Hammer v. Dagenhart (1918)


Hammer v. Dagenhart (247 U.S. 251) was a U.S. Supreme Court case that dealt with the federal government attempting to regulate child labor through the Interstate Commerce Clause.  The Supreme Court ruled in favor for Dagenhart, nullifying the Keating-Owens act, which attempted to regulate child labor.

In the early twentieth century it was not uncommon for children of a young age to be working in factories, mills, and other industrial environments for long hours with very little pay. Families depended on their children to make this income, however it did not reduce the public concern of children safety. By 1910,  a majority of the states had begun to implement child labor laws, however, the Federal government decided to step in with the Keating-Owen act, also known as the Child Labor act, to stop the practice of child labor.

Roland Dagenhart, a man who lived in North Carolina and worked in a textile mill with his two teenage sons believed that this law was unconstitutional and had sued for the rights to let his children continue working in the textile mills (Solomon- McCarthy 2008). This led to the case of Hammer V. Dagenhart in 1918 in which the court agreed with Dagenhart and ultimately struck down the Keating-Owen Act labeling it unconstitutional in a 5-4 decision.

The majority interpreted that the power to regulate interstate commerce means to control the way commerce is conducted, not labor conditions. It is the power to determine the rules by which commerce is governed. The court stood by the fact that the commerce power given to Congress is meant to equalize economic conditions in the States by forbidding the interstate transportation of goods made under conditions which Congress deemed unfair to produce. This power was not intended to give Congress control over the States police powers which is given to them by the Tenth Amendment. This ruling was kept by the Court until 1941 in which it was overturned in the case of US v. Darby Lumber company.

Timeline 1


During the 20’s it was very common for children to work at a young age to help feed their families. Children normally worked long hours in factories and mills. Most families just couldn’t afford for their children not to work. The primary concern to the public became the effect it would have on children.  Children working long hours were deprived from essential things such as education and time to just play and breathe fresh air. Children were skipping past their childhoods to work. The work conditions in the 20’s weren’t the best. Another concern of the public was safety. The workplace at the time was fraught with dangers for child laborers. Overall the benefits of children working seemed to not outweigh the disadvantages to the public.  Advocates for child labor laws started to rise and and began to point out the risk factors of children of young ages working in such gruesome environments. They worried about child safety, the physical risks of child labor, and the deprivations children who worked long hours faced.

Congress was torn. This was the first case to make it to the Supreme Court about child labor.  Many people at this time really just  needed their children to work. Congress made many attempts to make changes to help counter the harsh child labor practices. Many of those attempts were deemed unsuccessful.  In 1916, Congress passed the Keating-Owen Child Labor Law Act (Solomon- McCarthy 2008). This act seemed to be the answer. Congress had found the solution.   This was an act which forbade the shipment across state lines of goods made in factories which employed children under the age of 14, or children between 14 and 16 who worked more than eight hours a day, overnight, or more than six days per week. Congress states it had the constitutional authority to create such a law due to Article 1, section 8 of the constitution which gives them the power to regulate interstate Commerce.  This had been historically affirmed with Gibbons v. Ogden, where the Supreme Court had ruled in favor of Congress’s ability to regulate commerce between states (Solomon- McCarthy 2008).  Additionally, the case Hoke V. United States, was also a legal precedent for Congress to act as it did.  However, the court did not see Congress’s act as a true attempt to regulate interstate commerce but rather an attempt to regulate production.  Lastly, a case that Justice Holmes, author of the dissent, referenced himself was McCray v. United States.  A case where congress had taxed colored margarine at a higher rate under the Interstate Commerce Clause, in order to protect the dairy industry.

Since Congress is a part of the federal government, they have no power over regulating work conditions within the states. They used their authority under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution to indirectly influence child labor practices. Dagenhart then sued, and the Supreme Court ultimately ruled in his favor.

Procedural History

The Keating-Owen Act of 1916, more popularly recognized as the Child Labor Act, was signed into law by President Wilson.

The Act prohibited the transportation in interstate commerce of goods produced via certain restrictions on child labor.

This law allowed the Attorney General, The Secretary of Commerce and the Secretary of Labor to create a board to create rules and regulations. The board would also allow investigators to go to facilities unannounced and make visitations and inspections.

Roland Dagenhart worked in a cotton mill in Charlotte, North Carolina with his two minor sons, both of whom would be barred from employment at the mill under the Act.

Dagenhart brought this lawsuit seeking an injunction against enforcement of the Act on the grounds that it was not a regulation of interstate or foreign commerce. The government asserted that the Act fell within the authority of Congress under the Commerce Clause.

The district court held that the Act was unconstitutional and enjoined its enforcement and the Supreme Court granted certiorari.


The issue presented to the Court was whether or not the Commerce Clause of the Constitution granted Congress the power to regulate interstate commerce with the intention to regulate child labor inside of the states.

Arguments by Petitioner:

Arguments by Respondent:


The Court held that the Commerce Clause does not grant the power to regulate commerce of interstate commerce of goods produced with child labor. The power to regulate interstate commerce is the power to control the means by which commerce is conducted. Congress does not have the power to regulate because it is within a State, and because the 10th Amendment allows for powers not listed in the Constitution to be delegated to the States.

Majority: Justices Day, White, Van Devanter, Pitney, and McReynolds voted that Congress did not have the power to control interstate commerce of goods produced with child labor.

Dissent: Justices Holmes, McKenna, Brandeis and Clarke voted that Congress did have the power to control interstate commerce of goods produced with child labor.

“Hammer v. Dagenhart – Case Brief Summary.” Lawnix Free Case Briefs RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 Oct. 2015.

Majority Opinion (Day):

 Mr. Dagenhart sought an injunction against the act on the grounds that it was not a regulation of interstate commerce.  The court agreed with Mr. Dagenhart, viewing the Keatings-Owens act not as an attempt to regulate interstate commerce, but rather an act intending to regulate production within the states. The court held that: The thing intended to be accomplished by this statute is the denial of the facilities of interstate commerce to those manufacturers in the States who employ children within the prohibited ages(Day 1918) . The Act, in its effect, does not regulate transportation among the States, but aims to standardize the ages at which children may be employed in mining and manufacturing within the States” (Day 1918). The court continued their interpretation, stating that Congress was only claiming to regulate interstate commerce in an attempt to regulate production within the states through a roundabout method.  The court clearly saw through this and stated that child labor was only part of the manufacturing process, and unrelated to transport. “When offered for shipment, and before transportation begins, the labor of their production is over, and the mere fact that they were intended for interstate commerce transportation does not make their production subject to federal control under the commerce power”(Day 1918). The Supreme Court continued with this line of thought, arguing that even if manufactured goods are intended for transport this does not mean that Congress can regulate them.  “The making of goods and the mining of coal are not commerce, nor does the fact that these things are to be afterwards shipped or used in interstate commerce make their production a part thereof” (Day 1918). Thus, the court clearly saw this as an attempt to circumvent the restrictions placed upon the Federal Government, and thus the majority ruled in Dagenhart’s favor.

A ruling often used in the Supreme Court to explain what and how commerce is regulated and what is classified as commerce is: 

“When the commerce begins is determined not by the character of the commodity, nor by the intention of the owner to transfer it to another state for sale, nor by his preparation of it for transportation, but by its actual delivery to a common carrier for transportation, or the actual commencement of its transfer to another state.” (Mr. Justice Jackson in In re Green, 52 Fed.Rep. 113.) .

This quote was specifically used in the case Hammer V. Dagenhart and is stated in the majority opinion to again specify where the court stands. It emphasizes the holding in which they state that it does not matter what the intention of the manufacturer was or how the manufacturer made the good but the way in which the good is transported is what the congress has power to control through the commerce clause.

     Another argument supporting Dagenhart comes from the 10th amendment State powers clause. The majority opinion stated this as: “There is no power vested in Congress to require the States to exercise their police power so as to prevent possible unfair competition.”  The Court’s holding on this issue is “Many causes may cooperate to give one State, by reason of local laws or conditions, an economic advantage over others. The Commerce Clause was not intended to give to Congress a general authority to equalize such conditions.” The idea being that if one State’s policy gives it an economic edge over another, it is not within Congress’s power to attempt to level the playing field for all states.  Each state has its own rules and regulations on how they control their economic growth; every rule and regulation may specifically help one state and give them advantages over the other, however congress does not have the power to deny the transportation of goods just because they do not agree with such regulations. The commerce clause is just a means of transportation through state lines and gives the power to the states to regulate the transportation itself, it does not give congress the power to regulate the economic laws in the states.  

      The last argument of the majority opinion pertains to Justice Day’s fear of Congress gaining power not delegated to it and the freedom of commerce. He believed that if Congress had the power to prohibit the movement of commodities during the interstate commerce process, then our system of government may cease to exist. He claimed that because the United States utilizes federalism, (where the Federal government has powers delegated to them through the constitution) then all other powers not expressed in the constitution belong to the states and people. Manufacturing is a local matter that should be left to the states to decide how to regulate. He stated that the act in a two-fold sense is “repugnant to the constitution” because Congress overstepped their bounds with the commerce clause power and also used a power not given to them in the constitution.

Justice Day’s interpretation of the commerce clause was very specific; Congress has the ability to regulate interstate commerce as in the movement of goods sold over state borders. Even though Congress was regulating goods that crossed state lines, Congress does not have the power to prohibit the manufacturing of goods produced by children. Nowhere in the constitution does it state a power of Congress to regulate child labor, therefore this power is reserved to the state. Hence, the majority struck down the act.    

 Dissenting Opinion (Holmes):

Mr. Justice Holmes’ dissent, concurred by Mr. Justice McKenna, Mr. Justice Brandeis, and Mr. Justice Clarke:

Holding 1. The dissenting Justices felt that The Commerce clause does in fact permit congress to regulate or prohibit the shipment of commerce, regardless of the intention.  Framing this argument as: “A law is not beyond the regulative power of Congress merely because it prohibits certain transportation out and out” (Holmes 1918). Holmes continues in his dissent arguing that prohibition is included within the powers of The Interstate Commerce Clause, stating that:  “if considered only as to its immediate effects, and that, if invalid, it is so only upon some collateral ground” (Holmes 1918). Because of this congress  is fully within its right to enforce the said act. Holmes argued that congress, “…may prohibit any part of such commerce that [it] sees fit to forbid” (Holmes 1918).

Holding 2. Holmes also argued that Congress’ power to regulate commerce and other constitutional powers “could not be cut down or qualified by the fact that it might interfere with the carrying out of the domestic policy of any State” (Holmes 1918).  Completely disagreeing with the 10th amendment argument presented by the majority.

Holmes also presented the fact that Congress had regulated industries at the state level through the use of taxes, citing McCray v. United Sates.  “The manufacture of oleomargarine is as much a matter of state regulation as the manufacture of cotton cloth. Congress levied a tax upon the compound when colored so as to resemble butter that was so great as obviously to prohibit the manufacture and sale. In a very elaborate discussion, the present Chief Justice excluded any inquiry into the purpose of an act which, apart from that purpose, was within the power of Congress.” McCray v. United States, 195 U. S. 27He also noted that a similar case had been resolved because of this precedent.  Congress imposed a tax on state banks with the intent to extinguish them and did so “under the guise of a revenue measure, to secure a control not otherwise belonging to Congress, but the tax was sustained, and the objection, so far as noticed, was disposed of by citing McCray v. United States.”  This illustrates that Holmes saw the ruling as inconsistent with previous cases that The Supreme Court ruled on. 

Concurring Opinion:

There were no Concurring opinions in this case.

Full Text of Opinions:

Decision Analysis:


Hammer v Dagenhart is arguably one of the most important cases in the history of interstate commerce and child labor laws because it revealed the limits of the federal government’s power under the understanding of the Court. In Hammer v Dagenhart, Congress sought to uphold the Keating-Owen Act of 1916, but the majority opinion held that Congress did not hold the power to regulate the circumstances under which a specific product was developed if the product was never going to enter interstate commerce. This ruling therefore declared the Keating-Owen Act of 1916 unconstitutional.

After the defeat of the Keating-Owen Act, Congress passed the Revenue Act of 1919 in an alternate attempt to outlaw unfair child labor conditions. Congress decided that if they weren’t going to be able to regulate child labor through commerce restrictions, they would attempt to penalize companies through their power of taxation. The Revenue Act imposed a 10% excise tax on net profits of companies that employed these underage children in unfair working conditions. The Act, although having good intentions, was challenged by Drexel Furniture Company in 1922 and ruled as unconstitutional, with the majority opinion stating that the tax being imposed was actually a criminal penalty rather than a tax, therefore being beyond the power of Congress.

Since Congress had failed at its attempts to regulate and tax the labor industry, they decided to pursue a different route: a Constitutional Amendment. In 1924, Congress proposed the Child Labor Amendment which would grant Congress the power to regulate labor of any employees under the age of eighteen. While the majority of states ratified this amendment, it never reached the ¾ majority needed to pass the amendment. Congress never set a time limit for this amendment to be ratified, so this amendment is technically still pending.

In 1941, the landmark case United States v. Darby Lumber Co. overturned Hammer v Dagenhart and eliminated the need for the Child Labor Amendment through the upholding of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which included regulations on child labor. The Fair Labor Standards Act established many of the workplace rules we are familiar with today, such as the 40-hour work week, minimum wage, and overtime pay. The fairness and infringement upon personal rights of this Act was brought into question and heard by the Court. The Court held that the purpose of the Act was to prevent states from using unfair labor practices for their own economic advantage through interstate commerce. Using this reasoning, Hammer v Dagenhart was overturned, arguing that “businesses produce their goods without thought to where they will go,” therefore making it the business of Congress to regulate the manufacturing of these goods.






Timeline 2


Scholarly Commentary and Debate:

Constitutional Provisions:

The Fifth and Tenth Amendments are the Constitutional Provisions for this case. The Tenth Amendment, as the majority argued, that only the states have the power to regulate manufacturing within the state, as that power is not enumerated to the federal government, and is therefore under the scope of the Tenth Amendment. Additionally, the majority argued that Dagenhart’s Fifth Amendment rights were violated as his liberty and property are protected by the Fifth Amendment, which includes, as the court argued, the right to allow his children to work.

The federal government and the dissent relied on the interstate commerce clause as the provision allowing for the Keatings-Owens Act.

Web Resources:

Available here.





Academic Books, Articles, and Law Reviews:

  1. ,       Bikle, Henry. “The Commerce Power and Hammer v. Dagenhart”. University of Pennsylvania Law Review. http://scholarship.law.upenn.edu/: This link explains how the commerce power is related to the the Hammer v. Dagenhart case; The Supreme Court ruled that the policy Is went over the authority delegated by the Commerce clause.
  2.      Cox, Theodore S. “Book Review of The Commerce Power verse States Rights: ‘Back to the Constitution’”. William and Mary Law School. http://scholarship.law.wm.edu/: This link describes how the original framers of the constitution intended the Commerce clause to be used by Congress and the relationship between the federal government and state governments.
  3.      Colby, Thomas B. “Revitalizing The Forgotten Uniformity Constraint On The Commerce Power”. Virginia Law Review. http://www.virginialawreview.org/sites/virginialawreview.org/files/249.pdf: This article reviews the purpose and reasoning of James Madison’s proposal of giving Congress the power to regulate interstate commerce which was split into three segments: The Commerce Clause, The Uniformity Clause, and the Port Preference Clause.
  4.     Sawyer, Logan E. “Creating Hammer v. Dagenhart”. William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal. http://scholarship.law.wm.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1629&context=wmborj: This article provides an overview of the significance of the Hammer v. Dagenhart case and also offers its readers plenty of factual background from the Constitution and previous court cases.
  5.     Solomon-McCarthy, Sharron. “The History of Child Labor in the United States: Hammer v. Dagenhart”. Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute. http://www.yale.edu/ynhti/curriculum/units/2004/1/04.01.08.x.html: This link informs its readers about the history of the Supreme Court and its dealings with child labor and how the Court’s view on child labor has changed over the years.
  6.      Van Alstyne, William W. “The Second Death of Federalism”. Michigan Law Review. http://scholarship.law.duke.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1502&context=faculty_scholarship: This article claims that a conservative Supreme Court ruled that wages themselves are not subject to regulation by Congress because wages aren’t commerce. The author claims that this decision and a few others limited the relationship between the federal government’s powers over state government powers.
  7.    Kallenbach, Joseph E. “Federal Cooperation with the States under the Commerce Clause”. The Journal of     Politics. http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=6336860: This article lays out how the federal government cooperates with state governments in respect to legislation regarding the Commerce clause and how the Constitution developed in response to said cooperation.

Major Statute Under Review:

Keating-Owen Act


Important Precedents:

Gibbons v. Ogden (1824)

Hoke v. United States (1913)


Important Subsequent Cases:

Bailey v. Drexel Furniture Co. (1922)

United States v. Darby Lumber Co. (1941)


Spring 2016: Tiana Taylor, Patrick Farnsworth, Kyra Reed, and Jaquinn McCullough

Fall 2015: Danial Ghazipura, David Ajimotokin, Taylor Bennett, Shyanne Ugwuibe, Nick Rizza, and Ariana Johnston.


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