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Contract as contested terrain: An economic history of law and the rise of American Capitalism

Daniel P MacDonald, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Abstract

This dissertation analyzes the relationship between law and the rise of capitalism in the U.S. First, I analyze the changing relationship between labor productivity and pay at the Lawrence #2 textile mill in Massachusetts between 1834 and 1855. I estimate a model of productivity under a piece rate contract. Results show that the relationship between changes in the wage and changes in productivity was negative in the 1830s, slightly positive in the 1840s, and strongly positive in the late-1840s to 1850s. I argue that changes in relative worker bargaining power, the intensification of work flow, and the importance of liquidity constraints due to the decline of agriculture in the Northeast are the main factors underlying this shift. Second, I study the impact of contract law on state-level economic performance. Using the contrasting cases of Connecticut and Vermont I find that the development of legal thought on contracts was not composed of a single path toward ``modernity'', as the legal historiography suggests. The Vermont legal system developed outside of the mainstream framework. Using census statistics and histories of labor and manufacturing in the two states, I then argue that this difference had an impact on the nature of state-level economic growth. Finally, I provide the first economic history of the antebellum ten hour movement. I study the historical background as well as the quantitative effects of the movement via the ten hour statutes that were passed in select states between 1847 and 1855. Using historical accounts, I first give an overview of each state's ten hour movement. Using the historical analysis as a light to shed on each state, I then use a difference-in-differences identification strategy to consider whether states that passed more stringent laws (which did not allow workers and employers to ``contract out'' of the ten hour law) saw a greater reduction in hours worked. I do find that the ten hour laws had an impact, but I suggest that the movement's effects were either amplified or tempered according to the strength and tactics of a state's labor movement.^

Subject Area

Law|Economic history|Labor economics

Recommended Citation

MacDonald, Daniel P, "Contract as contested terrain: An economic history of law and the rise of American Capitalism" (2013). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3603116.
http://scholarworks.umass.edu/dissertations/AAI3603116

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