Archive for February 16th, 2014

The post-war Supreme Court and Progressive reform: Child Labor

As we have discussed, the Keating-Owen Act of 1916 prohibited companies that engaged in interstate commerce from selling goods produced by children under the age of sixteen (remember, Congress only had the ability to regulate INTERSTATE commerce under the Constitution). Later, father sued “on behalf of his sons” that this law was unconstitutional and deprived them of the chance to work. The Supreme Court held that Congress did not have the power to regulate child labor in this manner. (By the way, how do you think the father was able to sue all the way to the Supreme Court if he worked in a textile mill?) There is a happy ending, however– the decision in Dagenhart was later overturned itself in 1941 in the case of US V. Darby Lumber Co.

This is from an excellent review written by Sharron Solomon-McCarthy that I found at Yale University’s website ( I have excerpted the part here that applies to chapter 32. Please note the quotation by the manufacturer that I have boldfaced as an indication of business attitudes resentful of restrictions on child labor.

….Child labor was becoming increasingly more significant due to the economy. In the early 1900’s a social movement was established to protest child labor. This assembly was called the reformers. They had a platform that needed to be addressed by the national government. Up until this point the Supreme Court took a laissez-faire approach.

Facing opposition by employers many felt that social reformers were unable to see how child labor was the driving force of the United States economy. Employers who favored child labor suggested that it added to the moral fiber of the child by instilling a value system of work ethic.

The president of Merchants Woolen Company, Charles Harding stated: “There is a certain class of labor in mills where there is not as much muscular exercise required as a child would put forth in play, and a child can do it about as well as a grown person…There is such thing as too much education for working people sometimes. I have seen cases where young people are spoiled for labor by…too much refinement.”

The social reformers focused on welfare of the child and the abolishment of child labor. The first organized group was formed in1904 it was known as The National Child Labor Committee (NCLC). This committee consisted of politicians, social workers and citizens who contested child labor. Two of the most renowned reformers were Jane Addams and Lewis Hine.

Jane Addams played a prominent part in the formation of the National Progressive Movement. In 1912, when Theodore Roosevelt ran for President of the United States, Addams empathically declared her support for his progressive ideas. As a pioneer of the progressive movement, Jane Addams campaigned for new laws to support the rights of children. As the founder of Hull House in Chicago, Illinois she was able to provide a platform where children and others could come to seek assistance from the dreadful environment which surrounding them each day. Jane believed that they way to change the social atmosphere in the United States was to lobby the government for laws that would promote better education for children.

In 1907 the NCLC was granted a charter from Congress. A year later the committee hired Lewis Hine. He was a teacher who was hired to research the ills of the child labor industry. For several years following, Hine traveled and photographed pictures of the exploitation of children in the work force. Later these pictures were published and seen by many. The impact the pictures had on America was unspeakable. The pictures unfolded a story that demonstrated violations against children in the most revolting way. It was truly astounding.

Two years later the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that contradictory to past reports, more children were employed in the Southern states than up North. Many of these children were receiving an insignificant amount of education. If children attended school then they would lose their jobs, children at that time children did not want to face the punishment they would receive from their families.

As a result of this and the backlash of Hine’s pictures, states started to pass laws restricting the age at which children could work. Nonetheless, The Supreme Court was not taking a stand on this issue.

It was not until 1916, that we see the involvement of the Supreme Court. During this year Congress passed the first child labor bill, Keating-Owen Act. This act banned the sale of any article produced by child labor (factory, cannery, and mine) and it regulated the number of hours a child could work. The Keating-Owen Act was passed in 1916 under the Woodrow Wilson’s administration. Many progressives and republicans

embraced his efforts. Two years later the Supreme Court declared the Keating-Owen Act unconstitutional. The Supreme Court stated that on legal grounds Congress was using its power to go beyond its right to regulate interstate trade.

After the abolishment of the first child labor bill, the Keating-Owen Act there was a significant amount of tension that existed between the Congress and the Supreme Court.

Did the power rest in the Congress or did the Supreme Court act as a superior being?

Hammer v. Dagenhart

Argued April 15, 1918 and decided on June 3, 1918 was the next case in the forefront of child labor laws. This case was filed initially in North Carolina in the United States District Court. It was brought to the court by a father, Roland Dagenhart filing on behalf of his two sons Reuben and John who were employed on a cotton mill in Charlotte, North Carolina. Both of them were under sixteen years of age. Dagenhart’s law suit claimed that Congress had violated his sons’ freedom to work.

In response to Dagenhart’s claim, the United States District Court filed a response that stated the Dagenhart’s bill directly violated child labor laws that dealt with commerce from state to state as addressed two years prior by the Keating-Owen Act.

The first decision upheld by the District Court stated that the bill was unconstitutional. The District Court stated that Congress had violated numerous laws according to the Constitution. The violations were as follows the Commerce Clause, the Fifth Amendment and the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution.

According to the District Court, Congress claims violated the Commere Act which is found in Article 1, Section 8 clause 3 which states “the congress shall have Power . . . To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes.”

Secondly, they saw a breach of the Tenth Amendment which asserts “the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

The court’s last reservation claimed that Congress had violated the Fifth Amendment according to due process. Which clearly states, “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be witness against himself, nor shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of; law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”

Many reformers and others were disheartened by the decision. As a result, John Davis and attorney, W.C. Hammer appealed the former decision therefore seeking assistance from the United States Supreme Court. Congress felt that they had a strong backing and compelling evidence based on the Constitution to support their claim. One of their key claims was that Congress has the power to regulate goods created by child labor because there was no one rule that blanketed all the states.

The Supreme Court was faced with answering the underlying question,does Congress have the right to police goods that are sold between states that were constructed by children under sixteen years old?

During this legal preceding there were nine justices in total, four of whom were Democrats and the five remaining were Republicans. The names of these Justices were Edward D. White, Joseph McKenna, Oliver W. Holmes Jr., Mahlon Pitney, James C. McReynolds, Louis Brandeis, John Clarke, Willis Van Devanter and William R. Day.

The final decision of the Supreme Court was given by William R. Day. The Court saw this act as unconstitutional. The decision recognized by the court stated Congress had stepped outside of their boundaries and that Congress misconstrued the interpretation of the Commerce Clause which was upheld in the Keating-Owen Act. The Supreme Court argued that in spite of children working in factories and canniers to produce goods that are exchanged between the states does not technically fit the confines of commerce. In view of that fact the Congress has the power to regulate trade but in this case, commerce is not the question when talking about the actual trade process because it does not involve the physical harm of children.

Open to various interpretations the Commerce Clause can be argued that commerce is defined not by the manufacturing, the making of products locally but by the shipment, the actual transportation of the manufactured goods which are shipped interstate. As stated in the previous case of Gibbons v. Ogden the power to regulate commerce is the power “to prescribe the rule by which commerce is governed.”

To support their decision, Justice Day refers back to prior court cases such as Lackawanna & Western R.R. Co. v. Yurkonis, Kidd v. Pearson and New York v. Miln. All three of these cases were focused around the Commerce Clause. In Lackawanna & Western R.R. Co. the court established that coal mining is not defined under the terms of commerce. In the later two cases the same commerce clause cannot be redefined to include the regulation of goods made by child labor as identified by individual states.

Regardless of Justice Day and the majority of the ruling there was a dissenting opinion. This difference of opinion came from Justice Holmes, Justice McKenna, Justice Brandeis and Justice Clarke all of whom concurred. Holmes argued that Congress acted on the basis that it has the right under the Constitution to disallow certain goods to be traded also known as prohibition. Hence, prohibition includes the use of child labor as represented by the Keating-Owen Act. Also, he disputed that according to the Constitution the Congress falls under the umbrella of being protected by the federal government to monitor commerce as identified in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution.