Hammer v. Dagenhart 247 U.S. 251 (1918)

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HAMMER v. DAGENHART 247 U.S. 251 (1918)

From 1903 to 1918, the Supreme Court consistently had approved national police power regulations enacted under the commerce clause. But in Hammer v. Dagenhart, the Court deviated from this tradition and invalidated the keating-owen child labor act, which prohibited the interstate shipment of goods produced by child labor. The Court's restrictive doctrine nevertheless proved vulnerable and the decision itself eventually was overruled.

In champion v. ames (1903) the Justices had sustained a congressional prohibition against the interstate shipment of lottery tickets. The ruling actually was quite narrow, holding that such tickets were proper subjects of commerce and that Congress could prevent the "pollution" of interstate commerce. a more general, expansive doctrine seemed to emerge as the Court soon approved similar regulations of the interstate flow of adulterated foods and impure drugs, prostitutes, prize fight films, and liquor. The Court abruptly deviated from this course in the child labor case, perhaps signaling a reaction against some of the Progressive era's social reforms and the Court's prior tendency toward liberal nationalism.

Justice william r. day, speaking for a 5–4 majority, maintained at the outset that in each of the other cases the Court had acknowledged that the "use of interstate transportation was necessary to the accomplishment of harmful results." But the child labor regulations, Day held, were different because the goods shipped were of themselves harmless in contrast with lottery tickets, impure foods, prize fight films, and liquor. It was an unsound distinction, but one perhaps anticipated by Justice john marshall harlan's remarks in the Lottery Case that the Court would not allow Congress arbitrarily to exclude every article from interstate commerce.

The Court refuted any suggestions that congressional authority extended to prevent unfair competition among the states, thus enabling it to ignore any discussion of the evils or deleterious effects of child labor. This argument was grounded in the majority's revival of rigid notions of dual federalism. Production, Day said, as he resurrected an older, dubious, and arbitrary distinction, was not commerce; the regulation of production was reserved by the tenth amendment to the states. "If it were otherwise," Day noted, "all manufacture intended for interstate shipment would be brought under federal control to the practical exclusion of the authority of the States, a result certainly not contemplated by the … Constitution." The regulation of child labor, he maintained, not only exceeded congressional authority but also invaded the proper sphere of local power. To allow such a measure, Day concluded, would end "all freedom of commerce," eliminate state control over local matters, and thereby destroy the federal system.

In dissent, Justice oliver wendell holmes uttered his oft-quoted remark that "if there is any matter upon which civilized countries have agreed—far more unanimously than they have with regard to intoxicants and some other matters over which this country is now emotionally aroused—it is the evil of premature and excessive child labor." But Holmes offered more than his customary philosophical discourse on judicial restraint. Congress plainly had the power to regulate interstate shipments, and its motives of doing so were no less legitimate here than they had been in the regulations.

Whether "evil precedes or follows the transportation" was irrelevant, Holmes said; once states transported their goods across their boundaries, they were "no longer within their rights."

The Hammer decision did not significantly diminish the Court's willingness or ability to sustain congressional police regulations under the commerce clause. The ruling revealed that the Court seemed less concerned with the evils of child labor than Congress and was more interested in maintaining the purity of the federal system. In bailey v. drexel furniture (1922), the Justices invalidated a congressional attempt to regulate child labor by using the taxing power, again despite ample precedents justifying national power. But three years later, Chief Justice william howard taft, who had written the child labor tax opinion, reverted to the Court's earlier police power decisions and broadly approved the National Motor Vehicle Act (1919) which made the transportation of stolen automobiles across state lines a federal crime. In Brooks v. United States (1925), Taft agreed that Congress could forbid the use of interstate commerce "as an agency to promote immorality, dishonesty or the spread of any evil or harm of other States from the State of origin." Hammer v. Dagenhart marred an otherwise consistent pattern in the precedents, but Taft quickly disposed of it by reiterating the distinction that the products of child labor were not harmful. Yet his 1925 opinion refuted such doctrine as he demonstrated that a perceived evil required national action and the question of harmfulness was secondary.

Throughout the 1920s, the Supreme Court, following Taft's strong views, generally approved an ever expanding scope to the commerce clause. There was some retreat during the bitter constitutional struggle over the New Deal, but it proved temporary. After 1937, a number of decisions reaffirmed a broad nationalistic view of the commerce power. Finally, in 1941, the Court specifically overruled Hammer. Justice harlan fiske stone, in united states v. darby, rebuked the earlier decision as "novel," "unsupported," "a departure," and "exhausted" as a precedent.

The most poignant historical commentary on Hammer came from the supposed victor, Reuben Dagenhart, whose father had sued in order to sustain his "freedom" to allow his fourteen-year-old boy to work in a textile mill. Six years later, Reuben, a 105-pound man, recalled that his victory had earned him a soft drink, some automobile rides from his employer, and a salary of one dollar a day; he had also lost his education and his health.

Stanley I. Kutler


Wood, Stephen 1968 Constitutional Politics in the Progressive Era: Child Labor and the Law. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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Hammer v. Dagenhart 247 U.S. 251 (1918)

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