Keating-Owen Child Labor Act 39 Stat. 675 (1916)

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This law marked the federal government's first attempt to regulate the use of child labor, culminating a decade-long effort by organized labor, social reformers and workers, publicists, and progressive politicians. The act prohibited the shipment in interstate or foreign commerce of any commodity produced in a mine or factory that employed children under the ages of sixteen and fourteen respectively.

Congressional debates over child labor legislation centered on the scope of national power. Opponents of the measure insisted that it involved a regulation of production, not commerce, and hence violated the tenth amendment and the controlling precedent of united states v. e. c. knight (1895). Although that decision had been distinguished in other cases involving national police power uses of the commerce clause, such as the regulation of adulterated foods, states rights ' oriented southern congressmen insisted that the national government could only prohibit harmful items from interstate commerce. Goods made by children, they insisted, were not harmful in and of themselves. Supporters of a child labor law countered that congressional power over interstate commerce was plenary except for Fifth Amendment limitations. They also maintained that congressional action was imperative because state regulations had proven ineffective.

Supporters of the bill mobilized a broad array of interested groups, coordinated by the highly effective National Child Labor Committee. In addition, some traditionally conservative northern manufacturers lobbied for national action to counter the competitive advantage of new southern industries that operated under ineffectual state laws against child labor. A House committee report reflected this concern, noting that only national power could maintain a national marketplace and prevent unfair competition among the states. Finally, in the summer of 1916, independent progressives convinced a hitherto reluctant President woodrow wilson that his support was necessary to insure progressive backing in the forthcoming presidential election. Wilson decisively intervened with southern senators who had prevented passage for nearly six months, and the bill became law on September 1, 1916.

The Keating-Owen Act proved short-lived, for in less than two years the Supreme Court invalidated it in hammer v. dagenhart (1918). A 5–4 majority held that the act regulated production, not interstate commerce, and violated the Tenth Amendment. The Knight precedent was reconfirmed, and the Court distinguished its approval of police power regulations of the flow of lottery tickets, adulterated foods, prostitutes, and liquor on the grounds that child labor products were not injurious.

Congress followed the Court's action with a new law based on the taxing power, but it, too, was voided. An effort to secure a child labor amendment to the Constitution languished in the 1920s and 1930s, but finally, in 1938, the fair labor standards act revived the essential elements of Keating-Owen. The Court sustained the new law in united states v. darby (1941), expressly overruling Hammer v. Dagenhart.

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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Keating-Owen Child Labor Act 39 Stat. 675 (1916)

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