Profile Major Works Resources

Richard T. Ely, 1854-1943.

Photo of R.T.Ely from AER

American "New Generation" historicist and forerunner of the American Institutionalist School.

Considered by some as a German Historicist in American clothing, Richard T. Ely was the most prominent of the "New Generation" of German-trained American economists that emerged in the United States during the 1870s.  An outspoken proponent of the historical method, Ely's is regarded by some as the father (or grandfather) of the American Institutionalist School.  He was the teacher and mentor of both John R. Commons and Wesley C. Mitchell.

Richard T. Ely was educated at Columbia, graduating in 1876, before going to Germany for graduate studies.  Ely spent three years at Heidelberg, obtaining his doctorate in 1879 under Karl Knies.  Upon his return to America, Richart T. Ely and fellow Heidelberg-trained historian Herbert Baxter Adams, joined the faculty of the Johns Hopkins University in 1881.  Founded in 1876, Johns Hopkins was the first American university to give "earned" graduate degrees in the German university model, and Ely and Adams would be responsible for leading the social sciences. Ely's efforts to transplant German Historicism into American academia led to a bitter methodological battle in 1880s with his conservative Hopkins colleague, Simon Newcomb (notably in the pages of Science magazine in 1886). 

In an attempt to emulate Schmoller's Verein für Socialpolitik on American soil, Richard Ely was, with E;R;A Seligman and Henry C. Adams, the organizer and founder of the American Economic Association (AEA) in 1885. The AEA became quickly embroiled in the raging methodological controversy between old school conservatives and new school historicists.  The AEA eventually abandoned Ely's vision as a normative body for social progress to become a more staid professional organization.  The AEA still attaches Ely's name to its yearly distinguished lecture.

Despite the polemics, President Gilman promoted Ely to associate professor at Johns Hopkins in 1887. Perhaps warned (or wary, after the 1886 Haymarket riot, of the popular association between socialism and violence), Ely reigned in his socialist leanings in his writings for a few years.  Nonetheless, Ely broke his restraint and resumed his advocacy of socialism in 1891. Reaping the whirlwind, Ely submitted his resignation from Hopkins in 1892.  He also resigned as secretary of the AEA that same year.

In 1892, Richard T. Ely migrated to the "progressive" University of Wisconsin to head the School of Economic, Political Science and History.  He brought with him a coterie of Hopkins men, including Frederick Jackson Turner and John R. Commons.  It was under Ely that the empirical and labor bent long since associated with the University of Wisconsin was initiated.  It quickly became a breeding ground for the next generation of the American Institutionalist school.  Richard T. Ely's Outlines of Economics (1893) became an astoundingly popular textbook in American schools, and went through many editions with changing co-authors.

Ely's position on labor movements and socialism eventually got him in trouble again. Just a few months after the Pullman strike in 1894, a state official accused Ely of spreading socialism and involvement in union activities in Madison.  This led to a controversial " trial" of Ely before the regents of the University of Wisconsin.  Although the Ely trial was managed by sympathizers, and led to a rallying of American scholars in defense of academic freedom in the United States, the resolution was a bit muffled. Ely was exonerated, but only after asserting that he did not hold the views ascribed to him and acknowledging that teaching such views in a classroom might be grounds for dismissal. Nonetheless, the Wisconsin Regents issued a famous stirring statement in defense of academic freedom/ 

Ely's work on labor movements abated slowly as Ely grew increasingly conservative in his later years.  His later work concentrated mostly on land economics.



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Major works of Richard T. Ely

  • "American Colleges and German Universities", 1880, Harper's, p.253 [moa]
  • "German Cooperative Credit Unions", 1881, Atlantic Monthly, p.207 [moa]
  • "Our Common Schools", 1882, Lippincott's, p.89
  • "Administration of the City of Berlin", 1882, The Nation, Pt. 1 (March 23, p.245), Pt. 2 (March 30, p.267)
  • "Bismarck's Plan for Insuring German Laborers", 1882, International Review, p.504
  • "Money and Its Functions", 1883, Bankers Magazine, p.490
  • "The Prussian Civil Service", 1883, Overland Monthly, p.451 [moa]
  • French and German Socialism in Modern Time, 1883. [bk]
  • "The Past and the Present of Political Economy", 1883, Overland Monthly, p.225 [moa]
  • The Past and the Present of Political Economy, 1884 [Hopkins Studies, p.141; bk]
  • Recent American Socialism, 1884 [Hopkins Studies, p.234]
  • "Letter on Socialism", 1884, Home Missionary (Oct), p.227
  • "Pullman: A Social Study", 1885, Harper's (Feb), p.452 [moa]
  • "Christian Socialism in England", 1885, Christian Union (May 28, Jun 4, Jun 11)
  • "Report of the Organization of the American Economic Association", 1886, Pub AEA (Mar), p.5 [js]
  • "Constitution By-Laws and Resolutions of the American Economic Association" Pub AEA (Mar), p.33 [js]
  • "Socialism", 1886, Andover Review, p.146
  • "Socialism in America", 1886, North American Rev (Jun), p.519 [moa]
  • "Ethics and Economics" 1886, Science, (June 11) p.529 [reprinted in Science: Economic discussion, p.44]
  • "The Economic Discussion in Science", 1886, Science, (July 2) p.3 [reprinted in Science: Economic discussion, p.68]
  • "Introduction" by R.T. Ely [p.v], 1886, in Science: Economic discussion.
  • The Labor Movement in America, 1886 [bk], [1890 3rd ed]
  • "Social Studies. I. The Nature of the Railway Problem", 1886, Harper's (Jul), p.250 [moa]
  • "Social Studies - II. The Economic Evils in American Railway Methods", 1886, Harper's, p.450 [moa]
  • "Social Studies - III. The Reform of Railway Abuses", 1886, Harper's, p.571 [moa]
  • "Arbitration", 1886, North American Review (Oct), p.317 [moa]
  • "Professor Clark's Philosophy of Wealth", 1886, Science, (Dec 10), p.551
  • "Co-operation in Literature and the State", 1886, in W.E. Barns, editor, The Labor Problem, p.7
  • "Political Economy in America", 1887, North American Rev. (Feb), p.113 [moa]
  • "Labor Organizations", 1887, The Forum, (v.3, Mar)
  • "Social Studies. - I. The Nature and Significance of Corporations", 1887, Harper's (May), p.970 [moa]
  • "Social Studies. - II. The Growth of Corporations", 1887, Harper's (Jun), p.71 [moa]
  • "Social Studies. - III. The Future of Corporations", 1887, Harper's (Jul), p.259 [moa]
  • "Conditions of Industrial Peace", 1887, The Forum (v.3, Aug)
  • "Co-operation", 1887, The Chautauquan (Dec),  p.149
  • "Land, Labor and Taxation", 1887, The Independent (Dec 1, p.1541), Pt.2 (Dec 8, p.1575), Pt. 3 (Dec 15, p.1608), Pt. 4 (Dec 22, p.1647), Pt. 5 (Dec 29), Pt. 6 (Jan 5) (critique of Henry George)
  • Problems of To-day: A discussion of protective tariffs, taxation, and monopolies, 1888 [orig. Baltimore Sun] [1890 3rd ed]
  • Taxation in American States and Cities, 1888. [bk]
  • "Report of the Secretary on the Proceedings of the 2nd Annual Meeting of the AEA (Boston-Cambridge, May, 1887)". 1888, Pub AEA (Jul), p.195 [js]
  • "Philanthropy", 1888, The Chautauquan (Oct). p.16
  • "Introduction", 1888, The History of Cooperation in the United States, p.5
  • "Social Sciences in American Colleges" with J.H. Finley, 1888, Christian Union (Nov 8)
  • "The Tariff and Trusts: Expenditures for Internal Improvements", 1888, in A. Shaw, editor, National Revenues, p.56
  • Natural Monopolies and Local Taxation: An address before the Boston Merchants' Association, 1889  (Jan 8) [bk]
  • "Taxation", 1889, The Chautauquan (Feb), p.268
  • "Social Studies in Europe", 1889, Christian Union.(Nov 28, Dec 5, 12, 19)
  • "On Methods of Teaching Political Economy", 1889, Methods of Teaching History, p.61
  • Social Aspects of Christianity and Other Essays, 1889 [bk]
  • An Introduction to Political Economy, 1889. [bk] [1901 ed]
  • "Report of the Secretary on the Proceedings of the Third Annual Meeting of the AEA (Philadelphia, Dec 1888)", 1889, Pub AEA (Jul), p.269 [js]
  • "The Telegraph Monopoly", 1889, North American Review (Jul), p.44 [moa]
  • "Economic Internationalism", 1890, The Chautauquan, (Feb) p.538
  • "A Programme for Labor Reform", with Seth Low, 1890, The Century (Apr), p.938 [moa]
  • "The Improvement of Municipal Government", 1890, Christian Union (Oct 9)
  • "Pauperism in the United States", 1891, North American Rev.(Apr), p.395 [moa]
  • "The Inheritance of Property", 1891, North American Review (Jul),.p.154 [moa]
  • :"Socialism: its nature, its strength and its weakness", 1891, The Independent, Pt. 1 (Feb 5) to (July 2)
  • "Report on Social Legislation in the United states for 1889 and 1890" with L.S. Merriam, 1891, Economic Review (Apr), p.234
  • "Discussion of Clark's Ultimate Standard of Value", 1893, Pub AEA (Jan), p.83 [js]
  • "Report of the Secretary", 1893, Pub AEA (Jan), p.127 [js]
  • "Discussion of Commons's Diminishing Returns and Distribution", 1893, Pub AEA (Jan), p.101 [js]
  • The Universities and the Churches: An address, 1893 [bk]
  • Outlines of Economics, 1893.[bk]
  • Socialism: An examination of its nature, its strength and its weakness, with suggestions for social reform, 1894 [bk], [1899 ed. retitled The Strength and Weakness of Socialism, bk]
  • "Natural Monopolies and the Workingman. A Programme of Social Reform", 1894, North American Review, p.294 [moa]
  • "Fundamental Beliefs in My Social Philosophy", 1894, The Forum (Oct) p.173
  • The Social Law of Service, 1896 [bk]
  • "Fraternalism vs. Paternalism in Government", 1898, The Century, p.780 [moa]
  • "Political Economy", 1899, in Ely et al, Political Economy, Political Science and Sociology: A practical and scientific presentation of social and economic subjects [bk]
  •  "Senior's Theory of Monopoly", 1900 Pub AEA  (Feb), p.89 [js]
  • Monopolies and Trusts, 1900.[bk]
  • "Competition: Its nature, its permanency and its beneficience", 1901, Pub AEA, p.55
  • The Coming City, 1902 [bk]
  • Studies in the Evolution of Industrial Society, 1903. [bk] [1911 repr]
  • Elementary Principles of Economics, together with a short sketch of economic history, with George Ray Wicker, 1904 [bk], [1905 repr, 1907 repr, 1908 repr, 1912 repr, 1915 repr], [1917 revised ed. 1921 repr]
  • "Review of Taussig's Principles of Economics", 1912, AER
  • Property and Contract in their Relation to the Distribution of Wealth, 1914.
  • Exercises in Ely's Property and Contract in their relations to the Distribution of Wealth, 1917 [bk]
  • "Review of Property: Its duties and rights", 1914, AER
  • "Russian Land Reform", 1916, AER
  • "Landed Property as an Economic Concept and as a Field of Research", 1917, AER - commentary
  • "Private Colonization of the Land", 1918, AER
  • The World War and Leadership in a Democracy, 1918 [bk]
  • "Tenancy in an Ideal System of Landownership" with C.J. Galpin, 1919, AER
  • Credit Needs of Settlers in Upper Wisconsin, with R.H. Hibbard and Alonzo Cox, 1920 [bk]
  • Outlines of Land Economics, 1922 v.1, v.2, v.3
  • Taxation of Farm Lands, 1924
  • Ground Under Our Feet: An autobiography, 1938.



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Resources on Richard T. Ely

  • Portrait of a bearded Ely
  • Several portraits of Richard T. Ely at Wisconsin, see also: (1), (2), (3)
  • "Letter to Editor (on Ely)" by Frank W. Taussig, 1886, Science (July 9), p.33
  • "Review of Ely's Labor Movement", by H.W. Farnam, 1886, PSQ (Dec), p.683 [js]
  • "Review of Ely's Labor Movement & Barns's Labor Problem", 1887, Banker's Magazine, p.382
  • "Educational Endowments" by Charles Ashley, 1887, Popular Science Monthly, p.535 [review of Ely on labor, p.544]
  • "Industrial Arbitration and Conciliation - reply to Ely",  by Thomas Commerford, 1886, North American Review (Nov),  p.517
  • "Poverty, Sympathy and Economics" by W.H. Mallock, 1887, The Forum (v.5), p.396
  • "Two Campaign Books" and "Professor Ely on Taxation", 1888, Literary World, p.211 & p.213
  • "Review of Ely's Report of Maryland Tax Commission", by ERA Seligman, 1888, PSQ (Jun), p.371 [js]
  • "Review of Ely's Taxation in American States and Cities",  by ERA Seligman, 1888, PSQ (Dec), p.691 [js]
  • "Some Studies of Conciliation in the Labor Problem", 1889, Overland Monthly, p.546
  • "Review of Ely's Outlines & Socialism", 1891, Our Day, p.467
  • "Review of Ely's Strength and Weakness of Socialism", 1894, The Dial, p.91
  • "The College Anarchist" by Oliver E. Wells, 1894, The Nation (July 12), p.27 - letter of accusation that led to 1894 Ely trial.
  • "The Trial of Professor Ely", 1894, The Dial (p.109)
  • "The Freedom of Teaching", 1894, The Dial  (Sep 1, p.103),  "The Trial of Professor Ely" (Sep 1, p.109), "Letter to the Editor" by Duane Mowry (Sep 16) (p.149)
  • "Richard T. Ely" in R.G. Thwaites, editor, 1900, University of Wisconsin: Its history and its alumni, p.312
  • "Bibliography of Richard T. Ely", in Johns Hopkins Studies in Historical and Political Science, 1902  p.451
  • "Review of Ely's Property and Contract", by J.H. Underwood, 1915, AER
  • "A Syllabus of Elementary Economics, with reading references to Ely's Outlines of Economics", Stanford University, 1917 [bk]
  • R.T. Ely on the Social Law of Service by Charles Rounds, 1918
  • The R.T. Ely Trial and Academic Freedom by W. Lee Hansen
  • "Academic Freedom and the Liberation of the Nation's Faculty" by Michael S. Pak, NEA. [pdf]
  • "An Exceptional Decision: The trial of Professor Richart T. Ely by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin, 1894" by Stanley Rolnick, 1955 [pdf]
  • Economists at Wisconsin, edited by R.J. Lampman.
  • Guide to Richard T. Ely papers at Wisconsin
  • The Academic Mind and Reform: The Influence of Richard T. Ely in American Life by Benjamin G. Rader, 1966 [prev]
  • The Origins of American Social Science, by Doroth Ross 1991 [prev]
  • Richard T. Ely's Critique of Capitalism by Luigi Bradizza, 2013 [prev]
  • Richard T. Ely page at Wisconsin Historical Society
  • Ely entry at Britannica
  • Wikipedia


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