did not contain a mile of railroad, and he probably knew as little about railroads as any other man in the Legislature; at least, to believe the contrary would require a very pessimistic view of Wisconsin intelligence. March 11, 1874, the famous “Potter Bill” became a law. Mr. Potter is said to have made it up by calling for suggestions and incorporating those most disadvantageous to the railroads. At any rate, it was bad enough at first, and the railroad interest worked to increase its enormities, hoping to get it into a shape that they could defeat. They were mistaken. The bill passed, and the Governor celebrated some speedy victories in the courts by firing cannon.
Meanwhile cases were before the Supreme Court on the validity of all this legislation. The court recognized the gravity of the question and reserved its decision, affirming the constitutionality of the laws, for more than a year after the test case (Munn vs. Illinois) was argued. The gist of the decision is in the following words: “When one devotes his property to a use in which the public has an interest, he, in effect, grants the public an interest in that use, and must submit to be controlled by the public for the common good to the extent of the interest he has thus created.” The decisions in this, and the six other “Granger” cases, were pronounced by Chief-Justice Waite, Justices Field and Strong dissenting.
In the courts the farmers were victorious. But, unfortunately, the Supreme Court does not pass upon economic laws, and to these the movement had already succumbed. By the time the cases were decided, in 1876-'77, scarcely one of the statutes in question remained in force. In the second year under the Potter law, no Wisconsin road paid a dividend, and only four paid interest on their bonds. Foreign capitalists refused to invest further in the State. On the recommendation of the Governor, the very men who had passed the law hurriedly repealed it. In the next year Mr. Potter faded out of American politics, and his place in the Senate was filled by another. Most of the other States also beat a precipitate retreat, poorly covered by a faint demonstration against unreasonableness in general.
So the victors were beaten, and bad times made the defeat seem worse than it was. But they claim, and not without reason, to have done lasting good. The attitude of railroad corporations is very different from what it was twelve years ago. More of the old grievances have disappeared than is generally supposed. To this movement we owe the railroad commissions found in so many States. How much they are worth is, of course, a matter for dispute. The power of the railroads to reward or punish is so real and present, while that of the people at large is so indefinite and far away, that it is not strange if the ordinary commissioner inspires about the same terror as does the gingerbread lion. Of late the Grange, forgetting its record, has been claiming the credit for all the good accomplished. It is gravely asserted that a resolution of the National Grange in 1874 caused the