Ely, Richard T.

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Ely, Richard T.



Richard Theodore Ely (1854–1943), American economist, probably exerted a greater influence upon American economics during its vital formative period than any other individual. Although Ely’s writings were prolific, timely, and vigorous, he made a more lasting impact on his discipline through his achievements as a founder and organizer of scholarly associations, institutes, and research projects.

Ely’s career began when the influence of German scholarship upon the United States was at its height. Born in Ripley, New York, of pious Congre-gationalist stock, he graduated from Columbia College in 1876 and spent the next four years in Germany, primarily at Heidelberg, where he was strongly influenced by Karl Knies, one of the leading historical economists. From 1881 to 1892 Ely taught economics at the then new Johns Hopkins University and produced several books and innumerable articles for scholarly journals, magazines, and newspapers, including pioneer studies of socialism, organized labor, and state taxation. He was an impulsive, outspoken, and contentious man, whose academic friends and foes alike complained of his emotionalism and carelessness. His eager participation in contemporary reform movements brought him both lavish praise and severe condemnation. For example, his sympathetic study The Labor Movement in America (1886) provoked his Johns Hopkins colleague Simon Newcomb to declare him unfit to hold a university chair; and in 1894, when he was at the University of Wisconsin, Ely was publicly denounced for preaching socialism and encouraging strikes. In fact, however, he was a moderate reformer, an optimist, and a progressive who favored a mean between individualism and socialism. After a widely publicized “trial,” the regents of the university exonerated him and issued a classic declaration in favor of academic freedom.

Ely figured prominently in the controversy between the “old” and “new” schools of American economics during the 1880s. His main contribution to the debate was a polemical monograph entitled The Past and the Present of Political Economy (1884), in which he attacked the old school orthodoxy based on Ricardo and Mill and advocated a closer link between economics and ethics and an increased use of a crudely inductive “look and see” method. However, he never rejected Ricardo in toto and specifically exempted Ricardian rent doctrine from his general criticism of Ricardian economics. The following year he and several other new school rebels founded the American Economic Association to propagate their ideas and promote the scientific study of economic problems. Ely became the association’s first secretary and its most active proponent, but his sentimentalism and reforming zeal at first discouraged more conservative economists from participating. However, even before 1892, when Ely resigned his secretaryship and moved to the Middle West, the organization was turning from social reform to a more neutral scholarly approach. Ely was president of the association from 1900 to 1902. During the 1880s and 1890s, he was prominent in such religious reform organizations as the Christian Social Union and the American Institute for Christian Sociology and was sometimes regarded rather as a preacher than an economist. An Introduction to Political Economy (1889a), which Ely prepared for use in connection with his teaching at the Chautauqua Methodist summer school, sold 30,000 copies in a decade, and he subsequently published an even more successful academic textbook, Outlines of Economics (1893), which eventually sold more than 350,000 copies.

On his move to Wisconsin in 1892, Ely inaugurated a school of economics, political science, and history. The school, staffed by such scholars as Frederick J. Turner, Edward A. Ross, and John R. Commons, all of whom had been Ely’s pupils at Johns Hopkins, became internationally famous because of its collaboration with the Wisconsin government, led by the Progressive politician Robert La Follette. Ely’s new school teaching constituted a direct link between German historical economics and twentieth-century institutional economics. His major contribution to this economic tradition was Property and Contract in Their Relations to the Distribution of Wealth (1914), and his interest in this field eventually led him to establish in 1920 the Institute for Research in Land Economics and Public Utilities and the associated Journal of Land and Public Utility Economics (later called Land Economics). Also at Wisconsin Ely helped to launch the American Association for Labor Legislation (of which he became president) and obtained private resources to finance Commons’ massive 11-volume Documentary History of American Industrial Society, 1910–1911.

Ely was neither an original theorist nor a seminal thinker; he was, however, a stimulating teacher who exerted a profoundly liberating influence on his students, many of whom became distinguished scholars or public figures. Until his death at the age of 89, he remained remarkably active, writing on a variety of topical issues and eventually editing more than a hundred volumes. During his later years he abandoned his earlier defense of the Ricardian rent doctrine and emphasized the parallels between land and capital; one indication of his increasing conservatism is the fact that his Institute for Research was attacked in 1926 as a tool of the public utilities. In a sense, this was a sign of the change in the tone of American economics since Ely’s “trial” in 1894.

A. W. Coats

[For the historical context of Ely’s work, seeECONOMIC THOUGHT, articles onTHE HISTORICAL SCHOOLandTHE INSTITUTIONAL SCHOOL; and the biographies ofKNIES; MILL; Ricardo.]


1883 French and German Socialism in Modern Times. New York: Harper.

1884 The Past and the Present of Political Economy. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.

1885 Recent American Socialism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.

1886 The Labor Movement in America. New York: Crowell.

(1888) 1890 Problems of To-day: A Discussion of Protective Tariffs, Taxation and Monopolies. New ed., rev. & enl. New York: Crowell.

1888 ELY, RICHARD T.; and FINLEY, JOHN H. Taxation in American States and Cities. New York: Crowell.

1889a An Introduction to Political Economy. New York: Chautauqua.

(1889b) 1895 Social Aspects of Christianity, and Other Essays. New York: Crowell.

(1893) 1937 ELY, RICHARD T.; and HESS, RALPH H. Outlines of Economics. 6th ed. New York: Macmillan.

1894 Socialism: An Examination of Its Nature, Its Strength, Its Weakness, With Suggestions for Social Reform. New York: Crowell.

(1900) 1906 Monopolies and Trusts. New York: Grosset & Dunlap.

1903 Studies in the Evolution of Industrial Society. New York: Macmillan.

(1914) 1922 Property and Contract in Their Relations to the Distribution of Wealth. 2 vols. New York: Mac-millan.

1924 ELY, RICHARD T.; and MOREHOUSE, EDWARD W. Elements of Land Economics. New York: Macmillan.

1938 Ground Under Our Feet: An Autobiography. New York: Macmillan.

(1940) 1964 ELY, RICHARD T.; and WEHRWEIN, GEORGE S. Land Economics. Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press.


Coats, a. w. 1960 The First Two Decades of the American Economic Association. American Economic Review 50:555–574.

Dorfman, Joseph 1946–1959 The Economic Mind in American Civilization. 5 vols. New York: Viking. → See especially Volumes 3 and 4.

Everett, John R. 1946 Religion in Economics: A Study of John Bates Clark, Richard T. Ely and Simon N. Patten. New York: King’s Crown Press.

Fine, Sidney 1951 Richard T. Ely: Forerunner of Progressivism, 1880–1901. Mississippi Valley Historical Review 37:599–624.

Noble, David W. 1958 The Paradox of Progressive Thought. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press. → See especially “Richard T. Ely: The Economist as Christian and Prophet,” pages 157–173.

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