Capitalism in America: Lochner v. NY and the Right to Contract

American IndustryLochner v. New York (1905) is one of the most roundly criticized cases in the twentieth century. This is an unfortunate effect that progressivism has had on our academic and legal systems in the United States, because Lochner is actually one of the strongest stances the Supreme Court has ever taken in the defense of individual liberty.

Despite being overruled by a more progressive High Court in New Deal America, Lochner still serves as a reminder of our Ninth Amendment liberties which exist, recognized or not. And moreover, it gives us a look into the path we must take to restore a true, liberty-oriented interpretation of the Constitution:

This is the idea of substantive due process – the idea that one’s life, liberty, and property are theirs so long as the use of that life, liberty, and property do not violate another’s right to his own life, liberty and property. This is best summed up in a statement by Justice David Josiah Brewer, Justice Field’s nephew, in his own dissent in the Holden v. Hardy: “The utmost possible liberty to the individual, and the fullest possible protection to him and his property, is both the limitation and duty of government” (1896)…

Joseph Lochner, a known repeat offender of the Bakeshop Act, was charged with compelling (or allowing – it was never determined) one of his employees to work longer than the government permitted. Lochner appealed and, after obtaining council from Henry Weisman, a former supporter of the bill, the Supreme Court heard his case and ruled 5-4 in favor of Lochner.

Here, Justice Peckham was explicit in his ruling, stating blatantly that the Bakeshop Act “necessarily interferes with the right of contract…” (Lochner v. New York, 1905). The laissez faire theories of the late Nineteenth Century and the rights connected to them were, at last, undeniably constitutionalized by the Supreme Court. As a result, the right of two individuals to enter into labor-related contracts free from interference was declared to be a constitutionally protected action under Amendment XIV “‘unless there are circumstances which exclude that right.’ He [Justice Peckham] could find no such circumstances” (Kens, 1998, p. 129).

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