Ambiguities of Free Labor Revisited: The Convict-Labor Question in Progressive-Era New York

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Until the last quarter of the twentieth century it was a commonplace that the various expressions of economic substantive due process we associate with the so-called “Lochner Era” were animated by laissez-faire economics and Social Darwinism. More recent assessments have persuasively rejected this view, observing that the Court as a whole and the justices individually voted to uphold many more instances of government regulation of the economy than they voted to invalidate, and that the closest thing to a Social Darwinist that the Court had to offer was Justice Holmes, on whose polemical dissent in Lochner the conventional wisdom had been based. Since the 1970s, revisionist scholars have come instead to see these doctrines as expressions of what Professor Howard Gillman has called a “principle of neutrality.” That master principle was grounded in such antebellum ideological concerns as the aversion to factional politics and the Jacksonian revulsion against special privilege, and was best understood as prohibiting what was at the time called “class legislation” or “special legislation” or “partial legislation” – legislation that could not be deemed public-regarding because it singled out particular groups for unjustified special benefits or burdens.

On this view economic substantive due process was concerned primarily with formal equality; but a number of revisionists recognized, as the doctrine of “liberty of contract” would suggest, that such an explanation was incomplete. These scholars understood that the Court’s due process jurisprudence also was devoted to the protection of liberty, especially so in the context of employment; and they traced that feature of substantive due process to the anti-slavery free labor ideology of the antebellum Republican Party that informed such Reconstruction landmarks as the 13th and 14th Amendments and the Civil Rights Act of 1866. At the center of that ideology lay the conviction that the essential characteristic distinguishing the free man from the slave was self-ownership, and particularly ownership of one’s own labor. Self-ownership entailed the right to dispose of one’s labor on the terms of one’s choosing, and regulations of that right that could not be justified as preventing fraud or protecting public health, safety, or morals were mere “meddlesome interferences” with a fundamental liberty of free men.

On this account, free labor ideology in the post-bellum period operated as a source of rights, restraining the state from interfering with individual liberty. Advocates of prison labor reform, by contrast, were more interested in exploring the implications of free labor ideology as a source of state power to restrict rights of property and contract. Throughout the 19th century, organized workers agitated for the reform of the system of convict labor, contending that goods manufactured with cheap prison labor competed unfairly with goods produced in the private economy and thereby depressed wages. They viewed convict labor as a species of slave labor that threatened to degrade free laborers, impeding their capacity to acquire capital and to enjoy the upward social mobility that free labor ideology promised to industrious, disciplined workmen. The State of New York became a national leader in this reform effort. The legislature abolished various objectionable forms of convict labor, and prohibited the sale of goods manufactured in its prisons on the private market. Convict-made goods produced in other states and shipped into New York, however, continued to compete with products produced by free labor in New York, and the New York statutes regulating the sale of these out-of-state goods raised contentious issues under both the Dormant Commerce Clause and the Fourteenth Amendment. As Professor William E. Nelson has argued, late nineteenth century jurists viewed the inherent individual right to freedom of contract as embracing “the right to use and dispose of property.” “Every man...had a ‘natural right to sell or keep his commodities as best suit[ed] his own purpose.’” “The right to use and dispose of property was viewed as a necessary consequence of the right to acquire and hold it.” The question presented under the Fourteenth Amendment was whether New York’s efforts to protect its free laborers deprived the owner and seller of convict-made goods of property rights without due process or denied him equal protection of the laws. Put another way, the question was whether free labor ideology operated not only as a shield but also as a sword, underwriting police power regulation of private property. This essay, prepared in Professor Nelson’s honor, explores the manner in which the courts of his native New York struggled uneasily with that question for two decades, and the way in which it was ultimately resolved in favor of the free labor interest by United States Supreme Court Justices deeply invested in economic substantive due process.