Gently Down the Stream: How Exploding Steamboat Boilers in the 19th Century Ignited Federal Public Welfare Regulation [REDACTED VERSION]
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CitationGently Down the Stream: How Exploding Steamboat Boilers in the 19th Century Ignited Federal Public Welfare Regulation [REDACTED VERSION] (2002 Third Year Paper)
AbstractBoiler explosions plagued the steamboat industry during the early years of its existence (1816-1852), costing thousands of lives and prompting the federal government to enact private welfare regulation for the first time. Congress faced many challenges in this task, including opposition from steamboat owners, disagreement as to the causes of explosions and how best to prevent them, and, most seriously, concerns about its authority to interfere with private property rights and the extent of its constitutional power to regulate commerce. Despite these obstacles, Congress succeeded in enacting two groundbreaking pieces of legislation, one in 1838 and the other in 1852 that tackled the steamboat issue head-on. Together, they established the first federal agency responsible for the regulation of a private industry, in large part due to the public's outcry over the explosions and its demand for government intervention. The resulting dual safeguards of boiler specifications and an administrative system of inspection transformed the steaming industry and dramatically reduced the number of annual steamboat boiler explosions and resulting fatalities in the United States. More importantly, these acts and this new empowerment of the federal government set the precedent for its future role in consumer protection through the regulation of private industry, paving the way for federal agencies like the Food and Drug Administration that today are taken for granted as the guardians of public welfare.
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