This Massachusetts court ruling articulated the first legal basis for American workers to organize and strike.

Summary of Event

Although its impact was not felt for almost three-quarters of a century, the case of Commonwealth v. Hunt, which was decided by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts in March, 1842, was a major event in the evolution of the legal status of organized labor. The case dealt with one of the most difficult problems encountered in Anglo-American law: the definition and treatment of combinations of employers or employees (or both) engaged in the restraint of trade. Commonwealth v. Hunt (1842)
Labor law;U.S.
Massachusetts;Commonwealth v. Hunt
Massachusetts;labor law
[kw]Commonwealth v. Hunt (Mar., 1842)
[kw]Hunt, Commonwealth v. (Mar., 1842)
Commonwealth v. Hunt (1842)
Labor law;U.S.
Massachusetts;Commonwealth v. Hunt
Massachusetts;labor law
[g]United States;Mar., 1842: Commonwealth v. Hunt[2230]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Mar., 1842: Commonwealth v. Hunt[2230]
[c]Business and labor;Mar., 1842: Commonwealth v. Hunt[2230]
Horne, Jeremiah
Parker, Samuel D.
Rantoul, Robert, Jr.
Shaw, Lemuel
Thatcher, Peter O.
Wait, Isaac
Holmes, Oliver Wendell, Jr.

Analyses of nineteenth century American labor were complicated by the questions of whether a given trade union itself was unlawful as an organization or, instead, had become unlawful through the way it was utilized to achieve demands. Answers to those queries were required before any law applying to organized labor could be stated with any degree of certainty. They were provided, for the most part, by the decision of Commonwealth v. Hunt, which helped to fix principles by which the rights of labor might be definitely ascertained.

Massachusetts justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

(Harvard Law Art Collection)

Beginning with the Philadelphia Shoemakers’ case in 1806, courts in the United States had followed the lead Labor law;Great Britain of English courts and the common-law doctrine of criminal conspiracy by punishing persons seeking to form labor organizations. Precedence for that American decision had been provided by the 1721 English case of Rex v. Journeyman Tailors of Cambridge
Rex v. Journeyman Tailors of Cambridge (1721) , in which a labor union seeking higher wages for its members was treated as a criminal conspiracy. In 1800, Parliament assigned criminal penalties for workers entering “any combination to obtain an advance of wages or to lessen or alter the hours of work.” This British doctrine was in accord with the generally accepted opinion that the demands of labor organizations would upset the economic laws of supply and demand, artificially increase the prices of goods and services, and interfere with the freedom to contract. Ultimately, it was believed, the organization of labor would upset the natural relationship between population and food supply.

Commonwealth v. Hunt tested those concerns in the United States. The case stemmed from the activities and policies of the Boston Journeymen Bootmakers’ Society. In 1841, this society sought to establish a “closed shop,” a plan whereby employers would hire only workers who were approved by the society’s union and who would agree to follow a strict set of labor rules. Society member Jeremiah Horne Horne, Jeremiah violated one of those rules when he agreed to do extra work without receiving extra pay. The union immediately organized a work stoppage, to continue until Horne either paid a stiff fine for violating union rules or was fired by his employer. Horne’s employer, Isaac Wait Wait, Isaac , was reluctant to lose a good employee, so he offered to pay Horne’s fine to help him comply. However, Horne refused to allow payment of his fine, and Wait was forced to fire him.

Horne later took up the matter with the state prosecutor, district attorney Samuel D. Parker Parker, Samuel D. , who presented the case to a grand jury. Parker secured an indictment against the shoemakers’ union. The indictment charged that the union had criminally conspired to control Wait’s employment practices and had made efforts to bring economic ruin upon Horne Horne, Jeremiah , Wait, and other union members. In short, Parker accused the union of attempting to create a closed shop.

The trial was heard in Boston Municipal Court before Judge Peter O. Thatcher Thatcher, Peter O. . Thatcher ran his courtroom under the assumption that the future welfare of the state and the nation depended upon the jury’s assistance in preventing labor unions from gaining recognition in society. Defense counsel Robert Rantoul, Jr., Rantoul, Robert, Jr. argued that labor organizations were analogous to professional organizations and that the common-law doctrine of criminal conspiracy should be rejected as hostile to American freedom. Thatcher rejected these arguments and suggested to the jury that, as a matter of law, the Boston Boston;labor unions Journeymen Bootmakers’ Society—and, by implication, other labor unions—constituted an unlawful conspiracy. The jury returned a guilty verdict.

When the case was appealed to the Judicial Court, Rantoul’s main argument was that the common-law doctrine of criminal conspiracy was not a part of the law of Massachusetts. Once again, Rantoul’s line of reasoning was not accepted. However, Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw Shaw, Lemuel did provide a legal reinterpretation of the law, providing a foundation on which to overturn the society’s conviction. A conspiracy, said Shaw, must be a combination (of employers and/or employees) united for an unlawful purpose or a combination united to accomplish an innocent purpose by unlawful means. By that standard, Shaw went on to find that a combination united for the purpose of inducing fellow workers to join a given organization and to follow its rules was not unlawful. It was an unwarranted assumption, he reasoned, to conclude that the society would have abused its power. Had it done so, it would have been answerable to the criminal law, but it was not unlawful for workers to have organized, even for the purpose of forming a closed shop to demand higher wages.

In refusing to work so long as Horne was not discharged, the court ruled, the journeymen had merely been exercising their lawful right to work or not to work. Shaw Shaw, Lemuel decided that it was lawful, however, to demand that the individual worker in question be fired, since the union had not relied on force or fraud to expel him, nor had it insisted that his employer violate the provisions of a contract. Finally, Shaw rejected the prosecution’s argument that the union was conspiring to impoverish Horne Horne, Jeremiah , Wait Wait, Isaac , or others. He justified his rejection by pointing out that the evenhanded, mechanical enforcement of the rule against combinations united to impoverish third parties by indirect means would result in an excessive stifling of open competition, the basic premise of a capitalist society.

Thus, the rule of Commonwealth v. Hunt may be stated as follows: While the common law of conspiracy is a part of the Massachusetts common law, the mere formation and operation of a labor organization in the interest of its members does not constitute a criminal conspiracy.


The impact of the decision in Commonwealth v. Hunt as legal precedent was sufficiently great, according to some labor historians, to deter the use of the doctrine of criminal conspiracy against unions for some forty years after its implementation. However, when the courts revived the doctrine during the 1880’s, its effectiveness was soon eclipsed by the more versatile method of securing injunctions against labor organizing activity. The injunction clause, and not the criminal conspiracy doctrine, was used in connection with the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 to force the breakup of monopolistic combinations engaged in the restraint of free enterprise.

Commonwealth v. Hunt nevertheless remained a piece of prolabor legislation worthy of veneration by those disposed to the cause of workers. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., while Holmes, Oliver Wendell, Jr. serving on the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, spoke highly of Shaw’s Shaw, Lemuel reasoning in the influential dissent in Vegelahn v. Guntner (1896). Commonwealth v. Hunt thus ultimately earned high recognition by becoming associated with Holmes and the cause of labor reform.

Further Reading

  • Green, James, and Hugh Carter Donahue. Boston’s Workers: A Labor History. Boston: Trustees of the Boston Public Library, 1979. Community history that analyzes the significant contributions of Boston’s working classes, describing the independent initiatives of community labor organizers. Index, bibliography.
  • Gregory, Charles O. Labor and the Law. New York: W. W. Norton, 1949. Provides a concise summary of Commonwealth v. Hunt and its significance for the history of labor law. Index.
  • Juravich, Tom, William F. Hartford, and James R. Green. Commonwealth of Toil: Chapters in the History of Massachusetts Workers and Their Unions. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1996. Comprehensive history of labor unions in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
  • Levy, Leonard W. The Law of the Commonwealth and Chief Justice Shaw: The Evolution of American Law, 1830 to 1860. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1957. A “judicial biography” that discusses Shaw’s contributions to the law of criminal conspiracy; contains some thought-provoking chapters on Shaw’s concept of objectivity. Index, bibliography.
  • Mason, Alpheus T. Organized Labor and the Law. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1925. Presents the fundamental legal doctrines that have guided the courts of the United States in defining and setting limits upon the rights of organized labor. Index, bibliographical essay.
  • Rayback, Joseph G. A History of American Labor. Rev. ed. New York: Free Press, 1966. Detailed survey of the history of workers and labor unions in the United States.
  • Tomlins, Christopher L. The State and the Unions: Labor Relations, Law, and the Organized Labor Movement in America, 1880-1960. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985. An institutional history of both unions and the legal regulation of labor organization and activity. Discusses the impact of Commonwealth v. Hunt on “modern” labor legislation. Index, bibliography.

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Samuel Gompers. Commonwealth v. Hunt (1842)
Labor law;U.S.
Massachusetts;Commonwealth v. Hunt
Massachusetts;labor law