1.4.3. New England (1865-1900): The Beginnings of the Regulatory State

  • New England states imposed few restrictions on businesses before the Civil War.  Food and product safety laws, workplace safety laws, limits on predatory business practices – all were unknown.  But the first glimmers of what would become the modern regulatory state arose shortly after the war.  
  • General incorporation laws:  Even before the war, as America began the transition from an agricultural to a mixed industrial and commercial economy, many businesspeople chose to operate as corporations because that allowed them to preserve their personal assets in case their business failed.  Before the industrial age, each company had to obtain an individual charter from the legislature.  The wealthy and well-connected often obtained special favors in their charters not available to the less powerful.  Starting in the 1830s, reformers called for elimination of these abuses by enactment of standardized general incorporation laws.  The movement progressed slowly, but by the ___s all New England states had eliminated special charters laws.
  • Railroad commissions:  New England states demonstrated an early wariness of railroads not shared by most other regions.  For example, in the early 1840s, New Hampshire Democrats came to power on an anti-railroad platform, and brought construction to a halt for nearly a decade and established one of the first state railroad commissions.  New England states created railroad regulatory commissions considerably earlier than states in most other regions.  Because the region was hospitable to railroad regulation, it largely avoided the battles over the constitutionality of such legislation that roiled the Midwest and western states after the Civil War (see §§ ____). 
  • Labor bureaus:  Many New England states also created labor bureaus to examine workplace conditions.  Most bureaus merely collected and reported information and  had no power to improve work conditions; however, New England began enacting protective laws for workers, such as safety laws and maximum-hours laws for women and children, earlier than most other regions.

Individual corporate
charters abolished
Railroad commission
Labor bureau

New Hampshire



Rhode Island


Brick mill, Northridge, Massachusetts - courtesy Library of Congress

Lewis Hine - Cotton mill workers, Chicopee, Massachusetts - courtesy Library of Congress