Constitutional Political Economy

, Volume 30, Issue 4, pp 407–437 | Cite as

The classical limits to police power and the economic foundations of the Slaughterhouse dissents

  • Nicola GiocoliEmail author
Original Paper


The essay examines the influence of classical economics on an important episode in American 19th-century jurisprudence on business regulation, the Slaughterhouse Cases of 1873. It is well known that the dissents penned by Supreme Court Justices Field and Bradley lay down the fundamental doctrines of the later Lochner era of so-called laissez faire constitutionalism. The essay argues that these dissents were inspired by Adam Smith’s system of natural liberty and, in particular, by his views about the regulation of negative externalities and the undesirability of government-granted monopolies. The Smithian influence emerges even more clearly when the briefs presented by counsel for the plaintiffs John A. Campbell are considered. Those briefs contained most of the issues raised by the dissenting Justices; hence, it is claimed that Lochner’s intellectual roots may be traced back to Campbell and, from him, to Smith.


Slaughterhouse Cases Lochner era Classical political economy Adam Smith John A. Campbell Monopoly 

JEL Classification

B12 K10 N41 



I am grateful to Simon Cook, Maria Pia Paganelli and two anonymous referees for their useful comments. The usual disclaimer applies.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of LawUniversity of PisaPisaItaly

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