Richard Theodore Ely was born April 13, 1854, in Ripley, the eldest of three children of Ezra Sterling Ely and the former Harriet Gardner Mason. He received his early education in the public schools of Ripley and later attended the state Normal School at Fredonia. At the age of 18, he entered Dartmouth College. One year later he was transferred to Columbia University, from which he graduated in 1876.
After three years of graduate study abroad Ely received his degree of Doctor of Philosophy at the University of Heidelberg in Germany. In 1881 he was appointed to the chair of Political Economy at Johns Hopkins University. In 1892, he went to the University of Wisconsin to serve as Director of the School of Economics, Political Science and History. He stayed at the school until 1925 – although in 1894 an unsuccessful attempt was made to depose him from his chair at Wisconsin for purportedly teaching socialistic doctrines.
Although regarded as a radical by his detractors on the political right, Ely was in fact opposed to socialism. However, he strongly favored competition over monopoly or state ownership, with regulation to “secure its benefits” and “mitigate its evils.” He also supported labor unions and opposed child labor. He was close to the Social Gospel movement, emphasizing that the Gospel of Christ applied to society as a whole and was not merely individualistic; he worked hard to convince churches to advocate on behalf of workers.
Ely edited Macmillan’s Citizen’s Library of Economics, Politics, and Sociology and its Social Science textbook series, Crowell’s Library of Economics and Politics, and was a frequent contributor to periodical literature, both scientific and popular.
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. He died in Old Lyme, Connecticut on October 4, 1943.
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.
Bicentennial Biographies is a not-for-profit radio project designed to raise awareness and increase interest in local history. It is brought to you as a public service by the Chautauqua County Historical Society throughout 2011 to celebrate the county’s 200th birthday. To learn more, visit www.McClurgMuseum.org or contact your local historical society.