In the five decades after the Civil War, the United States witnessed a profusion of legal institutions designed to cope with the nation’s exceptionally acute industrial accident crisis. Jurists elaborated the common law of torts. Workingmen’s organizations founded a widespread system of cooperative insurance. Leading employers instituted welfare-capitalist accident relief funds. And social reformers advocated compulsory insurance such as workmen’s compensation.
John Fabian Witt argues that experiments in accident law at the turn of the twentieth century arose out of competing views of the loose network of ideas and institutions that historians call the ideology of free labor. These experiments a century ago shaped twentieth- and twenty-first-century American accident law; they laid the foundations of the American administrative state; and they occasioned a still hotly contested legal transformation from the principles of free labor to the categories of insurance and risk. In this eclectic moment at the beginnings of the modern state, Witt describes American accident law as a contingent set of institutions that might plausibly have developed along a number of historical paths. In turn, he suggests, the making of American accident law is the story of the equally contingent remaking of our accidental republic.
Emerging from legal history, Accidental Republic offers a broad political narrative that explores how Americans confronted the hazards and insecurities of industrialization… A very fine book that is consistently engaging to read.
The Accidental Republic is a book about the origins of workmen’s compensation, and it is probably the best book we will ever get on the subject. But it is also about much more. It is about the relationship between risk and industrial capitalism, about whether fingers are worth thirty dollars or sixty dollars, and about the political representation of pain—how it has been measured, commodified, expressed, and silenced. It is also about democratic institutions that distinguished brave soldiers and helpless trainmen from unworthy scoundrels… It is about the relationship between sympathy and citizenship and about finding a place for unfortunate people in a fortunate society. It is a book about risks, not only about why we foolishly attempt to control them, but why, even then, we still need to take them. It is, at bottom, a profound examination of how we value our fellow gamblers in the two riskiest collective enterprises of American life: capitalism and democracy… The Accidental Republic is a masterful work of legal history that will leave scholars in numerous fields arguing for years to come.
Witt carefully reconstructs the uncertain path that ultimately led to the adoption of workmen’s compensation… Witt’s narrative is brimming with rich insights… Workmen’s compensation, as he persuasively argues, represented a dramatic, although deeply contested, paradigm shift from free labor to risk and insurance that extended beyond the workplace to the building of the twentieth-century social welfare state.
Witt offers compelling evidence of the dangers workers faced as the United States rapidly industrialized after the Civil War… The book describes the numerous experiments in social, institutional, and legal reform that attempted to craft some form of protection for workers and, in the case of accidental death, their survivors… The book traces how the sheer number of industrial accidents and the attendant destitution of families deprived of their breadwinner challenged the societal notion that injuries were individual problems between employers and workers… Witt’s superb efforts will hopefully stimulate other historical examinations of dangerous work in America.
In 1940 Willard Hurst and Lloyd Garrison inaugurated modern socio-legal studies in the United States with their history of workers’ injuries and legal process in Wisconsin. Two generations later, John Fabian Witt’s The Accidental Republic marks the full maturation of that field of inquiry. Deftly integrating a legal analysis of tort doctrine, a history of industrial accidents, and a fresh political-economic understanding of statecraft, Witt demonstrates the significance of turn-of-the-century struggles over work, injury, risk, reparation, and regulation in the making of our modern world. Sophisticated, comprehensive, and interdisciplinary, The Accidental Republic is legal history as Hurst and Garrison imagined it could be.
John Witt paints his portrait of industrializing America with the subtlety of a master and on an immense canvas. His magisterial history is much more than an account of the rise of workers compensation, still one of our greatest social reforms. Witt vividly recreates the social context of the late-nineteenth-century industrial world—workers’ appalling injury and death rates, their mutual help and insurance associations, mass immigration, the rise of Taylorist management, the struggles to give new meaning to the free labor ideal, the encounter between European social engineering and American anti-statism and individualism, and the politics and economics of labor relations in the Progressive era. Out of these materials, Witt shows, the law helped fashion a new social order. His analysis has great contemporary significance, revealing both the alluring possibilities and the enduring limits of legal reform in America. It is destined to become a classic of social and legal history.
John Witt shows us the power of perceptive legal history at work. Within the tangle of compensation for industrial accidents, he discovers not only a legal struggle whose outcome set the pattern for many twentieth-century interventions of government in economic life, but also a momentous confrontation between contract and collective responsibility. Anyone who finds American history absorbing will gain pleasure and insight from this book.
- 2005, Winner of the James Willard Hurst Prize
- 322 pages
- 0-3/4 x 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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