How did Supreme Court rulings during the Industrial Revolution impact citizens' freedom?

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pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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During the Industrial Revolution, the Supreme Court made a number of decisions that, in their minds, increased people’s freedoms.  It is not clear that most people at the time would have agreed with the Court.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, governments in the US (both state and national) passed many laws that were meant to help workers.  They passed laws, for example, that prevented various groups of workers from having to work excessively long hours and laws that established minimum wages.  The Supreme Court struck these laws down.  This period in Supreme Court history is often called the “Lochner Era.”

The Lochner Era is called that because the first big case in the era was Lochner v. New York.  The state of New York had made a law saying that bakers could not be made to work more than 10 hours a day or 60 hours a week.  This might seem like a law that would increase people’s freedom.  The Supreme Court disagreed and said that the law was an unconstitutional infringement on people’s liberty.  The Court said that the law took away bakers’ right to make contracts to work longer hours.  Its subsequent decisions all made the same argument.  They said that laws that regulated workers were illegal because they took away workers’ right to work in any conditions they liked.

Thus, the cases that are most closely connected to industrialization were meant, the Court said, to increase liberty.  It is not clear that workers of the time would have agreed that their liberty was being increased. 

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