John R. Commons

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John R. Commons
File:John R Commons 001.jpg
John R. Commons
Born (1862-10-13)October 13, 1862
Hollansburg, Ohio
Died May 11, 1945(1945-05-11) (aged 82)
Fort Lauderdale, Florida
Nationality American
Field Institutional economics, labor history
School or tradition
Institutional economics
Influences Richard T. Ely
Henry Dunning Macleod
Influenced Edwin E. Witte
Gunnar Myrdal
Herbert Simon
Oliver Williamson
Herbert A. Simon

John Rogers Commons (/ˈkɑːmənz/; 1862–1945) was an American institutional economist, progressive and labor historian at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.


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. After graduating from Oberlin College, Commons earned his PhD at Johns Hopkins University, where he studied under Richard T. Ely.[1] After appointments at Oberlin and Indiana University, Commons began teaching at Syracuse University in 1895.[2]

In spring 1899 Syracuse dismissed him as a radical.[3] Eventually Commons re-entered academia at the University of Wisconsin in 1904.[1]

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.[4] He was an advocate of temperance legislation and was active in the national Prohibition Party.[4] By his Wisconsin years, Commons' scholarship had become less moralistic and more empirical, however.


Commons believed that carefully crafted legislation could create social change; this 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. In this analysis, 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.[5] This 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. In Commons' view, institutional economics added collective control of individual transactions to existing economic theory.[6] Commons considered the Scottish economist Henry Dunning Macleod to be the "originator" of Institutional economics.[7]

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.

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 which 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

John Commons died 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.[8]

His former home, now known as the John R. Commons House, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.[9][10]


  • "...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
Co-authored works
  • Commons, John R. and Andrews, J. B. Principles of Labor Legislation. New York: Harper and Bros., 4th edn 1916. (;
  • 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


  1. 1.0 1.1 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.
  3. 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
  4. 4.0 4.1 Hoeveler, "John R. Commons," pg. 85.
  5. 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
  6. 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, 69(2): 840–866, 2010.
  7. Commons, John Rogers (1990). Institutional Economics: Its Place in Political Economy. New Brunswick, N.J., U.S.A: Transaction Publishers. p. 399. ISBN 0-88738-797-7.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. The John R. Commons Room on the 8th floor of the Sociology building, and the John R. Commons Club in the Economics department


  • Barbash, Jack. "John R. Commons: Pioneer of Labor Economics," Monthly Labor Review 112:5 (May 1989) [1]
  • Coats, A.W. "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, Vol.1, 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) 18(3):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