Commonwealth v. Hunt

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Commonwealth v. Hunt

United States 1842


Commonwealth v. Hunt was a significant 1842 Massachusetts court case that considered the right to exist of labor unions. Also at issue was whether such unions had the right to strike, especially for the purpose of establishing a closed shop. Some charged that such labor activities constituted an illegal conspiracy. In both instances the court ruled that not only were trade unions legal, but they had the right to strike for a closed shop. The court also reminded both labor and management that although unions were legal, so must their purposes be legal as well. This was a landmark case occurring in the earlier years of the Industrial Revolution when it appeared that workers might not have very many rights to protect their own interests.


  • 1823: U.S. President James Monroe establishes the Monroe Doctrine, whereby the United States warns European nations not to interfere in the political affairs of the Western Hemisphere.
  • 1828: Election of Andrew Jackson as president begins a new era in American history.
  • 1834: American inventor Cyrus H. McCormick patents his reaper, a horse-drawn machine for harvesting wheat.
  • 1836: In Texas's war of independence with Mexico, the defenders of the Alamo, among them Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie, are killed in a siege. Later that year, Texas wins the Battle of San Jacinto and secures its independence.
  • 1838: The forcible removal of the Cherokee Nation from Georgia to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) along the "Trail of Tears" begins.
  • 1841: Act of Union joins Upper Canada and Lower Canada, which consist of parts of the present-day provinces of Ontario and Quebec, respectively.
  • 1842: Scientific and technological advances include the development of ether and artificial fertilizer; the identification of the Doppler effect (by Austrian physicist Christian Johann Doppler); the foundation of biochemistry as a discipline; and the coining of the word dinosaur.
  • 1842: In Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population of Great Britain, British reformer Edwin Chadwick draws attention to the squalor in the nation's mill town slums and shows that working people have a much higher incidence of disease than do the middle and upper classes.
  • 1842: British forces in the Afghan capital of Kabul are routed, experiencing one of the first major defeats of a Europe an force by a non-European one in modern times.
  • 1844: "Fifty-four-forty or fight" is the rallying cry at the Democratic National Convention, where delegates call fortion of Texas.
  • 1848: Mexican War ends with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, in which Mexico gives up half of its land area, in cluding Texas, California, most of Arizona and New Mexico, and parts of Colorado, Utah, and Nevada. In another treaty, with Great Britain, the United States sets the boundaries of its Oregon Territory.
  • 1852: Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, though far from a literary masterpiece, is a great commercial success, with over half a million sales on both sides of the Atlantic. More important, it has an enormous influence on British sentiments with regard to slavery and the brewing American conflict between North and South.

Event and Its Context

The impact of the Industrial Revolution includes the advent and increased use of machines that allowed business owners to produce more goods at lower costs. The expansion of machine use was accompanied by the growth of the "outsourcing" system. This was a process by which a skilled craft, such as shoemaking, would be reduced from that of a master shoemaker creating his product to that of dividing the process up into a series of "unskilled" tasks. For example, instead of employing a number of master and journeymen workers, an employer would hire unskilled labor to each perform one aspect of the manufacturing process. This system allowed employers to avoid paying skilled wages because the work was broken up and distributed among those who were not craftsmen but "ordinary" laborers.

The impact of the Industrial Revolution upon workers, especially skilled laborers, was at times devastating, as many saw their craft reduced to either a machine operation or outsourced to unskilled labor. The employers found nothing wrong with these practices: businesses become successful because they outperform the competition; to do that one must be able to find ways to produce goods at the lowest possible cost, thus maximizing profits.

The workers, however, found these practices unfair. For instance, to keep production costs down, in addition to the use of machines and unskilled labor, wage reductions were commonplace. Furthermore, as competition increased, so did the number of hours in the workday, which could range from 12 to 14 hours a day. Another common concern was workplace safety. As industrialism grew, so did the number of disabling and fatal accidents. Workers injured at the workplace had little, if any, protection from such injuries and usually no means of financial compensation should they fall victim to such an occurrence.

As the Industrial Revolution continued, accompanied by a distinct change in the socioeconomic fabric of society, as a natural course of events, people began to band together to protect their interests. Certainly business owners combined to attempt to control the marketplace; the workers also created combinations. The idea of laborers establishing organizations to protect their interests was not new. The earliest such cooperative organizations, called guilds, served a variety of purposes. Some of these purposes were to protect their workplace interests, such as wage scales, bargaining rights, training, and safety. Some also played other roles, including providing educational and financial benefits.

The earliest trade unions centered on skilled crafts such as shoemaking, printing, and hatmaking. In the years following the American Revolution, several strikes of skilled workers occurred. The Philadelphia shoemakers, who organized in 1792, went on strike in 1799. New York printers struck in 1794, as did the cabinetmakers in 1796. The major issues surrounding these strikes were controlling the number of work hours, increasing wages, establishing the closed shop (that is, a business in which only union labor is employed), and putting the training of apprentices under union control.

As the tensions between employers and workers began to grow, employers began to look for ways to keep the labor movement in check. One such method was the use of replacement workers or "scabs" during a strike, usually at a considerably lower wage. The use of scabs to keep a business functioning during a strike was one means to defeat the union because it allowed management to simply wait until the strikers could no longer afford to continue the action.

In the early years of the nineteenth century, employers began to use the court system to challenge labor unions. Employers felt that the formation of unions was both unfair and illegal, and that activities such as strikes deprived business owners of the lawful use of their property. Employers started to claim that labor unions were "conspiracies." In legal terms, a conspiracy is "a combination of two or more persons to commit a criminal or unlawful act, or to commit a lawful act by criminal or unlawful means; or a combination of two or more persons by concerted action to accomplish an unlawful purpose." Employers argued that many union activities caused unnecessary harm to others in that they denied nonunion labor the right to earn a living, for example, in the case of the closed shop.

The first union conspiracy case was tried in Philadelphia in 1806. From that time until 1842, labor unions were charged with conspiracy no less than 17 times. However, the courts tended to be lenient in their punishments, usually levying a fine and threatening much more stern reprisals should the defendants be again found guilty. The labor movement, however, believed that the right to engage in collective bargaining, and, thus, protect their own interests was not illegal, especially as there were no precise laws on the books to ban their activities. Laborers clamored to assert their right to demand a say in work-place practices because of the force with which those decisions affected their lives and welfare.

The case of Commonwealth v. Hunt arose out of an 1839 strike by the Boston Journeymen Bootmakers' Society. The main issue surrounding the strike involved the closed shop; the Bootmakers attempted to block the use of nonunion labor. Seven union leaders were indicted for creating an "unlawful club" with "unlawful rules." The indictment, however, did not include any accusation of any specific wrongdoing, such as trying to deprive the employer of the lawful use of his business, nor was the union charged with formenting any violence. Prosecutors used the Bootmakers' constitution as evidence of this conspiracy and further charged that the union was depriving a nonmember his legal right to work. The presiding judge, Peter O. Thatcher, already had a reputation for condemning unions as conspiracies. Despite a vigorous defense, the Bootmakers were found guilty of conspiracy in 1840.

In 1842 the case came up on appeal to the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts. In what would become a "celebrated" decision, Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw overturned the ruling of the lower court. First, in addressing the legal rights of unions to exist, Shaw acknowledged that such organizations could have harmful intentions, but that they might also exist for noble ones as well. Whereas past conspiracy rulings were meant to discourage labor activity, Shaw believed that unions were not illegal conspiracies and that they had the right to promote and encourage a higher standard of living for laborers. Shaw saw that labor organizations served a useful purpose by assisting their members in times of hardship and working to improve the overall intellectual and physical well-being of members.

Shaw saw no illegal conspiracies. Unions had the right to exist as long as their purposes and methods were legal. He also held that an entire union could not be held responsible for the actions of a few of its members, a key point in his overturning of the conspiracy charge. Furthermore, he found that unions had the right to strike for a closed shop.

This was certainly far from the end of the conspiracy doctrine as applied to union activities. First of all, this was a state court decision and therefore not binding upon the laws of other states. Second, Shaw's contention that a union's purpose and methods must be legal opened up a whole new dialogue: what constituted a legal purpose or method? What was an illegal purpose or method? Third, conspiracy cases continued to plague labor throughout the rest of the nineteenth century, as did the debate surrounding the legality of the closed shop. Many other state courts applied the principals of Shaw's opinion in their own cases.

Although the conspiracy doctrine was irrevocably changed by the decision in Commonwealth v. Hunt, employers looked for other legal means to combat the growing labor movement. Such methods included using court injunctions to curb labor activities; forcing employees to sign "yellow dog contracts" in which a worker agreed not to join a labor union (which was itself upheld by the courts for many years); enacting laws to restrict the use of strikes and boycotts; and the continuing to use scabs in labor disputes. Despite the existence of such actions, Commonwealth v. Hunt still stands as a landmark in U.S. labor law.

Key Players

Shaw, Lemuel (1781-1861): Shaw was the chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts; he handed down the infamous ruling in Commonwealth v. Hunt. Born and raised in Massachusetts, Shaw was educated at Harvard before embarking on a legal career. He served in several elected posts, including state senator (1821-1822) before assuming the position of chief justice, a post in which he served for 30 years. He was known for recognizing how circumstances were changing as a result of the Industrial Revolution. Many of his decisions were deemed in the public favor. Some of his later decisions were not as popular: he ruled companies were not liable for injuries caused by fellow workers, and refused to free a fugitive slave, as required by federal law.



Foner, Philip S. A History of the Labor Movement in the United States. Vol. 1, From Colonial Times to the Founding of the American Federation of Labor. New York: International Publishers, 1962.

Friedman, Lawrence. A History of American Law. New York: Touchstone Books, 1985.

Taylor, Benjamin, and Witney, Fred. U.S. Labor Relations Law. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1992.

Zainaldin, Jamil. Law in Antebellum Society. New York:Alfred A. Knopf, 1983.

—Mitchell Newton-Matza

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Commonwealth v. Hunt

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