6.5.4 Deep South (1877-1920): A Truncated Progressive Era

  • As the United States moved from an agricultural economy to a predominately industrial economy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, most regions went through two phases of legal adjustment.  Between 1860 and 1880, in what can loosely be called the “Granger era” (see § _), northern and western states made a first effort at comprehensive corporate regulation by eliminating individual corporate charters in favor of general incorporation laws and by controlling railroads’ rate-setting and other practices (see §§ ___). 
  • As urbanization and industrialization continued, calls arose across the United States for a broad variety of reforms to meet the new age including increased regulation of corporations; “cleaning up” government by replacing party bosses and machines with civil service systems and primaries; creating more types of taxes diversified taxes to match a more diversified economy; and providing at least minimal safety laws for industrial workers.  Between 1890 and 1915, most states passed through a Progressive era in which they enacted reforms from this menu. 
  • The Deep South was the last American region to embrace Progressivism.  The region had a single reform era, roughly matching the Progressive era, but the reforms its state governments enacted were much less extensive than elsewhere.  As with so much of Southern life, the effort was complicated by race.  Southern progressives  had to consider at all times whether reform would help retain the black labor force they needed and stanch emigration to the North, or whether it would raise Southern blacks’ hopes and ambitions in a way that would threaten the existing racial order.     


Good government laws

Tax reform laws

Railroad and utility regulatory laws

Workplace safety laws

South Carolina

1896 – Direct primary law

1915+ [ck] – Tax equalization law


1907 – Ten-hour day law



1913 – Tax

1907 – Railroad commission given rate regulation powers

1906 – Child labor law

1920 – Workers compensation law


1901 – Direct primary law


1897 – Railroad commission created

1904+ Public utility commission created

1913 – Factory inspection law


1915 – Direct primary law

1907 – Creation of tax commission


1907 – [RR reg]

1915 – Creation of public utility commission

1919 – Workers compensation law


1902 – Direct primary law



1912 – Ten-hour day law




1898 – Railroad commission created

1902 – Railroad commission given rate regulation powers


Progressive-era laws:  Seldom challenged, seldom overturned

Johnson, Lytle & Co. v. Spartan Mills – South Carolina, 1904 (47 S.E. 695); State v. J.J. Newman Lumber Co. – Mississippi, 1912 (59 So. 923); State v. Legendre – Louisiana, 1915 (70 So. 70)

  • The relatively modest Progressive reforms enacted by Deep South legislatures were seldom challenged in court, partly because their limited scope defused conservative opposition and partly because courts in other states had established the constitutionality of such laws before they were enacted in the Deep South. 
  • Most Deep South courts readily rejected the few challenges to  reform laws that came before them.  The Spartan Mills and Newman Lumber cases are leading examples.  In Spartan Mills, South Carolina’s supreme court upheld the state’s law prohibiting manufacturers from paying their employees in scrip rather than cash, and in Newman Lumber, Mississippi’s supreme court upheld a 1912 law mandating a 10-hour work day.  Both courts rejected arguments that such laws limited freedom of contract between employer and employee; they relied on decisions of other courts espousing a broad view of the states’ police power. 
  • Spartan Mills and Newman Lumber are striking because the Deep South courts the decided these cases went out of their way to explain the conditions that led to the laws at issue and to defend those laws in practical terms.  This judicial sensibility perhaps reflected the ascendancy of white workers and farmers as a political force in each state during the “straight out” era, together with the fact that the laws in question had little effect on the balance of racial power.  Legendre is the only conspicuous exception to the Deep South’s rule of deference to local reforms:  in that case, Louisiana’s supreme court struck down an eight-hour day law for New Orleans boiler tenders.  The court reasoned that the law denied equal protection to other workers subject to equally hazardous conditions, and warned that legislatures must not go too far in limiting workers’ and employers’ freedom to bargain over working conditions.  But the Louisiana court readily joined other Deep South states in upholding anti-scrip laws, laws requiring regular payment of wages, and other laws designed to protect workers from employer abuses. 

Here arose an opportunity for apprehension, in enabling an unscrupulous employer to take advantage of the necessities of the laborer, and demand extortionate prices for the merchandise.   The stat seeks to remove this inequality between the employer and employee by making such checks, etc., negotiable and redeemable in case under specified conditions and at stated times.”  - Justice Ira Jones, in Spartan Mills

“[W]hen we consider the present manner of laboring, the use of machinery, the appliances, requiring intelligence and skill, and the general present day manner of life, which tends to nervousness, it seems to us quite reasonable, and in no way improper, to pass such law so limiting a day’s labor. … We … remark the notable fact that it is rare for the seller of labor to appeal to the courts for the preservation of his inalienable right to labor.  This inestimable privilege is generally the object of the buyer’s disinterested solicitude.” – Justice __  Reed, in Newman Lumber

“A fireman employed at a stationary boiler … is not a ward of the state.  He does not need the protecting arm of the Legislature, nor its interference with his freedom of contract or independence of judgment.” – Justice Charles O’Niell, in Legendre