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Article: "John R. Commons, Class of 1881"

“Golden Graduates of Winchester High School, A Small Indiana Town’s Remarkable Achievement” is the title of the hardback book released May 19, 2018, by the Winchester Alumni Association. It contains the first 30 profiles of The News Gazette’s Winchester Golden Graduate Series.


The books are available for purchase at Haines Gift Shop and Soda Fountain, downtown Winchester, at a cost of $25 each. If you are interested in having a book shipped to family or friends for an additional $5, contact Pat Knasinski by email at All proceeds from the sale of the book benefit the Winchester Alumni Association Scholarship Endowment Fund. More information on the Winchester Alumni website. 


The following story is in preparation for Volume II of “Golden Graduates of Winchester High School,” to be published in 2023.

Winchester High School’s “Golden Graduates” - From Classmate To Class Act!


Published in The News Gazette, Winchester, Indiana, March 8, 2022. 

by: Dane Starbuck

Noted U.S. economist, sociologist, and historian, John R. Commons, an 1881 graduate of Winchester High School, grew up in Union City and Winchester, Indiana. He would leave the county in 1882 to become one of the most important economists of the Twentieth Century and recognized as the “spiritual father” of Social Security. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, “virtually all progressive social and labor legislation enacted in the 20th century can be attributed to him.” 


Commons graduated from WHS in a class of nine. The senior class included James E. Watson, who would go on to become a U.S. Senate Majority leader and an Indiana gubernatorial and presidential candidate, future Indiana Governor James P. Goodrich, Percy Goodrich, James Goodrich’s elder brother, who became chairman of the board of Goodrich Brothers and Hanover College, and Cora Frist, who would marry James Goodrich in 1885. 


John R. Commons would go on to become recognized by his peers for his scholarly work, primarily at the University of Wisconsin. There he became the “thought leader” behind what became known as the “Wisconsin Idea.” The Wisconsin Idea developed around a series of progressive policies, first initiated by Commons and then by other professors at the University of Wisconsin. 


Many of these social reforms, such as guaranteed income for life at a certain age and a national health care system, were first initiated by Germany’s Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in the mid-1880s. Commons would take these ideas and go even further in advocating for Worker’s Compensation, unemployment insurance, and other social reforms that were adopted by early progressive state and national leaders.  


England’s John Maynard Keynes,1883-1946, probably the most widely known and influential economist of the century, praised Commons for both his scholarship and activism in turning ideas and policies into legislation and programs. Commons frequently testified before the Wisconsin state legislature and before both Houses of the U.S. Congress. He also became widely admired for his scholarly writings on industrial policy, labor unions, and the U.S. Federal Reserve banking system. In 1917, Commons became president of the American Economic Association, the most preeminent economic society in the world. 


In 1915, Commons and Professor Frank W. Taussig of Harvard University founded “Omicron Delta Gamma,” the first national honorary society devoted to economics. The society merged in 1963 with another honorary economics society and the merger resulted in “Omicron Delta Epsilon.” It is today the largest international economics society in the world with approximately 700 chapters and 100,000 former or current members. On a biannual basis, the “John R. Commons Award” is given by the society to an outstanding economist in recognition of academic achievements. Past recipients have included such noted economists as Milton Friedman, Kenneth J. Arrow, Gary Becker, Douglass C. North, and Paul A. Samuelson. 


JOHN ROGERS COMMONS was born in Hollansburg, Ohio, on October 13, 1862, in Darke County. This was just three weeks after President Abraham Lincoln issued his “Emancipation Proclamation” emancipating all slaves who were then located in states at conflict with the Union. The village of Hollansburg (population 230) is located less than three miles east of Randolph County, southeast of the town of Lynn. At the age of two, Commons’ father and mother, John A. Commons and Clarissa Rogers Commons, moved to Union City, Indiana.  John A. Commons, raised a member of the Society of Friends, married Clarissa Rogers, a “strict Presbyterian,” in 1860. 


At Union City, John A. Commons operated a harness shop from 1863 to 1873, during which much of the time he also served as a justice of the peace (today it would probably best equate to the city judge). In 1873, he exchanged his harness shop to purchase the Union City newspaper, The Union City Times, which he operated for the next four years. At the time bartering was still a means by which residents bought and sold goods, services, and small businesses. 


In early 1878, John A. Commons negotiated to purchase Winchester’s The Herald newspaper. John R. Commons’ mother, Clarissa Rogers Commons, was an 1854 graduate of Oberlin College in northern Ohio. Both in Union City and in Winchester, Clarissa ran a boarding house and became head of the Winchester temperance movement. It was constituted by a group of approximately seventy-five women who demonstrated against local establishments that sold alcohol. She had assumed this position soon after Amanda Way left Winchester in 1872 to help establish the Kansas State Temperance Union. 


John R. Commons recalled in his autobiography about the prevailing philosophy of his youth in the 1870s and early 1880s:


“As I look back upon my early years, I think there was something enticing in my father’s Hoosier cronies at Winchester, Indiana. They sprawled back on their chairs, with their feet on the table, spurting tobacco juice and drawling their words lazily, but funny and keen. I have a picture of my father, writing editorials [in The Winchester Herald] in this native attitude. . . . He and his cronies talked politics and science. Every one of them, in that Eastern section of Indiana, was a Republican, living on the battle cries of the Civil War, and everyone was a follower of Herbert Spencer, who was then the shining light of evolution and individualism. . . . I was brought up on Hoosierism, Republicanism, Presbyterianism, and Spencerism.”


WHILE A STUDENT at Winchester High School, John Commons, James Goodrich, and James Watson joined the small Republican Artillery Club where they carried ammunition for the cannon on the Randolph County Courthouse square. They would fire the cannon to mark patriotic occasions and to greet visiting dignitaries. The three young students debated in high school, swam in the old swimming hole west of town, and played schoolboy games. In his autobiography, Myself, Commons proclaimed that his youthful days in Randolph County could be easily summed up:


“Liberty, equality, and defiance of the Fugitive Slave Law were my birthright, and Hoosierdom my Education.”


Commons went on to explain the prominence of his mother in his life.


“My mother was the strictest of Presbyterian Puritans. Both she and father brought me up on Fox’s Book of Martyrs, for both Presbyterianism and Quakerism were versions of the English Puritanism of the Seventeen Century.”


After their high school graduation in May 1881, James Goodrich, James Watson, John R. Commons, and Cora Frist all took the Indiana State licensing examination to be able to teach first through eighth grade. Cora’s parents had moved to Winchester in 1877 from nearby Lynn, Indiana, so she could receive a high school education. For the four of them—Goodrich, Watson, Commons, and Frist--to teach at the grade school level, no college studies were necessary, just a high school diploma and passage of the State’s licensing examination. 


All four classmates passed the examination and began teaching in one-room schoolhouses surrounding Winchester. They joined about 240 other licensed teachers that taught in Randolph County at the time, the majority of whom provided instruction in the county’s 130 one-room schoolhouses. However, James Watson and John R. Commons soon found that the classroom was not to their liking. Watson quit after less than two weeks of teaching because he quickly became bored. He enrolled at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. 


Commons, on the other hand, taught for three months at School No. 7, west of Winchester. However, he was apparently such a poor instructor that his students protested to their parents and he was forced to resign. He remained in Winchester until the following year, during which time he failed as a salesman of the newspaper the Christian Union. 


At Oberlin College, his first year of studies went well, but in the spring of 1885, he suffered a “nervous breakdown” after taking a Greek language examination. He subsequently returned to Winchester for several weeks to recover and assist with the operation of a chicken hatchery that was owned by his sister Anna and her husband, George Best, a Standard Oil salesman.  


Commons returned to Oberlin in the fall of 1885, finally graduating in 1888. The young Commons was not particularly a good student, but according to his professors he “showed promise.” In his senior year at Oberlin, John R. Commons met Ella Brown Downey when they both served on the school’s newspaper, John as the editor-in-chief. They married on Christmas Day in 1890. Prior to that and despite his average grades, John was admitted to pursue doctoral studies in economics at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. He earned an M.A. in political economy after two years, but he did not complete his doctorate as he needed to generate income for his wife and soon to be born son, Sidney. 


Commons’ first job out of graduate school was at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, where he succeeded a young professor by the name of Woodrow Wilson, later to be the twenty-seventh President of the United States. Commons assumed Wilson’s position in  teaching political economy. Wilson had accepted a similar position at his alma matter, Princeton University. Commons’ salary at Wesleyan was a booming $1,000 per year, less than half of the salary of his Wesleyan faculty colleagues who were much senior to him in age and status. 


At the end of his first year at Wesleyan, the president let Commons go, claiming he was a “failure as a teacher.” However, Commons persevered and obtained a teaching position at his alma mater, Oberlin, at a slight increase in annual salary. He was able to return to the small Ohio community where his father, mother, and half-sister lived, but he left after just one year at Oberlin to teach at Indiana University where the state university nearly doubled his salary to $2,000 per year. Commons remained at Indiana University for three years, from 1892 to 1895.

In 1895, Commons received an offer from Syracuse University in New York for $500 more than what he was making at Indiana University to become chairman of its new department of sociology. In the fall of 1895, Commons accepted the position at Syracuse. His book, Proportional Representation, was published soon after as were a number of articles published in prominent academic journals. 


However, in March 1899, Commons was fired yet again, this time by the president of Syracuse. Commons was seen as a “radical” and “collectivist,” just the opposite of what a pro-business, individualistic society wanted its students to be exposed to. Commons quietly left without complaint, although Syracuse’s faculty met and voted a resolution praising Commons for his “teaching, scholarship, and manly character.” At the time, Commons thought that he would never again have an opportunity for an academic position.


Instead, in that same year, 1899, he established the Bureau of Economic Research. He was invited to testify before the United States Industrial Commission. This attention gave him the opportunity to go to work for the National Civic Federation where he researched taxation and labor-management reconciliation. In 1901, Commons was appointed to the U.S. Industrial Commission to undertake a study on immigration.


From there, his former professor at Johns Hopkins, Richard Ely, brought Commons to the University of Wisconsin in 1904 to establish the American Bureau of Economic Research. At Wisconsin, Commons was given the opportunity to join its economics department and, later, its school of sociology. He had once again achieved an academic position that he had previously thought would be forever closed to him.


AT THE UNIVERSITY of Wisconsin John R. Commons thrived. He eventually received national and international attention for his scholarly works and policy and legislative advocacy. Over the course of the next few decades, he published major textbooks and academically acclaimed studies: his 10-volume A Documentary History of American Industrial Society (1910-1911); Labor and Administration (1913); Principles of Labor Legislation (1916); Industrial Goodwill (1919); Industrial Government (1921); Legal Foundations of Capitalism (1924); his four-volume History of Labor in the United States (1918-1935); Institutional Economics (1934); and his autobiography Myself (1934). The Wisconsin Historical Society noted in recognizing him that Commons “. . . advocated collective bargaining and pragmatic compromise over rigid, uncompromising views. Although trained as an economist, Commons believed that economics alone was insufficient to explain the behavior of working people, so he turned to history, sociology, psychology and law to gain a broader picture.”


As part of his work at the University of Wisconsin, Commons closely associated himself with Governor Robert M. La Follett to draft the Wisconsin Civil Service Law in 1905 and the state Public Utilities Law in 1907. Because of his scholarly work and advocacy, other state and federal legislators started to champion his ideas so that new, progressive policies were put in place to address industrial accidents, the impoverished, the elderly, the unemployed, those without health care, and other social ills. He further made major contributions in explaining how the inner workings of corporations functioned as well as the Federal Reserve Banking system after it was established in 1913. Commons’ students, Edwin Witte and Arthur Altmeyer, went on to create the Social Security Administration program in the 1930s. 


AS A TEACHER, Commons was much admired and beloved. For many years, on Friday evenings during the academic term, he and his students had dinner together and discussed ideas. Numbering between thirty and forty students, this Friday evening ritual became part of his legacy at the University of Wisconsin. 


On October 13, 1932, Common’s seventieth birthday, Wisconsin Governor Robert La Follett, son of former Wisconsin Governor and U.S. Senator Robert La Follette, declared “John R. Commons Day” throughout the State. On November 18, 1932, John R. Commons retired from his university position. A dinner was held in his honor in Madison in which 235 former students and former and current colleagues showed up to celebrate this milestone. 


While Commons’ reform-minded beliefs and writings were often at odds with his more conservative oriented high school classmates, nonetheless, James Goodrich, Cora Goodrich, James Watson, and Percy Goodrich stayed in contact with Commons, occasionally writing one another. In 1917, at a fundraising event for Wisconsin U.S. Senator Robert LaFollette in Madison, James Goodrich, Watson, and Commons physically met in one of their last times together. They left politics aside for one evening and enjoyed sharing stories and reminiscing about their childhoods in Winchester. 


Commons passed away in Florida at the age of eighty-two in 1945. His home near the University of Wisconsin in Madison was placed on the National Register of Historical Places and the University of Wisconsin named an academic hall after Commons. His significance might be better appreciated when it is known that three subsequent Nobel Prize winners in Economics (Herbert A. Simon, Oliver Williamson, and Elinor Ostrom) cited Commons as having a significant influence on their own scholarship. Six of Commons’ doctoral students, including Nobel Prize winning economist Theodore W. Schultz, became president of the American Economic Association. 


Despite his abysmal start in the classroom in Randolph County, Commons became a much-admired university professor on several campuses, culminating in him becoming one of the most important scholars and advocates for social reforms of the Twentieth Century. John R. Commons’ lifetime of accomplishments is why his story is deserving to be told as one of Winchester High School’s most remarkable “Golden Graduates.”

Editor’s Note: Dane Starbuck is a 1975 graduate of Winchester Community High School and returned to practice law in Winchester in the 1990s for several years.  He currently resides in Hamilton County, Indiana, where he practices law and resides with his wife Beverly.  He is the author of the books, The Goodriches, an American Family (2001), Empowering a Legacy, the Shafer Biography (2016), and John W. Fisher, What a Life! (2017).

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