Richard Theodore Ely (April 13, 1854 – October 4, 1943) was an American economist, a pioneer of Christian socialism in America, and one of the leaders of Progressive Era movement. He believed that Church and State should not be separate but rather work together harmoniously to establish social order. Impressed by the social welfare programs he witnessed during his studies in Germany, he advocated for prohibition of child labor, public control of resources, and the development of labor unions. An influential economist in his day, Ely's legacy lies in his concern for social issues, particularly expressed in his Wisconsin Idea through which research in the social sciences was to create the theoretical foundation for the reforms that would establish the ideal human society.
Richard Theodore Ely was born in Ripley, New York, as the eldest of three children to Ezra Sterling and Harriet Gardner (Mason) Ely. His father was a strict Protestant, following rigorous religious practices and demanding utmost discipline. These early experiences influenced Ely’s later insistence on discipline in every sphere of life.
At the age of eighteen, after receiving his basic education at Fredonia, New York, Ely entered Dartmouth College. He later transferred to Columbia University, where he graduated in 1876. Ely spent three years on graduate studies in Germany, and in 1879 received his Ph.D. from the University of Heidelberg. In 1881, he was appointed the chair of Political Economy at Johns Hopkins University, a duty he carried until 1892. At Johns Hopkins, Ely tried to introduce the German historical method into teaching economics, a move which resulted in serious conflict with a more conservative wing, led by Simon Newcomb, who finally managed to get Ely dismissed from Johns Hopkins in 1892.
Ely was married on June 25, 1884, to Anna Anderson.
In 1885 Ely, together with R.A. Seligman (1861-1939), John Bates Clark, and Henry C. Adams (1851-1921), founded the American Economic Association (AEA), and Ely served as its first secretary from 1885 to 1892. The purpose of the association was to introduce German Historicism into American academia, as well as to provide a counterbalance for the conservative laissez-faire economists grouped in the Political Economy Club. However, soon after its formation the AEA became a battleground between old school conservatives and new school historicists.
In 1892, Ely moved to Wisconsin, where he became Director of the School of Economics, Political Science, and History at the University of Wisconsin. In 1894, an unsuccessful attempt was made to depose him from his chair for teaching socialistic doctrines. This attack on Ely was led by a former professor at the university, Oliver E. Wells, resulting in the famous and highly publicized trial. In the end, Ely was cleared of all accusations, and the case had become a public example of the attack on academic freedom.
Ely stayed at Wisconsin for the next twenty years, producing numerous works on economic and social questions. He grew to be a distinguished scholar, his articles published in almost every large journal in the country. His Wisconsin Idea, realized through the work of John R. Commons, gave birth to numerous governmental measures and policies in the state of Wisconsin.
He also edited Macmillan's Citizen's Library of Economics, Politics, and Sociology, and was a frequent contributor to both scientific and popular periodical literature. He served as president of the American Economic Association from 1899 to 1901.
During World War I, Ely became a fanatic patriot. He was a strong advocate for the war, calling for discipline at conscription and the suppression of disloyalty at home. He also widely supported the Spanish-American War. During World War I, he organized numerous campaigns against his old ally, Governor Robert M. La Follette, who opposed American engagement in the war. He even called for the abolition of academic freedom during the war, marking all who opposed the war as traitors. Later, during the Great Depression of the 1930s Ely called for the formation of a volunteer army, made up of young men, whose work could, in Ely’s opinion, help the economy and alleviate the crisis.
After La Follette was elected to the Senate in 1924, and he regained his influence on the University of Wisconsin, Ely decided to leave. He spent the next eight years, from 1925 to 1933, teaching at Northwestern University. His influence however, was already long dissipated.
He died in Old Lyme, Connecticut, in 1943.
Ely was one of the leaders of the Progressive Movement in America, contributing to numerous social policies and reform legislation, particularly in the State of Wisconsin. His social engagement was strongly motivated by his Social Gospel religious beliefs, which informed his views on society and the role of government. In The Social Law of Service he wrote:
We all crave happiness. Happiness is an end of life which is worthy of effort, but it is an end which must be subordinated to another end if it is to be pursued successfully; and this other end is service. But service means sacrifice; apparently the opposite of happiness. We reach this paradox then: Happiness is a worthy end of our efforts; but if we place it before ourselves as the direct and immediate end to be striven for, we cannot reach it. It will elude us. … But shall we heap paradox on paradox? We have already found that while the craving for happiness is natural and the desire for happiness is legitimate, we shall lose it if we seek it. We have discovered that the secret of life is renunciation. We must sacrifice our life to receive it in fullness. "Surely, then, self-sacrifice is an end," we may be told. By no means. Self-sacrifice in itself is no virtue and may not be made an end in itself. … And there is one word that gives the key to these paradoxes. What is it? We know what it is: Love—love, the secret of the universe. Sacrifice is not an end in itself, but sacrifice is the condition of service. The law of society is service. (Ely 1896)
The period when Ely started his work and when his ideas peaked to full maturity belongs to what historians today call the Progressive Era. As many progressives of his day, Ely was inspired by German socialist ideas, and actively worked to implement some of those ideas into practice. He was an advocate for the equal right to vote for all citizens, including women’s suffrage, and for the more effective laws regarding public control of resources. During his stay at the University of Wisconsin, he was one of the leaders of the famous Wisconsin Idea, according to which, research conducted at the University of Wisconsin should serve to improve the quality of life of the people of the State of Wisconsin. Through this, the state and the university became closely connected, and State Senator Robert M. La Follette acted as one of the strongest promoters of the idea. Ely and his colleagues devised numerous social legislations, in the area of regulation of utilities, workers' compensation, and tax reform.
However, Ely did not believe that reforms needed to be made only in the political sphere. He held that parallel to their "political citizenship," citizens should also enjoy "social citizenship." Ely called "social citizenship" one’s right to participate in the economic life of the nation. Even though the whole idea was rather vague, it generally focused on the improvement of working conditions in factories, reforms in education, and reforms of the taxing system. Ely suggested, above all, expanded access to education, which would give more children a better chance for employment. In addition, social citizenship would include reductions in working hours, better working conditions, and increases in wages. Ely believed that the role of the social sciences was to create the theoretical foundation for those reforms to happen.
Even though Ely initially used the term “socialism” in his works, he refrained from using the term, coming under attack from his more conservative colleagues for “being a Communist.” He believed in many ideas that are often associated with Socialism, or even Communism, but he was never socialist or communist himself. He argued that socialism, as opposed to individualism rooted in laissez-faire capitalism, could potentially create a better society, based on principles of fraternity and cooperation. He also believed that capitalism would eventually evolve into a better society, but that government and social policies must play key role in it. Finally, instead of the term “socialism,” he used the term “social reform.”
The background of Ely’s ideas in economics and politics were rooted in his religious beliefs. In keeping with Social Gospel principles, he had a rather strong post-millennial view of history. This belief saw human effort as necessary to rid the world of social ills before the Second Coming would occur, and that the State was an instrument of the fulfillment of God’s will. The role of Christianity was to reform society and constitute the social order in the form of a “perfect State,” where Christ would return and end history. Ely believed that the State “is religious in its essence,” and that “God works through the State in carrying out His purposes more universally than through any other institution” (quoted in Fine 1956, 180–81). Church and State were, in Ely’s opinion, not separated, but harmoniously working together in establishing social order.
Ely had spent his years of graduate study in Germany, and was impressed by the social welfare legislation there. He advocated the application of Christian social ethics to economics, supporting ideas such as public ownership of monopolies, factory inspections, an end to child labor, development of labor unions, and consumer protection.
Ely was active in the evangelical Chautauqua movement, a popular educational movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Ely opened the “Christian Sociology” summer school and organized the Institute of Christian Sociology.
Ely was one of the pioneers of the Progressive movement, whose Wisconsin Idea served as a host of progressive measures for government regulation in Wisconsin. Wisconsin Governor Robert M. La Follette, who helped get the idea applied into practice, though never a classroom student of Ely’s, always referred to Ely as his teacher. In addition, Ely was the teacher and mentor of great names such as Albion W. Small, Woodrow Wilson, John R. Commons, Edward A. Ross (1866-1951), Frederick Jackson Turner (1861-1932), and Wesley C. Mitchell (1874-1948).
Ely's legacy lives on in Wisconsin and beyond: "The state and the nation are distinctly better because of the teaching of Professor Ely" (Rounds 1918).
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