pieces of social and labor legislation in the 20th century. He was the first American economist and social scientist to dedicate himself to improving labor conditions, believing that labor injustice not only impacted workers, but also the stability of society.

Commons was born on October 13, 1862 in Hollandsburg, Ohio, but he grew up in Indiana. His religious upbringing instilled in him a lifelong sense of social justice. Upon graduating high school, Commons worked numerous jobs until his family could afford to send him to Oberlin College, including one as a teacher at an elementary school. After graduating from Oberlin in 1888, Commons attended Johns Hopkins University for further study under the economist Richard T. Ely.

Commons spent the next several years teaching at various universities, including Wesleyan, Oberlin, Indiana, and Syracuse (where he was dismissed as a radical (Gonce, 2002)), until in 1901 he was appointed to the U.S. Industrial Commission to spearhead research on immigration in 1901. 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.


Barbash, J. (1989). John R. Commons (1862-1945) – Economist, progressive, labor advocate, professor and author. Monthly Labor Review, 112(5). Retrieved from

Gonce, R. A. (2002). John R. Commons’s “Five big years: 1899-1904.” The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, 61(4), 755-777.  

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 article (APA Format): Paul, C. A. (2016). John R. Commons (1862-1945) – Economist, progressive, labor advocate, professor and author. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved from