Hammer v. Dagenhart 1918

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Hammer v. Dagenhart 1918

Appellant: W.C. Hammer, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of North Carolina

Appellee: Roland Dagenhart

Appellant's Claim: That Congress had constitutional authority under the Commerce Clause to pass and enforce the Keating-Owen child labor law.

Chief Lawyers for Appellant: John W. Davis, U.S. Solicitor General; Roscoe Pound, Dean of Harvard Law School

Chief Lawyer for Appellee: Junius Parker

Justices for the Court: William Rufus Day, Joseph McKenna, Mahlon Pitney, Willis Van Devanter, Edward Douglas White

Justices Dissenting: Louis D. Brandeis, John Hessin Clarke, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Clark McReynolds

Date of Decision: June 3, 1918

Decision: Ruled in favor of Dagenhart by finding that Congress had no authority under the Commerce Clause to restrict manufacturing activities involving children.

Significance: The decision was a strong statement in favor of state powers. The Court continued taking unpopular positions on attempts by the federal government to regulate business and protect workers' rights. Though another child labor law was overturned again four years later, by the late 1930s protection of children in the workplace finally became accepted by the courts.

With expansion of industrialization in the late nineteenth century, conditions for workers on the job were often harsh. The Supreme Court justices during this time largely believed in the idea of laisse-faire economy, meaning business and industry were free to grow largely unaffected by government regulation. This position led to many unpopular Court decisions blocking government regulation and efforts to promote workers' rights.

In the absence of child labor laws, many children worked long hours at difficult and dangerous jobs in mines and factories and on farms. In 1900, one out of every six children between the ages of ten and fifteen worked for money. Often jobs required children to work ten or more hours a day and paid only a few cents an hour. Chief among these was the South's growing textile industry which heavily relied on the cheap labor of children.

Social reform movements began to grow in reaction to the harsh working conditions, with particular concern focused on the effects on women and children as well as the long range implications for U.S. society. Though a proposed child labor law was unsuccessful in Congress in 1907, it drew increased national attention to the issue. However, reformists faced two major obstacles. One was that labor contracts were considered personal matters outside the authority of government to regulate. For the government to say that children should not work more than ten hours a day, or that children under fourteen years of age should not work at all would be considered interference with a parent's and employer's right to enter into a contract. Second, such matters were considered the responsibility of states to regulate. The Tenth Amendment to the Constitution states that all powers not specifically given to the federal government are reserved for the states. But states were not likely to restrict labor. Since child labor was cheaper than adult wages, influential business interests opposed state laws restricting child labor. They feared that if the state prohibited child labor their businesses would be non-competitive with businesses in other states not restricted by such laws. Businesses in states without child labor laws could likely sell their products at a lower cost.

Keating and Owen

Representative Edward Keating and Senator Robert L. Owen proposed a different legal route to protect children from working long hours for low wages in hazardous conditions. They decided to use federal authority under the Commerce Clause to avoid the issue of regulating work conditions or contracts. The Commerce Clause, included in Article I of the Constitution, gives the federal government authority to regulate interstate commerce (business conducted across state lines). They proposed and soon passed the Keating-Owen Act, commonly known as the Child Labor Act of 1916. The act prohibited the interstate shipment of products made in factories or mines that employed children under fourteen years of age or that allowed children between fourteen and sixteen years of age to work more than eight hours a day. Employers were also prohibited from requiring children to work six days a week, after 7:00 p.m. or before 6:00 a.m. Companies could not ship products until these labor conditions had ceased for at least thirty days.

Immediately opponents to the act rallied to challenge it. Among these was David Clark. Clark was publisher of a trade journal in Charlotte, North Carolina, a major center of the textile industry, and a member of the Executive Committee of Southern Cotton Manufacturers. Looking for a test case to challenge the new law, Clark found Roland Dagenhart who worked with his two teenaged sons at the Fidelity Manufacturing Company, a small cotton mill in Charlotte. Dagenhart's older son, Reuben, was fifteen years of age, and his younger son was thirteen years of age. Under the new federal law, Reuben would have to greatly reduce the number of hours worked in a week. The younger son could not work at all.

When Fidelity Manufacturing indicated it would follow the new law, Dagenhart with encouragement from Clark filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina against the company and against W. C. Hammer, the U.S. Attorney who would likely be the person enforcing the law in that area. Dagenhart sought an injunction (a court order to stop an action) to prevent the company from obeying the act and to keep Hammer from enforcing it. The district ruled the act was unconstitutional and issued an injunction to stop enforcement of it. Hammer appealed the decision to the Supreme Court which accepted the case.

Before the Supreme Court, Hammer argued how destructive child labor was to both the children and their families. He also argued that states were unable to pass such protective laws individually because of the fear of losing business to other states. Only the federal government could pass such a law that would be equally applied to everyone. The Keating-Owen Act was, therefore, necessary to protect the public good.

Justice William R. Day wrote the opinion of the Court's bitterly divided 5-4 majority in favor of Dagenhart. Typical for the Court during this time period, Day held a very narrow (restricted) view of federal government authority under the Commerce Clause. Day wrote that the power to regulate commerce is the power "to control the means by which commerce is carried on," not the "right to forbid commerce" as the Keating-Owen Act did. Hammer argued that interstate prohibitions had already been successfully applied to other forms of commerce related to lottery tickets, contaminated food, and kidnaped persons. None of these could be transported between states. However, Day responded that for these situations "the use of interstate transportation was necessary" for harmful activities to occur. However, in the Dagenhart case, Day asserted "the goods shipped are of themselves harmless" therefore the actual transportation of goods is not the problem at hand.

Day concluded that though states who passed child labor laws would likely be more disadvantaged economically than those who did not pass such laws, "this fact does not give Congress the power to deny transportation in interstate commerce." The Tenth Amendment allowed states to freely make their own choices. The first child labor law passed in the United States was overturned.

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, known as the Great Dissenter for his frequent disagreements with the Court's majority, wrote one of the best known dissents in Supreme Court history. Holmes passionately wrote, "It does not matter whether the supposed evil precedes or follows the transportation . . . It is enough that in the opinion of Congress that transportation encourages the evil."


C hildren have worked to help their families since ancient times, commonly on farms. Social problems with child labor began to rise with the coming of industrialization in the eighteenth century in Britain and the nineteenth century in the United States. Kept out of school, children often worked in filthy, dimly-lighted mines, mills, and factories. The British Parliament passed the first British child labor law in 1802 aimed at protecting pauper children (children dependent on charity). In the United States, by 1832 about 40 percent of New England factory workers were between the ages of seven and sixteen. Massachusetts was the first state to pass a child labor law, in 1836, but few other states adopted laws in the nineteenth century and those few were generally not enforced.

After the Keating-Owen Act, the first federal child labor law, was overturned in the Supreme Court; a national child labor law did not pass successfully until the 1930s. By the year 2000, all fifty states had child labor laws to protect children from risk of injury. The laws vary widely, but generally set a minimum general employment age, a higher age for hazardous work, and limits on hours. Violation of child labor regulations can lead to criminal prosecution. An accused employer can not claim innocence of the child's age as a defense. They have a responsibility to know the age of their workers. Child labor among farmworkers remains a key issue.

An Unpopular Decision

The Court decision in Hammer was met with public outrage. The New York Evening Mail called the decision a "victory of sordidness [unwhole-someness] over our little ones." Congress responded by looking at its other authorities such as the power to tax. In February of 1919, Congress passed a revenue act applying a stiff 10 percent excise tax on products made with child labor. However, that law was also struck down in Bailey v. Drexel Furniture Co. (1922) with the Court ruling that Congress had no taxing authority for business activities occurring fully within a state.

With a major change in Court direction in the late 1930s supporting federal regulation of many activities, the Court reversed the Hammer decision in United States v. Darby (1941).

Interestingly, five years later at age twenty Reuben Dagenhart made the following comment during an interview about the case,

I don't see that I got any benefit. I guess I'd have been a lot better off if they hadn't won it. Look at me! A hundred and five pounds, a grown man and no education. I may be mistaken, but I think the years I've put in the cotton mills have stunted my growth. They kept me from getting any schooling. I had to stop school after the third grade and now I need the education I didn't get . . . It would have been a good thing in this state if that law they passed had been kept.

Suggestions for further reading

Bartoletti, Susan C. Growing Up in Coal Country. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1996.

Freedman, Russell. Kids at Work: Lewis Hine and the Crusade Agains Child Labor. New York: Clarion Books, 1994.

Greene, Laura O. Child Labor: Then and Now. New York: F. Watts, 1992.

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