Pensacola Telegraph Company v. Western Union Telegraph Company/Opinion of the Court

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Case Syllabus
Opinion of the Court
Dissenting Opinion

United States Supreme Court

96 U.S. 1

Pensacola Telegraph Company  v.  Western Union Telegraph Company

Congress has power 'to regulate commerce with foreign nations and among the several States' (Const. art. 1, sect. 8, par. 3); and 'to establish post-offices and post-roads' (id., par. 7). The Constitution of the United States and the laws made in pursuance thereof are the supreme law of the land. Art. 6, par. 2. A law of Congress made in pursuance of the Constitution suspends or overrides all State statutes with which it is in conflict.

Since the case of Gibbons v. Ogden (9 Wheat. 1), it has never been doubted that commercial intercourse is an element of commerce which comes within the regulating power of Congress. Post-offices and post-roads are established to facilitate the transmission of intelligence. Both commerce and the postal service are placed within the power of Congress, because, being national in their operation, they should be under the protecting care of the national government.

The powers thus granted are not confined to the instrumentalities of commerce, or the postal service known or in use when the Constitution was adopted, but they keep pace with the progress oif the country, and adapt themselves to the new developments of time and circumstances. They extend from the horse with its rider to the stage-coach, from the sailing-vessel to the steamboat, from the coach and the steamboat to the railroad, and from the railroad to the telegraph, as these new agencies are successively brought into use to meet the demands of increasing population and wealth. They were intended for the government of the business to which they relate, at all times and under all circumstances. As they were intrusted to the general government for the good of the nation, it is not only the right, but the duty, of Congress to see to it that intercourse among the States and the transmission of intelligence are not obstructed or unnecessarily encumbered by State legislation.

The electric telegraph marks an epoch in the progress of time. In a little more than a quarter of a century it has changed the habits of business, and become one of the necessities of commerce. It is indispensable as a means of inter-communication, but especially is it so in commercial transactions. The statistics of the business before the recent reduction in rates show that more than eighty per cent of all the messages sent by telegraph related to commerce. Goods are sold and money paid upon telegraphic orders. Contracts are made by telegraphic correspondence, cargoes secured, and the movement of ships directed. The telegraphic announcement of the markets abroad regulates prices at home, and a prudent merchant rarely enters upon an important transaction without using the telegraph freely to secure information.

It is not only important to the people, but to the government. By means of it the heads of the departments in Washington are kept in close communication with all their various agencies at home and abroad, and can know at almost any hour, by inquiry, what is transpiring any where that affects the interest they have in charge. Under such circumstances, it cannot for a moment be doubted that this powerful agency of commerce and intercommunication comes within the controlling power of Congress, certainly as against hostile State legislation. In fact, from the beginning, it seems to have been assumed that Congress might aid in developing the system; for the first telegraph line of any considerable extent ever erected was built between Washington and Baltimore, only a little more than thirty years ago, with money appropriated by Congress for that purpose (5 Stat. 618); and large donations of land and money have since been made to aid in the construction of other lines (12 id. 489, 772; 13 id. 365; 14 id. 292). It is not necessary now to inquire whether Congress may assume the telegraph as part of the postal service, and exclude all others from its use. The present case is satisfied, if we find that Congress has power, by appropriate legislation, to prevent the States from placing obstructions in the way of its usefulness.

The government of the United States, within the scope of its powers, operates upon every foot of territory under its jurisdiction. It legislates for the whole nation, and is not embarrassed by State lines. Its peculiar duty is to protect one part of the country from encroachments by another upon the national rights which belong to all.

The State of Florida has attempted to confer upon a single corporation the exclusive right of transmitting intelligence by telegraph over a certain portion of its territory. This embraces the two westernmost counties of the State, and extends from Alabama to the Gulf. No telegraph line can cross the State from east to west, or from north to south, within these counties, except it passes over this territory. Within it is situated an important seaport, at which business centres, and with which those engaged in commercial pursuits have occasion more or less to communicate. The United States have there also the necessary machinery of the national government. They have a navyyard, forts, custom-houses, courts, post-offices, and the appropriate officers for the enforcement of the laws. The legislation of Florida, if sustained, excludes all commercial intercourse by telegraph between the citizens of the other States and those residing upon this territory, except by the employment of this corporation. The United States cannot communicate with their own officers by telegraph except in the same way. The State, therefore, clearly has attempted to regulate commercial intercourse between its citizens and those of other States, and to control the transmission of all telegraphic correspondence within its own jurisdiction.

It is unnecessary to decide how far this might have been done if Congress had not acted upon the same subject, for it has acted. The statute of July 24, 1866, in effect, amounts to a prohibition of all State monopolies in this particular. It substantially declares, in the interest of commerce and the convenient transmission of intelligence from place to place by the government of the United States and its citizens, that the erection of telegraph lines shall, so far as State interference is concerned, be free to all who will submit to the conditions imposed by Congress, and that corporations organized under the laws of one State for constructing and operating telegraph lines shall not be excluded by another from prosecuting their business within its jurisdiction, if they accept the terms proposed by the national government for this national privilege. To this extent, certainly, the statute is a legitimate regulation of commercial intercourse among the States, and is appropriate legislation to carry into execution the powers of Congress over the postal service. It gives no foreign corporation the right to enter upon private property without the consent of the owner and erect the necessary structures for its business; but it does provide, that, whenever the consent of the owner is obtained, no State legislation shall prevent the occupation of post-roads for telegraph purposes by such corporations as are willing to avail themselves of its privileges.

It is insisted, however, that the statute extends only to such military and post roads as are upon the public domain; but this, we think, is not so. The language is, 'Through and over any portion of the public domain of the United States, over and along any of the military or post roads of the United States which have been or may hereafter be declared such by act of Congress, and over, under, or across the navigable streams or waters of the United States.' There is nothing to indicate an intention of limiting the effect of the words employed, and they are, therefore, to be given their natural and ordinary signification. Read in this way, the grant evidently extends to the public domain, the military and post roads, and the navigable waters of the United States. These are all within the dominion of the national government to the extent of the national powers, and are, therefore, subject to legitimate congressional regulation. No question arises as to the authority of Congress to provide for the appropriation of private property to the uses of the telegraph, for no such attempt has been made. The use of public property alone is granted. If private property is required, it must, so far as the present legislation is concerned, be obtained by private arrangement with its owner. No compulsory proceedings are authorized. State sovereignty under the Constitution is not interfered with. Only national privileges are granted.

The State law in question, so far as it confers exclusive rights upon the Pensacola Company, is certainly in conflict with this legislation of Congress. To that extent it is, therefore, inoperative as against a corporation of another State entitled to the privileges of the act of Congress. Such being the case, the charter of the Pensacola Company does not exclude the Western Union Company from the occupancy of the right of way of the Pensacola and Louisville Railroad Company under the arrangement made for that purpose.

We are aware that, in Paul v. Virginia (8 Wall. 168), this court decided that a State might exclude a corporation of another State from its jurisdiction, and that corporations are not within the clause of the Constitution which declares that 'the citizens of each State shall be entitled to all privileges and immunities of citizens in the several States.' Art. 4, sect. 2. That was not, however, the case of a corporation engaged in inter-state commerce; and enough was said by the court to show, that, if it had been, very different questions would have been presented. The language of the opinion is: 'It is undoubtedly true, as stated by counsel, that the power conferred upon Congress to regulate commerce includes as well commerce carried on by corporations as commerce carried on by individuals. . . . This state of facts forbids the supposition that it was intended in the grant of power to Congress to exclude from its control the commerce of corporations. The language of the grant makes no reference to the instrumentalities by which commerce may be carried on: it is general, and includes alike commerce by individuals, partnerships, associations, and corporations. . . . The defect of the argument lies in the character of their (insurance companies) business. Issuing a policy of insurance is not a transaction of commerce. . . . Such contracts (policies of insurance) are not inter-state transactions, though the parties are domiciled in different States.'

The questions thus suggested need not be considered now, because no prohibitory legislation is relied upon, except that which, as has already been seen, is inoperative. Upon principles of comity, the corporations of one State are permitted to do business in another, unless it conflicts with the law, or unjustly interferes with the rights of the citizens of the State into which they come. Under such circumstances, no citizen of a State can enjoin a foreign corporation from pursuing its business. Until the State acts in its sovereign capacity, individual citizens cannot complain. The State must determine for itself when the public good requires that its implied assent to the admission shall be withdrawn. Here, so far from withdrawing its assent, the State, by its legislation of 1874, in effect, invited foreign telegraph corporations to come in. Whether that legislation, in the absence of congressional action, would have been sufficient to authorize a foreign corporation to construct and operate a line within the two counties named, we need not decide; but we are clearly of the opinion, that, with such action and a right of way secured by private arrangement with the owner of the land, this defendant corporation cannot be excluded by the present complainant.

Decree affirmed.

MR. JUSTICE HARLAN did not sit in this case, nor take any part in deciding it.


^1  Elliott's Debates, edition of 1836, 433, 487; Views of President Monroe accompanying his veto message of May 4, 1822; Views of Judge McLean in his dissenting opinion in the Wheeling Bridge Case, 18 How. 441, 442.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).