The Unfolding of American Labor Law: Judges, Workers, and Public Policy across Two Political Generations, 1790-1850

By Jeffrey Steven Kahana | Go to book overview

Introduction

American patriots of the revolutionary generation were quick to equate England’s control over the colonists’ lives with the corrupt practices of England’s class-based society. They contrasted a fallen monarchy with a virtuous American citizenry. The social hierarchies found at home and validated by the English common law also offended Americans. Aided by the growth of constitutional ideas and commercialism, orientations grounded in the broad principles of contract emerged and grew in the years following the Revolution. Free to enter into new social and business relationships, the average adult white worker was unhindered by the restrictive English common law.1

It is my contention that the English common law did not define American labor law between the Revolution and the midnineteenth century. Instead, American labor law was shaped by the new social realities and changing circumstances of American life. During this period, conditions in the United States allowed the traditions of the English common law to erode and permitted

1 Robert J. Steinfeld, The Invention of Free Labor: The Employment Relation in English and American Law and Culture, 1350–1870 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991); Winifred Rothenberg, From Market Places to a Market Economy: The Transformation of Rural Massachusetts, 1750– 1850 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 181–85; Gordon S. Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York: Knopf, 1992), 184–87, 232–34; Gordon S. Wood, The Creation of the American Republic, 1776–1787 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1969), 268–73.

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