Railroad Company v. PenistonAnnotate this Case
85 U.S. 5
U.S. Supreme Court
Railroad Company v. Peniston, 85 U.S. 18 Wall. 5 5 (1873)
Railroad Company v. Peniston
85 U.S. (18 Wall.) 5
APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF NEBRASKA
1. The exemption of agencies of the federal government from taxation by the states is dependent not upon the nature of the agents, nor upon the mode of their constitution, nor upon the fact that they are agents, but upon the effect of the tax -- that is, upon the question whether the tax does in truth deprive them of power to serve the government as they were intended to serve it, or hinder the efficient exercise of their power. A tax upon their property merely, having no such necessary effect, and leaving them free to discharge the duties they have undertaken to perform, may be rightfully laid by the states. A tax upon their operations being a direct obstruction to the exercise of federal powers may not be.
2. This doctrine applied to the case of a tax by a state upon the real and personal property, as distinguished from its franchises, of the Union Pacific Railroad Company, a corporation chartered by Congress for private gain, and all whose stock was owned by individuals, but which Congress assisted by donations and loans, of whose board of directors the government appoints two, which makes annual reports to the government, whose operations in laying, constructing, and working its railroad and telegraph lines, as well as its rates of toll, are subject to regulations imposed by its charter and to such further regulations as Congress may hereafter make, on whose failure to comply with the terms and conditions of its charter, or to keep the road in repair and use, Congress may assume the control and management thereof and devote the income to the use of the United States, the loan of the United States to which, amounting to many millions, is a lien on all the property, and on failure to redeem which loan the Secretary of the Treasury is authorized to take possession of the road with all its rights, functions, immunities, and appurtenances for the use and benefit of the United States; and finally, where all the grants made to the company are declared to be upon the condition that, besides paying the government bonds advanced, the company shall keep the railroad and telegraph lines in repair and use, and shall at all times transmit dispatches and transport mails, troops,
and munitions of war, supplies and public stores for the government, whenever required to do so by any department thereof, and that the government shall have the preference at rates not to exceed those charged to private parties, and payable by being applied to the payment of the bonds aforesaid, and in addition to which control, and the obligations and liabilities of the company, Congress, not forbidding a state tax, reserves the right to add to, alter, amend, or repeal the charter.
3. The unorganized Territory in Nebraska west of Lincoln County and the unorganized County of Cheyenne having been attached by statute to the County of Lincoln, in Nebraska, for revenue purposes, the authorities of Lincoln County were the proper authorities to levy taxes upon property thus placed under their charge.
By Act of Congress of July 1, 1862, [Footnote 1] entitled
"An act to aid in the construction of a railroad and telegraph line from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean, and to secure the government the use of the same for postal, military, and other purposes,"
Congress incorporated certain individuals, their associates and successors, as the "Union Pacific Railroad Company," with authority to build a continuous railroad and telegraph from a point on the one hundredth meridian to the western boundary of Nevada Territory. The act fixed the amount of the capital stock and shares, and declared that "the stockholders should constitute said body politic and corporate." The government had no stock in the road, though through the President of the United States it was to appoint two directors, not stockholders, out of fifteen, which the charter provided for as the number to be appointed in all. Annual reports were to be made to the Secretary of the Treasury. The act granted to the company the right of way through the public lands, and
"for the purpose of aiding in the construction of said railroad and telegraph line, and to secure the safe and speedy transportation of the mails, troops, munitions of war, and the public stores thereon,"
made to it an extensive grant of lands and provided for the issuing of patents therefor. And
for the same purposes the United States agreed to, and did issue its 6 percent bonds, payable in thirty years, to the company, to the amount of $16,000 per mile for each section of forty miles, which bonds the original act declared
"shall ipso facto constitute a first mortgage on the whole of the railroad and telegraph, together with the rolling stock, fixtures, and property of every kind,"
and made specific provision as to proceedings on the failure of the company to redeem the bonds.
By an Act of July 2, 1864, [Footnote 2] this was changed, and the company authorized to issue its "first mortgage bonds to an amount not exceeding the bonds of the United States," and the lien of the bonds of the United States was declared to be subordinate to the bonds so issued by the company, with the exception relating to the transportation of dispatches, troops, mails &c., for the government.
The grants to the company were declared by the original act to be made upon condition that the company shall (1) pay the bonds of the United States at maturity; (2) keep their line and road in repair and use; (3)
"transmit dispatches over said telegraph line, and transport mails, troops, and munitions of war, supplies, and public stores upon said railroad for the government,"
&c., giving the government the preference at fair and reasonable rates of compensation, not exceeding those charged to private individuals, the amount thus earned to be applied in payment of the bonds, as well as 5 percent of the net earnings of the road after its completion.
By the seventeenth section of the same act, it was provided that if the road, when finished, should for any unreasonable time be permitted to remain out of repair or unfit for use, Congress should have authority to put the same in repair and use, and from the income of the road reimburse the government for expenditures thus caused.
The eighteenth section provided that when the net earnings of the road should exceed 10 percent of its cost, Congress
might reduce, fix, and regulate rates of fare thereon, and declared that
"the better to accomplish the object of this act, to-wit, to promote the public interest and welfare by the construction of said railroad and telegraph line, and keeping the same in working order, and to secure the government at all times (but particularly in times of war) the use and benefits of the same for postal, military, and other purposes, Congress may at any time, having due regard for the rights of said companies named herein, add to, alter, amend, or repeal this act."
The act also contained provisions that so far as the public and government were concerned, the railroad and branches should be worked as one connected and continuous line.
There was no provision in any act of Congress relating to this company respecting the taxation of it or its property by the states through which its roads might run.
The road was completed and put in operation in May, 1869, and with the Central Pacific Railroad formed a continuous line from the Missouri River and the Eastern states to California and the Pacific, thus uniting the extremities of the country. At the time of granting the charter, the territory over which this line was projected all belonged to the United States. But Nevada was admitted into the Union as a state in 1864, and Nebraska in 1867, and the road, as constructed, crosses the latter state in its whole breadth, from east to west.
So far as to the history of the Union Pacific Railway. Now as to a certain tax laid upon it, the subject of this suit.
On the 15th of February, 1869, the Legislature of Nebraska passed an act "to define the western boundary of Lincoln County," which, after defining it, provided,
"That all the unorganized country lying west of the western boundary of Lincoln and east of the east line of Cheyenne County and south of the North Platte River be, and the same is hereby, attached to the said County of Lincoln for judicial and revenue purposes, and that the County of Cheyenne be, and
the same is hereby, attached, for judicial and revenue purposes to said County of Lincoln. [Footnote 3]"
In this state of things, the authorities of Lincoln County, in the State of Nebraska, under a revenue law of the state, passed on the same 15th of February, 1869, laid a tax upon the property of the railroad company, embraced within the taxation, upon the valuation of $16,000 per mile, for a length of one hundred and seventy-six miles. [Footnote 4]
The property of the company thus rated and taxed consisted of its roadbed, depots, wood stations, water stations, and other realty; telegraph poles, telegraph wires, bridges, boats, books, papers, office furniture and fixtures, money and credits, movable property, engines &c.
The population of Lincoln County and all the attached territory, by the census of 1870, was 1,352 persons. The whole amount of the tax list was $4,081,904, of which was
Property of the company . . . . . . $3,936,000
Property of other taxpayers . . . . 145,904
The tax levied by the county was $41,328 upon the company's property, and $6,350.45 upon the property of other taxpayers.
The tax levied upon the company's property was distributed under the following heads or purposes of taxation:
For state general fund . . . . . . . . . $7,872
For state sinking fund . . . . . . . . . 3,936
For state school fund. . . . . . . . . . 3,936
For county general fund. . . . . . . . . 19,680
For county sinking fund. . . . . . . . . 3,936
And for district school purposes . . . . 1,968
The length of the company's road lying within the territory ascribed to Lincoln County for taxation, was as follows: in Lincoln County, eight miles; in Cheyenne County (unorganized), one hundred and five miles; between the two
counties, sixty-three miles, making a total of one hundred and seventy-six miles.
In this state of things, one Peniston, Treasurer of Lincoln County, being about to collect the tax laid, the Union Pacific Railroad Company filed a bill in the Circuit Court of the United States in the District of Nebraska against him to restrain his doing so, assigning as grounds for the bill among others:
That the State of Nebraska had no power to subject to taxation for state purposes the roadbed, rolling stock, and other property necessary for the use and operation of the road, such power resting, as it was asserted by the bill, exclusively in the government of the United States.
That Lincoln County was not by law authorized to tax any portion of the roadbed or property of the company, except such as was situate within its geographical limits.
The cause was heard upon pleadings and agreed proofs, and the circuit court refused to restrain the collection of the tax against the one hundred and seventy-six miles of the road, holding the same to have been lawfully imposed, and the property of the company to be open to state taxation. Upon this decree's being brought here by the present appeal, the following errors were assigned:
First. That it was error to hold the tax a valid imposition upon the property of the Union Pacific Railroad Company subjected to it, such property being exempt from state taxation by virtue of the incorporation of the company by the United States as a means for the performance of certain public duties of the government enjoined and authorized by the Constitution.
Second. That it was error to hold the rating and taxing of the property of the company, outside the County of Lincoln, by the authorities of that county, valid and lawful under the legislation of the state.
MR. JUSTICE STRONG delivered the judgment of the Court.
That the taxing power of a state is one of its attributes of sovereignty, that it exists independently of the Constitution of the United States, and underived from that instrument, and that it may be exercised to an unlimited extent upon all property, trades, business, and avocations existing or carried on within the territorial boundaries of the state except so far as it has been surrendered to the federal government, either expressly or by necessary implication, are propositions that have often been asserted by this Court. And in thus acknowledging the extent of the power to tax belonging to the states, we have declared that it is indispensable to their continued existence. No one ever doubted that before the adoption of the Constitution of the United States each of the states possessed unlimited power to tax, either directly or indirectly, all persons and property within their jurisdiction, alike by taxes on polls, or duties on internal production, manufacture, or use, except so far as such taxation was inconsistent with certain treaties which had been made. And the Constitution contains no express restriction of this power other than a prohibition to lay any duty of tonnage, or any impost, or duty on imports or exports, except what may be absolutely necessary for executing the state's inspection laws. As was said in Lane County v. Oregon: [Footnote 5]
"In respect to property, business, and persons within their respective limits, the power of taxation of the states remained, and remains entire, notwithstanding the Constitution. It is, indeed, a concurrent power (concurrent with that of the general government), and in the case of a tax upon the same subject by both governments, the claim of the United States as the supreme authority must be preferred;
but with this qualification, it is absolute. The extent to which it shall be exercised, the subjects upon which it shall be exercised, and the mode in which it shall be exercised are all equally within the discretion of the legislatures to which the states commit the exercise of the power. That discretion is restrained only by the will of the people expressed in the state constitutions or through elections, and by the condition that it must not be so used as to burden or embarrass the operations of the national government. There is nothing in the Constitution which contemplates or authorizes any direct abridgment of this power by national legislation. To the extent just indicated, it is as complete in the states as the like power within the limits of the Constitution is complete in Congress."
Such are the opinions we have expressed heretofore, and we adhere to them now.
There are, we admit, certain subjects of taxation which are withdrawn from the power of the states, not by any direct or express provision of the federal Constitution, but by what may be regarded as its necessary implications. They grow out of our complex system of government, and out of the fact that the authority of the national government is legitimately exercised within the states. While it is true that government cannot exercise its power of taxation so as to destroy the state governments or embarrass their lawful action, it is equally true that the states may not levy taxes the direct effect of which shall be to hinder the exercise of any powers which belong to the national government. The Constitution contemplates that none of those powers may be restrained by state legislation. But it is often a difficult question whether a tax imposed by a state does in fact invade the domain of the general government, or interfere with its operations to such an extent, or in such a manner, as to render it unwarranted. It cannot be that a state tax which remotely affects the efficient exercise of a federal power is for that reason alone inhibited by the Constitution. To hold that would be to deny to the states all power to tax persons or property. Every tax levied by a
state withdraws from the reach of federal taxation a portion of the property from which it is taken, and to that extent diminishes the subject upon which federal taxes may be laid. The states are, and they must ever be, coexistent with the national government. Neither may destroy the other. Hence the federal Constitution must receive a practical construction. Its limitations and its implied prohibitions must not be extended so far as to destroy the necessary powers of the states, or prevent their efficient exercise.
These observations are directly applicable to the case before us. It is insisted on behalf of the plaintiffs that the tax of which they complain has been laid upon an agent of the general government constituted and organized as an instrument to carry into effect the powers vested in that government by the Constitution, and it is claimed that such an agency is not subject to state taxation. That the Union Pacific Railroad Company was created to subserve, in part at least, the lawful purposes of the national government; that it was authorized to construct and maintain a railroad and telegraph line along the prescribed route, and that grants were made to it, and privileges conferred upon it, upon condition that it should at all times transmit dispatches over its telegraph line, and transport mails, troops, and munitions of war, supplies and public stores, upon the railroad for the government, whenever required to do so by any department thereof, and that the government should at all times have the preference in the use of the same for all the purposes aforesaid, must be conceded. Such are the plain provisions of its charter. So it was provided that in case of the refusal or failure of the company to redeem the bonds advanced to it by the government, or any part of them, when lawfully required by the Secretary of the Treasury, the road, with all the rights, functions, immunities, and appurtenances thereunto belonging, and also all lands granted to the company by the United States which at the time of the default should remain in the ownership of the company, might be taken possession of by the Secretary of the Treasury for the use and benefit of the United States. The charter
also contains other provisions looking to a supervision and control of the road and telegraph line, with the avowed purpose of securing to the government the use and benefit thereof for postal and military purposes. It is unnecessary to mention these in detail. They all look to a purpose of Congress to secure an agency competent and under obligation to perform certain offices for the general government. Notwithstanding this, the railroad and the telegraph line are neither in whole nor in part the property of the government. The ownership is in the complainants, a private corporation, though existing for the performance of public duties. The government owns none of its stock, and though it may appoint two of the directors, the right thus to appoint is plainly reserved for the sole purpose of enabling the enforcement of the engagements which the company assumed, the engagements to which we have already alluded.
Admitting then fully, as we do, that the company is an agent of the general government, designed to be employed and actually employed in the legitimate service of the government, both military and postal, does it necessarily follow that its property is exempt from state taxation?
In Thompson v. Union Pacific Railway Company, [Footnote 6] after much consideration, we held that the property of that company was not exempt from state taxation, though their railroad was part of a system of roads constructed under the direction and authority of the United States, and largely for the uses and purposes of the general government. The company in that case were agents of the government, precisely as these claimants are, to the same extent and for the same purposes. Congress had made the same grants to them, and attached to the grants the same conditions. They too had received from Congress grants of land, and of bonds, and of a right of way for the purpose of aiding in the construction of their railroad and telegraph line, but with the condition that they should keep their railroad and telegraph line in repair and use, and should at all times transmit dispatches
over their telegraph line, and transport mails, troops, and munitions of war, supplies and public stores, upon their railroad for the government, whenever required to do so by any department thereof, and that the government should at all times have the preference in the use thereof for the purposes aforesaid. There is no difference which can be pointed out between the nature, extent, or purposes of their agency and those of the corporation complainants in the present case. Yet, as we have said, a state tax upon the property of the company, its roadbed, rolling stock, and personalty in general, was ruled by this Court not to be in conflict with the federal Constitution. It may therefore be considered as settled that no constitutional implications prohibit a state tax upon the property of an agent of the government merely because it is the property of such an agent. A contrary doctrine would greatly embarrass the states in the collection of their necessary revenue without any corresponding advantage to the United States. A very large proportion of the property within the states is employed in execution of the powers of the government. It belongs to governmental agents, and it is not only used but it is necessary for their agencies. United States mails, troops, and munitions of war are carried upon almost every railroad. Telegraph lines are employed in the national service. So are steamboats, horses, stage coaches, foundries, shipyards, and multitudes of manufacturing establishments. They are the property of natural persons, or of corporations, who are instruments or agents of the general government, and they are the hands by which the objects of the government are attained. Were they exempt from liability to contribute to the revenue of the states, it is manifest the state governments would be paralyzed. While it is of the utmost importance that all the powers vested by the Constitution of the United States in the general government should be preserved in full efficiency, and while recent events have called for the most unembarrassed exercise of many of those powers, it has never been decided that state taxation of such property is impliedly prohibited.
It is, however, insisted that the case of Thompson v. Union Pacific Railroad Company differs from the case we have now in hand in the fact that it was incorporated by the Territorial Legislature and the Legislature of the State of Kansas, while these complainants were incorporated by Congress. We do not perceive that this presents any reason for the application of a rule different from that which was applied in the former case. It is true that in the opinion delivered by the Chief Justice, reference was made to the fact that the defendants were a state corporation, and an argument was attempted to be drawn from this to distinguish the case from McCulloch v. State of Maryland. [Footnote 7] But when the question is, as in the present case, whether the taxation of property is taxation of means, instruments, or agencies by which the United States carries out its powers, it is impossible to see how it can be pertinent to inquire whence the property originated, or from whom its present owners obtained it. The United States have no more ownership of the road authorized by Congress than they had in the road authorized by Kansas. If the taxation of either is unlawful, it is because the states cannot obstruct the exercise of national powers. As was said in Weston v. Charleston, [Footnote 8] they cannot, by taxation or otherwise,
"retard, impede, burden, or in any manner control the operation of the constitutional laws enacted by Congress to carry into execution the powers vested in the general government."
The implied inhibition, if any exists, is against such obstruction, and that must be the same whether the corporation whose property is taxed was created by Congress or by a state legislature.
Nothing, we think, in the past decisions of this Court is inconsistent with the opinions we now hold. McCulloch v. State of Maryland and Osborn v. Bank of the United States [Footnote 9] are much relied upon by the appellants, but an examination of what was decided in those cases will reveal that they are in full harmony with the doctrine that the property of an agent of the general government may be
subjected to state taxation. In the former of those cases, the tax held unconstitutional was laid upon the notes of the bank. The institution was prohibited from issuing notes at all except upon stamped paper furnished by the state, and to be paid for on delivery, the stamp upon each note being proportioned to its denomination. The tax, therefore, was not upon any property of the bank, but upon one of its operations -- in fact, upon its right to exist as created. It was a direct impediment in the way of a governmental operation performed through the bank as an agent. It was a very different thing, both in its nature and effect, from a tax on the property of the bank. No wonder, then, that it was held illegal. But even in that case, the court carefully limited the effect of the decision. It does not extend, said the Chief Justice, to a tax paid by the real property of the bank, in common with the other real property in the state, nor to a tax imposed on the interest which the citizens of Maryland may hold in the institution, in common with the other property of the same description throughout the state. But this is a tax on the operations of the bank, and is consequently a tax on the operations of an instrument employed by the government of the Union to carry its powers into execution. Such a tax must be unconstitutional. Here is a clear distinction made between a tax upon the property of a government agent and a tax upon the operations of the agent acting for the government.
In Osborn v. Bank, the tax held unconstitutional was a tax upon the existence of the bank -- upon its right to transact business within the State of Ohio. It was, as it was intended to be, a direct impediment in the way of those acts which Congress, for national purposes, had authorized the bank to perform. For this reason, the power of the state to direct it was denied, but at the same time it was declared by the court that the local property of the bank might be taxed, and, as in McCulloch v. Maryland, a difference was pointed out between a tax upon its property and one upon its action. In noticing an alleged resemblance between the bank and a government contractor, Chief Justice
"Can a contractor for supplying a military post with provisions be restrained from making purchases within a state, or from transporting the provisions to the place at which the troops were stationed? Or could he be fined or taxed for doing so? We have not heard these questions answered in the affirmative. It is true the property of the contractor may be taxed; and so may the local property of the bank. But we do not admit that the Act of purchasing or of conveying the articles purchased can be under state control."
This distinction so clearly drawn in the earlier decisions between a tax on the property of a governmental agent and a tax upon the action of such agent or upon his right to be has ever since been recognized. All state taxation which does not impair the agent's efficiency in the discharge of his duties to the government has been sustained when challenged, and a tax upon his property generally has not been regarded as beyond the power of a state to impose. In National Bank v. Commonwealth of Kentucky, [Footnote 10] when the right to tax national banks was under consideration, it was asserted by us that the doctrine cannot be maintained that banks or other corporations or instrumentalities of the government are to be wholly withdrawn from the operation of state legislation. Yet it was conceded that the agencies of the federal government are uncontrollable by state legislation so far as it may interfere with or impair their efficiency in performing the functions by which they are designed to serve that government.
It is therefore manifest that exemption of federal agencies from state taxation is dependent, not upon the nature of the agents, or upon the mode of their constitution, or upon the fact that they are agents, but upon the effect of the tax -- that is, upon the question whether the tax does in truth deprive them of power to serve the government as they were intended to serve it, or does hinder the efficient exercise of their power. A tax upon their property has no such necessary effect. It leaves them free to discharge the duties they
have undertaken to perform. A tax upon their operations is a direct obstruction to the exercise of federal powers.
In this case, the tax is laid upon the property of the railroad company precisely as was the tax complained of in Thompson v. Union Pacific. It is not imposed upon the franchises or the right of the company to exist and perform the functions for which it was brought into being. Nor is it laid upon any act which the company has been authorized to do. It is not the transmission of dispatches, nor the transportation of United States mails, or troops, or munitions of war that is taxed, but it is exclusively the real and personal property of the agent, taxed in common with all other property in the state of a similar character. It is impossible to maintain that this is an interference with the exercise of any power belonging to the general government, and if it is not, it is prohibited by no constitutional implication.
It remains only to notice one other position taken by the complainants. It is that if the act of the state under which the tax was laid be constitutional in its application to their property within Lincoln County, the property outside of Lincoln County is not lawfully taxable by the authorities of that county under the laws of the state. To this we are unable to give our assent. By the statutes of Nebraska, the unorganized territory west of Lincoln County, and the unorganized County of Cheyenne, are attached to the County of Lincoln for judicial and revenue purposes. The authorities of that county therefore were the proper authorities to levy the tax upon the property thus placed under their charge for revenue purposes.
The decree of the circuit court is affirmed.
12 Stat. at Large 489.
13 Stat. at Large 356.
Laws of Nebraska, 1869, p. 249.
The tax was in fact laid on two hundred and forty-six miles, but, as it was admitted by the defendant that there was seventy miles of excessive computation, the only question here was as to the tax on the remaining one hundred and seventy-six miles.
74 U. S. 7 Wall. 77.
76 U. S. 9 Wall. 579.
17 U. S. 4 Wheat. 316.
27 U. S. 2 Pet. 467.
22 U. S. 9 Wheat. 738.
76 U. S. 9 Wall. 353.
MR. JUSTICE SWAYNE, concurring in the judgment:
I concur in the affirmance of the judgment in this case. I see no reason to doubt that it was the intention of Congress not to give the exemption claimed. The exercise of the power may be waived. But I hold that the road is a national instrumentality of such a character that Congress may interpose and protect it from state taxation whenever that body
shall deem it proper to do so. For some of the leading authorities in support of the principle involved in this view of the subject, I refer to Chicago & Northwestern Railway v. Fuller,* decided by this Court a short time ago.
* 84 U. S. 17 Wall. 560.
MR. JUSTICE BRADLEY, with whom concurred Mr. Justice FIELD, dissenting.
One of the errors assigned to the decree of the court below is that the State of Nebraska has no power to subject to taxation, for state purposes, the roadbed, rolling stock, and other property necessary for the use and operation of the complainants' road, and whether the state has such power is the controlling question in this cause. In my judgment, no such power exists, and my opinion is based upon the principles established in the cases of McCulloch v. Maryland, [Footnote 2/1] and Osborn v. United States Bank. [Footnote 2/2] Those principles, as summed up by Chief Justice Marshall himself in the later case of Weston v. City of Charleston, [Footnote 2/3] were as follows:
1. "That all subjects to which the sovereign power of a state extends, are objects of taxation; but those over which it does not extend are, upon the soundest principles, exempt from taxation."
2. "That the sovereignty of a state extends to everything which exists by its own authority, or is introduced by its permission; but not to those means which are employed by Congress to carry into execution powers conferred on that body by the people of the United States."
3. "That the attempt to use the power of taxation on the means employed by the government of the Union in pursuance of the Constitution, is itself an abuse, because it is the usurpation of a power which the people of a single state cannot give."
4. "That the states have no power by taxation, or otherwise, to retard, impede, burden, or in any manner control
the operation of the constitutional laws enacted by Congress, to carry into execution the powers vested in the general government."
If we needed an example to show that the application of these principles extends to such a case as the present, we could not frame one more to the purpose than that of the United States Bank, in respect to which they were announced in the cases referred to. The parallel between it and the Union Pacific Railroad is striking, and, for the purposes of the question, complete. In the case of the bank, a corporation was created with full banking powers. The capital stock was mostly subscribed by individuals, the government reserving an interest of seven millions out of thirty-five. Its affairs were managed by twenty-five directors, of whom five were appointed by the President of the United States by and with the advice and consent of the Senate. The powers of the directors were defined and restricted by the charter. The Secretary of the Treasury was authorized from time to time to call upon the bank for a statement of its affairs. For the privileges and benefits conferred, the bank was required to pay to the United States a bonus of $1,500.000. The books of the bank were to be always open to the inspection of a committee of either house of Congress, appointed for that purpose. Penalties and forfeitures were imposed for the breach of certain limitations and directions; and finally the bills and notes of the bank were to be receivable in payment of public dues; the public moneys were to be deposited in the bank and its branches, unless the Secretary of the Treasury should otherwise order; and, on his requisition, the bank was to give the necessary facilities for transferring the public funds from place to place within the United States, and for distributing the same in payment of the public creditors, without charging commissions or exchange. [Footnote 2/4] Here, then, was a corporation, constituted mainly of private individuals, created by Congress, established by its aid, regulated by its laws, amenable to its
committees and to the executive department, and subservient to the uses and purposes of the government in executing and carrying out a particular part of its constitutional functions.
Now in all of these respects except the single one of ownership of a portion of its capital stock, the Union Pacific Railroad presents a parallel case. The corporation is the creature of Congress; it receives large aid from the general government, both in donations and loans; the President appoints two of its directors; and all the operations of the company in laying, constructing, and working its railroad and telegraph lines, as well as its rates of toll, are subject to regulations imposed by its charter, and to such further regulations as Congress may hereafter make. On failure to comply with the terms and conditions of the charter or to keep the road in repair and use, Congress may assume the control and management thereof and devote the income to the use of the United States. Annual reports are to be made to the Secretary of the Treasury. The loan of the United States to the company, amounting to many millions, is a lien on all the property, and on failure to redeem it, the Secretary of the Treasury is authorized to take possession of the road, with all its rights, functions, immunities, and appurtenances, for the use and benefit of the United States; and finally, all the grants made to the company are declared to be upon the condition that, besides paying the government bonds advanced, the company shall keep the railroad and telegraph lines in repair and use, and shall at all times transmit dispatches and transport mails, troops, and munitions of war, supplies and public stores for the government, whenever required to do so by any department thereof, and that the government shall have the preference at rates not to exceed those charged to private parties, and payable by being applied to the payment of the bonds aforesaid, and in addition to all this control of Congress, and the obligations and liabilities of the company, Congress reserves the right to add to, alter, amend, or repeal the charter.
In these provisions we see the same close connection between
the government and the corporation, the same control reserved by the former, the same or an equal interest in the scheme, and a like creation of means for carrying into execution the powers conferred upon Congress. In the one case, the object was to facilitate the financial transactions of the government, and the bank was used as a means to that end; in the other, the object is to establish a national post road for the mails, and a telegraph line for the transmission of intelligence, and to facilitate government transportation of every kind between the East and the West, as well as to promote and regulate the commerce between those sections; and the railroad company is used as a means to these ends.
It seems to me that unless we are prepared to overrule the decisions referred to, we must apply the same law to this case which was applied to the United States Bank. I trust we are not prepared to overrule those decisions. Whilst no one disputes the general power of taxation in the states, which is so elaborately set forth in the opinion of the majority, it must be conceded that there are limits to that power. The states cannot tax the powers, the operations, or the property of the United States, nor the means which it employs to carry its powers into execution. The government of the United States, within the scope of its powers, is supreme and cannot be interfered with or impeded in their exercise.
The case differs toto coelo from that wherein the government enters into a contract with an individual or corporation to perform services necessary for carrying on the functions of government -- as for carrying the mails, or troops, or supplies, or for building ships or works for government use. In those cases the government has no further concern with the contractor than in his contract and its execution. It has no concern with his property or his faculties independent of that. How much he may be taxed by or what duties he may be obliged to perform towards his state is of no consequence to the government so long as his contract and its execution are not interfered with. In that case, the contract
is the means employed for carrying into execution the powers of the government, and the contract alone, and not the contractor, is exempt from taxation or other interference by the state government.
But where the general government creates a corporation as a means of carrying out a national object, that corporation and its powers, property, and faculties employed in accomplishing the service are the instrumentalities by which the government effects its objects. Hence the corporation is not taxable by state authority. And it matters not that private individuals are interested for their private gain in the stock of the corporation. Such individual interest may be taxable by itself, but the corporation and its property and operations cannot be, without interfering with the agencies used by the government for the accomplishment of its objects.
This distinction between private corporations performing services for the government and public corporations created by the government for the purpose of carrying on its operations and the consequences resulting therefrom are forcibly drawn by Chief Justice Marshall in Osborn v. United States Bank. He says:
"The foundation of the argument in favor of the right to tax the bank is laid in the supposed character of that institution. The argument supposes the corporation to have been originated for the management of an individual concern, to be founded upon contract between individuals, having private trade and private profit for its great end and principal object. If these premises were true, the conclusion drawn from them would be inevitable. This mere private corporation, engaged in its own business, with its own views, would certainly be subject to the taxing power of the state, as any individual would be, and the casual circumstance of its being employed by the government in the transaction of its fiscal affairs would no more exempt its private business from the operation of that power than it would exempt the private business of any individual employed in the same manner. But the premises are not true. The bank is not
considered as a private corporation, whose principal object is individual trade and individual profit, but as a public corporation, created for public and national purposes. That the mere business of banking is, in its own nature, a private business and may be carried on by individuals or companies having no political connection with the government is admitted, but the bank is not such an individual or company. It was not created for its own sake or for private purposes. It has never been supposed that Congress could create such a corporation. The whole opinion of the court in McCulloch v. Maryland is founded on and sustained by the idea that the bank is an instrument which is necessary and proper for carrying into effect the powers vested in the government of the United States. It is not an instrument which the government found ready made, and has supposed to be adapted to its purposes, but one which was created in the form in which it now appears for national purposes only. It is undoubtedly capable of transacting private as well as public business. While it is the great instrument by which the fiscal operations of the government are effected, it is also trading with individuals for its own advantage. The appellants endeavor to distinguish between this trade and its agency for the public, between its banking operations and those qualities which it possesses in common with every corporation, such as individuality, immortality,"
The suggestion of Chief Justice Marshall in the above quotation that Congress cannot create any corporations except for public and national purposes is worthy of particular notice. The inference is obvious that any corporation rightfully created by Congress, being necessarily public and national in its object, is beyond the reach of state taxation. That suggestion, it is true, was made in reference to a corporation established for business purposes within the states of the Union. And in such a case, it is evident that the proposition must be true -- namely that Congress cannot create a corporation except for a public and national purpose. But in a territory of the United States, Congress is supreme, and is the fountain of local as well as public and national
law. It usually exercises its municipal powers over such territories by the agency of territorial governments. But it is not obliged to do this. It might exercise them directly, for the greater power includes the less. As the source of municipal legislation in the Territory of Nebraska, therefore, Congress undoubtedly could have established local and private corporations for manufacturing, mining, financial, and other business purposes, the same as it has been accustomed to do in reference to the District of Columbia, prior to the recent establishment of a legislature therein. Now, any such private and local corporations created by Congress in a territory, would cease to be United States corporations when such territory became a state. They would then become subject to state control by reason of not possessing a national character. A quo warranto from the state courts could be issued for the repeal of their charters in case of forfeiture for misfeasance or nonfeasance. The admission of a territory as a state would be a virtual assignment by Congress of all control over such institutions to the state as the proper successor in the municipal sovereignty. But this would not be the case with regard to corporations of a public and national character, such as Congress could have created if the territory had been a state at the time. They will remain United States corporations, subject to Congressional, and not to state control.
The Union Pacific Railroad was authorized to be constructed entirely in territories then belonging to the United States. But the work was public and national in its character, and the corporation was a public and national corporation, as much so as would be a company created by Congress to construct a railroad from New Orleans to New York, through the old or long-admitted states. The circumstance, therefore, that the road was originally authorized in the United States territory, does not detract from the importance of Chief Justice Marshall's suggestion in its bearing upon the case in hand. The very fact that the charter of the company can stand at all as a Congressional instead of a state charter, which has not been seriously questioned, is proof
of its national character; for without such national character it would cease to be subject to national control.
That Congress has the power under the federal Constitution to create and establish such a corporation for such purposes of a national character was demonstrated by the unanswerable argument of Mr. Hamilton on the creation of the first national bank, and was set at rest by the equally unanswerable argument of Chief Justice Marshall in the case of McCulloch v. Maryland.
"Although among the enumerated powers of government," says the Chief Justice, [Footnote 2/5]
"we do not find the word 'bank' or 'incorporation,' we find the great powers to levy and collect taxes, to borrow money, to regulate commerce, to declare and conduct war, and to raise and support armies and navies. The sword and the purse, all the external relations, and no inconsiderable portion of the industry of the nation, are entrusted to its government. It can never be pretended that these vast powers draw after them others of inferior importance merely because they are inferior. Such an idea can never be advanced. But it may with great reason be contended that a government entrusted with such ample powers, on the due execution of which the happiness and prosperity of the nation so vitally depends, must also be entrusted with ample means for their execution. The power being given, it is the interest of the nation to facilitate its execution. . . . Throughout this vast republic, from the St. Croix to the Gulf of Mexico, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, revenue is to be collected and expended, armies are to be marched and supported. The exigencies of the nation may require that the treasure raised in the North should be transferred to the South, that raised in the East conveyed to the West, or that this order should be reversed. Is that construction of the Constitution to be preferred which would render these operations difficult, hazardous, and expensive? . . . The government which has the right to do an act, and has imposed on it the duty of performing that act, must, according
to the dictates of reason, be allowed to select the means; and those who contend that it may not select any appropriate means, that one particular mode of effecting the object is excepted, take upon themselves the burden of establishing that exception. . . . The power of creating a corporation, though appertaining to sovereignty, is not, like the power of making war, or levying taxes, or of regulating commerce, a great substantive and independent power, which cannot be implied as incidental to other powers, or used as a means of executing them. It is never the end for which other powers are exercised, but a means by which other objects are accomplished. No contributions are made to charity for the sake of an incorporation, but a corporation is created to administer the charity; no seminary of learning is instituted in order to be incorporated, but the corporate character is conferred to subserve the purposes of education. No city was ever built with the sole object of being incorporated, but is incorporated as affording the best means of being well governed. The power of creating a corporation is never used for its own sake, but for the purpose of effecting something else. No sufficient reason is therefore perceived why it may not pass as incidental to those powers which are expressly given, if it be a direct mode of executing them."
Now I think it cannot be doubted at the present day, whatever may have been contended in former times, that the creation of national roads and other means of communication between the states is within the power of Congress in carrying out the powers of regulating commerce between the states, establishing post offices and post roads, and in providing for the national defense and for military operations in time of war. And no one will contend that if the creation of a corporation is a suitable agency and means of carrying on the financial operations of the government, the creation of a corporation is equally apposite as an agency and means of carrying out the objects above mentioned. This has been so forcibly stated by one of the Justices of this Court, in the case of The Clinton Bridge, decided in the
Eighth Circuit, in October, 1867, [Footnote 2/6] that I shall not further enlarge upon the point.
The Union Pacific Railroad Company, therefore, being a United States corporation created for national objects and purposes, and deriving its existence, its powers, its duties, its liabilities, from the United States alone; being responsible to the United States, now as formerly, for a whole congeries of duties and observances; being subjected to the forfeiture of its corporate franchises, powers, and property to the United States, and not to any individual state; being charged with important duties connected with the very functions of the government: every consideration adduced in the cases of McCulloch v. Maryland and Osborn v. Bank, would seem to require that it should be exempt not only from state taxation, but from state control and interference, except so far as relates to the preservation of the peace, and the performance of its obligations and contracts. In reference to these and to the ordinary police regulations imposed for sanitary purposes and the preservation of good order, of course, it is amenable to state and local laws.
As an instrument of national commerce as well as government operations, it has been regulated by Congress. Can it be further regulated by state legislation? Can the state alter its route, its gauge, its connections, its fares, its franchises, or any part of its charter? Can the state step in between it and the superior power or sovereignty to which it is responsible? Such an hypothesis, it seems to me, is inadmissible and repugnant to the necessary relations arising and existing in the case. Such an hypothesis would greatly derogate from and render almost useless and ineffective that hitherto unexecuted power of Congress to regulate commerce by land, among the several states. If it be declared in advance that no agency of such commerce, which Congress may hereafter establish, can be freed from local impositions, taxation, and tolls, the hopes of future free and unrestricted
intercourse between all parts of this great country will be greatly discouraged and repressed.
These considerations show how totally different this case is from that of Thompson v. Kansas Pacific Railroad Company. That was a state corporation, deriving its origin from state laws, and subject to state regulation and responsibilities. It would be subversive of all our ideas of the necessary independence of the national and state governments, acting in their respective spheres, for the general government to take the management, control, and regulation of state corporations out of the hands of the state to which they owe their existence, without its consent, or to attempt to exonerate them from the performance of any duties, or the payment of any taxes or contributions, to which their position, as creatures of state legislation, renders them liable.
But, it may be asked, if the states cannot tax a United States corporation created for public and national purposes, on what principle can the general government tax local corporations created by the state governments for local and state purposes? If the states cannot tax a national bank, how can the United States tax a state bank? The answer is very manifest, and is stated by Chief Justice Marshall in McCulloch v. Maryland. [Footnote 2/7]
"The government of the Union, though limited in its powers, is supreme within its sphere of action. This would seem to result necessarily from its nature. It is the government of all; its powers are delegated by all; it represents all and acts for all. Though any one state may be willing to control its operations, no state is willing to allow others to control them."
"It has also been insisted that, as the power of taxation in the general and state governments is acknowledged to be concurrent, every argument which would sustain the right of the general government to tax banks chartered by the states will equally sustain the right of the states to tax banks chartered by the general government. But the two cases are not on the same reason. The people of all the states have
created the general government, and have conferred upon it the general power of taxation. The people of all the states, and the states themselves, are represented in Congress, and, by their representatives, exercise this power. When they tax the chartered institutions of the states, they tax their constituents, and these taxes must be uniform. But when a state taxes the operations of the government of the United States, it acts upon institutions created not by their own constituents, but by the people over whom they claim no control. It acts upon the measures of a government created by others as well as themselves for the benefit of others in common with themselves. The difference is that which always exists, and always must exist, between the action of the whole on a part, and the action of a part on the whole -- between the laws of a government declared to be supreme and those of a government which, when in opposition to those laws, is not supreme."
But it is contended that the laying of a tax on the roadbed of the company is nothing more than laying a tax on ordinary real estate, which was conceded might be done in the case of the United States Bank, in reference to its banking house or other lands taken for claims due in the course of its business. This is a plausible suggestion, but in my apprehension, not a sound one. In ascertaining what is essential in every case, respect must always be had to the subject matter. The state of Maryland undertook to tax the circulation of the United States branch bank established in that state by requiring stamps to be affixed thereto; the State of Ohio imposed a general tax of $50,000 upon the branch established therein. These taxes were declared unconstitutional and void. They impeded the operations of the bank as a financial agent. Real estate was not a necessary appurtenant to the exercise of the functions of the bank. It might hire rooms for its office, or it might purchase or erect a building.
But the primary object of a railroad company is commerce and transportation. In its case, a railroad track is just as essential to its operations as the use of a currency, or the
issue or purchase of bills of exchange is to the operations of a bank. To tax the road is to tax the very instrumentality which Congress desired to establish, and to operate which it created the corporation.
Besides, all that a railroad company possesses in reference to its roadbed is the right of way, and the right to use the land for the purpose of way. This is a franchise conferred by the government, and inseparably connected with the other franchises which enable it to perform the duties for the performance of which it was created. Any estate in the land -- the soil -- the underlying earth -- beyond this, belongs to the original proprietor, and that proprietor in the present case is the government itself. So that, look at it what way we will, there is no room for the taxing power of the state. The estate in the soil cannot be taxed, for that remains in the United States; the franchise of right of way and materials of track cannot be taxed, because they are essentially connected with and form a part of the powers, faculties, and capital by which the national purposes of the organization are accomplished.
If the roadbed may be taxed, it may be seized and sold for nonpayment of taxes -- seized and sold in parts and parcels, separated by county or state lines -- and thus the whole purpose of Congress in creating the corporation and establishing the line may be subverted and destroyed.
In my judgment, the tax laid in this case was an unconstitutional interference with the instrumentalities created by the national government in carrying out the objects and powers conferred upon it by the Constitution.
MR. JUSTICE HUNT:
I dissent from the opinion of the Court.
17 U. S. 4 Wheat. 316.
22 U. S. 9 Wheat. 738.
27 U. S. 2 Pet. 466.
3 Stat. at Large 266.
17 U. S. 4 Wheat. 407.
1 Woolworth 150.
17 U. S. 4 Wheat. 405.
Official Supreme Court case law is only found in the print version of the United States Reports. Justia case law is provided for general informational purposes only, and may not reflect current legal developments, verdicts or settlements. We make no warranties or guarantees about the accuracy, completeness, or adequacy of the information contained on this site or information linked to from this site. Please check official sources.