COVID-19 Updates: In order to help reduce the increased spread of COVID-19, options for accessing our headquarters building have changed. Click here for more information.

Ely, Richard Theodore, 1854-1943 | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Ely, Richard Theodore, 1854-1943

Ely, Richard Theodore, 1854-1943 | Wisconsin Historical Society
Enlarge A studio portrait of Richard T. Ely.

Richard T. Ely, 1910

Studio portrait of Richard Ely seated in a chair wearing a suit and pince-nez. View the original source document: WHI 4763

b. Ripley, New York, April 13, 1854
d. Old Lyme, Connecticut, October 4, 1943

Richard T. Ely was a professor, economist, social reformer, and author. One of the most important figures in American economics, Ely established the University of Wisconsin's reputation as a leader in economic research. He also played a leading role in the creation of the Wisconsin Idea. Ely's major contribution as an economist lay in his refusal to accept the economic determinism of laissez-faire and classical economics, his emphasis on the relative nature of economic truth, and his insistence on the efficacy of Christian social reform. 

Early Life and Career

Born in Ripley, New York, Ely graduated from Columbia College in New York City in 1876. He received his Ph.D. from Heidelberg University in 1879. Before coming to Wisconsin, Ely taught at Johns Hopkins University (1881-1892), and lectured at Chautauqua during the summers.

Economic Philosophy

In the 1880s, he began to publish articles and books critical of both laissez-faire economics and materialist socialism. Two notable works of this period were Recent American Socialism (1884) and The Labor Movement in America (1886). In place of these deterministic philosophies, Ely advocated social reforms and evolutionary economics, ideas that became the forerunners of the theories of progressivism and the welfare state.

He accepted the German concept of a scholar's obligation to the state, and it was principally due to his efforts that the American Economic Association was organized (1885). He was secretary of this organization (1885-1892), and later president (1899-1901). He was also a member of the tax commissions of Baltimore (1885-1886) and Maryland (1886-1888).

His religious beliefs and ethical views made him an influential member of the Social Gospel movement. He was a founder and first president of the American Institute for Christian Sociology (1893), secretary of the Christian Social Union, and author of Social Aspects of Christianity (1889). His religious beliefs also led him to insist on the efficacy of Christian social reform.

Economics at the University of Wisconsin

In 1892, university president Thomas C. Chamberlin brought Ely to Wisconsin to organize and direct the School of Economics, Political Science, and History (later divided into various departments). This school, for practical purposes, represented the beginning of the university's graduate program in the social sciences. In his capacity as director, Ely recruited such notable professors as J. R. Commons, E. A. Ross, and others, who emphasized the responsibilities of the social sciences to the state and national governments, which became known as the "Wisconsin Idea." These professors also played important roles in the progressive movement.

Ely and the professors of the new school also took an active part in the university's extension program. They conducted lectures at numerous extension centers.

Later Career

Ely was first president of the American Association for Labor Legislation (1906) and sponsor of the American Bureau of Industrial Research. In 1920, he established the Institute for Research in Land Economics and Public Utilities, associated with but independent from the university. He took this organization to Northwestern University in 1925, and to New York City in 1933. He was professor of economics at Northwestern University (1925-1933), and after 1933, maintained an office in New York City and later served as professor at Columbia.

Influence and Significance

A major figure in American economics, Ely played a primary role in establishing the University of Wisconsin's reputation as a leader in economic research and in the training of graduate experts in administration, economics, and state service. Although he later became more conservative in his economic approach, Ely's major contribution as an economist lay in his refusal to accept the economic determinism of laissez-faire and classical economics. He emphasized the relative nature of economic truth.

Ely also gave the University of Wisconsin occasion to affirm its dedication to academic freedom. In 1894, Ely's interest in socialism led state superintendent of public instruction Oliver E. Wells to charge him with teaching and supporting alien and revolutionary doctrines. An investigating committee appointed by the board of regents exonerated Ely in a report which concluded with the famous affirmation of academic freedom now inscribed on a plaque affixed to the university's Bascom Hall.

[Sources: R. T. Ely, Ground under Our Feet (New York, 1938); M. Curti and V. Carstensen, Univ. of Wis. (2 vols., Madison, 1949); Miss. Valley Hist. Review, 37; R. T. Ely Papers.]