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Making America: A History of the United States, Brief Second Edition
Carol Berkin, Christopher L. Miller, Robert W. Cherny, James L. Gormly, W. Thomas Mainwaring
Primary Sources

Introduction | Questions to Consider | Source

Proprietors of the Charles River Bridge vs.
Roger B. Taney

The United States Supreme Court, headed by John Marshall and dominated by justices with Federalist beliefs, had long seemed to many Americans another obstacle to democracy, or at least to equality of opportunity. In a series of very important cases, the Marshall Court had upheld the constitutionality of the Bank of the United States and made decisions that protected wealthy investors and advanced the rights of private property. In Dartmouth College v. Woodward (1819), for example, the Court had ruled that the state of New Hampshire could not amend the college's charter, which was a binding contract between the state and a private corporation.

But the president has the power to fill vacancies on the Supreme Court, with the consent of the Senate, and by the end of his second term, Andrew Jackson had appointed five justices to the seven-man Court. When the formidable Marshall died, Jackson named Maryland Democrat Roger B. Taney as the new chief justice. Taney had helped Jackson carry out his policy to destroy the Bank of the United States, and Jacksonian Democrats applauded his appointment as head of the highest court in the land.

The first major test of the new Supreme Court came with the Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge case in 1837. The Charles River Bridge Company had made enormous profits from its state-chartered toll bridge; each share of stock purchased in 1805 for $444 was worth more than $2,000 only nine years later. But in 1828, the Massachusetts legislature had granted another charter to the Warren Bridge Company, and the Charles River Bridge Company sued to prevent the completion of the new bridge. Representing the proprietors of the Charles River Bridge Company, Daniel Webster argued that its charter gave the company exclusive rights to build a bridge over the river and that protection of the company's investment was the major issue. Why, Webster asked, would men be willing to invest in an enterprise if they could not be guaranteed a sufficient profit? How could economic progress take place without continuing private investment?

The case first reached the United States Supreme Court on appeal in 1831, but a deadlocked court and then several deaths and retirements delayed the final decision until 1837. By that time, Taney was chief justice, and a majority of the justices had been appointed by Jackson. After rehearing the case, Taney delivered the majority opinion.

In this problem, you will discover what the Supreme Court's decision was in the case, analyze the reasoning the Court used to reach its decision, and, most important, evaluate the impact of this decision on Americans.

Questions to Consider
  1. Define the following:
    1. precedent
    2. monopoly
    3. plaintiff
    4. corporation
    5. franchise

  2. Who was the plaintiff in the case?

  3. In the first paragraph of the Court's decision, Chief Justice Taney explains the significance of the case.
    1. Why was this case so important?
    2. What was the effect of the construction of the Warren Bridge on the Charles River Bridge Company?

  4. Why did the Charles River Bridge Company sue? What were the two major grounds, or arguments, of their suit?

  5. Taney moved on to a discussion of precedents pertinent to the case.
    1. What were the precedents on the question of whether a legislature could take away rights it had granted previously?
    2. What did Taney argue that the Charles River Bridge Company must prove if the Court were to decide in its favor?
    3. What was the Court's reasoning and decision on this question?

  6. In the course of considering the precedents, Taney outlined the background and origins pertaining to the earlier cases.
    1. What had been the general tendency of English common law with regard to monopolies?
    2. How had English common law influenced the American cases that Taney cited as precedents?
    3. How did he describe the charter granted to the Charles River Bridge Company in 1785?

  7. Did the Court believe that there was an unstated, or implicit, monopoly granted in the Charles River Bridge charter? Why or why not?

  8. According to Taney, what would be the effect of such implicit monopolies?

  9. In your opinion, would the consequences that Taney forecast actually have happened? Or did he exaggerate? If so, why?

  10. What did the Court finally decide in this case?

  11. What part did this decision play in the broadening of opportunity that was a major aspect of Jacksonian democracy?

The questions involved in this case are of the gravest character, and the court have given to them the most anxious and deliberate consideration. The value of the right claimed by the plaintiffs is large in amount; and many persons may no doubt be seriously affected in their pecuniary interests by any decision which the court may pronounce; and the questions which have been raised as to the power of the several states, in relation to the corporations they have chartered, are pregnant with important consequences; not only to the individuals who are concerned in the corporate franchises, but to the communities in which they exist. The court are fully sensible that it is their duty, in exercising the high powers conferred on them by the constitution of the United States, to deal with these great and exclusive interests with the utmost caution; guarding, as far as they have the power to do so, the rights of property; and at the same time carefully abstaining from any encroachment on the rights reserved to the States.

In 1828, the legislature of Massachusetts incorporated a company by the name of "The Proprietors of the Warren Bridge," for the purpose of erecting another bridge over Charles River. This bridge is only sixteen rods, at its commencement on the Charlestown side, from the commencement of the bridge of the plaintiffs; and they are about fifty rods apart at their termination on the Boston side. The travellers who pass over either bridge proceed from Charlestown square, which receives the travel of many great public roads leading from the country; and the passengers and travellers who go to and from Boston, used to pass over the Charles River Bridge, from and through this square, before the erection of the Warren Bridge.

A good deal of evidence has been offered to show the nature and extent of the ferry right granted to the college, and also to show the rights claimed by the proprietors of the [Charles River] bridge at different times by virtue of their charter, and the opinions entertained by committees of the legislature and others upon that subject. But as these circumstances do not affect the judgment of this court, it is unnecessary to recapitulate them.

The plaintiffs . . . insist mainly upon two grounds: 1. That by virtue of the grant of 1650, Harvard College was entitled, in perpetuity, to the right of keeping a ferry between Charlestown and Boston; that this right was exclusive; and that the legislature had not the power to establish another ferry on the same line of travel, because it would infringe the rights of the college; and that these rights, upon the erection of the bridge in the place of the ferry, under the charter of 1785, were transferred to, and became vested in "the proprietors of the Charles River Bridge;" and that under and by virtue of this transfer of the ferry right, the rights of the bridge company were as exclusive in that line of travel as the rights of the ferry. 2. That independently of the ferry right the acts of the legislature of Massachusetts of 1785, and 1792, by their true construction, necessarily implied that the legislature would not authorize another bridge, and especially a free one, by the side of this, and placed in the same line of travel whereby the franchise granted to the "Proprietors of the Charles River Bridge" should be rendered of no value; and the plaintiffs . . . contend that the grant of the ferry to the college, and of the charter to the proprietors of the bridge, are both contracts on the part of the State; and that the law authorizing the erection of the Warren Bridge, in 1828, impairs the obligation of one or both of these contracts.

. . . Whether they claim under the ferry right, or the charter to the bridge, they must show that the title which they claim was acquired by contract, and that the terms of that contract have been violated by the charter to the Warren Bridge. In other words, they must show that the State had entered into a contract with them, or those under whom the claim, not to establish a free bridge at the place where the Warren Bridge is erected. Such, and such only, are the principles upon which the plaintiffs . . . can claim relief in this case.

. . . [S]till, [the Charles River Bridge Company] cannot enlarge the privileges granted to the bridge, unless it can be shown that the rights of Harvard College in this ferry have, by assignment, or in some other way, been transferred to the proprietors of the Charles River Bridge, and still remain in existence, vested in them, to the same extent with that in which they were held and enjoyed by the college before the bridge was built.

It has been strongly pressed upon the court, by the plaintiffs . . . that these rights are still existing, and are now held by the proprietors of the bridge. That this franchise still exists, there must be somebody possessed of the authority to use it, and to keep the ferry. Who could now lawfully set up a ferry where the old one was kept? The bridge was built in the same place, and its abutments occupied the landings of the ferry. The transportation of passengers in boats, from landing to landing, was no longer possible; and the ferry was as effectually destroyed, as if a convulsion of nature had made there a passage of dry land. The ferry then, of necessity, ceased to exist as soon as the bridge was erected; and when the ferry itself was destroyed, how can rights, which were incident to it, be supposed to survive? . . . It is clear that the incident must follow the fate of the principal, and the privilege connected with property cannot survive the destruction of the property; and if the ferry right in Harvard College was exclusive, and had been assigned to the proprietors of the bridge, the privilege of exclusion could not remain in the hands of their assignees, if those assignees destroyed the ferry.

. . . Increased population longer experienced in legislation, the different character of the corporation which owned the ferry from that which owned the bridge, might well have induced a change in the policy of the State in this respect; and as the franchise of the ferry, and that of the bridge, are different in their nature, and were each established by separate grants, which have no words to connect the privileges of the one with the privileges of the other; there is no rule of legal interpretation, which would authorize the court to associate these grants together, and to infer that any privilege was intended to be given to the bridge company, merely because it had been conferred on the ferry. The charter to the bridge is a written instrument which must speak for itself, and be interpreted by its own terms.

Adopting the rule of construction above stated as the settled one, we proceed to apply it to the charter of 1785, to the proprietors of the Charles River Bridge. This act of incorporation is in the usual form, and the privileges such as are commonly given to corporations of that kind. It confers on them the ordinary faculties of a corporation, for the purpose of building the bridge; and establishes certain rates of toll, which the company are authorized to take. This is the whole grant. There is no exclusive privilege given to them over the waters of Charles River, above or below their bridge. No right to erect another bridge themselves, nor to prevent other persons from erecting one. No engagement from the State that another shall not be erected; and no undertaking to sanction competition, nor to make improvements that may diminish the amount of its income. Upon all these subjects the charter is silent; and nothing is said in it about a line of travel, so much insisted on in the argument, in which they are to have exclusive privileges. No words are used, from which an intention to grant any of these rights can be inferred. If the plaintiff is entitled to them, it must be implied, simply, from the nature of the grant; and cannot be inferred from the words by which the grant is made.

The inquiry then is, Does the charter contain such a contract on the part of the State? Is there any such stipulation to be found in that instrument? It must be admitted on all hands that there is none, words that even relate to another bridge, or to the diminution of their tolls, or to the line of travel. . . . The whole community are interested in this inquiry and they have a right to require that the power of promoting their comfort and convenience, and of advancing the public prosperity, by providing safe, convenient, and cheap ways for the transportation of produce and the purposes of travel, shall not be construed to have been surrendered or diminished by the State, unless it shall appear by plain words that it was intended to be done. . . .

. . . Can the legislature be presumed to have taken upon themselves an implied obligation, contrary to its own acts and declarations contained in the same law? It would be difficult to find a case justifying such an implication, even between individuals; still less will it be found where sovereign rights are concerned, and where the interests of a whole community would be deeply affected by such an implication. . . .

Indeed, the practice and usage of almost every State in the Union, old enough to have commenced the work of internal improvement, is opposed to the doctrine contended for on the part of the plaintiffs. . . . Turnpike roads have been made in succession on the same line of travel; the later ones interfering materially with the profits of the first. These corporations have, in some instances, been utterly ruined by the introduction of new and better modes of transportation and travelling. In some cases, railroads have rendered the turnpike roads on the same line of travel so entirely useless, that the franchise of the turnpike corporation is not worth preserving. Yet in none of these cases have the corporations supposed that their privileges were invaded, or any contract violated on the part of the State. Amid the multitude of cases which have occurred, and have been daily occurring for the last forty or fifty years, this is the first instance in which an implied contract has been contended for, and this court called upon to infer it from an ordinary act of incorporation, containing nothing more than the usual stipulation and provisions to be found in every such law. The absence of any such controversy, when there must have been so many occasions to give rise to it, proves that neither States, nor individuals, nor corporations, ever imagined that such a contract could be implied from such charters. It shows that the men who voted for these laws, never imagined that they were forming such a contract; and if we maintain that they have made it, we must create it by a legal fiction, in opposition to the truth of the fact, and the obvious intention of the party. We cannot deal thus with the rights reserved to the States, and by legal intendments and more technical reasoning, take away from them any portion of that power over their own internal police and improvement, which is so necessary to their well being and prosperity.

And what would be the fruits of this doctrine of implied contracts on the part of the States, and of property in a line of travel by a corporation, if it should now be sanctioned by this court? To what results would it lead us? If it is to be found in the charter to this bridge, the same process of reasoning must discover it in the various acts which have been passed, within the last forty years, for turnpike companies. And what is to be the extent of the privileges of exclusion on the different sides of the road? The counsel who have so ably argued this case, have not attempted to define it by any certain boundaries. How far must the new improvement be distant from the old one? How near may you approach without invading the rights in the privileged line? If this court should establish the principles now contended for, what is to become of the numerous railroads established on the same line of travel with turnpike companies; and which have rendered the franchise of the turnpike corporations of no value? Let it once be understood that such charters carry with them these implied contracts, and give this unknown and undefined property in a line of travelling, and you will soon find the old turnpike corporations awakening from their sleep, and calling upon this court to put down the improvements which have taken their place. The millions of property which have been invested in railroads and canals, upon lines of travel which have been before occupied by turnpike corporations, will be put in jeopardy. We shall be thrown back to the improvements of the last century and obliged to stand still, until the claims of the old turnpike corporations shall be satisfied, and they shall consent to permit these States to avail themselves of the lights of modern science, and to partake of the benefit of those improvements which are now adding to the wealth and prosperity, and the convenience and comfort of every other part of the civilized world. Nor is this all. This court will find itself compelled to fix, by some arbitrary rule, the width of this new kind of property in a line of travel; for if such a right of property exists, we have no lights to guide us in marking out its extent, unless, indeed, we resort to the old feudal grants, and to the exclusive rights of ferries, by prescription, between towns; and are prepared to decide that when a turnpike road from one town to another had been made, no railroad or canal, between these two points, could afterwards be established. This court are not prepared to sanction principles which must lead to such results. . . .

The judgment of the supreme judicial court of the commonwealth of Massachusetts, dismissing the plaintiffs' bill, must, therefore, be affirmed. . . .