The Taney Court (1836–64)


In what case did the Taney Court have to decide between two bridge-builders?

The Taney Court ruled 4–3 in Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge (1837) that the Massachusetts legislature could contract with the Warren Bridge Company to build a new bridge between Boston and Charlestown. The Warren Bridge businessmen convinced the legislature it would be a better deal for the public and the state, as they would not charge tolls after their construction costs were recovered. The problem was that years earlier the state legislature had granted a charter to the Charles River Bridge Company for the construction of the existing Charles River Bridge between the two cities. The Charles River Bridge officials did not want the construction of a new bridge to compete with them, as the tolls they had received over the years had proven quite profitable.

The Charles River Bridge Company sued, seeking an injunction to prevent the building of a new bridge by the Warren Bridge Company. The Charles River Bridge Company argued that the state legislature violated the Contract Clause by impairing the original contract it had with the state. However, the Warren Bridge Company countered that the important public interests at stake trumped whatever private property rights Charles River Bridge had. The majority of the Court was concerned that if the monopoly was upheld, then improvements in transportation that would benefit the public at large could only take place at the whim of the private property owner.

The Taney Court ruled 4–3 in favor of the new bridge and the Warren Bridge Company. Chief Justice Taney reasoned that exclusive grants must be construed narrowly and must take into account the underlying public interests. “In charters of this description, no rights are taken from the public, or given to the corporation, beyond those which the words of the charter, by their natural and proper construction, purport to convey.”


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