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Champions of the "Wisconsin Idea": John R. Commons

Written by Joseph A. Ranney, Attorney at Law
Phone: (608) 283-5612

John Commons was an economist, not a lawyer or legislator, and he considered himself "not fitted for the rough and tumble of practical men." He was also a notable eccentric. Nonetheless he was one of the great practical reformers of the Progressive era, and his influence can be seen in many of the Progressives' reforms.

Commons was born in Indiana in 1862. As a young man he took an interest in several of the leading reform movements of the late 1800s, including temperance and socialism. After graduating from Oberlin College in 1888 he studied economics with Richard T. Ely, one of the most famous American economists of the time who later spent much of his career at the University of Wisconsin. Commons then took a series of teaching jobs, most of which he lost quickly. He then worked as an investigator for several reform commissions. In 1904 Ely invited him to Madison to become the first head of the Bureau of Industrial Research at the university. Commons was to remain there for the rest of his life.

Commons' colorful personality and talent for promotion of his causes soon made him well known to Governor Robert LaFollette and other Progressives. In 1905 LaFollette asked him to draft the state's first civil service law. Commons was particularly proud of this law. In later years, he commented:

Without that law, and the protection which it gave to [LaFollette] and succeeding governors in making appointments, [the new] administrative commissions would soon have broken down. ... Their enactment depended on confidence, on the part of the strenuously conflicting economic interests, in the public officials to whom the administration of the law should be entrusted.

Commons also took the lead in drafting Wisconsin's first law establishing state regulation of power companies and other public utilities (1907) and a 1911 law creating tough safety requirements for workplaces and establishing the Industrial Commission (now known as the Department of Workforce Development) to enforce these requirements.

About 1920, Commons became interested in the problem of unemployment. He urged the Legislature to adopt an unemployment compensation plan and worked closely with organized labor in Wisconsin to win support for the plan. After many years of effort, he succeeded when "Fighting Bob" LaFollette's son Philip was elected governor in 1930 and Harold Groves, a Commons student, was elected to the Legislature. With LaFollette's and Groves' help Commons' plan passed, making Wisconsin the first state in the nation to have an unemployment compensation system.

Commons' achievements are all the more impressive because his personal life was filled with difficulty and tragedy. He suffered a breakdown in 1916 from overwork and required months to recover. In 1930 his son, who had suffered severe shock in World War I and had never recovered, disappeared and Commons suffered his second breakdown as a result.

Commons was saved by his sense of humor and his enduring view that life was an adventure, to be packed as full of activity and achievements as possible. Commons more than achieved that goal. He spent the last years of his work life preparing a massive history of the American labor movement, and died in 1945 at the age of 83.

Note: The views expressed in this article are the author's alone. Distributed as a public service by the Wisconsin Supreme Court in honor of the state's sesquicentennial.

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