The First Child Labor Bill and the Politics of Federalism in the Lochner Era

48 Pages Posted: 19 Aug 2009 Last revised: 26 Oct 2009

Date Written: August 19, 2009


By examining the defeat of the first federal child labor bill in 1907, the attached article challenges the long-standing explanation for the failure of federal child labor reform in the Lochner Era as well as the reductionist understanding of the relationship between law and politics it supports. That traditional explanation, often associated with Hammer v. Dagenhart, attributes the failure of federal child labor reform to the Supreme Court’s federalism doctrines and portrays those doctrines as crude camouflage for a desire to protect business interests.

This paper, in contrast, argues that the Republicans who controlled Congress did not reject the bill because they were simple shills for manufacturing interests or because they were laissez-faire ideologues. In fact, the same Republican controlled Congress that rejected the first child labor bill also passed some of the most important regulatory legislation of the Progressive Era. They rejected the bill because they feared the constitutional argument used to support it would destroy the coalition of labor and capital that was crucial to their political success, a conclusion they reached because they properly understood a surprising relationship between antitrust enforcement, liberty of contract, and commerce clause doctrine.

This paper thus provides a clear example of how politicians use constitutional arguments in their constant quest for political advantage. But it also emphasizes how politicians can be constrained by the same political and legal structures that empower them.

Keywords: legal history, federalism, freedom of contract, commerce clause, Progressive Era, political parties

Suggested Citation

Sawyer, Logan Everett, The First Child Labor Bill and the Politics of Federalism in the Lochner Era (August 19, 2009). Available at SSRN: or

Logan Everett Sawyer (Contact Author)

University of Georgia School of Law ( email )

225 Herty Drive
Athens, GA 30602
United States

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