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AMERICAN PUBLIC UNIVERSITY

JOHN R COMMONS:

A LIFE THAT CREATED IDEAS, A MAN THAT PUT THEM INTO ACTION

William R. Cox
Historiography, HIST 501 A003 Fall 2009
January 22, 2010
War, reconstruction, depression, monopoly, patronage, corruption, Vanderbilt, and Rockefeller,

these were the symbols of the last quarter of the 19th century. America had become a “nation of

small towns and big enterprise,” yet millions of Chinese immigrants, newly freed slaves, and

other poor citizens lived, seemingly in another world.1 It was a world that was devoid of the

liberties and freedoms promised by the founders, a world that did not live up to the promises of

an equal opportunity for all who were willing. This was a world where Federal troops were used

to put down the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, a world desperately searching for direction and

order out of chaos. This was the world, into which the Progressives were born.

The Progressives were more than historians, politicians, philosophers, or economists they

were all of these disciplines and more intertwined. They deemed it their responsibility to take on

the task of “the reconciliation of democratic ideals with the political, social, and economic

realities of the new urban and industrialized America.”2 The Progressives experienced the

promise and tragedies of American life; they witnessed first hand the economic hardships of

Reconstruction, the absence of any rule of law for monopolies, businessmen and even most

politicians of the era. All people are shaped and defined by the context within which they live

and the Progressives, much like the founding fathers, would be shaped by their experiences,

shaped into a generation that would seek order, justice, equality, and opportunity not just for

themselves, but for the generations to come. “I was born, in 1862, at this meeting place of North

and South. My earliest recollections were thrilling stories of their ‘underground railway,’ for the

escape of Negroes to Canada, across my mother’s Western Reserve and my father’s Eastern

Indiana. Liberty, equality and defiance of the Fugitive Slave Law were my birthright,” such is

1
Robert Wiebe, The Search for Order 1877-1920 (New York: Hill and Wang,
1967), 9.
2
Ernst Breisach, Historiography Ancient, Medieval, and Modern, 3rd Edition
(Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 313.

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the story of John R. Commons and many other Progressives.3 Understanding the historiography

of the Progressive Era and the movement requires us to understand the men and women who

took up the mantle of Progressive reform.

While industrial specialization during the last quarter of the 19th century, created brand

name giants, like Heinz, Swift and Singer; academia began specializations of its own. The early

20th century saw a break in the bond between the American Historical Association and the

American Economic Association, as the economists “began to prefer to study and deal in

timeless patterns.”4 Economics became independent of history; however, historical scholarship

would redefine itself through the lens of economics. The new economists focused on the

interactions of institutions, labor, and the class struggle of society, while their colleagues in the

history department began to examine history through a similar economic lens. The

historiography of America’s founding moved from focused research on the ideas and values of

the founders to an examination of their economic interests with the publication of An Economic

Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States of America, by Charles Beard.5

John R. Commons offers a window into this era of American society, academia, and the

work the Progressives accomplished. The successes and failures of this generation of Americans

are exemplified by their ideas that were called upon to save this country from its wandering

years; when blacks were no longer slaves, yet far from free, when the west had been settled and

manufacturing was industrializing the country. Their ideas were called on to establish a peace

after the war to end all wars through the Wilson Presidency, they were asked to solve many of

the problems of the Great Depression, and to prepare the country for another war in Europe.

American society’s ability to understand the Progressive movement is vital today, because, we
3
John Commons, Myself (New York: Macmillian Company, 1934), 7.
4
Breisach, Historiography, 300.
5
Ibid., 301.

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live with many of the institutions that are a Progressive legacy. The early life experiences, for

Commons and his colleagues, provided them the context within which they would work and live,

but more importantly, it provided the medium for the radical egalitarian ideas that would bridge

the chasm from Reconstruction and the closing of the frontier to the modernity of today.

Commons' ideas, and the Progressives, are best viewed through three separate arenas: life before

the University of Wisconsin, work at the University, and finally the impact of Progressive ideas

generally and Commons ideas specifically on society.

American society from the end of Reconstruction until the turn of the twentieth-century

was a collection of triumphs and tragedies. America was in many ways still two separate

nations, economically, even though the Union had been preserved. The Southern states were still

reeling from the devastation of the Civil War and the emasculation of Reconstruction. They

showed little if any economic prosperity during this period; however, the Northern states were

busy transforming themselves from an agrarian economy to manufacturing. During the 1860’s

Indiana realized an increase in the value of manufactured goods of 159 percent, Ohio 121

percent, and New York 107 percent compared with South Carolina who saw an increase of only

15 percent and Mississippi only 24 percent.6 This variance in economic provides us with a

glimpse into the two separate regions and portends many future problems for this distinct region,

no matter the influence of Progressive ideas. The Southern states, as a group, would not recover

until well after the Civil Rights movements of the twentieth-century. In many southern states

today, there still exists a struggle economic development, racial equality, and most especially,

higher education.

6
University of Virgina Geospatial and Statistical Data Center,
"Reconstruction," American Experience, Public Broadcasting Service,
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex.reconstruction/states (accessed December
31, 2009).

4
For all the troubles of the Southern States during and following Reconstruction, the rest

of the country was transforming a continent into a commercial empire. Fredrick Turner

described the situation in his address to the American Historical Association in 1894, “and now,

four centuries from the discovery of America, at the end of one hundred years of life under the

Constitution, the frontier has gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American

history.”7 America was shifting her focus; the institution of slavery was gone, the Union was

preserved, and the frontier was conquered. America would shift attention and efforts inward to

economic production and growth with an eye outward to a future empire. America would come

to grips with railroads, industrialization and urbanization. Wealth would find its way into the

hands of the few; like, Morgan, Carnegie, Vanderbilt, and Mellon; and entire industries would

find themselves dominated by single corporations; yet, “the dream that every American’s

birthright included a fair chance to win his pot of gold had, if anything, grown even more

powerful in the expansive years after the Civil War.” This was the economic and social scene in

which the Progressive movement was born and matured.

John Commons was born of a Quaker father and Presbyterian mother. Commons’ family

on his father's side were farmers that left North Carolina, “in 1812, escaping from the slavery

country across the mountains” to settle in Indiana and his mother’s family was originally from

Vermont and the “Western Reserve,” or northeastern Ohio.8 He was brought up in the Puritan

tradition of “Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.”9 Commons later identified many of the Puritan values he

grew up with, liberty and toleration, in his study of John Locke.10 The economic life of the
7
Frederick Turner, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History,"
American Historical Association, American Historical Association, 1894,
http://www.historians.org/pubs/archives/Turnerthesis (accessed Decmber 31,
2009).
8
Commons, Myself, 7.
9
Ibid., 8.
10
Ibid., 9.

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Commons family was the antithesis of Morgan, Carnegie, Vanderbilt and Rockefeller.

Commons’ family like most did whatever it took to survive. Commons describes his mother’s

contribution to the economic well being of the family, “In my earliest memory of her she was

feeding two or three boarders and keeping roomers. This she was doing continuously, even at

Oberlin until my graduation, where she was supporting, by means of a boarding house, her three

children in the preparatory school and college.”11 This story of persistence continues throughout

the early years of Commons' life with he and his brother working on their father’s newspaper

until finally in 1882 his mother sent him to Oberlin College with her entire savings of $100. She

would follow later with the other children and set up house in a “rented shack” for the purpose of

keeping boarders.12

While attending Oberlin and working for the Oberlin Review and Cleveland Herald,

Commons developed many of the ideas that would later come to dominate his published work

Institutional Economics. Through his life experience of working with union and non-union print

shops he had learned “what was collective action in control of individual action” and that his

“only rights and liberties in typesetting were created by that little society of printers and had been

administered, since the gilds of the Middle Ages, by the ‘father of the Chapel’ . . . But I am an

honorary member, since 1891, of Typographical No. 53, Cleveland, Ohio, where I got my first

lesson in the religion of the Middle Ages, in their patron saints, and in economic justice”.13

Commons had met his first union boss. He would come to recognize the social and employment

changes that were occurring through the technological revolution in the printing industry by

visiting the Cleveland Plain Dealer fifteen years later where he discovered the fruits of

technology wed to union negotiation. He “found six men instead of our thirty, publishing a
11
Ibid., 10.
12
Ibid., 10-13.
13
Ibid., 18-19.

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paper twice as large at three cents instead of five, weekly wages three times as high, hours

reduced to eight, afternoon distribution cut out,” all thanks to an agreement between the

typographical union leadership and Mergenthaler Linotype Company.14

While still at Oberlin, Commons read Henry George’s Progress and Poverty, and with

the help of a friend and Professor Monroe, brought George to Oberlin for a lecture. Henry

George was one of many philosophers, historians, economists, and political scientists whose

areas of expertise were becoming professionalized. Many of these new professionals were

beginning to ask serious questions about the interactions of the government with the economy

and the people. Coincidentally, by 1900 the illiteracy rate had been halved in the United States

and the common man was paying attention to the philosophical and political issues of the day.15

Henry George’s, single tax theory, was one of many incomplete and radical ideas that were

appearing in social and economic discussions, as a letter to the editor of the New York Times by

H.S. on March 2, 1899 commented, “the subject of taxation being such an exceedingly difficult

one, it is no disrespect to the single taxers to call attention to the fact that their theory is still so

crude that they have not yet invented a term for a condition which as surely exists and should be

adequately provided for in any just scheme of taxation as does that opposite condition which has

given rise to the term ‘unearned increment.’”16 The ideas of Progressivism were percolating in

society, but they had as yet not been solidified or clarified. Under influence from Oberlin’s

Professor Monroe, Commons ventured to Johns Hopkins for graduate work in political economy

14
Ibid., 19.
15
U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, "120 Years of
Literacy," National Assessment of Adult Literacy,
http://nces.ed.gov/naal/lit_history.asp (accessed December 29, 2009).
16
H.S., "New York Times Archive," New York Times, March 6, 1899,
http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?
_r=1&res=9904EED6163DE433A25755C0A9659C94689ED7CF (accessed
January 8, 2010).

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rather than journalism. He would finish Johns Hopkins, marry and obtain an instructorship at

Wesleyan where he and Professor Alexander Stephenson would replace the departing Woodrow

Wilson, who would later implement nationwide reforms based on Progressive ideology as

President.17 Commons struggled for a year teaching what he called “orthodox” economics at

Wesleyan when he was unceremoniously told he would not be retained for the next year. The

embarrassment and failure of dismissal shaped the future John Commons, whose students at

Wisconsin spent almost every Friday night with him around the dinner table discussing

philosophy, economics and sociology.18 Commons describes the impact of his dismissal in his

autobiography:

I never preached at Wesleyan, as I did afterwards at Syracuse about my heterodox


opinions; I lectured along in the orthodox authoritative tradition. But I determined, on
being dismissed from Wesleyan, that I would spring on my next students all of my
inconsistencies, all of my doubts of economic theory, all of my little schemes for curing
economic, political, and sociological disease. Perhaps that would interest them. And it
did.19

Political economy is defined today, by the doctoral program at the Woodrow Wilson

School of Princeton University, as work that “aims to develop theoretical and empirical

understanding of the connections between economics and politics,” nothing exemplifies this like

the Wisconsin Idea.20 The Wisconsin Idea would develop as a cooperation of the state

government, state economic institutions and the great minds that occupied the University of

Wisconsin-Madison. The close cooperation between the University and the government can be

attributed to their close proximity, less than one mile apart, which would have allowed the
17
Commons, Myself, 45.
18
Ibid., 1-6.
19
Ibid., 47.
20
Woodrow Wilson School, "Description of Program: Doctoral Program in
Political Economy," Princeton University,
http://www.princeton.edu/~pegrad/descript.html (accessed December 30,
2009).

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legislators and professors to work, socialize and develop a respect for each other’s ideas with

ease in an era when transportation was a significant hurdle of everyday life. Another explanation

for the successful partnership was the maturation of the Wisconsin government and the

University almost simultaneously, in that, Wisconsin became a state in 1848 and the University

followed in 1849.21

Commons described his arrival at the University in 1904 as his “new birth.”22 Commons

and the University, in partnership with Governor Robert La Follette, ventured to solve some of

the most pressing economic and social problems of the time. The difference between those

economists, philosophers, historians or sociologists before Commons and his Progressive

colleagues was perhaps action or more aptly put the in-action of their predecessors. Commons’

institutional economics focused on “economics in action” according to Robert Lampman. “Most

of the economists who were Commons’ contemporaries considered their field as virtually self-

contained: the study of powerful laws working with little resistance on interchangeable humans;”

however, Commons believed that one must take into account many other kinds of pressures

when considering economics, especially the collective action as applied to individuals.23

Commons’ arrival in Madison, in 1904, was not unnoticed by Governor La Follette. His

first foray into political economy and reform was the Governor's request that he draft a Civil

Service Law that would displace the corruption and patronage that had plagued the state under

previous leadership.24 The legislation Commons created contained two key aspects. The first

was that Civil Service employment should be based entirely upon merit, preferably determined

by a Civil Service examination. The second aspect was the “establishment of a civil service
21
Jack Stark, The Wisconsin Idea: The University's Service to the State
(Madison , WI: The University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1995-1996) 5-7.
22
Commons, Myself, 97.
23
Stark, The Wisconsin Idea, 17.
24
Ibid.

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commission to administer the law;” this independent entity would be charged to act as “the non-

partisan administrator.”25 Commons would come to believe, that most of the progressive reforms

that were later enacted into law hinged upon this Civil Service reform and the “non-partisan

administrator.” He stated that the “enactment” of reforms “depended on confidence, on the part

of the strenuously conflicting economic interest, in the public officials to whom the

administration of laws should be entrusted.”26

Commons' next worked on legislation drafts to regulate public utilities. He also accepted

a project to work with the City of Milwaukee. The purpose of the project was to make the

government more efficient. Commons, accompanied by his graduate students and hired experts,

delivered results to the City of Milwaukee that resulted in the creation of two new departments

within the city administration, one being a Department of Economy and Efficiency. Commons

took the idea of the Economy and Efficiency office to then Wisconsin Governor McGovern for

implementation as part of the his administration, and with that he moved from writing legislation

that applied others ideas to implementing his on ideology through government reforms.27 While

working on the Milwaukee project, Commons had his students develop data for him based upon

the labor practices of other countries. He wanted to attempt an application of his principles of

the “non-partisan administrator” or commission to the conflicts between labor and businesses.

From this work grew legislation that established “an Industrial Commission” and “safety

standards for work places.”28 Workers compensation would appear next on the agenda for

Commons. He would not draft the legislation; however, he would begin advocating for its

passage, working with the interested parties and finally wining passage in 1911. The workers

25
Ibid., 18.
26
Commons, Myself, 105-106.
27
Stark, The Wisconsin Idea, 19.
28
Ibid.

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compensation legislation created the formulas for compensation and created another of

Commons’ non-partisan boards to administer and implement the legislation. This reform was the

first of it’s kind in the United States, and even though participation was voluntary, the bill

changed the paradigm of workplace injury by “abolishing the fellow servant rule and the

assumption of risk doctrine” that dominated juris prudence of the time.29

John Commons’ crowning Progressive achievement occurred on January 28, 1932 when

Governor Phillip La Follette signed into law the first unemployment compensation legislation in

the United States. Commons did not draft the bill; however, he had been an advocate of

unemployment compensation as early as 1893 and many of his ideas, such as, each employer

having it’s own fund and the principle that “unemployment compensation system should, among

other things, reduce unemployment” appeared in the final bill. In his autobiography, Commons

described his ideas for an unemployment compensation system being shaped by his work on

workers compensation, “Eventually, in 1921, I began to extend this principle to unemployment.

Why not make individual employers responsible for their own unemployment, instead of so

called ‘society’?”30

John Commons and the Wisconsin Idea was the application of political economy to

achieve measureable social results. His influence during his twenty-five year tenure would

further manifest itself through his forty-one graduate students who received Ph.D.s. Students

like Edwin Witte, Elizabeth Brandeis, and John A. Fitch would mature and fill the positions of

power and influence throughout Wisconsin and the United States. 31 Edwin Witte became a

professor of economics at the University of Wisconsin and is often called the “father of the

Social Security Act” for his role on the Committee on Economic Security during the Franklin
29
Ibid., 20.
30
Commons, Myself, 143.
31
Stark, The Wisconsin Idea, 23.

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Delano Roosevelt administration.32 Elizabeth Brandeis, daughter of Associate Justice of the

Supreme Court Louis Brandeis, received her Ph.D. in 1928 and continued Commons' work with

a specialization in labor economics and a professorship at Madison.33 John A Fitch wrote an

interpretive book, The Causes of Industrial Unrest, which attempts “to reveal the background,

the point of view, and the circumstances out of which the labor struggle emerges.” 34

Many aspects of Progressive ideology permeate society today; however, none more

visible and well recognized than Social Security. Commons and his colleagues, in the laboratory

that was Wisconsin, had already tested much of the ideology that was Roosevelt’s New Deal

well before his election in 1932. The “Wisconsin Approach” to workers compensation within

the Social Security Act “was in fair measure the product of one of the most famous economists

of the early twentieth century, John R. Commons, a practical reformer who taught at the

University of Wisconsin from 1904 to the 1930s . . . his experience working with businessmen”

convinced him that “the secret to reform was appealing to the profit motive,” he “liked to build

his reform measures on business principles.”35 Possibly the most lasting, yet seemingly

unimportant, idea from Commons, was the non-partisan committee board or group, charged with

implementation or administration of executive orders or legislation. Commons quickly learned

that “legislation furnished authorizations,” but “administration was legislation in action.”36

John Commons and other Progressives safely brought America’s economy, society and

government into twentieth century. They helped America transition from an agrarian frontier
32
Wisconsin Historical Society, "Edwin Witte," Wisconsin Historical Society,
http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/topics/witte/ (accessed December 1, 2009).
33
Amy Butler, Elizabeth Brandeis Raushenbush, March 20, 2009,
http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/raushenbush-elizabeth-brandeis (accessed
January 5, 2010).
34
John Fitch, The Causes of Industrial Unrest (Harper & Brothers), ix.
35
William Domhoff, State Autonomy or Class Dominance? Case Studies on
Policy Making in America (New York, NY: Aldine de Gruyter, 1996), 126-127.
36
Commons, Myself, 107.

12
based society to a modern industrialized nation without losing its soul. After retirement, during

the Great Depression, Commons stated, “I was trying to save Capitalism by making it good. It

was because I admired, not ‘capitalism,’ but great capitalist, as far beyond my own abilities, but

wanted to make them as good as the best instead of negligent.”37

Twenty-first century America enjoys many achievements thanks to Progressive reforms.

Social Security, work place safety, workers compensation benefits, unemployment benefits and

the Wisconsin Idea’s success should in large measure be credited to Commons. When Commons

was born, America was wandering in the darkness between slavery of the Southern type and

slavery of the industrial type. Commons was shaped by his life experiences and the world that

surrounded him. He allowed his circumstances and environment to germinate ideas in his mind

that would have a profound and direct impact upon Wisconsin and the United States. Commons

and the other Progressives highlight for us the point when history and progress were no longer

driven by providence or chance. Progress began to be “seen as resulting from human actions

increasingly informed by rational planning.”38 Many today would argue that economists,

historians, philosophers or professors have a responsibility to remain neutral or at least non-

partisan; contrarily, Commons created a new field of economics, Institutional Economics, and

applied a great lesson of life: ideas without action are nothing; ideas with implementation change

a community, a State, a country or the world.

37
Ibid., 143.
38
Breisach, Historiography, 316.

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