Saturday, July 4, 2009

America's First Employment Law

On July 4th, we celebrate the birthday of the United State of America. The date commemorates the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 by the Continental Congress. Thomas Jefferson (borrowing from ideas previously espoused by, among others, John Locke and George Mason) declared:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
The historic significance and the importance of the ideals cannot be overstated. A new country was born on the principle of freedom.

While the language of the declaration is sweeping, I would like to call attention to what I believe to be America's first employment law. First, the declaration emphasizes equality, the notion that individuals are born with equal opportunity under the law. Second, and more directly on point in the employment context, is the enumeration of a natural right to the "pursuit of happiness."

In the 1884 Supreme Court case, Butchers' Union Co. v. Crescent City Co., Justice Field explained that portion of the Declaration in a concurring opinion:
"Among these inalienable rights, as proclaimed in that great document, is the right of men to pursue their happiness, by which is meant the right to pursue any lawful business or vocation, in any manner not inconsistent with the equal rights of others, which may increase their prosperity or develop their faculties, so as to give to them their highest enjoyment."
To this day we recognize America as the land of opportunity where individuals have the ability, the right, to pursue their occupational goals. We tell our children, "when you grow up you can be whatever you want." This inherent right, as described in the Declaration that gave birth to our nation, is America's very first employment law.