Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

Making Virginia Progressive: Courts and Parties, Railroads and Regulators, 1890-1910

Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

Making Virginia Progressive: Courts and Parties, Railroads and Regulators, 1890-1910

Article excerpt

IN 1903 Virginia's newly created State Corporation Commission began the process of progressive regulation in the state. The first target of the commission, with its four employees (including a "stenographer and a typewriter"), was the rapidly expanding and consolidating steam railroad industry. Virginia's rail business in 1903 consisted of forty companies that operated almost 4,000 miles of track in the commonwealth, employed 28,000 workers, annually moved more than 7 million passengers and 28 million tons of freight, and reported total income of some $66 million.1 The fight to develop railroad regulation pitted Allen Caperton Braxton, a Staunton attorney who represented small business interests, against two of the most distinguished and experienced corporate lawyers in Virginia, Eppa Hunton, Jr., and Alexander Hamilton, who represented the railroads. It involved not just an economic struggle between shippers and consumers, on the one hand, and railroads on the other, but also jurisdictional battles between federal and state tribunals and between the administrative and judicial branches of government. The way railroad regulation was conceived, implemented, and defended illuminates the distinctive origins, nature, achievements, and limitations of Virginia progressivism.2

Virginia's embrace of progressive regulation developed out of the melding of many forces. Populist rhetoric aroused public concern in the early 1890s, economic distress in the mid-1890s galvanized that concern, and a growing perception at the end of the decade that big business was corrupting government drove demands for change and regulation. Small proprietors who had learned to compete with other independent businessmen faced new and seemingly insurmountable tests in dealing with the large-scale corporate businesses making their own rules in the marketplace; shippers faced especially daunting challenges from the railroad monopolies.

Although businessmen of many stripes, as well as farmers and consumers, sought some form of public regulation of the economy, federal and state courts required regulators to base their decisions on an informed analysis of detailed statistical and financial information-something the states had neither the data nor the expertise to do. Reformers needed to create new branches of government for the work of the regulatory experts. The private sector initially developed those experts as well as the tools the experts used, but the government agencies later appropriated the experts and their work for public regulatory use. It all came together early in the twentieth century as Virginia forged crucial law to secure the legitimacy of public administrative regulation.

The creation of the State Corporation Commission by the constitution of 1902 was the pivotal event in the proceSS.3 Within eight years, the commission was regulating the rates railroads charged to carry passengers and freight, the way they accounted for their income and expenses, the methods by which they valued their property, and the ways in which they raised capital. The Virginia State Corporation Commission regulated the lines operating in the Old Dominion more completely, for almost a decade, than did the federal Interstate Commerce Commission.

Rail mileage in the United States increased almost sixfold between the end of the Civil War and the end of the nineteenth century. By 1900, there were 200,000 miles of track. Despite this rapid expansion, the federal government had left regulation of the lines largely to the states since the 1840s and 1850s. The United States Supreme Court in its 1877 decision in Munn v. Illinois ruled, "Until Congress acts in reference to their interstate relations the State may exercise all the powers of government over them."4

In that same year, the Virginia General Assembly created the position of railroad commissioner, who was charged by law "to keep informed of the physical condition and manner of operation of the carriers. …

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