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United States Supreme Court

99 U.S. 700

Sinking-Fund Cases


In my opinion, the act of Congress of May 7, 1878, is plainly transgressive of legislative power. As was said by Mr. Hamilton in his celebrated communication to the Senate of Jan. 20, 1795, 'when a government enters into a contract with an individual, it deposes, as to the matter of the contract, its constitutional authority, and exchanges the character of legislator for that of a moral agent, with the same rights and obligations as an individual. Its promises may be justly considered as excepted out of its power to legislate, unless in aid of them. It is in theory impossible to reconcile the idea of a promise which obliges, with a power to make a law which can vary the effect of it.' 3 Hamilton's Works, 518, 519. Opinions similar to this have often found expression in judicial decisions, even in those of this court. If this be sound doctrine, it is as much beyond the power of a legislature, under any pretence, to alter a contract into which the government has entered with a private individual, as it is for any other party to a contract to change its terms without the consent of the person contracting with him. As to its contract the government in all its departments has laid aside its sovereignty, and it stands on the same footing with p ivate contractors.

The contracts of the government with the Union Pacific Railroad Company and with the Central Pacific, which the act of Congress of 1878 has in view, were not made by the act of 1862, the act chartering the former company, nor by the amending act of 1864. They were made after those acts had been accepted by the companies, and after their chartered rights had been completely acquired. There was no agreement of the companies to repay the loan of government bonds made to them, until the bonds were issued and delivered. The companies were under no obligation to accept the loan and assume the liability resulting from its acceptance. The contracts, therefore, are no part of the charter of the Union Pacific Company, and no part of the acts of 1862 or 1864. They are subsequent to those acts and independent of them. It is true Congress authorized the loan. It made the companies offers to lend upon certain conditions; and when those offers and conditions were subsequently accepted, the contracts of loan were made. Not until then. Before that time there was nothing but an unaccepted offer.

What, then, was the contract when it was made? The government lent its bonds, and, in consideration of the loan, each company assumed five obligations: 1st, to pay the bonds at their maturity, that is, at the expiration of thirty years; 2d, to keep the railroad and telegraph line in repair and use; 3d, to furnish transmission of despatches and transportation for the government at reasonable rates, allowing it a preference for such purposes; 4th, to apply to the payment of the bonds and interest half the compensation due to it from the government for services rendered, until the whole amount of the loan is fully paid; and, 5th, after the completion of the railroad, to apply to the payment of the bonds at least five per cent annually of its net earnings. The lender required and the borrower undertook nothing more.

It is manifest that by this contract the government acquired a vested right to payment at the time and in the mode specified, as well as to preference of transportation and transmission of despatches; and the company acquired a vested right to retain the consideration given for its assumption,-that is, a vested right to withhold payment until by the terms of the contract payment became due. The contract implied an agreement not to call for payment or additional security before that time. I cannot conceive of any rational doubt of this. There is no technicality about vested rights. Most of them grow out of contracts, and, no matter how they arise, they are all equally sacred, equally beyond the reach of legislative interference. A vested right of action is property in the same sense in which rights to tangible things are, and is equally protected. Whether it springs from contract or from other rules of the common law, it is not competent for the legislature to take it away. If we look at what must have been the understanding of all parties to these contracts of loan, the rights created and vested under them cannot be in doubt. The government sought to induce private adventurers to construct a railroad and telegraph line to the Pacific Ocean,-a work which necessarily required years and immense expenditures for its accomplishment. A loan, repayable on call or within a short time, would have been no inducement. Had it been dreamed that a call could have been made at any time thereafter designated by Congress, it is inconceivable that the loan proffered would have been accepted. It would have furnished no reliable basis for an attempt to build the road. The parties could not so have understood the bargain. The bonds were required to be paid by the companies only at their maturity, except so far as half-payment for governmental service, and five five per cent of the net earnings, after the completion of the road, might pay. The contract, therefore, means exactly what it would have meant had it contained the express stipulation: 'The United States shall not require payment of the amount of the bonds, or any part thereof (except half-compensation for services, and five per cent of net earnings), until the expiration of thirty years from their issue to the company, or date, nor shall additional security be required, beyond the lien reserved.' Such was the contract. It was not one of the franchises granted in the charter of the Union Pacific or the Central Pacific, but it was a business transaction, differing in nothing, except parties, from what it would have been if it had been made between two private individuals. It is true Congress authorized the loan on the terms upon which it was made; but, as I have said, the contract was not made by the act of Congress, or with Congress. It was a subsequent transaction, and the United States became a party to it, not in its sovereign character, but as a civil corporation, as said by Mr. Hamilton, with the same rights and obligations as a private person, and no more.

Now, what has been attempted by the act of May 7, 1878? That act was passed with sole reference to this contract, and all its provisions have in view the imposition of additional obligations upon the railroad company. It does not purport to be a repeal of the charter. Its leading purpose is to take control of the property of the debtor, and sequester it for the security of a debt, which, by the terms of the contract, is not due and payable for years to come. I shall not go over all its provisions. It will be sufficient to notice some of the more prominent ones, which, if they are ruled to be operative, greatly change the contract which the parties made when the bonds were delivered and accepted, when the contract was closed, and which impose new and oppressive obligations upon the debtor.

By the contract only one-half the compensation for services rendered to the government was required to be applied to the payment of the bonds, but by this act the whole amount of the compensation which may from time to time be due for services rendered to the government is directed to be retained by the United States, and, at the same time, the obligation to render those services is continued. By the third section of the act a sinking-fund is established in the treasury of the United States, that is, in the treasury of the creditor; and the fourth section enacts that there shall be carried into that fund, on the first day of February in each year, the one-half of the compensation above named, not applied in liquidation of interest. By the contract the debtor was bound to pay only five per cent of its net earnings, after the completion of the road, annually to the creditor; but this act requires the debtor to pay into the creditor's treasury, to the credit of the sinking-fund, twenty-five per cent of its whole net earnings, on the 1st of February in each year. The act further directs that the sinking-fund thus created shall, with its accumulations, be invested in bonds of the United States, and at the maturity of the bonds loaned to the debtor be applied to the payment and satisfaction thereof, and of all interest paid by the United States. There are other provisions of this act intended to enforce compliance with these newly added obligations imposed upon the debtor, as also provisions that the sinking-fund shall be held for the benefit, protection, and security of other lien-creditors of the debtor. But I deem it unnecessary to mention them in detail. Those which I have mentioned are enough for the present case. No one can deny that they materially change the contract of loan and borrowing previously existing between the government and the railroad companies, and change it at the will of the creditor alone. Nor can it be denied that they impose upon the debtors new and onerous burdens that they never agreed to assume. Practically, they enforce payment of the debt before, by the terms of the contract, it is due. The act seizes the half-compensation, which the government agreed should not be retained, and covers it into the treasury, appropriating it to the payment of the debt. For nothing else can it be u ed. The act also requires payment into the treasury of twenty-five per cent of the net earnings of the company, instead of five per cent only, as stipulated when the contract was made. It is true it does not make immediate application of the sums thus withheld and demanded to the extinguishment of the debt. It declares that they shall be applied to the payment of the debt and interest 'at the maturity of the bonds.' But this is a distinction without a difference, obviously made to evade what it was known could not lawfully be done. An immediate application might as well have been directed. It would probably be better for the debtor if the application were immediately made. The money is taken from the debtor, withdrawn entirely from the debtor's control and use, and put into the treasury of the creditor, and there left to the mere agreement of the creditor to apply it to payment. I apprehend no plain man of common sense will hesitate to conclude that this is exacting payment before the debt is due. If A. borrows from B. $1,000, and gives his note therefor, payable at the expiration of five years, and at the end of one year the lender demands that there be placed in his hands by the debtor a sum of money to meet the note when it shall fall due, it will hardly be contended that would not be requiring payment before the debtor was bound to pay. And if such a demand could be enforced, it would be at the expense of the contract. What more is the present case? And were it conceded the act of 1878 does not attempt to enforce the payment before the maturity of the debt, the concession would be of little worth, for it will not be questioned that it attempts to enforce giving additional security for payment beyond that stipulated for in the contract. That is no less a material alteration of the contract, a serious addition to it. The plain truth is, the assertion of such a power is claiming the right to disregard the contract entirely, and substitute for it a different one, without the consent of the debtor. If the United States can exact now one-quarter of the net earnings of each of these companies, and place it in their treasury, they can, by the same power, and with the same reason, exact the whole of the earnings, or any other property equal to the amount of the debt. Was any such thing contemplated by the parties when the contract was made?

Now, where is the power of Congress to add new terms to any contract made with the United States, or made between any two private individuals? Where is the power to annul vested rights? It is certainly not to be found in the Constitution. True, the provision that no State shall pass any law impairing the obligation of contracts applies only to State legislation. For such legislation the prohibition was necessary; for State legislatures have all legislative power which is not expressly denied to them. But no necessity existed for imposing such a limitation on the power of Congress. As Mr. Hamilton said in the eighty-fourth number of the Federalist, 'Why declare that things shall not be done which there is no power to do?' Congress has no power except such as has been expressly granted to it, or such as is necessary or proper for carrying into execution the powers specified, and those vested by the Constitution in the government, or some department or officer thereof. I search in vain for any express or implied grant of power to add new terms to any existing contracts made by or with the government, or any grant of power to destroy vested rights. No power has been given to Congress to lessen the obligations of a contract between private parties by direct legislation, except by the enactment of uniform laws on the subject of bankruptcy. Even a bankrupt law cannot be enacted applicable only to single corporations or single debtors. To be constitutional, it must be uniform throughout the United States. I admit that in the exercise of some of the powers granted, Congress may enact laws that indirectly affect existing contracts and lessen their obligation, but I d ny that it can by any direct action, otherwise than by a bankrupt law, even relieve a debtor to a private party from any duty he has assumed by his contract. Much less can it change the stipulations of the contract and impose additional liabilities upon a contractor with the government. Such an exercise of power would be making a contract for parties to which they never assented. In all the history of congressional legislation before the act of 1878, such a power was never attempted to be exercised.

And not only is such legislative authority not conferred upon Congress by the Constitution, but it is, in effect, expressly denied. The fifth amendment contains restrictions taken, in substance, from Magna Charta. Among them are the provisions that no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation. These are restrictions upon legislative as well as executive power. What is due process of law is well understood. It is law in regular course of administration through courts of justice. Coke, 2 Inst. 272; Murray's Lessee v. The Hoboken Land and Improvement Co., 18 How. 272. 'The terms 'the law of the land,' said Chief Justice Ruffin (Hoke v. Harderson, 4 Dev. (N. C.) 1), do not mean merely an act of the General Assembly. If they did, every restriction upon legislative authority would be at once abrogated, and private property would be at the mercy of the legislature.' p. 15. Yet the act of 1878 does attempt by its own force, and without any judicial action, not only to change a contract and increase its obligations, but also to deprive the railroad companies of their property. What is property? What is the common understanding of the term? It is, in reference to its subject, whatever a person can possess and enjoy by right, and the person who has that right has the property. The subject may be corporeal or incorporeal. A right in action is as completely property as is a title to land. A very large portion of the property of the country consists in rights attendant upon contract. The right of a promisee to demand payment when the note falls due is a right of property; and equally so is the right of the promisor to hold, as against his promisee, the consideration for the promise until the time stipulated in the note for payment. The promises has no right to enforce payment, or to enforce giving security for it, if none was promised in the contract. Such a right is no portion of his property, and it can be enforced only at the expense of a clear right of the promisor. On the other hand, the promisor has a right to exemption from liability to give such security. It is incident to his contract. Indeed, it may be said that whatever rights are created by contract, or held under it, if they relate to property, are themselves, in a very just sense, property, and as such are protected by the fifth amendment to the Constitution.

I notice another consideration which, to my mind, is not without weight. It may, I think, well be doubted whether the act of 1878 is even an attempted exercise of legislative power. A statute undertaking to take the property of A. and transfer it to B. is not legislation. It would not be a law. It would be a decree or sentence, the right to declare which, if it exists at all, is in the Judicial Department of the government. The act of Congress is little, if any, more. It does not purport to be a general law. It does not apply to all corporations or to all debtors of the government. It signles out two corporations, debtors of the government, by name, and prescribes for them as debtors new duties to their creditor. It thus attempts to perform the functions of a court. This, I cannot but think, is outside of legislative action and power.

I turn now to the arguments by which the constitutionality of the act of Congress has been attempted to be supported. It is said that, though Congress cannot directly abrogate contracts, or impair their obligation, it may in irectly, by the exercise of other powers granted to it. This I have conceded, but I deny that an acknowledged power can be exerted solely for the purpose of effecting indirectly an unconstitutional end which the legislature cannot directly attempt to reach. If the purpose were declared in the act, I think no court would hesitate to pronounce the act void. In Hoke v. Harderson, to which I have referred, Chief Justice Ruffin, when considering at length an argument that a legislature could purposely do indirectly what it could not do directly, used this strong language: 'The argument is unsound in this, that it supposes (what cannot be admitted as a supposition) the legislature will, designedly and wilfully, violate the Constitution, in utter disregard of their oaths and duty. To do indirectly in the abused exercise of an acknowledged power, not given for, but perverted for that purpose, that which is expressly forbidden to be done directly, is a gross and wicked infraction of the Constitution.'

It is unnecessary, however, to enlarge upon this, for the effect wrought upon the contracts of these two companies is a direct effect,-a direct alteration of the obligation assumed by the debtors, and not an incidental result of legislation upon some other subject over which Congress has a right to legislate. It is too plain to admit of any doubt that the sole object of the act of 1878 was to enforce giving new and additional security for the payment of the subsidy bonds at their maturity. All its provisions aim directly at that, and the new terms thereby added to the contract have that end solely in view.

In further attempted support of the validity of the act, it has been denied that it does change the contract, because it does not require the application of the additional payments to the satisfaction of the debt before its maturity. I have, perhaps, said enough upon this subject. The argument can hardly be seriously made. The act does compel the debtors to surrender possession of their property to the creditor before the time when, by the terms of the contract, they were under obligation to part with it. The debtors are no longer permitted to hold and use one-half the compensation due presently from the government for services rendered, and are no longer at liberty to use all their net income or earnings, except five per cent, at their discretion. One quarter of their net earnings they are compelled to surrender to the creditor. Thus the creditor becomes the custodian of the debtors' property, and acquires a right to hold and manage it as if it were his own. It is absurd to say this is not practically a radical change in the relations between the parties established by the contract. And it is equally impossible to maintain that it is not depriving the debtors of their property without due process of law.

I turn now to what has been most relied upon in support of the validity of the act. I refer to the clauses in the acts of 1862 and 1864, reserving the right to repeal, amend, or alter. There are two such,-one in the act of 1862, and one in that of 1864. That in the latter act is the broadest, and it is as follows: 'Congress may at any time alter, amend, or repeal this act.' The power thus reserved is one over the act itself, not over any thing that may have lawfully been done under the act, before its repeal or alteration. It is only by great confusion of things essentially distinct that this power can be construed as applicable to a contract made after the corporation came into existence. Besides, the act of 1878 does not attempt to repeal, or alter or amend, the acts of 1862 and 1864. It changes no franchise granted by those acts, nor does it interfere with its exercise. It interferes only with the fruits of the franchise. The right to possess and enjoy the income of the company is not a franchise. It is an incident of the ownership of the company's property, though the property may be accumulated by the use of the franchise. Concede that Congress has power to regulate the tolls on the railroad, o in some other mode to restrict the use of the franchise, and thus lessen the income, yet the income, whether large or small when made, is the company's property, and, like other property, protected against being taken without due process of law. Or suppose the acts of 1862 and 1864 were repealed, and thus all the franchises granted by them were taken away, the property of the company would remain, and the income thereof, though greatly decreased, would be the property of the stockholders. Nobody denies that. Is the lesser greater than the whole? I repeat, therefore, the act of 1878 is no exercise of the reserved power to alter, amend, or repeal the acts of 1862 and 1864. It is no attempt to make any such repeal or amendment. It is at most an attempt to seize the fruits of the franchise after they shall have become the vested property of the corporations. It is an attempt to sequester the income of the property owned by them. As well might the government attempt to seize and put into its treasury the rents, issues, and profits of the lands granted to them by the third and fourth sections of the act of 1862, and call that an amendment of the act. There is no distinction to be made between the profits of the road and telegraph line and the rents of the lands. None has been attempted.

But if the act of 1878 could be considered an alteration or amendment of the acts of 1862 and 1864, the question would still remain, what was the extent of the power reserved by those acts. I mean the power to alter, amend, or repeal them. All the cases agree that such a reserved power is not without limits. I think its limits may be stated generally thus: It must be exercised, when exerted at all, so as to do no injustice to those to whom the franchise has been granted. Certainly the reservation cannot mean a right to take away the franchise, in whole or in part, and yet hold the grantee to the performance of the duties assumed,-the consideration given for the grant. Nor can it mean to continue in the legislative power which the legislature never possessed, and which it is constitutionally incapable of exercising. A partial definition of the limits of the reserved power may be found in Commonwealth v. Essex Company (13 Gray (Mass.), 239), where Chief Justice Shaw (speaking of the reserved power to alter, amend, or repeal a charter), said: 'It seems to us this power must have some limit, though it is difficult to define it. Suppose authority has been given by law to a railroad corporation to purchase a lot of land and hold it for purposes connected with its business, and they purchase such lot from a third person, could the legislature prohibit the company from holding it? If so, in whom would it vest? Or could the legislature direct it to revert to the grantor or escheat to the public? Or how otherwise? Suppose a manufacturing company, incorporated, is authorized to construct a dam and flow a tract of meadow, and the owners claim gross damages, which are assessed and paid, can the legislature afterwards alter the act of incorporation so as to give to such meadow owners future annual damages? Perhaps from these extreme cases, for extreme cases are allowable to test a legal principle, the rule to be extracted is this: that where, under a power in a charter, rights have been acquired and become vested, no amendment or alteration of the charter can take away the property or rights which have become vested under a legitimate exercise of the powers granted.' p. 253. This rule has been recognized ever since. Vide Sage v. Dillard, 15 B. Mon. (Ky.) 349. It has been adopted by this court. In Miller v. The State (15 Wall. 478), it was said by Mr. Justice Clifford: 'Power to legislate founded upon such a reservation in a charter of a private corporation is certainly not without limits, and it may well be admitted that it cannot be exercised to take away or destroy rights acquired by such a charter, and which, by a legitimate use of the powers granted, have become vested in the corporation.' To the same effect is Holyoke Company v. Lyman, id. 500. If this limitation be admitted, it is impossible to see how a reserved power to alter, amend, or repeal an act granting a private charter can include a right to change the stipulations of a contract made under that charter, or to sequester for purpose the property of the company acquired while the charter remains unrepealed and unaltered. If the acts of 1862 and 1864 were repealed, would not the contract of loan remain unaffected thereby? Can a legislature that offers a contract on certain terms change those terms after they have been accepted and after the contract has been perfected? Yet that is what the act of 1878 attempts to do. A principal who has authorized his agent to make a contract for him may revoke or restrict the agency before any contract is made, but he is bound by a contract made during the continuance of the agent's powers, if those powers were not transgressed in making it. He cannot afterwards repudiate its terms or add to them. I see no essential difference between such a case and the present. I cannot confound an alteration of the acts of 1862 and 1864 with an alteration of a subsequent commercial contract authorized by those acts, and made between the United States and companies chartered by them. My conviction, therefore, is, that the act of 1878 cannot be defended as a legitimate exercise of the powers reserved to Congress.

I need not say it cannot rest upon what is generally denominated the visitatorial power of the government over its own corporations, though it is upon this power the opinion of the majority of the court largely relies. That power is applicable only to eleemosynary corporations, such as colleges, schools, and hospitals, and the visitation is always through the medium of courts of justice. It is judicial and not legislative. 2 Kent, Com., Lect. 23, sect. 4. To claim, therefore, that, by virtue of that power, a private business corporation can be compelled by legislative action to establish a sinking-fund for the payment of its debts, and deposit it in the treasury of its creditor, is totally inadmissible.

There are, undoubtedly, many cases to be found in which it has been decided that, by virtue of such a reservation as that contained in the acts of 1862 and 1864, a legislature may make new regulations, to some extent, of the action of corporations created by it,-such as prescribing a new measure of tolls, increasing the capital of insurance companies, repealing an exemption from taxation, and the like. So, without the reservations, some new regulations may be prescribed in the exercise of the police power. They are all regulations of the franchise or of its use,-not invasions of rights or property acquired under the franchise subsequently to its grant; and not one of them under the practice of amendment or rightful regulation has undertaken to change or vary any contract the corporation had made, or to control possession of property acquired. The act of 1878 is, I believe, the first assertion of any such force in the reservation. It is a very grave and dangerous assertion. It is especially dangerous in these days of attempted repudiation, when the good faith of the government is above all price. If it can be maintained, the government is no longer bound by any commercial contract into which it may enter with these corporations, though it holds them bound. I cannot assent to any such doctrine; and upon he whole, in my opinion, the act of 1878 is not only unauthorized by any power existing in Congress, but it is an infraction of the prohibition I have pointed out, contained in the fifth amendment of the Constitution.

Most of what I have said is applicable to each of the cases, that of the Union Pacific and that of the Central. There are some other considerations peculiar in the case of the Central Pacific, which is a corporation of the State of California, and was such in 1862. These I leave for consideration by my brethren who unite with me in dissent.

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).