The People’s Welfare

Law and Regulation in Nineteenth-Century America

By William J. Novak

408 pp., 6 x 9, 2 halftones, notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-0-8078-4611-7
    Published: December 1996
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-0-8078-6365-7
    Published: November 2000
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-6652-3
    Published: November 2000

Studies in Legal History

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Awards & distinctions

1997 Littleton-Griswold Prize in American Law and Society, American Historical Association

Much of today's political rhetoric decries the welfare state and our maze of government regulations. Critics hark back to a time before the state intervened so directly in citizens' lives. In The People's Welfare, William Novak refutes this vision of a stateless past by documenting America's long history of government regulation in the areas of public safety, political economy, public property, morality, and public health. Challenging the myth of American individualism, Novak recovers a distinctive nineteenth-century commitment to shared obligations and public duties in a well-regulated society. Novak explores the by-laws, ordinances, statutes, and common law restrictions that regulated almost every aspect of America's society and economy, including fire regulations, inspection and licensing rules, fair marketplace laws, the moral policing of prostitution and drunkenness, and health and sanitary codes. Based on a reading of more than one thousand court cases in addition to the leading legal and political texts of the nineteenth century, The People's Welfare demonstrates the deep roots of regulation in America and offers a startling reinterpretation of the history of American governance.

About the Author

William J. Novak is associate professor of history at the University of Chicago.
For more information about William J. Novak, visit the Author Page.


“Sophisticated and provocative, well-written, well-argued, and exhaustively researched . . . an important, useful, and controversial attempt to reorient our understanding of nineteenth-century American legal history.”--Law and Legal History

“Offers a vigorous and effective challenge to two related bodies of literature: one that conceives of the law in the early Republic as a mere instrument in the hands of entrepreneur-favoring jurists and legislators, and another that sees government more generally yielding its residual colonial and medieval regulatory functions to the dictates of the market economy.”--American Historical Review

“Well written and thoroughly researched. . . . This is a comprehensive and well documented book, showing the author’s competence in a number of disciplines, including economics, social history, and law.”--Business History Review

"An extraordinarily important historical work on American government regulation in the 19th century. . . . [A] landmark treatise."--Library Journal

"[A] provocative, prodigiously researched, and beautifully written book."--Reviews in American History

"[An] interesting and at times provocative book."--Journal of Economic History