San José State University
Department of Economics
Thayer Watkins
Silicon Valley
& Tornado Alley



John Rogers Commons was born in 1862 in Ohio near its border with Indiana and his family later moved to Indiana where Commons grew up. Commons' father had a harness-making business but he tried editing a newspaper and liked it so much he made newspaper editing his profession.

After graduation from high school Commons tried teaching elementary school but the experience was so unpleasant he quit and vowed to never teach again. After some other unsuccessful jobs his family raised enough money in 1882 to send him to Oberlin College. Oberlin was politically and socially radical for the time. Commons was not a particularly good student. His mediocre performance seem to be due to a lack of intellectual discipline rather than a lack of ability. Commons tended to get wrapped up in one topic and devote all of his attention to a minor matter to the detriment of his overall studies. After doing poorly on a Greek examination he had what he described as a nervous breakdown. He said it was as though a strong blow from outside hit the inside of his head and he could hardly walk home. He spent three months wandering through the woods. His family got him low-key jobs to help him recover.

Despite his poor showings his professors chose not to delay his graduation. After Oberlin Commons decided to go to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. Commons chose Johns Hopkins in large part because Richard T. Ely was teaching there. Ely had studied economics in Germany and was bringing the German Historical School's approach to economics to America.

Two trustees of Oberlin loaned Commons the money to start his graduate work at Johns Hopkins. After completing two years of course work Commons received a teaching appointment at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. On the strength of that job offer he got married.

At Wesleyan, Commons was not successful at teaching orthodox economics and was told that he would not be rehired. This announcement came just at the time Common's wife was ready to give birth to their first child. Shortly thereafter he was notified that he would have to spend another year in residence at Johns Hopkins in order to get his doctorate degree.

Through his friends he was able to get an appointment to Oberlin College, but left there after one year to take a higher paying position at the University of Indiana. At Indiana Commons taught economics and sociology and his interests were more toward the sociology courses. He left Indiana after he announced to the administration that he had a job offer from Syracuse University in New York and was strongly urged to accept it. He had been at Indiana only one year.

Commons warned the administration at Syracuse that he was a radical and a supporter of radical causes. The chancellor of Syracuse said that that was all right as long as he was not an "obnoxious socialist." Commons did not think he was "obnoxious" in his radicalism but the administration thught differently. He was dismissed because the administration felt that his presence on the faculty discouraged people from making gifts to the university.

Commons unexpectly got a job preparing an index number series for wholesale prices. The index number series was intended to support the need for the expansion of the money supply through government purchase of silver. When the statistics failed to provide that support the job was eliminated.

Commons then found a position with the U.S. Industrial Commission to complete a study on immigration. This work marked the beginning of Commons' specialization in labor economics and labor unions.

As a result of the stress Commons suffered while completing the report on immigration he had another of his neuro-intestinal breakdowns and he needed months to recuperate.

Upon recovery Commons secured a position with the National Civics Federation doing research on taxation and labor-management reconciliation. In 1904 Commons received an offer of an academic appointment at the University of Wisconsin to teach labor economics. The offer came through Richard T. Ely whom had been hired away from Johns Hopkins by the University of Wisconsin.

Commons' association with the University of Wisconsin at Madison was the most fruitful of his life. This fruitfulness came as a result of the relationship between the University and the Progressive Party administration of Robert M. LaFollette, Sr. LaFollette called upon the faculty at the University of Wisconsin, including especially Commons, to provide advice and recommendations for policy and legislation. LaFollette made Wisconsin the forerunner in governmental reform known as the Progressive Era. Commons was given responsibility for doing research and formulating policy for three major area of reform:

In the cases of safety regulation and workmen's compensation and public utilities regulation, administrative commissions were created.

Despite his poor showings his professors chose not to delay his graduation. After Oberlin Commons decided to go to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. Commons chose Johns Hopkins in large part because Richard T. Ely was teaching there. Ely had studied economics in Germany and was bringing the German Historical School's approach to economics to America.

Two trustees of Oberlin loaned Commons e competence for their job and were protected from being fired because of political affiliation.

Commons was effective in his promotion of such reform legislation because relied upon the Legislative Reference program at the University of Wisconsin and because he was a skilled pollitical activist in developing broad support for his programs. The Legislative Reference program was a library and data base for use in drafting legislative proposals. If amateurs drafted the legislation it would more than likely be flawed with loopholes or even worse would end up producing a result contrary to that which was intended. The legislators, even those with a legal background, usually did not have the expertise necessary to draft solid legislation. Often legislators relied upon the lawyers of lobbying groups to draft legislation. This was not usually in the best interests of the public. The Legislative Reference program gave governmental advisors such as Commons the resources helpful in preparing legally sound versions of legislative proposals. This enable those who formulated the policy of the measures to draft the language of the legislation rather than rely upon lawyers to translate the advisors ideas into legal form.

Commons belonged to a great many organizations and he became quite skilled in orchestrating support for his programs. For example, to obtain backing for safety regulation and workmen's compensation he solicited voluntary adoption by sympathetic employers. After these employers had shown the workability of the program Commons then campaigned for the support of other employers on the basis that the payment of premiums for workmen's compensation was a substitute for litigation costs associated with employee injuries. At legislative hearings Commons would bring employers as well as union representatives to testify as to the advisability of the proposed legislation.

Commons researched and wrote the history of the American labor movement. He more or less inherited the task of writing this history from Richard T. Ely who felt he needed someone else to carry on this work. Commons also had the benefit of the files and records of Carroll Wright, a commissioner of the Department of Labor who was writing a history of labor for the Carnegie Institute. When Wright died before completing his history the Carnegie Institute turned over his files to Commons.

Commons also elicted the help of his students at the University of Wisconsin to research and write labor histories. Commons was generous in giving credit and assistance to those students. He also allowed them to pursue any thesis they wanted as long as it was grounded on facts. For example, Selig Perlman came to the U.S. intent upon studying the American labor movement so as to prove that Marxist theory was correct. Commons told him as a student that he could reach any conclusion he felt was based upon the facts. Perlman after much research concluded that Marx was wrong and gave up his Marxist orientation. Perlman later became a major figure in the institutionalist approach created by Commons. Other students of Commons went on to become important figures in government and were quite grateful to Commons for the training he gave them.

Commons' relation with Robert LaFollette eventually soured. LaFollette won election to the U.S. Senate and was a figure of national fame and notoriety. When the U.S. entered World War I LaFollette stated his opposition forcefully. Some called him a traitor and some called for his expulsion from the Senate. Commons disagreed with LaFollette's antiwar stance and went so far as to sign a petition for removing LaFollette from the Senate. LaFollette weathered the storm and later had a reconciliation with Commons but he never could really forgive Commons' signing of that petition.

Commons' theoretical writings were generally a failure. Rigorous thinking and exposition were not Commons' strong points. Generally this work of Commons has had no influence in economics.

But Commons' accomplishments in the field of economic policy are outstanding. Some of these policy accomplishments that Commons was responsible for or had a substantial role in developing are:

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