Who Was John A. Ryan

He was pudgy, and grew more so over time. His suits were often rumpled, spotted; he sometimes looked so disheveled he was an embarrassment to his friends. He was a poor public speaker, his delivery a monotone, his voice flat and dull. Few of his students thought he was very effective or even interesting in the classroom. One student remembered him as the worst teacher he ever had: Ryan droning on seemingly forever from a podium perched high above his students. Colleagues and students alike nicknamed him "Fog Ryan" because he seemed so preoccupied, so lost in a world far away. As might be expected, he was also not very sociable. When friends interrupted his reading, he would look up, his finger keeping his place in the book before him, and snarl: "What do you want?"

Yet in 1939 over six hundred of the most powerful judges, Congressman, cabinet secretaries and agency heads in the American government packed the ballroom of Washington's Willard Hotel to celebrate his seventieth birthday, and the President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, sent a note of congratulations extolling the virtues and recounting the successes of this great reformer. Historians have since called him the most significant Catholic social reformer of his age, perhaps any age.

John A. Ryan was born the first of eleven children to William Ryan and Maria Luby Ryan in Vermillion, Minnesota in 1869. His father had emigrated to the United States from Ireland with his family in 1834, lit out for the California gold fields on his own in 1849, returned without gold or much else, and settled into a much less adventurous career as a farmer on about 160 acres of land in Vermillion just outside St. Paul. John Ryan labored on the family farm and gained what education he could from Vermillion's one room schoolhouse and from his family's few books and newspapers. Even as a child, however, he was restlessly curious - sometimes dangerously so. Once as a little boy he heard about some men hung in Ireland by the British government and was determined to find out what this hanging felt like. He found a nearby tree, threw a rope over the limb, climbed on a box, put the noose around his neck and kicked the box away. An older sister happening by interrupted this "scientific experiment" and probably saved his life.

Influenced by both parents who were devout Catholics, especially by his mother, John A. Ryan chose the priesthood as his lifetime vocation and at 18 went off to what was then St. Paul's Seminary. After ordination in 1898, he elected to continue his studies - with his Archbishop's approval - at the new Catholic University in America. The University then was a good place for a young man intent on becoming an intellectual and a reformer. It had been founded by the American bishops in 1887 to encourage graduate studies among American Catholics and its still small faculty in the 1890s included men like Rev. William Kerby and Rev. Thomas Bouquillon, who had already made names for themselves as advocates of Catholic social reform.

Ryan received his Ph.D. in 1906 after completing his dissertation, A Living Wage: Its Ethical and Economic Aspects. By that time he had already become an active participant in the debates over the "social question." As early as 1895, he had written articles on reform for the local Catholic newspaper in St. Paul. A Living Wage however, was his first systematic and comprehensive discussion of a Catholic perspective on social and economic issues, and it quickly attracted attention. Richard Ely, a noted Progressive economist from the University of Wisconsin, was so impressed by it, that he found a publisher for the work and wrote an Introduction to the first edition. Though Ryan left Washington to return to teach in his old Minnesota seminary, he quickly became a prominent spokesman for reform, churning out articles, testifying before legislative committees, and joining with leaders of well known Progressive organizations like Florence Kelly of the National Consumers League in their reform campaigns.

In 1909, Ryan published "A Programme of Social Reform By Legislation," a kind of "wish list" of reform aimed at the worst abuses caused by the economic changes of the times. It included the following:

a legal minimum wage,
            an eight hour limit on the work day,
            protective legislation for women and children,
            protection for union picketing and boycotting,
            unemployment insurance,
            provision against accident, illness and old age,
            municipal housing,
            public ownership of utilities,
            public ownership of mines and forests.
            control of monopolies,
            an income tax.

It was a staggering list of recommendations for government action. Yet many of these proposals had been suggested long before, and several were already on the way to enactment. Ryan's principal interest remained the subject of his dissertation, a living wage. He was a critical player in the campaign for minimum wage legislation as it swept the country in the 1910s. He helped set the standards for minimum wages suggested by the Conference of Charities and Corrections (an organization of the new emerging profession of social worker); wrote model minimum wage bills for Minnesota and Wisconsin and testified as an expert witness in both states in behalf of those bills. Ryan's influence spread beyond his own work: students and colleagues worked for minimum wage bills in Oregon and Ohio. By 1913, nine states had passed minimum wage laws.

Ryan's enthusiasm for broad government intervention prompted some both within and outside the church to call him a socialist out of step with both American and Catholic principles. He denied that charge and in 1913 engaged in a debate with Morris Hillquit, a leader of the Socialist Party in New York. He disagreed with Hillquit less about the causes of social or economic problems or even the extent of government intervention needed to solve them, than about socialism's materialist philosophy that, Ryan charged, undermined religion and threatened the family. The attacks on Ryan as a socialist or a radical did not stick in the 1910s, but, as we shall see, they would plague him when interest in reform faded away in the 1920s.

Ryan returned to teach at Catholic University in 1915 and thus came back to Washington, D.C. He had been a successful reformer in Minnesota, but as the federal government grew over the course of the twentieth century, Washington, the center of federal power, would increasingly become the most important battleground for social and economic change.

It did not take Ryan long to find new opportunities in the federal capital to assert his ideas. In 1917, the bishops of the United States had agreed to form a National Catholic War Council to direct and encourage Catholic efforts in America's mobilization for World War I. As the war wound down, the War Council sought to offer the nation a plan, a blueprint, a program for postwar "social reconstruction." Ryan became the author of that plan, which won widespread publicity. Soon after the Program was released, the War Council was transformed into a permanent peacetime organization, The National Catholic Welfare Council (shortly after, changed to National Catholic Welfare Conference) and Ryan was appointed Director of the Conference's Social Action Department. That meant that he now had a national forum for his ideas and even a small staff and budget to promote them.

Yet just as John Ryan seemed to reach a new pinnacles of power in 1919, the tide of Progressive reform began to ebb and recede. The rise of the Soviet Union, widespread labor struggles, the nativist aftereffects of wartime nationalism, and a postwar depression inspired a "Red Scare," a suspicion not only of radicals but of reformers like Ryan, too, who believed so strongly in government activism. By the mid-1920s Progressivism was dead and Ryan found the "Bishops Program" he wrote, ostensibly on behalf of all American Catholics, repudiated by many of them.

All of the thousands of speeches, the hundreds of articles, over a score of books, the testimony before committees, the committee meetings--all conducted by John Ryan and his colleagues seemed to have been for nothing by the mid-1920s.

For more on Ryan, his contemporaries, and his reformist thought, view the documents below.

General Exercise Using the Documents

Rearrange the documents to trace certain themes and counterthemes over time. The following are just a few examples:

1. Trace the idea of the living or minimum wage and the maximum wage in the following three site documents:

  • Excerpt from Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum (see pages: 169-170)
  • Excerpt from Ignatius Donnelly's Caesar's Column

          NOTE: This excerpt contains ethnic prejudice, PLEASE READ here first.

  • Excerpt from John A. Ryan's A Living Wage 

2. Compare the role of government in meeting the problems of reform as depicted in the following documents:

  • Excerpt from John A. Ryan's, A Living Wage 
  • William Cardinal O'Connell's 1904 address, "The Reasonable Limits of State Activity"
  • Mother Jones's address to the United Mine Workers Convention, 1910