The Supreme Court The Supreme Court - Image of hands holding a gavel.
Check local listings
Home Timeline Games Supreme Court History
Law, Power & Personality
Famous Dissents
E-Mail this Page Print Format Glossary

A rendition of the Charles River Bridge from the early 19th century.
In Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge, the Court ruled that the charter of the Charles River Bridge Company did not exclude the state of Massachusetts from chartering another bridge nearby. Above, a rendition of the Charles River Bridge from the early 19th century.

Reproduction courtesy of the Library of Congress
Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge (1837)

On the surface, the 1837 case Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge involved a local spat between two competing bridge companies. At issue was whether the U.S. Constitution permitted the Massachusetts legislature to charter the Warren Bridge Company to construct a free bridge across Boston's Charles River, when doing so would essentially destroy the business of the nearby toll-collecting Charles River Bridge. Underlying the facts of the case, however, were vital -- and deeply political -- questions regarding both economic theory and the purposes of public policy. At stake, as the justices well knew, was nothing less than the future direction of economic development for the young and burgeoning country.

First argued before the Supreme Court in 1831 -- when a deadlocked Court had been unable to reach a decision -- the case returned for reargument in 1837. In the intervening years, the personnel of the Court had shifted dramatically. Former Chief Justice John Marshall had died and several new justices had been appointed to the Court by the pro-states' rights Democratic President Andrew Jackson. The Charles River Bridge case was the first important decision issued by the Court under the new leadership of Chief Justice Roger Taney, and unsurprisingly, it marked a sharp departure from many of the Marshall Court's most important precedents. Justice Joseph Story, a holdover from the Marshall Court who had been among the former Chief's staunchest judicial allies, dissented in the case -- and the split between his opinion and that of Taney for the majority was indicative of the distance the new court had already traveled from the Marshall era.

The claim of the Charles River Bridge Co., whose bridge had since 1785 enjoyed a monopoly as the area's only means of crossing the river between Boston and Charlestown, was that when the state issued its charter, it conferred an exclusive right: until the expiration of the charter, it would be the only company permitted to operate a bridge in its vicinity. (Originally the charter was set to expire in 1826, but in 1792 the legislature extended that date for an additional 30 years.) Unfortunately for the company, however, the charter did not explicitly grant a monopoly. In his opinion for the majority, Taney opted for a strict construction of the charter, saying that if any exclusive right had been intended, the legislature would have stated so directly. Furthermore, the proper end of government was to protect "the happiness and prosperity of the community." By chartering the new bridge -- which would collect tolls initially but provide a free passage within six years of its completion -- Taney argued that the Massachusetts legislature was acting well within its rights as a legislative body, creating a public amenity and acting to protect the public interest.

Story vigorously dissented. Countering Taney's strict construction of the charter, he argued that had the Massachusetts legislature not intended to grant an exclusive right to the company, it should -- and would -- have said so. He pointed out that the Charles River Bridge Co. had undertaken great economic, political, and technological risks when it built its bridge in the 1780s, and put the case to the test of common law as well as "the common sense of every man," posing a hypothetical question: Would any sensible businessman have ventured to build the bridge, had the right to a monopoly -- and therefore a guaranteed profit -- not been implicit in the grant? By chartering a new bridge that would surely destroy the profitability of the old bridge, argued Story, Massachusetts had in effect illegally revoked its charter with the Charles River Bridge Co. To Story, the tragedy of the Court's decision in the case lay not merely in its sanction of an unconstitutional action, but more importantly in the strong precedent it set for the erosion of entrepreneurial privilege. "For my own part," he wrote, "I can conceive of no surer plan to arrest all public improvements, founded on private capital and enterprise, than to make the outlay of that capital uncertain and questionable, both as to security and as to productiveness."

Story, however, was arguing against the changing tide of popular opinion, and he knew it. "I am the last of the old race of judges," he lamented to a friend after the decision. "I stand by their solitary representative, with a pained heart, and a subdued confidence." Although an earlier generation of justices may well have decided the case differently, the Taney Court -- a product of the more populist Jacksonian era -- looked beyond former precedent in considering the case. Led by Taney, the Court feared that entrenching the property rights of old technologies would seriously impede the development of new technologies -- so that, for example, the owners of old toll highways could prevent construction of new railroads. Although the Court's interpretation of corporate property rights continues to evolve, it never returned to the same broad definitions employed by the Marshall Court and longed for nostalgically by Story in his Charles River Bridge dissent.

Toni Konkoly is a production assistant at Thirteen/WNET.

Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge Dred Scott v. Sandford Slaughterhouse Cases Plessy v. Ferguson view all Famous Dissents Abrams v. United States Minersville School District v. Gobitis Korematsu v. United States Roe v. Wade U.S. Steel Workers of America v. Weber