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John R. Commons

john r commons, john r commons biography
John Rogers Commons /ˈkɑːmənz/; October 13, 1862 – May 11, 1945 was an American institutional economist, Georgist, progressive and labor historian at the University of Wisconsin–Madison


  • 1 Early years
  • 2 Career
  • 3 Death and legacy
  • 5 Publications
  • 6 See also
  • 7 Notes
  • 8 References
  • 9 External links

Early years

John R Commons was born in Hollansburg, Ohio on October 13, 1862 Commons had a religious upbringing which led him to be an advocate for social justice early in life Commons was considered a poor student and suffered from a mental illness while studying He was allowed to graduate without finishing because of the potential seen in his intense determination and curiosity At this time, Commons became a follower of Henry George's 'single tax' economics He carried this 'Georgist' or 'Ricardian' approach to economics, with a focus on land and monopoly rents, throughout the rest of his life, including a proposal for income taxes with higher rates on land rents

After graduating from Oberlin College, Commons did two years of graduate studies at Johns Hopkins University, where he studied under Richard T Ely, but left without a degree After appointments at Oberlin and Indiana University, Commons began teaching at Syracuse University in 1895

In spring 1899, Syracuse dismissed him as a radical Eventually Commons re-entered academia at the University of Wisconsin in 1904

Commons' early work exemplified his desire to unite Christian ideals with the emerging social sciences of sociology and economics He was a frequent contributor to Kingdom magazine, was a founder of the American Institute for Christian Sociology, and authored a book in 1894 called Social Reform and the Church He was an advocate of temperance legislation and was active in the national Prohibition Party By his Wisconsin years, Commons' scholarship had become less moralistic and more empirical, however


Commons believed that carefully crafted legislation could create social change; that view led him to be known as a socialist radical and incrementalist

Commons is best known for developing an analysis of collective action by the state and other institutions, which he saw as essential to understanding economics

He continued the strong American tradition in institutional economics by such figures as the economist and social theorist Thorstein Veblen His notion of transaction is one of the most important contribution to Institutional Economics The institutional theory was closely related to his remarkable successes in fact-finding and drafting legislation on a wide range of social issues for the state of Wisconsin He drafted legislation establishing Wisconsin's worker's compensation program, the first of its kind in the United States

In 1934, Commons published Institutional Economics, which laid out his view that institutions were made up of collective actions that, along with conflict of interests, defined the economy He believed that institutional economics added collective control of individual transactions to existing economic theory Commons considered the Scottish economist Henry Dunning Macleod to be the "originator" of Institutional economics

Commons was a contributor to The Pittsburgh Survey, an 1907 sociological investigation of a single American city His graduate student, John A Fitch, wrote The Steel Workers, a classic depiction of a key industry in early 20th-century America It was one of six key texts to come out of the survey Edwin E Witte, later known as the "father of social security" also did his PhD at the University of Wisconsin–Madison under Commons

He was a leading advocate of proportional representation in the United States, writing a book on the subject in 1907 and serving as vice-president of the Proportional Representation League

Commons undertook two major studies of the history of labor unions in the United States Beginning in 1910, he edited A Documentary History of American Industrial Society, a large work that preserved many original-source documents of the American labor movement Almost as soon as that work was complete, Commons began editing History of Labor in the United States, a narrative work which built on the previous 10-volume documentary history

John R Commons

Death and legacy

He died on May 11, 1945

Today, Commons's contribution to labor history is considered equal to his contributions to the theory of institutional economics He also made valuable contributions to the history of economic thought, especially with regard to collective action His racist writing is not well known today, and he is honored at the University of Wisconsin in Madison with rooms and clubs named for him

His former home, now known as the John R Commons House, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places


  • "An institution is defined as collective action in control, liberation and expansion of individual action" —"Institutional Economics" American Economic Review, vol 21 December 1931, pp 648–657
  • "But the smallest unit of the institutional economists is a unit of activity — a transaction, with its participants Transactions intervene between the labor of the classic economists and the pleasures of the hedonic economists, simply because it is society that controls access to the forces of nature, and transactions are, not the "exchange of commodities," but the alienation and acquisition, between individuals, of the rights of property and liberty created by society, which must therefore be negotiated between the parties concerned before labor can produce, or consumers can consume, or commodities be physically exchanged" —"Institutional Economics" American Economic Review, vol 21 December 1931, pp 648–657
  • "Other races of immigrants, by contact with our institutions, have been civilized—the negro has only been domesticated" —Races and Immigrants in America, pg 41
  • "It is an easy and patriotic matter for the lawyer, minister, professor, employer, or investor, placed above the arena of competition, to proclaim the equal right of all races to American opportunities; to avow his own willingness to give way should even a better Chinaman, Hindu, or Turk come in to take his place; and to rebuke the racial hatred of those who resist this displacement His patriotism and world-wide brotherhood cost him and his family nothing, and indeed they add to his profits and leisure" —Races and Immigrants in America, pgs 115-16
  • "The Chinese and Japanese are perhaps the most industrious of all races, while the Chinese are the most docile The Japanese excel in imitativeness, but are not as reliable as the Chinese Neither race, so far as their immigrant representatives are concerned, possesses the originality and ingenuity which characterize the competent American and British mechanic" —Races and Immigrants in America, pg 131
  • "In the entire circuit of the globe those races which have developed under a tropical sun are found to be indolent and fickle From the standpoint of survival of the fittest, such vices are virtues, for severe and continuous exertion under tropical conditions bring prostration and predisposition to disease Therefore, if such races are to adopt that industrious life which is a second nature to races of the temperate zones, it is only through some form of compulsion The negro could not possibly have found a place in American industry had he come as a free man" —Races and Immigrants in America, pg 136


Solely authored works
  • The Distribution of Wealth New York: Macmillan, 1893
  • Social Reform and the Church New York: Thomas Y Crowell, 1894
  • Proportional Representation New York: Crowell, 1896 Second Edition: Macmillan, 1907
  • City Government Albany, NY: University of the State of New York Extension Dept, 1898
  • Races and Immigrants in America New York: Macmillan, 1907
  • Horace Greeley and the Working Class Origins of the Republican Party Boston: Ginn and Co, 1909
  • Labor and Administration New York: Macmillan, 1913
  • Industrial Goodwill New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co, 1919
  • Trade Unionism and Labor Problems Boston: Ginn and Co, 1921
  • Legal Foundations of Capitalism New York: Macmillan, 1924
  • Institutional Economics New York: Macmillan, 1934
  • Myself Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1934
Co-authored works
  • Commons, John R and Andrews, J B Principles of Labor Legislation New York: Harper and Bros, 4th edn 1916 archiveorg; questiacom
  • Commons, John R, et al History of Labor in the United States Vols 1–4 New York: Macmillan, 1918–1935
  • Commons, John R, et al Industrial Government New York: Macmillan, 1921
  • Commons, John R; Parsons, Kenneth H; and Perlman, Selig The Economics of Collective Action New York: Macmillan, 1950
Edited works
  • Commons, John R Ed Trade Unionism and Labor Problems Boston: Ginn and Co, 1905
  • Commons, John R Ed A Documentary History of American Industrial Society In 10 Volumes Cleveland, Ohio: Arthur H Clark Co, 1910

See also

  • US labor law
  • UK labour law


  1. ^ Rutherford, Malcolm 2006 "Wisconsin Institutionalism: John R Commons and His Students" Labor History 47 2: 161–188 doi:101080/00236560600583123 
  2. ^ Brue, Stanley 2012 The Evolution of Economic Thought PDF Supplemental Biography of John Rogers Commons for chapter 19 of the online edition of The Evolution of Economic Thought ed Cengage Learning Retrieved 1 September 2014 http://wwwcengagecom/resource_uploads/downloads/0324321457_65788pdf
  3. ^ Commons, John R "The Distribution of Wealth", 1893 https://booksgooglecom/booksid=dhVEAAAAIAAJ
  4. ^ Commons, John R "Institutional Economics: Its Place In Political Economy" Vol 2 Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1959 https://booksgooglecom/booksid=KnmqaCLGfHEC
  5. ^ Henry George's Resurrection of the Science of Political Economy Part Three Edward J Dodson http://cooperative-individualismorg/dodson-edward_henry-george-resurrection-of-political-economy-1996-03htm
  6. ^ Harter, Lafayette G John R Commons, His Assault on Laissez-faire Corvallis: Oregon State UP, 1962 Pages 21, 32, 36, 38 https://booksgooglecom/books/about/John_R_Commonshtmlid=KgDWAAAAIAAJ
  7. ^ "Two Centuries of Economic Thought on Taxation of Land Rents" In Richard Lindholm and Arthur Lynn, Jr, eds, Land Value Taxation in Thought and Practice Madison: Univ of Wisconsin Press, 1982, pp 151-96 http://wwwmasongaffneyorg/publications/K142_Centuries_Thought_Land_TaxationCVpdf
  8. ^ a b J David Hoeveler, Jr, "John R Commons," Historical Dictionary of the Progressive Era, 1890–1920 Revised Edition Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1988; pp 85–86
  9. ^ Harter, Lafayette G 1962 John R Commons: His Assault on Laissez-Faire Corvallis: Oregon State University Press pp 19–20 
  10. ^ Lampman, Robert J, ed 1993 Economists at Wisconsin, 1892–1992 p 22 
  11. ^ http://wwwwisconsinhistoryorg/topics/commons/
  12. ^ Richard A Gonce 2002, "John R Commons's "Five Big Years": 1899–1904", The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Vol 61, No 4 Oct, 2002, pp i+755–777, p 756
  13. ^ a b Hoeveler, "John R Commons," pg 85
  14. ^ Nicita A and M Vatiero 2007, “The Contract and the Market: Towards a Broader Notion of Transaction” Studi e Note di Economia, 1:7–22 Link
  15. ^ Vatiero, Massimiliano "From W N Hohfeld to J R Commons, and Beyond A "Law and Economics" Enquiry on Jural Relations", American Journal of Economics and Sociology, 692: 840–866, 2010
  16. ^ Commons, John Rogers 1990 Institutional Economics: Its Place in Political Economy New Brunswick, NJ, USA: Transaction Publishers p 399 ISBN 0-88738-797-7 
  17. ^
  18. ^ The John R Commons Room on the 8th floor of the Sociology building, and the John R Commons Club in the Economics department
  19. ^ http://wwwwisconsinhistoryorg/hp/register/viewSummaryasprefnum=85000572
  20. ^ http://landmarkhuntercom/159571-john-commons-house/


  • Barbash, Jack "John R Commons: Pioneer of Labor Economics," Monthly Labor Review 112:5 May 1989
  • Coats, AW "John R Commons as a Historian of Economics: The Quest for the Antecedents of Collective Action" in Research in the History of Economic Thought and Methodology, Vol1, 1983
  • Commons, John R Myself Reprint ed Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1964
  • Dorfman, Joseph The Economic Mind in American Civilization: 1918–1933 Vols 4 and 5 Reissue ed New York: Augustus M Kelley Publications, 1969 ISBN 0-678-00540-0
  • Fitch, John A The Steel Workers Reprint ed Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1910 1989 ISBN 0-8229-6091-5
  • Parson, Kenneth "John R Commons Point of View," Journal of Land and Public Utility Economics Land Economics 183:245–60 1942
  • Samuels, Warren "Reader's Guide to John R Commons Legal Foundations of Capitalism," in Warren Samuels, ed Research in the History of Economic Thought and Methodology, Archival Supplement 5, Amsterdam: Elsevier 1996
  • Tichi, Cecelia "John R Commons: The Pittsburgh Survey," in "Civic Passions: Seven Who Launched Progressive America And What They Teach Us" Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009
  • Kemp, Thomas Progress and Reform, Saarbrücken, Germany: VDM Verlag, 2009
  • Fiorito Luca, and Massimiliano Vatiero 2011, "Beyond Legal Relations: Wesley Newcomb Hohfeld's Influence on American Institutionalism" Journal of Economics Issues, 45 1: 199–222

External links

  • Media related to John R Commons at Wikimedia Commons
  • Works written by or about John Rogers Commons at Wikisource
  • "John R Commons, 1862–1945," History of Economic Thought, The New School
  • Thayer Watkins, "John R Commons and His Economic Philosophy," San Jose State University
  • Works by John R Commons at Project Gutenberg
  • Works by or about John R Commons at Internet Archive

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