C, Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge,
Edited By: Kermit L. Hall, James W. Ely Jr., Joel B. Grossman
Edited By: Kermit L. Hall
Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge,
11 Pet. (36 U.S.) 420 (1837) argued 7–11 Mar. 1831, reargued 19–26 Jan. 1837, decided 12 Feb. 1837 by vote of 4 to 3; Taney for the Court, McLean, Story, and Thompson in dissent. To provide the public better access from Charlestown to Boston, the Massachusetts legislature in 1785 incorporated the Proprietors of the Charles River Bridge to build a bridge connecting Boston to its northern hinterland via Charlestown and authorized the proprietors to collect tolls on the bridge. In 1828 the legislature authorized Charlestown merchants to build the new Warren Bridge and to collect tolls for its use until they had been reimbursed, when their bridge would revert to the state and become free.
The Charles River Bridge proprietors sought an *injunction to halt construction of the new bridge, asserting that the Warren Bridge charter violated both the Massachusetts constitutional guarantee of “life, liberty and property” and the *Contracts Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which prevented state impairment of contracts. After the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts affirmed denial of the injunction, the Charles River Bridge proprietors sought a writ of *error from the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1831 the Court heard arguments, but the justices’ divergent views on the protection of vested property rights, as well as illnesses and vacancies on the bench, delayed decision. In 1837 the case was reargued before a court dominated by Democratic appointees.
Daniel *Webster and Warren Dutton, appearing for the Charles River Bridge, relied on Contracts Clause and *vested-rights arguments. According to them the Warren Bridge charter violated the state’s contract obligation to the Charles River Bridge proprietors by effectively destroying their exclusive property in tolls, which was the essence of the original grant.
John Davis and Simon Greenleaf for the Warren Bridge proprietors argued that the Charles River Bridge had not been granted an exclusive right to the line of *travel. When the Charles River Bridge proprietors accepted an extension of their charter, they acknowledged the state’s ability to make competing grants. The grant to the Warren Bridge was within the legislature’s authority.
Chief Justice Roger B. *Taney’s majority opinion and Justice Joseph *Story’s dissent presented contrasting views of legal principles, government responsibility, and economic progress—views that reflected their different political affiliations. They disagreed on matters of judicial interpretation of charters, the powers of the states, and the relative importance of the rights of the community and the rights of the individual.
Taney, one of Andrew *Jackson’s recent Democratic appointees, held that the legislature, representing the sovereign power of the people, had granted the privilege to build a bridge and collect tolls to the Charles River Bridge proprietors. Taney reasoned that the legislative grants should be construed narrowly to protect the public interest. Narrow construction disposed of any implied exclusive rights to the line of travel; the legislature’s later authorization of a competing grant did not destroy the proprietors’ property in tolls. While Taney declared that the “rights of private property must be sacredly guarded” (p. 548), he asserted that “the object and end of all government is to promote the happiness and prosperity of the community …; and it can never be assumed, that the government intended to diminish its power of accomplishing the end for which it was created” (p. 547).
Justice Story insisted in dissent that the Charles River Bridge charter was a form of contract granted for valuable consideration. The proprietors had offered to build the bridge to further the public good and the legislature had conferred the right to collect tolls. Where valuable consideration was received, courts should construe public contracts in favor of the grantee. Story’s broad construction of the bridge charter inferred an exclusive grant to collect tolls along the line of travel. “If the government means to invite its citizens to enlarge the public comforts and conveniences, … there must be some pledge that the property will be safe; … and that success will not be the signal of a general combination to overthrow its rights, and to take away its profits” (p. 608).
The decision of the majority recognized that demand for improved technologies would lead to their rapid adoption. It warned that older corporations would “awaken from their sleep” (p. 159) (p. 552) and called upon the courts to protect vested property rights. Fearing this threat to the millions of dollars ventured in new enterprises, Taney fashioned his opinion to justify creative destruction of old property in order that new ventures might prosper.
Stanley I. Kutler, Privilege and Creative Destruction: The Charles River Bridge Case (1971).
Elizabeth B. Monroe