In Hammer v. Dagenhart, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the 1916 Keating-Owen Act, which restricted child labor through the Congressional power to regulate interstate commerce, unconstitutional. Keating-Owen prohibited the shipment of commodities across state lines if they were manufactured by firms employing children less than fourteen years of age, or in mines employing children less than sixteen years of age. When Keating-Owen became effective in 1917, a Child Labor Division under Grace Abbott was organized to enforce the law through the U.S. CHILDREN'S BUREAU directed by Julia Lathrop. Almost immediately, a Mr. Dagenhart, the father of two youths working in a mill in North Carolina, sued to stop the enforcement of the law. Dagenhart won a court injunction against the federal statute, and the North Carolina Attorney General appealed to the Supreme Court. In a 5–4 split decision, the majority rejected a lower court's reasoning that the statute was unconstitutional because it deprived parents such as Dagenhart of their property rights regarding their children. Instead, Justice William D. Day wrote that the statute attempted to achieve indirectly for the Congress what the Constitution did not grant them directly. The purpose of the federal statute was to regulate manufacturing in the states, and thus it had unconstitutionally used the commerce clause of the Constitution to intrude upon state's rights. Justice Oliver W. Holmes argued for the minority that the law was fully within the power of the interstate commerce clause, and the purposes and consequences of the Act relative to the states were irrelevant.
Keating-Owen and Hammer mark the first time the struggle over child labor moved before the highest judicial and political bodies of the nation. The result reveals the difficulties child labor reformers faced when confronting state's rights doctrine and laissez-faire justifications for unfettered corporate power. Even after the Hammer ruling, reformers continued to work for federal action because they under-stood that the economic pressure on state legislatures to make their states appealing to business interests made it impossible to curb the abuses of capitalism in a meaningful way through state law. After the Keating-Owen defeat, they tried to amend the act to meet the Court's demands. This was rejected in Bailey v. Drexel (1922). Next the NATIONAL CHILD LABOR COMMITTEE pushed for a child labor amendment to the Constitution in 1924, but this also failed. Reformers finally achieved a lasting and significant restriction of child labor in every state of the union with the 1938 Federal Labor Standards Act, and in 1941 the Supreme Court explicitly overruled Hammer in U.S. v. Darby. Darby was greeted with enthusiasm in progressive circles, but the Hammer defeat remained alive in the minds of reformers such as Edith Abbott, who responded by asking if the Court could repair the "stunted minds and broken lives" of the children who had been abandoned in the name of states' rights and free trade two decades before.
Lindenmeyer, Kriste. 1997. A Right To Childhood: The U.S. Children's Bureau and Child Welfare, 1912–46. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Trattner, Walter I. 1970. Crusade for Children: A History of the National Child Labor Committee and Child Labor Reform in America. Chicago: Quadrangle Books.
PATRICK J. RYAN