J. Gresham Machen on the “Child Labor Amendment” (1925)

Posted below is a sample of Dr. J. Gresham Machen’s political thought.  He has often been labeled as akin to a modern-day libertarian, though certainly there were distinctions and differences to be noted.  But for the point Machen is making here, we might reference a contemporary comment by Judith Sealander, in The Failed Century of the Child (Cambridge, 2003), page 153: “But opponents were right; the proposal was the creation of reformers who wanted a more powerful federal government.”

The So-Called Child Labor Amendment

By Professor J. Gresham Machen, D.D.

The December number of Moral Welfare, the official publication of our Presbyterian Department of Temperance and Moral Welfare, is largely devoted to advocacy of the proposed Twentieth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which is now being considered by the state legislatures. We protest against this use of the name and resources of our church for two reasons.

In the first place, we do not think that the Presbyterian Church ought to become a political lobby; we do not think that it has any right to put itself on record as either favoring or opposing political and social measures about which no direct guidance is found in Scripture. That does not mean at all that we deprecate advocacy of good political measures and opposition to bad measures on the part of members of the church; on the contrary, we think that such activity is a very important Christian duty, and that Christians ought to organize themselves in accordance with their consciences for the furtherance of the political and social ends that they think right. But what we do deprecate is such activity on the part of official agencies of the church. It is, we think, unjustifiable to take the funds of an organization like the church, which exists for one purpose, and use them for an entirely different purpose. Some members of the Presbyterian Church are in favor of the Twentieth Amendment, for example; but others, like the present writer, are opposed to it, and we do not see why those who are opposed to it have not just as good right in the church as those who favor it, or why they should be put on record as favoring it by the official action of departments of the Boards.

But if we are opposed to all such political activities on the part of the Boards of our church, we are particularly opposed to the present activity of the Department of Temperance and Moral Welfare. For the proposed Twentieth Amendment, which its advocates persist in calling, quite falsely, the “Child Labor Amendment,” represents, we think, the most sinister attack upon American institutions and the sanctity of the American home that has been made for half a century; it represents, we think, a heartless cruelty masquerading under the guise of philanthropy.

We question whether many of those citizens who thoughtlessly advocate this amendment have ever read it for themselves; they have a sort of vague, and utterly false, notion that the amendment will merely protect children who are laboring under unhealthy or oppressive conditions. As a matter of fact, the amendment reads as follows:

Section 1. The Congress shall have power to limit, regulate, and prohibit the labor of persons under eighteen years of age.

Section 2. The power of the several states is unimpaired by this article, except that the operation of state laws shall be suspended to the extent necessary to give effect to legislation enacted by the Congress.”

It will be observed that nothing whatever is here said about “child labor”; the drafters of the amendment carefully refrained from using that term, lest it might limit the scope of the powers to be conferred. Instead, the amendment speaks of the labor of “persons under eighteen years of age.” What is even far more important is that no limitation is put upon the word “labor”; the prohibition of healthy and salutary labor comes under the new power to be conferred upon Congress just as much as the prohibition of unhealthy and deleterious labor. Yet in Moral Welfare, child labor is defined as follows:

“Child labor is the work of children under conditions that interfere with the physical development, education and opportunities for recreation which children require. It is the working of children at unfit ages, for unreasonable hours, or under unhealthful conditions.”

And then Miss Georgia Swartz proceeds to say that “Work on the farm performed by children under parents’ direction and without interference with school attendance, is not child labor.”

It is perfectly evident that what we have here is a definition, not of child labor, but of bad child labor. But the proposed amendment gives Congress power to prohibit good child labor, just as much as bad child labor; it certainly gives Congress power to prohibit work on the farm under parents’ direction just as much as work at unreasonable hours and under conditions which endanger the child’s health, education and morals. Furthermore, it certainly confers powers to prohibit, not only work “for wages,” but any other kind of work, including work done at school; the advocates of the amendment in Congress resolutely refused to substitute the word “employment” for the word “labor.”

Moreover, the proposed amendment confers the right not only to “prohibit” but also to “regulate” labor, and the right of regulation involves full power over the thing to be regulated. It might well be within the power of Congress if this amendment is adopted to take any child away from its parents and see to it that its “labor,” in connection with education or otherwise, is in accordance with the provision of whatever law might be passed.

But, it is said, Congress is here to be given only a power which is already possessed by the state legislatures. “It [the proposed amendment],” says Moral Welfare, apparently quoting from the “Women’s Committee for the Children’s Amendment,” “gives Congress no right every state does not have.”

That is often said. But it is quite false. The state legislatures are now limited by the great “bill-of-rights” provisions in the Constitution of the United States—the bill-of-rights provisions which lie at the foundation of all our Anglo-Saxon liberty. Those provisions do not indeed prevent such regulation of child labor by the states as shall protect to the full the health and moral welfare of the children; but they do prevent a host of other things which would be permitted by the present change. The trouble is that the present amendment is to form a part of the same instrument as that which contains the bill of rights, and it may well therefore be held to repeal, so far as is necessary to give effect to its provisions, those previous clauses. If this amendment is passed, nothing in the world stands between the American home and a tyranny like that of bureaucratic Russia, except the will of Congress.

There are indeed those who say that the will of Congress can be relied upon—that although Congress might do all kinds of things under this amendment, it never would as a matter of fact do them. But the mental attitude of person who talk in this fashion constitutes, we are obliged to thin, the greatest menace to American liberty that exists in this country to-day. Our institutions are based altogether upon the principle of constitutional limitations, upon the principle that there are certain things which Congress may not do; and only too well does experience bear out the necessity of such a principle. If this amendment is adopted, the control of the most intimate details of family life will eventually, in a few decades, if not in a few years, be in the hands of a centralized Washington bureaucracy; and American liberty, with the decencies of the American home, will be gone.

In holding that the amendment confers powers greater than any state legislatures now possess, we are not expressing merely a lay opinion, but have high legal warrant. Thus in a protest signed, among a host of other notable men (including federal and state judges), by Hon. George W. Wickersham, the former attorney-general of the United States, it is said: “The amendment will give to Congress a power which no state legislature now possesses.”

But even if we were wrong at this point, even if the amendment merely conferred upon Congress powers which state legislatures now have, that transfer of power would involve almost the most radical change in our Constitution that has ever been seriously proposed. It would take by far the most important part of human life out of the hands of state legislatures in touch with local conditions, and put it into the hands of the army of government agents, which any exercise of the powers to be conferred by the amendment would require. There could scarcely be a more disastrous blow at the very foundations of American freedom.

There is no space here to comment upon the utterly misleading statistics (as we hold them to be) which Moral Welfare cites with regard to the supposed conditions that now prevail in the states. And it is only with the greatest possible reluctance that we have discussed the matter here at all. The present writer has indeed opposed the Twentieth Amendment with all his might and main in letters published in the secular press, but had it not bee for the action of an official department of our church, not one word would he have contributed on the subject to The Presbyterian. The proper subjects for discussion in a religious paper are, we hold, entirely different from this. And even now we are not hoping so much to convince those who are opposed to us in this political question, as (1) to show that there is in the church at least such legitimate difference of opinion as to render quite unjustifiable the action of the Department of Moral Welfare, and (2) to prevent any response to the appeal, “What is your church doing to help the Child Labor Amendment?”, which the Department is making through the article of Miss Georgia Swartz. There are questions which the church, as a church, must decide, but this question is not one of them. With regard to the issues which are properly before the church we have been contending shoulder to shoulder with many who differ from us in the most thoroughgoing way with regard to political and social questions, and no doubt with regard to this particular question. We trust that the condition of affairs may continue to prevail. Certainly this question of the Twentieth Amendment is not an ecclesiastical question; and among the enormous majority against the amendment when it was submitted to a popular vote in Massachusetts, there were found side by side such theological opposites as Bishop Lawrence, the well-known modernist, and Dr. A.Z. Conrad, the evangelical pastor of the Park Street Church.

Sad was the day when such political questions first began to be discussed within the church. We deprecate with all our hearts the necessity which the Department of Moral Welfare has imposed upon us of contributing to the discussion in this particular place. We do not want the church to go on record against this political measure, but when the effort is made to place it on record in favor of it, we have felt obliged to protest.

[excerpted from The Presbyterian 95.4 (22 January 1925): 6-7.]