Children working in mines and factories was a common sight in the late 1800s.
They worked for wages far less than those of adults in dangerous conditions and were forced to give up school to concentrate on work. The result was often another generation mired in poverty, bodies broken by labor they were still too young and too weak to perform, and the lost opportunities that youth and education could have provided for them.
By the early 1900s, politicians began pushing to end the practice. In one of the most contentious humanitarian issues of the early century, Arkansas congressmen and legislators took the lead on banning children in factories nationwide, including favoring a proposed constitutional amendment.
Many states were pushing for a ban on children in factories. Even at the state level, Arkansas was one of the earliest to ban the practice.
In 1914, under Gov. George Washington Hays, Arkansas passed a strict child labor law that banned children under 14 from working in factories. Though children routinely worked on farms, child labor was seen as more of a factory issue than a farm issue. In Congress, Sen. Joseph T. Robinson had voted for a federal ban on child labor, the Keating-Owen Act of 1916. It was a popular piece of reform legislation, but corporations fought all the way to the Supreme Court to keep children working in their factories. The law was declared unconstitutional in 1918 by the Supreme Court. A second ban on child labor passed in 1919, again struck down by the courts in 1922.
The 1920 Census showed that more than 1 million children between the ages of 10 and 16 were working in factories and mines out of a total national population of 105 million. By 1924, taking inspiration from the passage of the 18th Amendment banning alcohol, activists pushed for a constitutional amendment to give Congress the power to ban labor by children under 18. Many constitutional amendments have been proposed but very few have been ratified. In fact, the Constitution has only been amended 17 times since the Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791.
Supporters of the Child Labor Amendment argued that children should be in school and not in the factories and pointed to the many injuries children suffered while working. The amendment drew wide bipartisan support.
Robinson, along with Congressman John Tillman, a Fayetteville attorney, were among the most vocal supporters. Tillman passionately argued for ratification, declaring a need for one labor standard across the country.
“The child is the same the world over, and should have the same protection in Louisiana as in Maine; the same protection in Florida as in California.”
The House of Representatives approved the amendment in April 1924 by a vote of 297-69. Of Arkansas’s seven congressmen, five voted for it. Only two, William Driver of Osceola and Otis Wingo of DeQueen, voted against it. In the Senate, Robinson helped lead the floor debate in favor of ratification. Both he and the state’s other senator, Thaddeus Caraway, voted for the amendment in June, which passed by a vote of 61-23. The next step would require its ratification by three-quarters of the states.
On June 28, Arkansas became the first state to ratify the Child Labor Amendment. The historic vote took place during a special session of the state legislature in which Gov. Thomas C. McRae sought funding for the state’s public schools. However, support for the amendment stalled, and Arkansas ultimately became the only state in the Deep South to ratify the amendment.
Only five states had approved it by 1927. The crushing economic pressures of the Great Depression revived interest, with supporters arguing that factory jobs should go to adults with children to support instead of children, and 20 states ratified the amendment by 1933. As part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs to jump-start the economy, Robinson helped push through the National Industrial Recovery Act, a cumbersome program that had the effect of banning child labor in some industries. When the Supreme Court struck down the NIRA in 1935, more states were prompted to act on the amendment.
Twenty-eight states ratified the proposed amendment, with the Deep South and major industrial states like New York and Massachusetts rejecting it, leaving it eight states short for ratification. By this point in 1937, some 33 states had banned factory and mine labor for children under 14 and 10 more for children under 16 and all but one state had some laws regulating child labor.
Child labor was finally banned by the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, making the Child Labor Amendment unnecessary. A major social problem had ended in the process, allowing children to have safer lives and more opportunities through schooling. The Child Labor Amendment itself is still in a legal wilderness 10 states shy of ratification, but advances in labor laws and children’s welfare have made what was seen as a necessity then into a historical curiosity.
Dr. Ken Bridges is a professor of history and geography at South Arkansas Community College in El Dorado and a resident historian for the South Arkansas Historical Preservation Society. Bridges can be reached by email at email@example.com.