John R. Commons, 1862-1945 | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

John R. Commons, 1862-1945

The Spiritual Father of Social Security

John R. Commons, 1862-1945 | Wisconsin Historical Society
Enlarge John R. Commons in Suit, 1895 ca. WHI 35530.

John R. Commons in Suit, 1895 ca.

View the original source document: WHI 35530

An influential economist, reformer and labor historian, John R. Commons drafted innovative social welfare, labor and economic legislation that made Wisconsin a national model for reform. Known as the "spiritual father" of Social Security, most progressive social and labor legislation enacted in the 20th century can be attributed to him or his students and colleagues.

Born in Hollandsburg, Ohio, on October 13, 1862, Commons grew up in Indiana. After graduating from high school, Commons taught elementary school and tried a number of other jobs until his family raised enough money to send him to Oberlin College. He graduated in 1888 and decided to attend Johns Hopkins University to study under the direction of economist Richard T. Ely.

In 1890, Commons became an instructor of political economy at Wesleyan University but lost his position two years later. He got a job teaching sociology at Oberlin but left in 1893 to teach at Indiana University and then at Syracuse in 1895. In 1901 Commons was appointed to the U.S. Industrial Commission to complete a study on immigration. The following year he became the assistant secretary of the National Civics Federation, where he researched taxation and labor-management reconciliation.

Commons came to Wisconsin in 1904 to accept a position in labor economics at the University of Wisconsin. The offer had come from his old mentor, Richard T. Ely, who had been hired away from Johns Hopkins in 1892. Commons was an active participant in the affairs of his day, serving 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). He was also associate director of the National Bureau of Economic Research (1920-1928) and chairman of the Unemployment Insurance Board of the Chicago Trades (1923-1925).

As part of the Wisconsin Idea, Commons worked closely with Robert M. La Follette to draft the Wisconsin Civil Service Law in 1905 and the Public Utilities Law in 1907. Commons researched and wrote policy for the regulation of workplace safety and for unemployment compensation. His students, Edwin Witte and Arthur Altmeyer, went on to create the Social Security program in the 1930s.

Recognized for his scholarship in labor history and economics, Commons advocated collective bargaining and pragmatic compromise over rigid, uncompromising views. Although trained as an economist, Commons believed that economics alone was insufficient to explain the behavior of working people, so he turned to history, sociology, psychology and law to gain a broader picture. His 10-volume "Documentary History of American Industrial Society" (1910-1911) and four-volume "History of Labor in the United States" (1918-1935) established his reputation in the field and advanced 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. He died on May 11, 1945, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.