Paul H. Doran

Date Approved


Degree Type

Open Access Senior Honors Thesis

Department or School

Political Science

First Advisor

Barry Pyle

Second Advisor

Edward I. Sidlow


Of the controversies surrounding the turn-of-the-twentieth-century United States Supreme Court, one which seems to dominate is the debate over whether the Court drew from social Darwinism in its development and use of the so-called liberty of contract doctrine. This controversy over the Court’s intellectual influences is further complicated by the significant contention among scholars surrounding the meaning of social Darwinism, its proponents, and its influence on late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century American thought. I trace the development of the liberty of contract doctrine through the Court’s minimum wage and maximum hours jurisprudence in order to reexamine the Court for influences of social Darwinism. I argue that, in light of recent scholarship on this view, social Darwinism seems to have played a very marginal role, if any, in the Court’s jurisprudence. In fact, these cases, which have often been cited as evidence that the Court was influenced by social Darwinism, contain very little rhetorical evidence to support this assertion. However, despite this lack of evidence in the Court’s opinions, the influence of social Darwinism should not be entirely dismissed because the opinions may not provide enough insight into the justices’ worldviews to allow one to assess the Court for extra-legal influences.