WWS Calendar

LAPA Seminar with Lea VanderVelde - The Anti-Republican Origins of the At-Will Doctrine

Mar 11, 2019 04:30PM to 06:00PM
Wallace Hall
300 Wallace Hall


Open to the Public
Lea VanderVelde, University of Iowa College of Law. Commentator: LAPA Fellow William E. Forbath, University of Texas at Austin School of Law

LAPA’s seminar format encourages attendees to familiarize themselves with the paper in advance. A commentator opens the session by summarizing the main themes in the paper and presenting some topics for discussion.

Copies of the seminar paper are typically available about 10 days before the event, during regular business hours, at the LAPA Offices on the 3rd floor of Wallace Hall.


From Professor VanderVelde: Employment at-will is the most subordinating employment law doctrine in the U.S. today. The rule says that an employer is entitled to fire an employee without reason, maliciously for bad reasons, or for ridiculous reasons. The first appeared in the written legal record immediately after Reconstruction, a period when Congress advanced an active anti-subordination reform agenda to bring about parity between workers and their employers. This paper examines the extent of Congress' anti-subordination agenda, the employee's right to quit under the 13th Amendment, and labor systems deemed "anti-republican" by the Congress. The at-will rule's emergence undercut that labor republican agenda. This retrenchment of railroads' authority over their workers was in fact, promoted by persons associated with railroad interests. Although the at-will rule won out, at the time, there were "republican" legal scholars proposing other alternatives, and dissenters raising objections that the rule undermined free labor. As a result of the at-will rule, workers in the U.S. today have the job security of 19th century railroad day laborers.

Lea VanderVelde is the Josephine R. Witte Chair of the University of Iowa College of Law. She writes in the fields of work law, property law, American legal history, and constitutional law. Using digital research technologies, she is examining American national expansion in the critical years before the Civil War. As principal investigator for The Law of the Antebellum Frontier project at the Stanford Spatial History Lab, she is analyzing the legal and cultural mechanisms at work in developing states out of U.S. territories. VanderVelde has been actively engaged in the debate over the American Law Institute’s recently promulgated Restatement of Employment Law.  She has taught at Yale Law School, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Juridicum of the University of Vienna.

William E. Forbath is among the nation’s leading legal and constitutional historians.  His books include Law and the Shaping of the American Labor Movement and the forthcoming The Anti-Oligarchy Constitution.  He has written dozens of articles, book chapters and essays on subjects like political, social and economic inequality in American constitutional thought and politics – past, present, and future; social and economic rights in the courts, state institutions and social movements of the Southern Hemisphere.  He received his Ph.D. and J.D. from Yale University and holds an A.B. from Harvard and a B.A. from Cambridge.  Forbath is on the boards of several local and international public interest and human rights organizations.  At LAPA, he will pursue his most recent research interest in Jews, law, and identity politics in the early twentieth century.

More information: Contact Judi Rivkin, jrivkin@princeton.edu

Sponsored by the Program in Law and Public Affairs