U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt’s Second Term (1905-1909): Federal Regulation of Railroads

During President Theodore Roosevelt’s second term (March 4, 1905—March 4, 1909) the major developments regarding federal regulation of railroads were congressional enactment of the Hepburn Act in 1906 and proposed increases in such freight rates in 1907-1908.

The main provision of the Hepburn Act empowered the Interstate Commerce Commission to impose “just and reasonable” freight rates while banning rebates and preferential rates.The debate over this legislation and its terms were covered in prior posts.[1]

Now we look at the controversy over proposed increases in such freight rates in 1908.[2]

Following the Financial Panic of late 1907 [3] and  the continued economic recession in the first half of 1908, railroads felt pressured by Roosevelt not to cut wages while believing they could raise profits only by raising freight rates. As a result, some roads announced such increases. Roosevelt did not like this, especially in advance of the November 1908 presidential election.

During this new battle over freight rates, President Roosevelt met at the White House with W. C. Brown, now the Senior Vice President of the New York Central Railroad and my great-great uncle, who through letters and speeches had been the most vocal advocate for raising rates. Indeed, Brown provided the President with a collection of Brown’s speeches and other materials, Freight Rates and Railway Conditions. One was the Freight Rate Primer, which in comic-book form argued that an increase in rates would have minimal impact on the common man. Comic Book Propaganda!

Afterwards in an August 6, 1908, letter, Roosevelt told Brown that raising rates just before the election was very unwise, and instead the issue should be addressed later “purely on its merits.”

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[1] See these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: Federal Regulation of the Railroads in U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt’s Second Term (1905-1909): Introduction (Aug. 19, 2014); Federal Regulation of the Railroads in U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt’s Second Term (1905-1909): The Hepburn Act (Aug. 29, 2014); Reactions to the Hepburn Act Regarding Railroads’ Freight Rates, July-December 1906 (Sept. 8, 2014); Public Debate About U.S. Regulation of Railroads, January-May 1907 (Sept. 12, 2014); President Theodore Roosevelt’s “Decoration Day” Speech About the Railroads (May 30, 1907) (Sept. 14, 2014).

[2] See Edmund Morris, Theodore Rex  (Random House; New York; 2001).

[3]   See U.S. President Roosevelt’s Second Term: The Economy and Securities Markets of 1906-1907, dwkcommentaries.com  (Sept. 11, 2014).

President Theodore Roosevelt’s “Decoration Day” Speech About the Railroads (May 30, 1907)

President Roosevelt, Indianapolis, May 30, 1907
President Roosevelt, Indianapolis, May 30, 1907

In Indianapolis, Indiana, on Decoration Day (May 30, 1907), President Theodore Roosevelt gave a major speech to a crowd of 150,000. He began with a short introduction honoring Indiana’s Major-General Henry W. Lawton, who served in the Civil War and the Spanish-American War and whose statue was dedicated that day, as well as the state’s brave soldiers in the Civil War. (Pp. 1-2)

Roosevelt then spent the rest of the speech discussing U.S. railroads and their regulation by the federal government. He thereby responded to the many comments he had received on this subject over the past several months from prominent people and railroad executives, including William C. Brown, the Executive Vice President of the New York Central Railroad (and my maternal great-great uncle).

With approximately 7,000 words in dense, lengthy paragraphs and with Roosevelt’s style of mixing statements and counter-statements, this part of the speech is not easy to read and analyze. I do not see how any one in the audience that day could have engaged in any such analysis. The following is my deconstruction of that part of the speech into introductory remarks, positive and negative comments about the railroads and comments about their federal regulation.[1]

Introductory Remarks

“Great social and industrial problems confront us, and their solution depends on our . . . unfaltering courage, and yet a wise, good-natured self-restraint . . . . Let us try as a people to show the same qualities . . . that Abraham Lincoln showed when with indomitable resolution, but with a kindliness, patience, and common-sense . . . he faced four weary years of open war . . . .” (P. 2)

We must “preserve the rights of property . . . in jeopardy from . . . the predatory man of wealth . . . .The power of the Nation must be exerted to stop crimes of cunning no less than crimes of violence.” (P. 2)

“There can be no halt in . . . the policy of asserting the right of the Nation . . . to supervise and control the business use of wealth, especially in its corporate form . . . . [The] first and most important feature of this task . . . [is] the control of the common carriers doing an interstate business.” (Pp. 2-3)

Positive Comments About the Railroads

The initial development of railroads in the U.S. “demanded men of the utmost daring and resourcefulness; men like that great gallant soldier and real captain of industry, Granville M. Dodge.” (P. 9)

“The man who builds a great railway and those who invest in it render a great public service; for adequate transportation facilities are a vital necessity to the country.” (P. 5) “We favor full and ample return to such men.” (P. 5)

Our “hearty commendation is due those owners and mangers representing . . . the large majority who have year after year worked faithfully, patiently, and honestly in building up our great system of railways, which has knitted together in close commercial and social intercourse widely removed sections of the country and stands second only to the great business of agriculture itself in contribution to national growth and development.” (P. 7)

The “railroad men of the United States . . . are public servants in the highest and fullest sense. . . . [This includes] those who [make] the determination of railroad policies. These men are entitled to great rewards. . . . [There] is sufficient ingenuity and executive genius in the operating officials of the roads greatly to diminish [their operating] troubles.” (Pp. 12-13)

“We favor the railway man who operates his railway on a straightforward and open business basis, from the standpoint of permanent investment, and who has an interest in its future . . . . We favor the railway manager who keeps in close touch with the people along his line . . ., who operates his line with a view to the advantage he can legitimately can get out of his railway as a permanent investment by giving a fair return to stockholders and to the public good service with reasonable rates.” (Pp. 5-6)

The “bulk of our [railroad] business is honestly done.” (P. 11)

Evidence shows that “as a whole the railroad property of the country is worth as much as the securities representing it” and that “the total value of stocks and bonds is greater than their total face value . . . . [The] great mass of railroad securities rest upon safe and solid foundations.” (P. 6) Such “valuation and supervision cannot be retroactive. Existing securities should be tested, by the laws in existence at the time of their issue.” (P. 8)

”The great need of the hour . . . is the need for better transportation facilities, for additional tracks, additional terminals, and improvements in the actual handling of the railroads. . . . . Ample, safe, and rapid transportation facilities are even more important than cheap transportation. The prime need is for the investment of money which will provide better terminal facilities, additional tracks, and a greater number of cars and locomotives, while at the same time securing, if possible, better wages and shorter hours for the employees.” (P.11)

“There must be just and reasonable regulation of rates, but any arbitrary and unthinking movement to cut them down may be equivalent to putting a complete stop to the effort to provide better transportation.” (P. 11)

Our “railway facilities should be so increased as to meet the imperative demands of our internal commerce. This . . . can be met only by private capital, and the vast expenditure necessary for such purpose will not be incurred unless private capital is afforded reasonable incentive and protection. It is therefore a prime necessity to allow investments in railway properties to earn a liberal return, a return sufficiently liberal to cover all risks.” (P. 12)

“We wish to make it in the interest of the investor to put his money into the honest development of the railroads.” (P. 6) It “is necessary to the enduring prosperity and development of the country that railroads shall yield reasonable profits to investors.” (P. 7)

“[A]ll I ask of [the railroads] is a willingness to comply fully with [the laws’] spirit, and a readiness to move along the lines indicated by those who are charged with administering [the law].” (P. 6)

“It is plainly inadvisable for the Government to undertake to direct the physical operation of the railways, save in exceptional cases . . . . “ (P. 12)

Negative Comments About the Railroads

Only “the men more anxious to manipulate [the railroads’] stocks than to make the management of their roads efficient and honest” will oppose the Government’s laws and policies. (P. 4) Similarly opposed will be “the man who cares nothing about the property after his speculative deal in its securities has been closed.” (P. 5)

There are “isolated instances of unconscionable stock-watering” and of “gross and flagrant stock inflation” and “overcapitalization.” (P. 6)

Comments About Federal Regulation of the Railroads

“Every honestly managed railway will gain and not lose by [federal regulation].” (P. 4)

“Every Federal law dealing with corporations or with railroads . . . [enacted in the last six years] has been a step in . . . the right direction. All action taken by the Administration under these and the preexisting laws has been just and proper. Every [lawsuit in these six years] has been . . .not merely warranted, but required.” (P. 3)

The Hepburn Act of 1906 gave the ICC “absolute control over the accounts of railways,” and the ICC has issued an order, effective July 1st that all railroads subject to the ICC “must standardize their accounting methods.” (P. 8)

“There must be progressive legislative and administrative action for the correction of the evils which . . . have existed in railroad management in the past. Such additional legislation as that for which I have asked in the past, . . . [especially] in my message at the opening of the last session of Congress, [2] is not merely in the interest of every honest railway manager and of all the investors or would-be investors in railway securities.” (P. 3)

“There must be vested in the Federal Government a full power of supervision and control over the railways doing interstate business . . . . It must possess the power to exercise supervision over the future issuance of stocks and bonds, . . .[including] the frank publicity of everything which would-be investors and the public have a right to know. The Federal Government will thus be able to prevent all overcapitalization in the future . . . [and it should be a criminal offense for anyone to load a railroad] with obligations and pocketing the money instead of spending it on improvements and in legitimate corporate purposes.” (Pp. 3-4)

This is “the new era of the widest publicity, and of fair dealing on the part of railroads with stockholders, passengers, and shippers.” (P. 4)

The Federal Government must have the “power to exercise a jealous care against the inflation of securities.” (P. 5)

“The business of railroad organization and management should be kept entirely distinct from investment or brokerage business especially of the speculative type, and the credit and property of the corporation should be devoted to the extension and betterment of its railroads, and to the development of the country naturally tributary to the lines.”(P. 4)

“Railroads should not be prohibited from acquiring connecting lines, by acquiring stocks, bonds, or other securities of such lines.” (P. 4) (Emphasis added.)

“[R]ailroads [should be] permitted and encouraged to make traffic agreements when these are in the interest of the general public as well as the [railroads].” (P. 4)

“[T]here should be nothing done under the guise of regulating roads to destroy property without just compensation or without due process of law.” The “rights of innocent investors should not be jeopardized by legislation or executive action,” (P. 5) (Emphasis added.)

“There must be no such rigid laws as will prevent the development of the country, and such development can only be had if investors are offered an ample reward for the risk they take.” (P. 5)

Congress should provide funds to the ICC to employ “a sufficient force of experts, to undertake the physical valuation of each and any road in the country.” (P. 7) Such physical valuation will be “an essential instrument in administrative supervision.” It will be used to help determine the “reasonableness of future capitalization” and “equitable rates.” Such valuation will “help to protect the railroads “against the [ICC’s] making of inadequate and unjust rates.” (P. 7)

This “movement for national supervision and control over railways will [not] be for . . . [the] detriment [of investors].” (P. 9) With federal supervision, people will not be afraid to invest in railroad securities, thereby opening “a new reservoir [of] capital now so much needed for the extension and betterment of the railroads.” (P. 9)

Conclusion

Reading and deconstructing this speech forces one to recognize that the means of communication in 1907 were vastly different from 2014. Presidential speeches were not broadcast on television and radio. There were no personal electronic devices for people in the audience to record the words of the speeches or images of the speaker or others. Nor were there pundits to provide immediate commentary and analysis of what was just said.

I also wonder about Theodore Roosevelt’s famous saying that as President he had the “bully pulpit.” For the reasons just noted, he did have the undivided attention of the immediate audience before him, more so than presidents of our time, and this put Roosevelt in the position to be a “bully” forcing the audience to listen only to him. His use of the word “pulpit” obviously refers to the pulpit used by preachers to preach to their congregations. Was Roosevelt’s style of long, dense paragraphs with statements and counter-statements unique or was it one used by preachers or other politicians of the time? I welcome informed comments on this and any other issue raised in this discussion.

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[1] A subsequent post will examine the public reactions to this speech and further developments regarding railroad regulation.

[2] In his Annual Message to Congress on December 2, 1906, the President said there will “ultimately be need of enlarging the powers of the [ICC] . . . to give it a larger and more efficient control over the railroads.” Such enhanced control will “prevent the evils of excessive overcapitalization, and will compel the disclosure by each big corporation of its stockholders and of its properties and business, whether owned directly or through subsidiary or affiliated corporations.”

Public Debate About U.S. Regulation of Railroads, January-May 1907

Introduction

As discussed in a prior post, the Hepburn Act, which became law on June 29, 1906, empowered the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), upon complaint, to replace a railroad’s increased freight rates if the ICC determined found them to be “unreasonable” with what the ICC decided were “just and reasonable” rates.

This statute presented a new problem for the railroads. How could they justify any such increase in freight rates to the public at large, including major shippers, and thereby deter any complaint and, if challenged, justify the new rates to the ICC? In addition, various state laws imposed other restraints on the railroads.

A prior post examined the reactions to the new Hepburn Act in the last half of 1906 and President Roosevelt’s Annual Message to the Congress on December 3, 1906 while another post reviewed the general economic and securities markets conditions in 1906-1907. Now we look at additional public debate on this issue and the broader issue of federal and state regulation of the railroads in the first five months of 1907 before President Theodore Roosevelt made a major speech on railroad regulation in Indianapolis on Decoration Day (May 30, 1907).

Discussion

Frederick A. Delano
Frederick A. Delano

In a January 6, 1907, article, Frederick A. Delano, the President of the Wabash Railroad, said that railroad business “has been very good” and promises to continue to do so, but their costs are increasing along with demands for many improvements. But where will the railroads get the money? Investors are finding more remunerative returns than railroads. “Reducing passenger fares and freight rates will not help” the railroads raise the necessary capital.[1]

James J. Hill
James J. Hill

A week later, James J. Hill, the President of the Great Northern Railway, reentered the public debate with a January 14, 1907, letter to the Governor of the State of Minnesota, John A. Johnson that was covered by the press.[2] The letter reiterated the main points of his previously discussed November 10, 1906, speech. Hill complained about the inadequacy of railroad trackage and terminals and said railroads needed to spend $5 billion over five years for such equipment, but that they had difficulty raising the necessary capital because investors decline “to put [their] money into enterprises under bias of unpopularity, and even threatened by individuals and political parties with confiscation or transfer to the State. This feeling must be removed and greater confidence be mutually established if any considerable portion of the vast sum necessary is to be available.”

On February 1, 1907, a Wall Street Journal editorial came to the aid of the railroads. It said they need “material and moral encouragement.” They need coal. They need cars and engines. They need more trackage. They need money. They need mercy. “They have been hammered and hammered by their critics from all directions and for so long that the time [has come for a] . . . sense of human appreciation . . . . Criticism . . . should not be carried to the point of abuse. The morale of the railroad service can be maintained at a high level only by the feeling that it is receiving and deserving a reasonable measure of public encouragement.”[3]

William C. Brown
William C. Brown

The next day (February 2nd) William C. Brown, the Senior Vice President of the New York Central Railroad (and my maternal great-great uncle), after privately supporting the Wall Street Journal editorial,[4] made public a letter he had sent to a friend in Washington, D.C. about these issues.[5] Brown asserted that no prudent investor would invest in railroads, “against which every man’s hand, from the President down, seems to be raised, and in the defense of which few men hoping for political preferment dare raise their hand.” Indeed, said Brown, “the spirit of hostility against the railroads which seems to be felt by members of both parties and by the Administration . . . is rapidly creating a feeling of distrust, and is discrediting the railroads of this country . . . as to make it very difficult . . . to secure any money for needed improvements and promises to make it almost impossible to do so in the near future. The President [must make] . . . an appeal for fair and reasonable treatment for [the railroads in order to] restore confidence.”[6]

By February 6th it had become apparent that at least the railroads headquartered in New York City agreed with James J. Hill of the Great Northern that an increase in freight rates would soon be necessary. W.C. Brown made it emphatic in a New York Times article: an increase in freight rates “will have to come.”[7]

As mentioned in a prior post, on March 12th after a meeting with President Roosevelt, J. P. Morgan told reporters that the President had agreed to meet with four leading railroad executives to discuss these issues. This supposed meeting between Roosevelt and the four railroad presidents, however, never happened. Instead, Roosevelt met separately with railroad presidents: B. F. Yoakum of the Rock Island Railroad; E. H. Harriman of the Union Pacific; A.B. Stickney of the Chicago Great Western Railroad, who opined that the unrest in the financial world was not due to Roosevelt’s policies, but rather to hostile state legislation; Charles S. Mellen of the New York, New Haven & Hartford; Marvin Hughitt of the Chicago & Northwestern; and Edward R. Bacon of the Baltimore & Ohio Southwestern. Other prominent individuals and representatives of shipping interests were also consulted in this time period on railroad issues by Roosevelt.[8]

Andrew Carnegie
Andrew Carnegie

After a White House luncheon meeting on March 27th, Andrew Carnegie said, “The President is the best friend the railroads have. . . . [T]he President’s railroad measures are moderate, and that if the railroads do not accept them they may be confronted by some other President very much more radical . . . . I indorse the President’s position on the railroad question without reservation. His influence on that subject I regard as entirely wholesome and conservative.”

Apparently the railroad men were urging Roosevelt to make a statement about his position regarding the railroads while Roosevelt was learning all he could about the railroads and a possible federal requirement for appraisals of the value of their physical assets in preparing a speech about railroad issues that he in fact delivered in Indianapolis, Indiana on Decoration Day, May 30th and that will be covered in a subsequent post. In late March the White House let it be known that the President did not intend to have any appraisal of railroad assets would not affect previously issued securities.

One idea that received a lot of coverage was put forward in late March by Jacob H. Schiff, the head of banking-house Kuhn, Loeb & Co. Responding to financial markets turmoil, he said steps must be taken “to allay the anxiety which exists among all classes of investors and business interests over the agitation against railroads.” Therefore, he proposed (1) the Interstate Commerce Commission host a conference with representatives of the railroads; (2) such a conference to review all legislative proposals affecting railroads and recommend some for new federal laws making further state laws unnecessary. ICC commissioners and J.P. Morgan liked the idea.[9]

On April 18th William C. Brown reentered the public arena as a featured speaker at a banquet held for 1,000 guests by the Buffalo, New York Chamber of Commerce. Brown said “Money for the great improvement and extension of our transportation facilities . . . must be provided . . . by private capital; and, in order to secure the vast amount of money required, the investment must be made reasonably attractive and secure. . . . But unless assurances can be had . . . of friendly co-operation, of protection, and aid, in every fair and legitimate manner against oppression and injustice; of such guarantee as the government can give of protection against [unjust] legislation . . . it is going to be impossible for the railroads to obtain the money necessary for such improvements.”[10]

Brown added, “the great business interests of the country should unite with the railroads in an appeal for a cessation of agitation looking to the enactment of further restrictive legislation.” Nevertheless, Brown said, President Roosevelt has exerted his “powerful influence . . . fearlessly and forcefully in correcting abuses by the railroads and I believe it will be exerted just as fearlessly and effectively in protecting the railroads from injustice.” Moreover, Brown admitted he was “firmly and unalterably in favor of the regulation of railroads and all other corporations by the Nation and by the States. . . . I would not, if I could, materially change the laws thus far enacted by the Congress.”

The New York Times article about Brown’s speech came to the attention of Roosevelt, and on April 29th, Brown had an extended meeting with the President about the railroad situation.[11]

The debate about railroad regulation continued that May with the President meeting with the general counsels of two railroads and the revelation that the President would be seeking legislation authorizing the federal government to undertake appraisals of railroads’ assets.[12]

On May 29th, the day before the President’s Indianapolis speech on railroad issues, the stock market prices were up, and a journalist opined that this strength was due “to the belief and in fact to the knowledge prevalent in the Street that Mr. Roosevelt’s Indianapolis address to-day will be at least so evenly balanced in its treatment of the railroad question that no harm to stocks will result from it.”[13]

Conclusion

From documents available from the Roosevelt archives, details about Brown’s meeting with Roosevelt and their 1907 correspondence on these issues have been obtained for discussion in a subsequent post. Another post will then examine the President’s May 30th speech in Indianapolis on railroad issues.

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[1] Delano, The Solution for Problems, N.Y. Times (Jan. 6, 1907).

[2] Must Spend Billions for Tracks, Says Hill, N. Y. Times (Jan. 15, 1907). Hill repeated these contentions the next day at a meeting in Minneapolis and added, “The railroads today are blamed for everything, practically that is wrong.” (Slow Paralysis, Says Hill, N.Y. Times (Jan. 16, 1907).)

[3] Editorial, Railroads Need Encouragement, W.S.J. (Feb. 1, 1907).

[4] Brown expressed his appreciation for this editorial in a letter to the newspaper. Brown said, “these words of kindly commendation are appreciated by all railroad men. . . . [Railroads] are not, even taken as a whole, entirely without virtue and merit” and “some roads are entitled to a very great deal of credit for the manner in which they have been operated, and their contribution to the growth and prosperity of the country. . . . Nothing can be more discouraging and disheartening than the wholesale, indiscriminate censure and criticism (which, in many instances, as you say, may almost be characterized as abuse) to which railroads as a whole have been subjected during the last two years.” (Letter, Brown to Dow, Jones & Co. (Feb. 1, 1907) (Image # 71-0626 provided courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Divisions and Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University, www.theodorerooseveltcenter.org.). As we will see in a subsequent post, Brown privately provided President Roosevelt with copies of this correspondence with the Wall Street Journal.

[5] Says Railway Whacking Menaces the Country, N.Y. Times (Feb. 3, 1907). As we will see in a subsequent post, a copy of this letter from Brown to a friend (T.P. Schonts) was privately made available to President Roosevelt.

[6] Brown on February 7th reiterated that “the agitation which is going on all over the country makes it impossible to raise money [for necessary railroad improvements] by the sale of bonds.” (Billions Needed for Roads, N. Y. Times (Feb. 8, 1907).) As discussed in a prior post, on March 14th, in reaction to the huge declines in the securities markets the prior day, W.C. Brown issued a public statement that talked about the problems railroads had in selling new issues of stock or debt.

[7] Railways in Dilemma Over Rate Problems, N.Y. Times (Feb. 7, 1907); Freight Rates going Up? N.Y. Times (Feb. 5, 1907) (Hill said, “{W]ith the present advances in cost the railroads will soon be forced to consider an advance in rates instead of a reduction” ).

[8] Yoakum Favors Federal Control, N.Y. Times (Mar. 12, 1907); Mr. Harriman in the Times, N.Y. Times (Mar. 13, 1907); Roosevelt Refuge of Railroad Men, N.Y. Times (Mar. 13, 1907); Stickney Fears a Panic, N. Y. Times (Mar. 13, 1907); Speyer Hastily Sees Roosevelt, N.Y. Times (Mar. 14, 1907); Railroad Heads Meet in New York, N.Y. Times (Mar. 15, 1907); Plan Meeting of Governors, N. Y. Times (Mar. 15, 1907); Did Not Invite Presidents, N. Y. Times (Mar. 15, 1907); [Mellen Announcement], N.Y. Times (Mar. 15, 1907); Washington’s View of It, N.Y. Times (Mar. 16, 1907); Roosevelt To Ask Hughes To Confer, N.Y. Times (Mar. 17, 1907); Mellen Going alone To See Roosevelt, N.Y. Times (Mar. 17, 1907); Yoakum To See Roosevelt, N.Y. Times (Mar. 18, 1907); Mellen Confers Just 25 Minutes, N.Y. Times (Mar. 20, 1907); President Is Receptive, N.Y. Times (Mar. 27, 1907); Roosevelt Confers on Railway Speech, N.Y. Times (Mar. 28, 1907); President May Modify Plans, N.Y. Times (Mar. 30, 1907);

[9] Get Together Says Schiff, N.Y. Times (Mar. 26, 1907); President Is Receptive, N.Y. Times (Mar. 27, 1907); Morgan Cables Roosevelt, N.Y. Times (Mar. 27, 1907); “Schiff’s Flag of Truce,” N.Y. Times (Mar. 30, 1907).

[10] William C. Brown, Address to the Buffalo Chamber of Commerce (April 18, 1907); Hughes Tells of Republic’s Foes, N.Y. Times (April 19, 1907). Brown also gave a speech on May 13, 1907, to the Syracuse, New York Chamber of Commerce that made many of the same points as the Buffalo speech. He again supported federal and state regulation of railroads so long as it was “undertaken in a spirit of the most liberal conservatism; the radical, the agitator, the reactionist on both sides should be suppressed.” (For Government Control, N. Y. Times (May 15, 1907).)

[11] W.C. Brown at the White House, N.Y. Times (Apr. 30, 1907).

[12] Roosevelt Favors Appraisals of Roads, N.Y. Times (May 17, 1907); Putting Value on Country’s Roads, N.Y. Times (May 20, 1907).

[13] Financial Markets, N.Y. Times (May 30, 1907).

 

U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt’s Second Term: The Economy and Securities Markets of 1906-1907

Our last stop on the issues of railroad regulation during President Theodore Roosevelt’s Second Term focused on the June 29, 1906, adoption of the Hepburn Act regarding limits on railroad freight rates and the subsequent reactions that year to this statute. Before we look at the continued controversy over these issues in 1907, we need to review what was happening in 1906 and 1907 in the economy and securities markets and their increasing intertwining with the railroad issues.[1]

 1906

 In 1906 the economy and securities markets were adversely affected by April’s major San Francisco earthquake destroying two-thirds of the city and leaving over 200,000 residents homeless and by the subsequent increase of interest rates by the Bank of England responding to the outflow of English funds paying earthquake insurance claims. From a peak in January stock market prices had fallen by 18% by July of that year, and after the adoption of the Hepburn Act railroad securities were especially hard hit. By late September stocks generally had recovered about one-half of their losses.

January-February 1907

At the start of 1907, however, the U.S. appeared to be prosperous. Railroads had difficulty finding enough freight cars to meet demand. Banks had a lot of cash. Wages and prices were rising. This redounded to the credit of President Theodore Roosevelt, who had just been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for ending the Japanese-Russian war.

The U.S. stock market, however, was sending contrary signals. Between September 1906 and March 8, 1907, the stock market slid, losing 7.7% of its capitalization. Indeed, in January John D. Rockefeller predicted that Roosevelt’s policies would result in a depression.

March-May 1907

On March 12th, reacting to the troubled securities markets and to rumors that President Theodore Roosevelt was planning some new measures against the railroads, J.P. Morgan, the major Wall Street financier and New York Central Railroad Director, met with the President to discuss “the present business situation, particularly as affecting railroads.” According to Morgan, he urged Roosevelt to take some action “to allay the public anxiety now threatening to obstruct railroad investments and construction” and advised the President that “the financial interests of the country are greatly alarmed at the attitude of the Administration towards corporations, and particularly the railroads.” Afterwards Morgan told the press that Roosevelt would soon meet with the heads of four leading railroads to see what might be done to “allay public anxiety.”[2]

This news did not calm the securities markets. The next day (March 13th) New York Stock Exchange prices collapsed. And on March 14th, the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped by another 25%. These two days were sometimes referred to as “the Rich Man’s Panic” since most ordinary people were not stock market investors.

At the markets close that day, the 25 most active stocks on the New York Stock Exchange had a total shrinkage in value since the first of the year of $ 970 million. This was especially true for the following railroad stocks:

Railroad ShrinkageMillion $ ShrinkagePercentage
A.T. & S.F. $ 23.5 22.8%
Baltimore & Ohio $ 30.5 20.0%
Canadian Pacific $ 34.0 28.1%
Chesapeake & Ohio $ 11.0 17.5%
M. & St. Paul $ 21.0 25.3%
Great. Northern. (Pfd.) $ 87.0 58.2%
Missouri Pacific $ 21.5 27.8%
N.Y. Central $ 35.5 19.9%
Norfolk & Western $ 13.0 19.7%
Northern. Pacific $113.0 72.9%
Pennsylvania RR $ 62.5 20.0%
Reading $ 31.0 44.3%
Southern Pacific $ 47.0 23.8%
Union Pacific $117.0 59.9%

After the close of the markets on the 14th, the U.S. Treasury injected $25 million of cash into New York City banks by buying some of their holdings of U.S. bonds, which calmed the markets for the moment.

Reacting to the market developments of the 14th, William C. Brown, Senior Vice President of the New York Central Railroad (and my maternal great-great uncle) issued a public statement that said, “The diminishing net earnings of railroads, while alarming, are overshadowed by the apparent hostility as evinced by recently enacted or introduced Federal and state legislation. The growth and development of the country will soon be at a standstill unless transportation facilities can be tremendously increased. Hundreds of millions of dollars should be expended in this direction as rapidly as material can be assembled and men employed. On account of the above conditions confidence has been so shaken that investments of this character are regarded as so hazardous and unattractive as to make it impossible to sell any kind of railroad security except at such discount and rate of interest as to make it prohibitive; and these improvements, so vital to the prosperity of the country, are being greatly curtailed or entirely dropped.”

Brown concluded this statement with a plea for the railroads and the President to cooperate in stopping evils and abuse. In addition, “the President and the press should co-operate with the railroads and with all food citizens in working for a restoration of public confidence, based upon the widest publicity of corporation affairs and absolute fairness, equality, and stability of rates.”

June-September 1907

Troubles, however, were not over. In June the stock of the Union Pacific Railroad—among the most common stocks used as collateral for bank loans—fell 50 points. That same month an offering of New York City bonds failed. In July the copper market collapsed. In August the Standard Oil Company was fined $29 million for antitrust violations. That same month commodity prices declined, Another negative factor that summer was the Bank of England’s imposing a prohibition of English banks buying U.S. finance bills, thereby closing a major source of refinancing for U.S. debtors. In September industrial production also went down. In the first nine months of 1907, stocks were lower by 24.4%.

October-November 1907 (Financial Panic)

 The Fin1907panic_4ancial Panic of 1907 started on October 9th with the failure of two speculators to take over the United Copper Company  and the resulting bankruptcies of two brokerage houses, another mining company and a bank. On October 15th stocks started  to tumble, and on October 21st and 22nd a run started on New York City’s third largest and supposedly solid trust, the  Knickerbocker Trust Company, causing its bankruptcy.This in turn created fear throughout the U.S. and numerous  bankruptcies of state and local banks and other businesses. On October 23rd money was almost unobtainable on Wall Street,  call-loan rates had spiked to 125% and the entire U.S. financial system was nearing collapse. To the left is a photo of a crowd of  people in front of Manhattan’s Federal Hall, at the corner of Wall and Broad Streets; the New York Stock Exchange is outside  the photo to the left.

In response to this crisis, Roosevelt had the U.S. Treasury deposit $25 million in national banks.

The “savior” of the financial system from the Panic, however, was J. P. Morgan, the wealthy Wall Street financier and a New York Central Director. He and other plutocrats (E.H. Harriman, Henry Clay Frick and John D. Rockefeller, Sr.) pledged large sums of their own money, to shore up the U.S. financial system. These efforts had apparently succeeded by October 24th when the New York Stock Exchange did not have to shut down and stock prices started to rebound.

The next week, however, the panic returned when a major brokerage house threatened to cease operations and the City of New York was on the verge of defaulting on its obligations. J.P. Morgan and his colleagues again came to the rescue with a plan for U.S. Steel to buy the shares of Tennessee Coal and Iron Company then held as collateral by the failing brokerage firm. This plan, however, would go forward only if it had President Roosevelt’s approval. That approval was obtained on November 4th at a White House breakfast meeting with U.S. Steel’s Chairman (Elbert H. Gary) and one of its founders (Henry Clay Frick). News of this approval immediately was released, and stock prices began to rally.

Additional support for the financial system and stock market was supplied in November when Roosevelt authorized the U.S. Treasury to increase its injection of funds into the banks to $69 million and to sell $150 million of U.S. and Panama bonds.

All of this occurred in the midst of an economic contraction that had started in May 1907 and that did not end until June 1908. The interrelated contraction, falling stock market and financial panic resulted in significant economic disruption. Industrial production dropped more than after any previous bank run, while 1907 saw the second-highest volume of bankruptcies to that date. Production fell by 11%, imports by 26%, while unemployment rose to 8% from under 3%.

Analysis of the Financial Panic of 1907

100 years later (September 2007) two distinguished professors at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business (Robert F. Bruner and Sean D. Carr) concluded that the Panic of 1907 “resulted from a powerful convergence of [the following] seven overlapping and interrelated forces—a ‘perfect storm’ in the financial markets:”

  1. The financial system’s architecture was “highly fractionalized, localized, and complex” with networks that allowed quick spread of news and rumors while it also was difficult for all actors to be equally well informed.
  2. Strong economic growth in the U.S. had created a massive demand for external finance, which was met with a significant amount of capital borrowed from European sources.
  3. There were inadequate safety buffers for a system with many small and undiversified banks plus new and lightly regulated trust companies holding riskier assets.
  4. Roosevelt was “on the warpath against anticompetitive business practices” as were many state governments.
  5. Real economic shock from the San Francisco earthquake of April 1906 and the summer 1907 curtailment of acceptance of U.S. finance paper by the Bank of England.
  6. Undue fear, greed and other behavioral aberrations causing a sharp and self-reinforcing shift from optimism to pessimism.
  7. Failure of collective action. Yes, J.P. Morgan led a collective effort that helped dampen the worst of the Panic, but it was insufficient in the overall economy and financial system.

Below is a graph comparing the Dow-Jones Industrial Average for January 1906-October 1907 with the same Average for the Financial Panic of 2008:

DJIA graph 1907Panic

 

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[1] This post is based upon Edmund Morris, Theodore Rex at 476-78, 498-501 (Random House; New York; 2001); Lynch, March 13th Stock Market Crash (Jan, 31, 2008); Foldvary, The Panic of 1907 (May 1, 2007);  Trumblore, J. P. Morgan-Savior-The Panic of 1907; Harvard Univ. Center for History & Econ, The 1907 Crisis in Historical Perspective; The United States, 1904-1914; Wikipedia, Panic of 1907; Bruner & Carr, The Panic of 1907: Lessons Learned from the Market’s Perfect Storm, Financial History (Fall 2007); Stock Collapse Rivals Panics, N.Y. Times (Mar. 15, 1907); Bankers Decry Fear of a Panic, N.Y. Times (Mar. 15, 1907); W.C. Brown’s Appeal, N.Y. Times (Mar. 15, 1907); Stock Crash Over without a Failure, N. Y. Times (Mar. 16, 1907).

[2] As we will see in a subsequent post, the proposed meeting between the President and the four leading railroad executives never happened, and instead the President held meetings individually with quite few such executives in March through May 1907.

Reactions to the Hepburn Act Regarding Railroads’ Freight Rates, July-December 1906

As discussed in a prior post, the Hepburn Act, which became law on June 29, 1906, empowered the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), upon complaint, to replace a railroad’s increased freight rates if the ICC determined found them to be “unreasonable” with what the ICC decided were “just and reasonable” rates.

This statute presented a new problem for the railroads. How could they justify any such increase in freight rates to the public at large, including major shippers, and thereby deter any complaint and, if challenged, justify the new rates to the ICC?

This post examines the reactions to the new Act in the last half of 1906 and President Roosevelt’s Annual Message to the Congress on December 3, 1906. Subsequent posts will look at developments on the issue of freight rates in 1907 and 1908.

Public Reactions to the Hepburn Act

Melville E. Ingalls
Melville E. Ingalls

On August 16th, Melville E. Ingalls, the Chairman of the Big Four Railway and a Cincinnati bank president, said at a public meeting of bankers that “the greatest menace to American business and banking interests is found in the various trade laws, particularly the Hepburn and the Sherman [Antitrust] acts.”[1]

 

William Jennings Bryan
William Jennings Bryan

Later that same month William Jennings Bryan, the unsuccessful presidential candidate in 1896 and 1900, in a speech to a crowd of 10,000 at New York City’s Madison Square Garden impliedly argued that the Hepburn Act did not go far enough. Bryan said, “I have reached the conclusion that there will be no permanent relief on the railroad question from discrimination between individuals and between places, and from extortionate rates, until the railroads are the property of the Government and operated by the Government in the interests of the people.”[2]

Bryan’s suggestion was rejected the next day in a New York Times editorial saying that the newspaper was “entirely confident that the Interstate Commerce [A]ct, the [Sherman] Anti-Trust [A]ct , . . ., the Elkins Anti-Rebate [A]ct, and the Hepburn [Act] . . . , the enforcement of which measures has been wonderfully facilitated by recent decisions of the Supreme Court, . . . supply adequate remedies . . . [to] protect the people from [railroads’] . . . insolence and their rapacity, and put a stop to unfair [rate] discrimination. . . . Mr. Bryan’s new doctrine of public ownership for the railroads . . . is [a] revolution . . ., and incalculable disaster would attend [such a revolution].” Moreover, the editorial stated the newspaper did “not believe that either the Democratic Party, or any great part of the membership of either party, is ready to accompany [Bryan] upon this perilous adventure in radicalism and centralization.”

Similar negative reactions to the Bryan proposal were expressed by leaders of the Democratic Party and most other newspapers. The New York Evening Post, however, said it thought the public ownership idea “will probably attract more voters, . . . than it will affright.”

James J. Hill
James J. Hill

Another indirect attack on the Hepburn Act from a different perspective was made on November 10, 1906, by James J. Hill, the President of the Great Northern Railway.[3] In what the New York Times called “an indignant outburst” against public agitation against America’s railroads.[4] Hill complained that the railroads were considered “outlaws” and that they had “not been getting justice in this country.” In the 1904 election “the two great political parties [were] preaching the doctrine of the operation of the railroads by the Government . . . . Is that the way to get men to put more money in the country’s railroads?” Hill pleaded for “a halt to this treatment of the railroad.”

Hill also admitted that the entire country was “suffering from want of transportation facilities to move its business without unreasonable delay. The prevailing idea with the public is that the railways are short of cars, while the fact is that the shortage is in tracks and terminals to provide a greater opportunity for the movement of the cars.” He continued, “The traffic of the country is congested beyond imagination. The commerce of the country is paralyzed, which, continued, means slow death.”

To remedy this situation, Hill asserted, “will cost at least [a total of $ 4 billion to $ 5 billion or $1 billion] per year for five years. Why, there is not money enough [or] . . . rails enough in all the world to do this. [It also is impossible to get the labor to do this work.]”

Soon after Mr. Hill’s speech, two separate investigations of railroads in which Mr. Hill had major interests were announced:

  • On November 20th the ICC said it was opening an investigation into the impact on railroad freight rates by Hill’s control of the Great Northern, the Northern Pacific and the Burlington railways.[5]
  • On November 28th, the Minnesota Attorney General said he was considering bringing charges against the Great Northern for alleged duplicate issues of capital stock and, therefore, “watering” of stock in connection with its building new branch lines for a subsidiary.[6]

President Roosevelt’s Annual Message to Congress (December 3, 1906)

Theodore Roosevelt
Theodore Roosevelt

 

On December 3, 1906 President Theodore Roosevelt delivered to the Congress his written Annual Message. It echoed Hill’s sense of railroads being unjustly attacked and impliedly criticized Bryan’s public-ownership proposal. Roosevelt said “the men who seek to excite a violent class hatred against all men of wealth. They seek to turn wise and proper movements for the better control of corporations and for doing away with the abuses connected with wealth into a campaign of hysterical excitement and falsehood in which the aim is to inflame to madness the brutal passions of man kind.” Such men are “sinister demagogues and foolish visionaries.”

The President, however, commended the Congress on taking “long strides in the direction of securing proper supervision and control by the National Government over corporations engaged in interstate business.” In particular, he said, the “passage of the [Hepburn] railway rate bill [was] . . .an important advance.” In the upcoming congressional session, “it may be best to wait until the laws have been in operation for a number of months before endeavoring to increase their scope, because only operation will show with exactness their merits and their shortcomings and thus give opportunity to define what further remedial legislation is needed.”

In addition, Roosevelt said the Hepburn Act “has rather amusingly falsified the predictions, both of those who asserted that it would ruin the railroads and of those who asserted that it did not go far enough and would accomplish nothing. During the last five months the railroads have shown increased earnings and some of them unusual dividends; while during the same period the mere taking effect of the law has produced an unprecedented, a hitherto unheard-of, number of voluntary reductions in freights and fares by the railroads.”

Nevertheless, Roosevelt continued, there will “ultimately be need of enlarging the powers of the [ICC]. . . to give it a larger and more efficient control over the railroads.” Such enhanced control will “prevent the evils of excessive overcapitalization, and will compel the disclosure by each big corporation of its stockholders and of its properties and business, whether owned directly or through subsidiary or affiliated corporations. This will tend to put a stop to the securing of inordinate profits by favored individuals at the expense whether of the general public, the stockholders, or the wage-workers.”

Indeed, said Roosevelt, adoption of such measures is the “best way to avert the very undesirable move for the governmental ownership of railways.

Roosevelt also expressed disagreement with the Supreme Court’s March 1904 interpretation of the Sherman Antitrust Act in the Northern Securities case as barring all combinations of businesses. He said, “It is unfortunate that [the Sherman Act] should forbid all combinations, instead of sharply discriminating between those combinations which do good and those combinations which do evil.” Therefore, he urged Congress to give serious consideration to amending the Sherman Act to do just that.[7]

On other issues affecting the railroads, Roosevelt called for the “passing [of] the bill limiting the number of hours of employment of railroad employees. The measure is a very moderate one, and I can conceive of no serious objection to it.” Another measure he supported was improving the recent “employers liability law” so that it placed “the entire ‘risk of a trade’ upon the employer.”

Conclusion

President Roosevelt’s Annual Message did not end the public (and private) debate about federal regulation of railroads, and especially their freight rates. It merely was a prelude to continued debate in 1907 and 1908 as we will see in future posts.

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[1] Trade Laws Denounced, N.Y. Times (Aug. 17, 1906).

[2] This discussion of Bryan’s speech and the reactions it provoked is based upon the following: Bryan’s Stand: End the Trusts, N.Y. Times (Aug. 31, 1906); 10,000 Swelter as Bryan Speaks, N.Y. Times (Aug. 31, 1906); Overflow Meeting Had a Small Crowd, N.Y. Times (Aug. 31, 1906); Editorial, Mr. Bryan’s New Party, N.Y. Times (Aug. 31, 1906); Leaders Oppose Bryan’s Public Ownership Plan, N.Y. Times (Sept. 1, 1906); Newspapers Views, N.Y. Times (Sept. 1, 1906); From the New York Evening Post, N.Y. Times (Sept. 1, 1906).

[3] Hill, as previously discussed, was the co-creator of the Northern Securities Company and a co-defendant in the U.S. successful antitrust case against the creation and operation of that company.

[4] Justice for Railways, Demanded by J. J. Hill, N. Y. Times (Nov. 11, 1906).

[5] Hill’s Three Roads To Be Investigated, N.Y. Times (Nov. 21, 1906).

[6] May Attack Hill Stocks, N.Y. Times (Nov. 28, 1906).

[7] A New York Times editorial said this call for changing the Sherman Act Roosevelt’s “wisest counsel” in the Message. (Editorial, President’s “Coherent Plan,” N.Y. Times (Dec. 5, 1906).) As it turned out, there was no need for such an amendment when nearly five years later the Supreme Court ruled that the original Sherman Act only banned “unreasonable” combinations and restraints of trade.

Federal Regulation of the Railroads in U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt’s Second Term (1905-1909): The Hepburn Act

During President Theodore Roosevelt’s second term in office (03/04/1905—03/04/1909) there were two major developments regarding federal regulation of railroads: congressional enactment of the Hepburn Act regarding railroad freight rates in 1906 and public controversy over proposed increased freight rates in 1907-1908 with the Financial Panic of 1907 in the background.

This post examines the circumstances surrounding the Hepburn Act.[1] Other posts will discuss the Panic of 1907 and the controversy over freight rates.

Background

As discussed in a prior post, in 2003 the Elkins Act was adopted to increase the power of the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to combat rebates on railroad freight rates. By late 1904, however, critics were saying although this Act apparently had substantially reduced rebates, it had facilitated railroads’ establishing collusive pricing. It had not produced lower rates. In short, it had not produced benefits to farmers and other shippers.

The ICC itself expressed similar views in its Nineteenth Annual Report on December 14, 1905. It said, “various devices for evading the [Elkins Act] . . . have [been] brought into use, but the actual payment of rebates as such has been . . . established by convincing proof, on which prosecutions have been commenced and are now pending. More frequently the unjust preference is brought about by methods, which may escape . . . [the Elkins Act], but which plainly operate to defeat the purpose [of the statute]. . . . [T]his type of evil has by no means disappeared and . . . is liable to increase unless effectively restrained.”

Roosevelt’s Advocacy of Additional Railroad Regulation

Theodore Roosevelt
Theodore Roosevelt

President Roosevelt, recognizing the flaws in the existing set of laws regulating railroads, set about advocating for new laws to enhance such regulation in his second term.

Indeed, he did so in his December 6, 1904, Annual State of the Union Message after he had been re-elected, but before he had been inaugurated for his second term. With respect to the “great corporations,” he stated, “the need for the Government to act directly is far greater than in the case of labor, because great corporations can become such only by engaging in interstate commerce, and interstate commerce is peculiarly the field of the General Government . . . . The National Government alone can deal adequately with these great corporations.” He continued, “Great corporations are necessary, and only men of great and singular mental power can manage such corporations successfully, and such men must have great rewards. But these corporations should be managed with due regard to the interests of the public as a whole. Where this can be done under the present laws it must be done. Where these laws come short others should be enacted to supplement them.”

Later in this Annual Message Roosevelt said, “it is necessary to put a complete stop to all rebates. Whether the shipper or the railroad is to blame makes no difference; the rebate must be stopped, the abuses of the private car and private terminal-track and side-track systems must be stopped, and the [Elkins Act] . . . which declares it to be unlawful for any person or corporation to offer, grant, give, solicit, accept, or receive any rebate, concession, or discrimination in respect of the transportation of any property in interstate or foreign commerce whereby such property shall by any device whatever be transported at a less rate than that named in the tariffs published by the carrier must be enforced.” He added, “the most important legislative act now needed” is to vest the ICC “with the power, where a given rate has been challenged and after full hearing found to be unreasonable, to decide, subject to judicial review, what shall be a reasonable rate to take its place; the ruling of the Commission to take effect immediately, and to obtain unless and until it is reversed by the court of review.”

Nearly 10 months later in a speech in Raleigh, North Carolina Roosevelt said, “The management of the . . . intricate web of railroad lines which cover the country, is a task infinitely more difficult, more delicate, and more important than [the management of the wagon roads]. . . .[The] Government . . . [must] exercise a supervisory and regulatory right over the railroads; for it is vital to the well-being of the public that they should be managed in a spirit of fairness and justice toward all the public. Actual experience has shown that it is not possible to leave the railroads uncontrolled. Such . . . a lack of system is fertile in abuses of every kind, and puts a premium upon unscrupulous and ruthless cunning in railroad management; for there are some big shippers and some railroad managers who are always willing to take unfair advantage of their weaker competitors, and they thereby force other big shippers and big railroad men who would like to do decently into similar acts of wrong and injustice, under penalty of being left behind in the race for success. Government supervision is needed quite as much in the interest of the big shipper and of the railroad man who want to do right as in the interest of the small shipper and the consumer.”

At Raleigh Roosevelt added that the U.S. needs “an administrative body with the power to secure fair and just treatment as among all shippers who use the railroads and all shippers have a right to use them.” There are abuses by the railroads according to Roosevelt. “Rebates are not now often given openly. But they can be given just as effectively in covert form; and private cars, terminal tracks, and the like.” Congress must grant the ICC or another government agency the “power to make its findings effective, and this can be done only by giving it power, when complaint is made of a given rate as being unjust or unreasonable, if it finds the complaint proper, then itself to fix a maximum rate which it regards as just and reasonable, this rate to go into effect practically at once, that is within a reasonable time, and to stay in effect unless reversed by the courts.” Moreover, the ICC needs to have the power “to make a full and exhaustive investigation of the receipts and expenditures of the railroad, so that any violation or evasion of the law may be detected.”

In the December 5, 1905, Annual State of the Union Message Roosevelt returned at length to federal regulation of the railroads. He introduced the topic with these words:

  • “The first thing to do is to deal with the great corporations engaged in the business of interstate transportation. As I said in my [last Annual] Message . . ., the immediate and most pressing need, so far as legislation is concerned, is the enactment into law of some scheme to secure to the agents of the Government such supervision and regulation of the rates charged by the railroads of the country engaged in interstate traffic as shall summarily and effectively prevent the imposition of unjust or unreasonable rates. It must include putting a complete stop to rebates in every shape and form.”

Roosevelt continued. A “competent administrative body [must have] the power to decide, upon the case being brought before it, whether a given rate prescribed by a railroad is reasonable and just, and if it is found to be unreasonable and unjust, then, after full investigation of the complaint, to prescribe the limit of rate beyond which it shall not be lawful to go the maximum reasonable rate, . . . this decision to go into effect within a reasonable time and to obtain from thence onward, subject to review by the courts. It sometimes happens at present, not that a rate is too high but that a favored shipper is given too low a rate. In such case the Commission would have the right to fix this already established minimum rate as the maximum; and it would need only one or two such decisions by the Commission to cure railroad companies of the practice of giving improper minimum rates.”

This “proposal is not to give the Commission power to initiate or originate rates generally, but to regulate a rate already fixed or originated by the roads, upon complaint and after investigation. A heavy penalty should be exacted from any corporation which fails to respect an order of the Commission. I regard this power to establish a maximum rate as being essential to any scheme of real reform in the matter of railway regulation.”

“The law should make it clear so that nobody can fail to understand that any kind of commission paid on freight shipments, whether in . . . [the form of an immediate reduction of the rate] or in the form of fictitious damages, or of a concession, a free pass, reduced passenger rate, or payment of brokerage, is illegal.”

Roosevelt also cautioned “that these recommendations are not made in any spirit of hostility to the railroads. On ethical grounds, on grounds of right, such hostility would be intolerable ; and on grounds of mere national self-interest we must remember that such hostility would tell against the welfare not merely of some few rich men, but of a multitude of small investors, a multitude of railway employees, wage-workers ; and most severely against the interest of the public as a whole.”

Moreover, according to Roosevelt, “on the whole our railroads have done well and not ill; but the railroad men who wish to do well should not be exposed to competition with those who have no such desire, and the only way to secure this end is to give to some Government tribunal the power to see that justice is done by the unwilling exactly as

it is gladly done by the willing.” In addition, a government determination of “reasonable” rates would aid railroads against “irrational clamor” and unfounded claims.

The Hepburn Act

Jonathan P. Dolliver
Jonathan P. Dolliver

To carry forward this top priority of the President’s agenda, Roosevelt in early 2006 chose a junior Senator, Jonathan Prentiss Dolliver of Iowa, [2] to draft the legislation. However, Senator Elkins, who had sponsored the prior bill on such rates in 1903, was not supportive of the President’s proposal and also was upset that the President had chosen Senator Dolliver of Iowa to draft the legislation.

On January 27th Senator Dolliver, apparently recognizing considerable resistance to the bill in the Senate, took the unusual step of sending his bill to the House before Senate action. The House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce quickly and favorably reported the bill to the full House, which on February 8th passed it with only seven negative votes. The bill would authorize the ICC to set reasonable rates whenever the actual rates were justifiably challenged and give railroads 30 days to appeal such decisions to the courts; it also would require the railroads to adopt a uniform and public form of bookkeeping.

Obtaining Senate approval of the bill, however, was more difficult. Conservative Senators opposed the legislation and, acting on behalf of the railroad industry, proposed amending the proposed legislation to give federal courts the power to review and reverse any ICC determination of rates. Roosevelt, however, resisted and took his case to the people and succeeded in pressuring the Senate to approve the legislation without this judicial review feature.

The fight in the Senate was not yet over. In order to obtain sufficient votes for passage of the bill, Roosevelt (a Republican) for five weeks secretly had backed an amendment proposed by Democratic Senators Joseph Weldon Bailey Sr. (Mississippi) and Benjamin Ryan Tillman, Jr. (South Carolina) that would limit judicial review of ICC orders on unreasonable rates to questions involving the ICC’s authority and the constitutional rights of the railroads. On May 4th, however, when it was apparent that the Tillman-Bailey Amendment did not have the necessary votes, Roosevelt, without notice to Bailey and Tillman and much to their consternation, announced at a hastily called press conference that the President supported a “broad” judicial review amendment proposed by Republican Senator William Boyd Allison (Iowa); this amendment had no limits on the scope of such judicial review, leaving it to the courts to decide the scope of review.

Thereafter, on May 18th the Senate approved the Hepburn bill, with the Allison amendment, with only three negative votes. A subsequent conference committee reconciled the two versions of the bill with the approval of the two houses of Congress.

On June 29, 1906, Roosevelt signed the Hepburn Act (“An Act to amend an Act entitled ‘An Act to regulate commerce,’ approved February fourth, eighteen hundred and eighty-seven, and all Acts amendatory thereof, and to enlarge the powers of the Interstate Commerce Commission”), 34 Stat. 584 (1906). The following are the significant provisions of the Hepburn Act:

  • The ICC was empowered to replace existing rates with “just-and-reasonable” maximum rates with the ICC to define what was “just and reasonable.”
  • The ICC orders were made binding upon issuance unless and until a federal court overturned them.
  • Anti-rebate provisions were toughened.
  • Free passes were outlawed.
  • The penalties for violation were increased.
  • The ICC was granted the power to prescribe a uniform system of railroad accounting, to require standardized reports and to inspect railroad accounts.
William P. Hepburn
William P. Hepburn

 

The Act is known as the Hepburn Act because the Chairman of the House Committee that first approved the bill was Congressman William Peters Hepburn, Republican from Clarinda, Iowa.[3]

Interestingly the town of Clarinda was the home of some of the in-laws of my maternal great-great-uncle, William C. Brown, who owned a home and a farm there as well. It would be interesting to know whether Hepburn and Brown had any social or political interactions in Clarinda or in Washington, D.C.

Reactions to the Hepburn Act

Scholars consider the Hepburn Act the most important piece of legislation regarding railroads in the first half of the 20th century.

W. C. Brown
W. C. Brown

William C. Brown, then a Vice President of the New York Central Railway, shared this opinion. He said in February 1908, “The Hepburn law has released the railroads from a helpless condition of rebates and preferential rates, and its value can hardly be overestimated, both to the railroads and to the great majority of the public which did not participate in, nor profit by such practices.”[4]

More generally he said on that occasion, “The principle of the control and regulation of railroads by the nation and the several States has been accepted in good faith by the railroads, and they have entered upon the task of adjusting their operations to the changed conditions resultant upon laws recently enacted.” His only caveat was railroads’ needing “a fair and impartial hearing and the . . . right to appeal to the courts to prevent injury or to secure redress of injustice.”

Similar comments were made by Brown in an April 18, 1907, speech at the Buffalo, New York Chamber of Commerce: “I am firmly and unalterably in favor of regulation of railroads by the Nation and States.”[5] This comment was after Brown in his speech had stated that “the railroads were being operated intelligently, skillfully, vigorously to the last limit of capacity. Yet almost any other business has offered higher and more certain returns than railroads, and it will be impossible for railroads to raise needed capital unless such investment will be reasonably attractive and secure resulting from assurance of reasonable cooperation and protection. This will be difficult in light of extreme hostility and indiscriminate agitation that has resulted in unjust and harmful legislation in many states.”

In the New York Central’s annual report for 1909, Brown said, “Governmental regulation of railroads, within proper limitations, is of benefit to the public, to the railroads, and to those who hold their securities.”[6]

Therefore, it was not surprising for Brown to say in a September 24, 1910, letter to “My dear Col. Roosevelt,” after Roosevelt was out of office, “During your term as President, as you know, I steadfastly supported your ideas in regard to Corporations.”[7]

Even though there was not major public controversy over the details of the Hepburn Act after its passage, there was considerable public and private debate over whether this Act would allow the railroads to increase their freight rates as we will see in subsequent posts.

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[1] This post is based upon the cited sources plus Edmund Morris, Theodore Rex at 375-77, 417-34, 422-24, 426-28, 433-35, 438-39, 442-44, 446-48, 506 (New York; Random House; 2001); Blum, Theodore Roosevelt and the Hepburn Act: Toward an Orderly System of Control in Morison (ed.) The Letters of Theodore Roosevelt (Cambridge, Mass.; Harvard Univ. Press; 1952); Miller Center, President Theodore Roosevelt: Domestic Affairs; Hoogenboom & Hoogenboom, A History of the Interstate Commerce Commission—From Panacea to Palliative at 38-40, 47-57 (1976); Hoogenboom, Hepburn Act, in Bryant (ed.), Railroads in the Age of Regulation, 1900-1980 at 198 (New York; Bruccoli Clark; 1988); Kolko, Railroads and Regulation, 1877-1916 at 107-48 (Princeton; Princeton Univ. Press; 1965); Wikipedia, Hepburn ActTillman Discloses Roosevelt Secret, N.Y. Times (May 13, 1906); Allison Amendment in Bill, N.Y. Times (May 13, 1906).

[2] Dolliver was a lawyer in Fort Dodge, Iowa before election as a progressive Republican to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1888, where he served until 1900. He then was appointed to fill a vacant seat in the U.S. Senate, where he served until his death in 1910. Dolliver gained national attention for his prowess as an orator. One example of this skill was his explanation of Iowa’s traditional allegiance with the Republican Party: “Iowa will go Democratic when Hell goes Methodist.”

[3] During the Civil War, Hepburn had helped organize a company of the Iowa Volunteer Cavalry, which elected him as captain. He advanced to the ranks of major and eventually lieutenant colonel and gained recognition for his valiant service in the War. After the War he moved to the small southwestern Iowa town of Clarinda, where he was the editor and part owner of the local newspaper and practiced law, including representation of the Burlington Railroad. Hepburn served in Congress, 1881-1887 and 1893-1909, and became a national leader of progressive Republicans. The Hepburn Act was the culmination of his legislative work on transportation issues and his most prominent accomplishment in the House. In addition, he co-sponsored the Pure Food and Drug Act and supported the annexation of Hawaii, the construction of the Panama Canal and reducing the power of the Speaker of the House.

[4] Praises Rebate Law, N. Y. Times (Feb. 2, 1908).

[5] William C. Brown, Remarks at Chamber of Commerce, Buffalo, New York, April 18, 1907).

[6] Regulations Help Railroads Along, N. Y. Times Mar. 13, 1910).

[7] Letter, William C. Brown to Theodore Roosevelt (Sept. 24, 1910) (image # 93-059 provided courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Divisions and Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University, www.theodorerooseveltcenter.org ).

Federal Regulation of the Railroads in U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt’s Second Term (1905-1909): Introduction

President Roosevelt & the Railroads
President Theodore Roosevelt &  the Railroads

During President Theodore Roosevelt’s terms in office (09/14/1901—03/04/1909), a prominent national political issue was whether and how the federal government should regulate corporations acting in interstate commerce, especially the railroads.

Prior posts reviewed this issue during Roosevelt’s “first” term (1901-1905) with respect to the Northern Securities antitrust case and the enactment of the Elkins Act regarding railroad freight rebates.

The major developments on this issue in the second term (1905-1909) were congressional enactment in 1906 of the Hepburn Act regarding railroad freight rates and continued public debate over such regulation with the Financial Panic of 1907 in the background. These topics will be discussed in subsequent posts. A major participant in this debate was William Carlos Brown, then Senior Vice President of the New York Central Railway and my maternal great-great uncle.