A meticulously researched assessment of the evolution of labor law in the United States during the 18th and 19th centuries.
In this debut history book, Kahana argues that an evolving American understanding of labor relations was the driving force behind 19th-century labor legislation, rather than centuries of English common law. He reviews the existing scholarship on the topic, first looking at the centrality of the law in the Colonies and newly independent United States and then moving into an analysis of labor law as a form of American exceptionalism: “Emphasizing the virtues of a homegrown system of laws, rather than foreign justice, was not mere chauvinism. It reflected a widespread belief that public liberty could best be secured by an acquaintance with America’s unique situation.” The book goes on to explore the nature of the master-servant relationship in English law and the shift away from such terminology in the United States. While Kahana relies on legal commentaries to develop his argument, he finds much of the evidence to support it in records of how the law was actually practiced. He focuses largely on Judge Lemuel Shaw, who issued several noteworthy labor-related decisions during his term as the chief justice of Massachusetts in the mid-1800s: “He stands out as a symbolic figure whose legal ideas were so favorably received because they both mirrored and gave cogent form to often inchoate values that were present in the larger society,” Kahana explains. By leading readers through Shaw’s decisions and their legal contexts, the author makes a credible argument for Shaw’s historical importance and for the validity of his own primary thesis. Despite the author’s narrow focus and extensive footnotes, he offers clear prose and coherent arguments, which never expect readers to have a thorough knowledge of early American government. As a result, this book is likely to be accessible to a general audience.
A scholarly, engaging analysis of a specialized area of legal history.