Richard T. Ely

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Richard T. Ely
Richard T. Ely circa 1910.jpg
Ely around 1910, at the University of Wisconsin
Born(1854-04-13)April 13, 1854
DiedOctober 4, 1943(1943-10-04) (aged 89)
Resting place Forest Hill Cemetery
Academic career
Field Political economy
Karl Knies
Johann Bluntschli
Other notable students

Richard Theodore Ely (April 13, 1854 – October 4, 1943) was an American economist, author, and leader of the Progressive movement who called for more government intervention to reform what they perceived as the injustices of capitalism, especially regarding factory conditions, compulsory education, child labor, and labor unions.


Ely is best remembered as a founder and the first Secretary of the American Economic Association, as a founder and secretary of the Christian Social Union, and as the author of a series of widely read books on the organized labor movement, socialism, and other social issues.


Early years

Ely was born in 1854 in Ripley, New York, the oldest child of Ezra Sterling and Harriet Gardner (Mason) Ely. [1] [2] He grew up on his family's 90-acre farm near Fredonia, New York, carrying wood, milking cows, churning butter, and picking rock in the fields. He later recalled that life on the farm taught him much. [3] Richard's father was a self-taught engineer and young Richard helped him lay out a railroad in Pennsylvania. [2] However, Richard's father was not a successful farmer, relying too much on questionable ideas from popular farm magazines rather than local experience. Fluctuating prices further complicated farming. [3]

Richard's father was a devout Presbyterian who avoided tobacco, allowed no work or play on Sunday, and refused to grow hops because they would have been used to make beer. Yet his stern father read poetry and studied Latin. Ely's mother painted and taught art in the local teachers' college. Ely transferred his affiliation to the Episcopal Church in college, and through his life remained devout and active. [3]

Education and career

Ely attended Columbia University in New York City, from which he received a bachelor's degree in 1876 and a master's degree in 1879. [4] [5] He received a Doctor of Philosophy degree in economics from the University of Heidelberg in that same year, [6] where he had studied with Karl Knies, who belonged to the historical school of economics, [7] and Johann Kaspar Bluntschli. [8] He later received a Doctorate of Laws from Hobart College, receiving the degree in 1892. [7]

Ely was a professor and head of the Department of Political Economy at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland from 1881 to 1892. [9]

In 1885, Ely was a founder of the American Economic Association, serving until 1892 as the group's Secretary. [9] He later served a term as President of the organization, holding that position from 1899 to 1901. [9] The AEA Distinguished Lecture series was formerly known as the Richard T. Ely Lecture; it was renamed in 2020. [10] Ely also founded Lambda Alpha International in 1930. Its purposes included the encouragement of the study of land economics in universities; the promotion of a closer affiliation between its members and the professional world of land economics; and the furtherance of the highest ideals of scholarship and honesty in business and the universities. Richard T. Ely is known as the "Father of Land Economics".

In April 1891, Ely was a founder and the first Secretary of the Christian Social Union, a membership organization advocating the application of Christian principles to the social problems of the world. [11]

From 1892 until 1925, he was professor of Political Economy and director of the School of Economics, Political Science, and History at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. In 1894 an unsuccessful attempt was made by Oliver Elwin Wells, Superintendent of Public Instruction of Wisconsin and ex officio member of the University's Board of Regents to expel Ely from his chair at Wisconsin for purportedly teaching socialistic doctrines. This effort failed, with the Wisconsin state Board of Regents issuing a ringing proclamation in favor of academic freedom, acknowledging the necessity for freely "sifting and winnowing" among competing claims of truth. [12]

In 1906, Ely co-founded the American Association for Labor Legislation (AALL) with other economists. [13]

In 1925, Ely moved to Northwestern University in Chicago, where he accepted a position as professor of economics. He remained at Northwestern until his retirement in 1933. [9]

Political views

Although regarded as a radical by his detractors on the political right, [14] Ely was in fact opposed to socialism. "I condemn alike," he declared, "that individualism that would allow the state no room for industrial activity, and that socialism which would absorb in the state the functions of the individual." [15] He argued that socialism was not needed, and "the alternative of socialism is our complex socio-economic order, which is based, in the main, upon private property." He warned that the proper "balance between private and public enterprise" is "menaced by socialism, on the one hand, and by plutocracy, on the other." [16]

Ely's critique of socialism made him a political target of the socialists themselves. In his 1910 book, Ten Blind Leaders of the Blind, Arthur Morrow Lewis acknowledged that Ely was a "fair opponent" who had "done much to obtain a hearing for [socialism] among the unreasonable", but charged he was merely one of those "bourgeois intellectuals" who were "not sufficiently intellectual to grasp the nature of our position." [17]

Ely was a product of the German historical school with an emphasis on evolution to new forms, and never accepted the marginalist revolution that was transforming economic theory in Britain and the U.S. He was strongly influenced by Herbert Spencer and strongly favored competition over monopoly or state ownership, with regulation to "secure its benefits" and "mitigate its evils". What was needed was "to raise its moral and ethical level." [18] However, whereas Spencer believed that free competition was best served by deregulation and a smaller state, Ely believed that more regulation and a more interventionist state was the policy to follow. Also on social Darwinism, Spencer believed that the state should not get involved in supporting one ethnic group over another — whereas Ely believed that the state should support white "Nordic" people against people of other races (in line with the opinions of his colleagues at the University of Wisconsin, Edward Alsworth Ross and Charles R. Van Hise).[ citation needed ]

Ely favored eugenics, arguing the "unfit" should be kept from reproducing. [19] Ely argued that blacks were "for the most part grownup children, and should be treated as such." [19] Ely was an advocate for redlining (which entails racial segregation and discrimination in real estate), and has been considered influential in the institutionalization of redlining practices in the United States. [20]

Ely did support labor unions and opposed child labor, as did many leaders of the Progressive Movement, and also some conservatives such as Mark Hanna. Ely was close to the Social Gospel movement, emphasizing that the Gospel of Christ applied to society as a whole, not merely to individuals; he worked hard to convince churches to advocate on behalf of workers. Ely strongly influenced his friend Walter Rauschenbusch, a leading spokesman for the Social Gospel.

During World War I, Ely worked to build popular support for the American war effort, taking part in the activities of the League to Enforce Peace. He headed the committee of arrangements for a "Win the War Convention" held in Madison from November 8–10, 1918. [21] Ely's political activities during World War I included his campaign against Senator Robert M. La Follette. Although La Follette was a Progressive in politics, he did not support the war, and so Ely regarded him as unfit for office. Ely tried to have him removed from the United States Senate and end his influence in Wisconsin politics.

Ely's grave (left) at Forest Hill Cemetery Grave of Richard Theodore Ely (1854-1943) at Forest Hill Cemetery (Madison, Wisconsin).jpg
Ely's grave (left) at Forest Hill Cemetery

Ely edited Macmillan's Citizen's Library of Economics, Politics, and Sociology and its Social Science Textbook Series and Crowell's Library of Economics and Politics, and was a frequent contributor to periodical literature, both scientific and popular. [22]

Death and legacy

The Richard T. Ely House in Madison, Wisconsin Ely House.jpg
The Richard T. Ely House in Madison, Wisconsin

Richard Ely died in Old Lyme, Connecticut on October 4, 1943, and was buried at Forest Hill Cemetery in Madison. A large portion of his library was purchased by Louisiana State University and is now a part of LSU's Special Collections division. Ely's papers are housed at the Wisconsin Historical Society.

The American Economic Association instituted the annual "Richard T. Ely Lecture" in 1960 in his memory, which, unlike the Association's other honors is also open to non-American economists. It was renamed the AEA Distinguished Lecture series in 2020. [23]

His former home, now known as the Richard T. Ely House, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. [24]

The television series Profiles in Courage did an episode in 1964 titled "Richard T. Ely" about the "sifting and winnowing" incident. Ely was played by Dan O'Herlihy; Wells by Edward Asner; and Ely's attorney, former Congressman Burr Jones, by Leonard Nimoy. [25]


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  1. Sterling, Edward Boker (February 15, 2019). "The Sterling genealogy". Grafton Press via Google Books.
  2. 1 2 "The National Cyclopedia of American Biography ... Vol IX". J. T. White. 1899 via Google Books.
  3. 1 2 3 "Richard Theodore Ely". Retrieved May 17, 2022.
  4. Rothbard, Murray N. (March 22, 2002). "Richard T. Ely: paladin of the welfare-warfare state. (Cameo)". Independent Review. 6 (4): 585–590.
  5. Columbia University (1900). Officers and graduates of Columbia university : originally the college of the province of New York known as King's college : general catalogue, 1754-1900. University of California Libraries. New York : The University.
  6. Columbia University (1900). Officers and graduates of Columbia university : originally the college of the province of New York known as King's college : general catalogue, 1754-1900. University of California Libraries. New York : The University.
  7. 1 2 Gannon, Francis X. (1973). Biographical Dictionary of the Left. Vol. IV. Boston: Western Islands. p. 355.
  8. Ely, Richard T. (1938). Ground Under Our Feet . New York: Macmillan. p.  43.
  9. 1 2 3 4 Gannon 1973, p. 356.
  10. "AEA Distinguished Lecture Series".
  11. Gannon 1973, p. 359.
  12. "Sifting and Winnowing". January 1998.
  13. Moss, David A. (1994). "Kindling a flame under federalism: Progressive reformers, corporate elites, and the phosphorus match campaign of 1909-1912". Business History Review. 68 (2): 244–275. doi:10.2307/3117443. JSTOR   3117443. S2CID   155436193 . Retrieved May 2, 2022.
  14. See, for example, the editorializing comments in his biography published by the John Birch Society in 1973: Francis X. Gannon, "Richard T. Ely" in Biographical Dictionary of the Left: Volume IV, pg. 357 and passim.
  15. Quoted in Sidney Fine, "Richard T. Ely, Forerunner of Progressivism, 1880–1901", The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, vol. 37, no. 4 (March 1951), pg. 611.
  16. Ely, Richard T. (1911). Studies in the Evolution of Industrial Society. pp. 464, 468, 237.
  17. Lewis, Arthur M. (1912). Ten Blind Leaders of the Blind. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Co. pp. 65, 78.
  18. Ely, Studies in the Evolution of Industrial Society, p. 97.
  19. 1 2 Alex Tabarrok (December 8, 2016). "Richard T. Ely, Alt-Right Founder of the American Economic Association". Marginal Revolution. Retrieved June 4, 2020.
  20. Winling, LaDale C; Michney, Todd M (June 1, 2021). "The Roots of Redlining: Academic, Governmental, and Professional Networks in the Making of the New Deal Lending Regime". Journal of American History. 108 (1): 42–69. doi: 10.1093/jahist/jaab066 . ISSN   0021-8723.
  21. Ely to A.M. Simons in Milwaukee, November 12, 1918. Simons Papers, box 2, folder 2.
  22. Gannon, A Biographical Dictionary of the Left: Volume 4, pg. 361.
  23. AEA Distinguished Lecture Series.
  24. "Ely House Historical Marker".
  25. Profiles in Courage (tv series): "Richard T. Ely": Full Cast & Crew
  26. Ramage, B.J., ‘Dr. Ely on Social Reform’, The Sewanee Review 3 (1894), pp. 105-110.

Further reading

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