Child Labor Amendment

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Child Labor Amendment

United States 1924


Had it ever been enacted, the proposed Twentieth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution would have granted Congress the power to regulate child labor. First proposed in 1922, the amendment was approved by both houses on 2 June 1924. Despite wide popular support, the amendment was only ratified by 28 of the required 36 states before the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 made it a moot issue by placing child labor under control of the Department of Labor.

The debate about the amendment touched on concerns about the power of the federal government as opposed to the power of both the local government and the family. Advocates argued that the state had a compelling interest in nurturing children for subsequent citizenship. Opponents argued that the amendment would give Congress power over what ought to be a family decision. Republican presidents Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover each supported the amendment, as did both major political parties. A widely based federation of trade unionists, women's groups, and social reformers campaigned for the amendment. Opposing the amendment, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) led a group of organizations representing businesses, religious groups, and anti-big government groups. In the 1920s a decline in the belief that government could solve social problems caused supporters of the amendment to lose momentum. By the time the Great Depression pushed the pendulum in the opposite direction, the amendment was quickly superceded by broadening workplace regulation.


  • 1909: Robert E. Peary and Matthew Henson reach the North Pole.
  • 1914: On 28 June in the town of Sarajevo, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip assassinates Austrian Archduke Francis Ferdinand and wife Sophie. In the weeks that follow, Austria declares war on Serbia, and Germany on Russia and France, while Great Britain responds by declaring war on Germany. By the beginning of August, the lines are drawn, with the Allies (Great Britain, France, Russia, Belgium, Serbia, Montenegro, and Japan) against the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey).
  • 1919: Treaty of Versailles is signed by the Allies and Germany but rejected by the U.S. Senate. This is due in part to rancor between President Woodrow Wilson and Republican Senate leaders, and in part to concerns over Wilson's plan to commit the United States to the newly established League of Nations and other international duties. Not until 1921 will Congress formally end U.S. participation in the war, but it will never agree to join the League.
  • 1921: As the Allied Reparations Commission calls for payments of 132 billion gold marks, inflation in Germany begins to climb.
  • 1923: Conditions in Germany worsen as inflation skyrockets and France, attempting to collect on coal deliveries promised at Versailles, marches into the Ruhr basin. In November an obscure political group known as the National Socialist German Workers' Party attempts to stage a coup, or putsch, in a Munich beer hall. The revolt fails, and in 1924 the party's leader, Adolf Hitler, will receive a prison sentence of five years. He will only serve nine months, however, and the incident will serve to attract attention for him and his party, known as the Nazis.
  • 1924: V. I. Lenin dies, and thus begins a struggle for succession from which Josef Stalin will emerge five years later as the undisputed leader of the Communist Party and of the Soviet Union.
  • 1924: In the United States, Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall, along with oil company executives Harry Sinclair and Edward L. Doheny, is charged with conspiracy and bribery in making fraudulent leases of U.S. Navy oil reserves at Teapot Dome, Wyoming. The resulting Teapot Dome scandal clouds the administration of President Warren G. Harding.
  • 1927: Charles A. Lindbergh makes the first successful solo nonstop flight across the Atlantic, and becomes an international hero.
  • 1929: On "Black Friday" in October, prices on the U.S. stock market, which had been climbing wildly for several years, suddenly collapse. Thus begins the first phase of a world economic crisis and depression that will last until the beginning of World War II.
  • 1934: Austrian chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss, who aligns his nation with Mussolini's Italy, establishes a Fascist regime in an attempt to keep Austria out of the Nazi orbit. Austrian Nazis react by assassinating Dollfuss.

Event and Its Context


Before industrialization, few people questioned child labor. Work was considered to be beneficial for all except those whose life circumstances had provided them with the means to have others work for them. Child laborers were central to the Industrial Revolution. Early textile mills employed children because mill owners found them to be both good workers and malleable employees. Yet not all child workers were malleable; children were important to the early trade union movement as both activists and as rank-and-file members. In 1835 children in the textile mills of Paterson, New Jersey, struck for the 64-hour work-week. Regulation of child labor began in states where the textile industry was concentrated. By the middle of the nineteenth century, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Rhode Island had all passed laws limiting the number of hours that children could work. The Knights of Labor made opposition to child labor part of its program in the 1870s.

Up until a certain point, however, the labor movement had ambivalent feelings about child labor. On the one hand, employment of children depressed wages for adult workers. On the other, given that the wages of adult workers were inadequate to feed a family, child labor was essential to the economy of most working-class families. The development of a family wage, at least in some economic sectors, was a necessary precondition for the labor movement to place strong emphasis on regulating child labor. Throughout the nineteenth century, employers worked their workers too hard for too little remuneration as they built the capital to expand their businesses. An 1891 study conducted by the Illinois Women's Alliance and the Chicago Trades Assembly told of thousands of children under age 14 working for the garment industry in tenement sweatshops. Children in this period also worked in agriculture, in stockyards and slaughter houses, in canning factories, in coal mines, and all manner of occupations, many of them dangerous.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as industrialization entered a new phase of escalating mass production, reformers outside the labor movement developed new arguments against child labor. Chief among these was a rising belief in childhood as a time when one was entitled to the protection of the state. Reformers such as Grace Abbot and Florence Kelley placed child labor at the center of their critique of industrialization. In settlement houses like Jane Addams's Hull House in Chicago and Lillian Wald's Henry Street Settlement in New York, they studied the living and working conditions of the working class as they sought to change these conditions. In 1902 Wald and Kelley organized the New York Child Labor Committee, and in 1904 they helped found the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC). Like most Progressive Era reform efforts, the drive to restrict child labor focused on the state level more than the national level. This made sense because the states were generally more active in regulating industry.

As trade unionists and reformers sought increased state involvement in workplace regulation, business interests argued against it. The business community profited from the low wages it paid to children, but it also opposed state regulation more generally. Business sought support from a larger community that regarded children as the property of their parents. In this viewpoint, parents controlled a child's labor and had the right to put the child to work for the good of the family.

In 1904 with the formation of the NCLC, the movement's focus shifted to the national level. In 1912 the U.S. Children's Bureau was created, and in 1917 Grace Abbot became director of its child labor division. By 1914, 40 states plus Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia had enacted some sort of restriction on child labor. Yet, reformers recognized the limits of these gains. With disparate regulations in the various states, businesses could move to states with less regulation. Enforcement was inconsistent; some states had no public agency charged with enforcement. Increasingly reformers came to advocate national legislation and enforcement by the federal government.

The first such effort came in 1906. Senator Albert J. Beveridge of Indiana proposed a law that would have prohibited interstate transportation of the products of any factory or mine that employed children under the age of 14. Beveridge's law never passed. In 1916 and 1919 reformers pushed Congress to pass child labor laws, each tackling the problem from a different angle. Both times, the Supreme Court found the laws unconstitutional. The 1916 law, patterned on Beveridge's law, regulated interstate commerce in the products of child labor. In Hammer v. Dagenhart, the Court found that this interfered with the states' rights to regulate conditions in manufacturing. The 1919 bill placed a 10 percent tax on the net profits of manufacturers that employed children under age 14. Once again, in Bailey v. Drexel Furniture Company, the Supreme Court found that the law unconstitutionally regulated local labor laws.

Designing a New Strategy

Following the Court's decision in 1922, efforts began in both houses of the federal legislature for an amendment to give Congress the power to regulate child labor. These efforts responded to pressure from the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and reform groups. The NCLC resolved that there was "no opportunity to secure legislation regulating child labor by the federal authorities under the present Constitution." Samuel Gompers convened a conference on child labor at AFL headquarters in Washington. Organizations represented at the meeting included the U.S. Children's Bureau, the National Council on Jewish Women, the National Education Association, the National Federation of Teachers, the General Federation of Women's Clubs, the National League of Women Voters, the YWCA, the American Association of University Women, the National Women's Christian Temperance Union, and the National Congress of Mothers and Parent-Teacher Associations. Gompers was chosen chairman. Florence Kelley of the National Consumer's League became vice chairman. The group formed the Permanent Conference for the Abolition of Child Labor and agreed that a constitutional amendment would be the best way to get around the Supreme Court's insistence that the Congress had no business regulating child labor.

A constitutional amendment certainly seemed feasible in the climate of the times. The constitution had already been amended four times since 1913. Constitutional amendments had been the strategy used by both women's suffragists and advocates of a national income tax to overrule Supreme Court decisions. The success of the battle for the Eighteenth Amendment (Prohibition) had raised awareness of a constitutional amendment as a strategy for policy change. These factors, added to the victories that child labor reformers had enjoyed in getting states to pass regulatory legislation, led the reformers to have confidence in this new strategy.

An amendment also seemed the only workable solution to a problem that was growing in both size and intensity. A report made by the Children's Bureau in 1923 indicated that few states had reduced their regulation of child labor since the Supreme Court's decision in Bailey. Only 13 states had child labor legislation that met the standard of the federal statutes that had been voided by the Court decision. State labor officials themselves wished for federal legislation to set national standards for child labor regulation. More factories had moved to states with less regulation of child labor. Not coincidentally, these states also had less union organization and fewer worker safety regulations.

Once reformers reached a consensus that an amendment was the best strategy, they had only to agree on the wording of the amendment. A battle shaped up between the NCLC and the Permanent Conference. The former group wanted to be sure that the amendment did not interfere with the rights of states to have stricter child labor regulations than the federal government. The latter, which was a broader group, simply wanted to see the U.S. Congress gain the authority to regulate child labor.

The Amendment

Hearings on the amendment took place from 7 February to 8 March 1924. A strong opposition to the amendment emerged under the aegis of the NAM. It included forces that had opposed women's suffrage just a few years previously. On 26 April 1924 the House voted in favor of a resolution for an amendment by a vote of 297 to 69. On 2 June the Senate supported the resolution 61 to 23. The amendment had been the result of a compromise between the NCLC and Permanent Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee. It was a permissive law, not a regulatory one; it simply empowered Congress to regulate child labor. It was worded quite broadly to allow for a good deal of congressional discretion in the future. The word "child" was dismissed as too vague and replaced with "persons under 18 years of age." The term "labor" was used in preference to "employment" to ensure that children working in family businesses or alongside their parents could be regulated as well as those working for wages of their own.

The proposed amendment had two sections. The first stated simply, "The Congress shall have the power to limit, regulate, and prohibit the labor of persons under 18 years of age." The second clarified this power in terms of existing state regulations as follows: "The power of the several States is unimpaired by this article except that the operation of State laws shall be suspended to the extent necessary to give effect to legislation enacted by the Congress." Thus, the first section was as broad and simple as the Permanent Committee wanted, and the second addressed the issue raised by the NCLC. It clearly permitted states to regulate child labor more intensively than the federal government did.

The Campaign for the Amendment

There was great popular support for regulating child labor, and most politicians recognized it. The fact that this was an election year enabled the passage of the amendment. All three presidential candidates, Calvin Coolidge, John W. Davis, and Robert M. LaFollette, supported it. Six states (Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Montana, and Wisconsin) ratified the amendment initially. Then the ratifications slowed. There was a second wave of ratifications between 1933 and 1937, part of a general trend toward more active government in that period. Fourteen states ratified the amendment during this period, 11 of which had previously rejected it in at least one legislative house. This brought the total of ratifying states to 20, or 16 shy of the required 36.

Ratification followed a regional pattern. States in the Midwest and West ratified it; only Arkansas and Kentucky did in the South. Both the Central region and the Northeast were very mixed. Neither New York nor Massachusetts ratified it, though both had strong traditions of Progressive reform. This suggests that in some states the issue of state's rights overrode the issue of child labor itself in the debate.

The intensity of the battle in New York was surprising given the state's willingness to regulate working conditions. In 1925 the New York Committee for Ratification of the Child Labor Amendment was formed by the Women's Trade Union League, Consumers' League, and the New York Child Labor Committee. Even with a strong movement pushing for ratification, reformers were unable to win a majority in the state legislature.


All across the country the amendment faced a well-organized opposition. That opposition could appeal to states' rights and the general opposition to government regulation that many Americans shared. Some argued that controlling child labor would destroy parental authority. In this view, an alliance between Congress, social workers, and rebellious adolescents threatened to destroy both local government and parental prerogatives.

Another center of opposition was in agriculture. Farmers invoked what one progressive journal sarcastically referred to as "the sacred right of the 17-year-old farmer boy to pick blueberries on the hill." In short, they argued that children's participation in agriculture was a traditional part of a traditional family business. The only problem with this argument was that most children working in agriculture were doing so as underpaid employees, not as family members.

The NAM formed a National Committee for the Rejection of the Twentieth Amendment to lobby against ratification. Their arguments included all of those mentioned above and placed a special emphasis on the issue of local government. "Local" was a codeword for different things in different regions in the 1920s and 1930s. In the South, it meant "segregated." In many regions it meant "anti-Prohibition." Invoking localism, parental authority, and traditional practices was a powerful formula during this time. NAM succeeded in blocking ratification in enough states to prevent the amendment from being approved. It would take the Great Depression to get the federal government to assume power over the issue of child labor.

Key Players

Abbot, Grace (1878-1939): Abbot moved to Chicago from Nebraska in 1907 and became a resident of Hull House. She received a doctorate in political science from the University of Chicago. She directed the Immigrant's Protective League and in 1917 became director of the child labor division of the U.S. Children's Bureau, which she headed from 1921 until 1934. In 1938 she published her two-volume book The Child and the State.

Beveridge, Albert Jeremiah (1862-1927): U.S. senator from Indiana (1899-1911), Beveridge supported the policies of Theodore Roosevelt and helped organize the Progressive Party, which ran him as its candidate for governor of Indiana in 1912.

Coolidge, Calvin (1872-1933): The 30th president of the United States (1923-1929), Coolidge presided over a period of what was called "Coolidge prosperity." He favored isolation in foreign policy, government inactivity in the economy, and tax cuts.

Davis, John W. (1873-1955): Representative from West Virginia from 1911 to 1913, Davis resigned to become a federal judge. Later he was ambassador to the Court of St. James's and unsuccessful Democratic Party candidate in 1924.

Gompers, Samuel (1850-1924): Gompers began work as a cigarmaker at age 10, becoming leader of the Cigarmakers'Union by 1877. In 1881 he helped organize the AFL, and he served as its president until 1924.

Kelley, Florence (1859-1932): Kelley translated Friedrich Engels's The Condition of the Working Class in England before moving to Hull House in 1891. In 1899 she moved to Henry Street Settlement in New York and became general secretary of the National Consumers League, a position she held until her death. She founded the New York Child Labor Committee with Lillian Wald in 1902 and participated in forming the National Child Labor Committee in 1904. She was a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909 and served as vice president for the National American Woman Suffrage Association.

LaFollette, Robert M. (1855-1925): Known as "FightingBob," LaFollette served in the House of Representatives from 1885 to 1891, as governor of Wisconsin from 1900 to 1905, and as U.S. senator from 1905 to 1925. He ran as a Progressive Party candidate for president in 1924. Upon his death in 1925 he was succeeded in the Senate by his son, Robert M. LaFollette Jr.

See also: American Federation of Labor; Fair Labor Standards Act; National Child Labor Committee.



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Johnson, Julia E. Child Labor. New York: The H. W. Wilson Company, 1926.

Kyvig, David. Explicit and Authentic Acts: Amending the U.S. Constitution, 1776-1995. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1996.

Lumpkin, Katharine, and Dorothy Wolff Douglass. Child Workers in America. New York: Robert M. McBride and Company, 1939.

Trattaner, Walter I. Crusade for the Children. Chicago:Quadrangle Books, 1970.


Abbot, Grace. "Federal Regulation of Child Labor,1906-1938." Social Service Review 13 (September 1939): 409-430.

Hulett, J. E., Jr. "Propaganda and the Proposed Child Labor Amendment." Public Opinion Quarterly 2, no. 1 (1938):105-115.

Sherman, Richard B. "The Rejection of the Child Labor Amendment." Mid-American 45 (January 1963): 3-17.

—Jane Holzka

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Child Labor Amendment

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