Munn v. Illinois

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Munn v. Illinois
Seal of the United States Supreme Court
Argued January 14–18, 1876
Decided October 1, 1876
Full case nameMunn v. State of Illinois
Citations94 U.S. 113 (more)
4 Otto 113; 24 L. Ed. 77; 1876 U.S. LEXIS 1842
The Fourteenth Amendment does not prevent the State of Illinois from regulating charges for use of a business's grain elevators.
Court membership
Chief Justice
Morrison Waite
Associate Justices
Nathan Clifford · Noah H. Swayne
Samuel F. Miller · David Davis
Stephen J. Field · William Strong
Joseph P. Bradley · Ward Hunt
Case opinions
MajorityWaite, joined by Clifford, Swayne, Miller, Davis, Bradley, Hunt
DissentField, joined by Strong
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend. XIV

Munn v. Illinois, 94 U.S. 113 (1876), was a United States Supreme Court case in which the Court upheld the power of state governments to regulate private industries that affect "the common good."[1]


The case was developed because in 1871, the legislature of Illinois responded to pressure from the National Grange, an association of farmers, by setting maximum rates that private companies could charge for the storage and transport of agricultural products. The Chicago grain warehouse firm of Munn and Scott was found guilty of violating the law but appealed the conviction on the grounds that the law was an unconstitutional deprivation of property without due process of law that violated the Fourteenth Amendment. A state trial court and the Illinois State Supreme Court both ruled in favor of the State.[2]


The Supreme Court decided the appeal in 1877. Chief Justice Morrison Waite spoke for the majority, which affirmed the constitutionality of state regulation extending to private industries that affect public interests. Because grain storage facilities were devoted to public use, their rates were subject to public regulation. He specified that any such regulation by the state government would not be in violation of the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Chief Justice Waite declared that even if Congress alone is granted control over interstate commerce, a state could take action in the public interest without impairing that federal control.

The Constitution contains no definition of the word 'deprive,' as used in the Fourteenth Amendment. To determine its signification, therefore, it is necessary to ascertain the effect which usage has given it, when employed in the same or a like connection.

While this provision of the amendment is new in the Constitution of the United States, as a limitation upon the powers of the States, it is old as a principle of civilized government. It is found in Magna Carta, and, in substance if not in form, in nearly or quite all the constitutions that have been from time to time adopted by the several States of the Union. By the Fifth Amendment, it was introduced into the Constitution of the United States as a limitation upon the powers of the national government, and by the Fourteenth, as a guaranty against any encroachment upon an acknowledged right of citizenship by the legislatures of the States.

When the people of the United Colonies separated from Great Britain, they changed the form, but not the substance, of their government. They retained for the purposes of government all the powers of the British Parliament, and through their State constitutions, or other forms of social compact, undertook to give practical effect to such as they deemed necessary for the common good and the security of life and property. All the powers which they retained they committed to their respective States, unless in express terms or by implication reserved to themselves. Subsequently, when it was found necessary to establish a national government for national purposes, a part of the powers of the States and of the people of the States was granted to the United States and the people of the United States. This grant operated as a further limitation upon the powers of the States, so that now the governments of the States possess all the powers of the Parliament of England, except such as have been delegated to the United States or reserved by the people. The reservations by the people are shown in the prohibitions of the constitutions.

When one becomes a member of society, he necessarily parts with some rights or privileges which, as an individual not affected by his relations to others, he might retain. 'A body politic,' as aptly defined in the preamble of the Constitution of Massachusetts, 'is a social compact by which the whole people covenants with each citizen, and each citizen with the whole people, that all shall be governed by certain laws for the common good.' This does not confer power upon the whole people to control rights which are purely and exclusively private, Thorpe v. R. & B. Railroad Co., 27 Vt. 143; but it does authorize the establishment of laws requiring each citizen to so conduct himself, and so use his own property, as not unnecessarily to injure another. This is the very essence of government, and has found expression in the maxim sic utere tuo ut alienum non laedas. From this source come the police powers, which, as was said by Mr. Chief Justice Taney in the License Cases, 5 How. 583, 'are nothing more or less than the powers of government inherent in every sovereignty, . . . that is to say, . . . the power to govern men and things.' Under these powers the government regulates the conduct of its citizens one towards another, and the manner in which each shall use his own property, when such regulation becomes necessary for the public good. In their exercise it has been customary in England from time immemorial, and in this country from its first colonization, to regulate ferries, common carriers, hackmen, bakers, millers, wharfingers, innkeepers, &c., and in so doing to fix a maximum of charge to be made for services rendered, accommodations furnished, and articles sold. To this day, statutes are to be found in many of the States some or all these subjects; and we think it has never yet been successfully contended that such legislation came within any of the constitutional prohibitions against interference with private property. With the Fifth Amendment in force, Congress, in 1820, conferred power upon the city of Washington 'to regulate . . . the rates of wharfage at private wharves, . . . the sweeping of chimneys, and to fix the rates of fees therefor, . . . and the weight and quality of bread,' 3 Stat. 587, sect. 7; and, in 1848, 'to make all necessary regulations respecting hackney carriages and the rates of fare of the same, and the rates of hauling by cartmen, wagoners, carmen, and draymen, and the rates of commission of auctioneers,' 9 id. 224, sect. 2.

From this it is apparent that, down to the time of the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment, it was not supposed that statutes regulating the use, or even the price of the use, of private property necessarily deprived an owner of his property without due process of law. Under some circumstances they may, but not under all. The amendment does not change the law in this particular: it simply prevents the States from doing that which will operate as such a deprivation.

This brings us to inquire as to the principles upon which this power of regulation rests, in order that we may determine what is within and what without its operative effect. Looking, then, to the common law, from whence came the right which the Constitution protects, we find that when private property is 'affected with a public interest, it ceases to be juris privati only.' This was said by Lord Chief Justice Hale more than two hundred years ago, in his treatise De Portibus Maris, 1 Harg. Law Tracts, 78, and has been accepted without objection as an essential element in the law of property ever since. Property does become clothed with a public interest when used in a manner to make it of public consequence, and affect the community at large. When, therefore, one devotes his property to a use in which the public has an interest, he, in effect, grants to the public an interest in that use, and must submit to be controlled by the public for the common good, to the extent of the interest he has thus created. He may withdraw his grant by discontinuing the use; but, so long as he maintains the use, he must submit to the control.

Thus, as to ferries, Lord Hale says, in his treatise De Jure Maris, 1 Harg. Law Tracts, 6, the king has 'a right of franchise or privilege, that no man may set up a common ferry for all passengers, without a prescription time out of mind, or a charter from the king. He may make a ferry for his own use or the use of his family, but not for the common use of all the king's subjects passing that way; because it doth in consequence tend to a common charge, and is become a thing if public interest and use, and every man for his passage pays a toll, which is a common charge, and every ferry ought to be under a public regulation, viz., that it give attendance at due times, keep a boat in due order, and take but reasonable toll; for if he fail in these he is finable.' So if one owns the soil and landing-places on both banks of a stream, he cannot use them for the purposes of a public ferry, except upon such terms and conditions as the body politic may from time to time impose; and this because the common good requires that all public ways shall be under the control of the public authorities. This privilege or prerogative of the king, who in this connection only represents and gives another name to the body politic, is not primarily for his profit, but for the protection of the people and the promotion of the general welfare.

And, again, as to wharves and wharfingers, Lord Hale, in his treatise De Portibus Maris, already cited, says:——

'A man, for his own private advantage, may, in a port or town, set up a wharf or crane, and may take what rates he and his customers can agree for cranage, wharfage, housellage, pesage; for he doth no more than is lawful for any man to do, viz., makes the most of his own. . . . If the king or subject have a public wharf, unto which all persons that come to that port must come and unlade or lade their goods as for the purpose, because they are the wharfs only licensed by the queen, . . . or because there is no other wharf in that port, as it may fall out where a port is newly erected; in that case there cannot be taken arbitrary and excessive duties for cranage, wharfage, pesage, &c., neither can they be enhanced to an immoderate rate; but the duties must be reasonable and moderate, though settled by the king's license or charter. For now the wharf and crane and other conveniences are affected with a public interest, and they cease to be juris privati only; as if a man set out a street in new building on his own land, it is now no longer bare private interest, but is affected by a public interest.'

This statement of the law by Lord Hale was cited with approbation and acted upon by Lord Kenyon at the beginning of the present century, in Bolt v. Stennett, 8 T. R. 606.

And the same has been held as to warehouses and warehousemen. In Aldnutt v. Inglis, 12 East, 527, decided in 1810, it appeared that the London Dock Company had built warehouses in which wines were taken in store at such rates of charge as the company and the owners might agree upon. Afterwards the company obtained authority, under the general warehousing act, to receive wines from importers before the duties upon the importation were paid; and the question was, whether they could charge arbitrary rates for such storage, or must be content with a reasonable compensation. Upon this point Lord Ellenborough said (p. 537):——

'There is no doubt that the general principle is favored, both in law and justice, that every man may fix what price he pleases upon his own property, or the use of it; but if for a particular purpose the public have a right to resort to his premises and make use of them, and he have a monopoly in them for that purpose, if he will take the benefit of that monopoly, he must, as an equivalent, perform the duty attached to it on reasonable terms. The question then is, whether, circumstanced as this company is, by the combination of the warehousing act with the act by which they were originally constituted, and with the actually existing state of things in the port of London, whereby they alone have the warehousing of these wines, they be not, according to the doctrine of Lord Hale, obliged to limit themselves to a reasonable compensation for such warehousing. And, according to him, whenever the accident of time casts upon a party the benefit of having a legal monopoly of landing goods in a public port, as where he is the owner of the only wharf authorized to receive goods which happens to be built in a port newly erected, he is confined to take reasonable compensation only for the use of the wharf.'

And further on (p. 539):——

'It is enough that there exists in the place and for the commodity in question a virtual monopoly of the warehousing for this purpose, on which the principle of law attaches, as laid down by Lord Hale in the passage referred to [that from De Portibus Maris already quoted], which includes the good sense as well as the law of the subject.'

And in the same case Le Blanc, J., said (p. 541):——

'Then, admitting these warehouses to be private property, and that the company might discontinue this application of them, or that they might have made what terms they pleased in the first instance, yet having, as they now have, this monopoly, the question is, whether the warehouses be not private property clothed with a public right, and, if so, the principle of law attaches upon them. The privilege, then, of bonding these wines being at present confined by the act of Parliament to the company's warehouses, is it not the privilege of the public, and shall not that which is for the good of the public attach on the monopoly, that they shall not be bound to pay an arbitrary but a reasonable rent? But upon this record the company resist having their demand for warehouse rent confined within any limit; and, though it does not follow that the rent in fact fixed by them is unreasonable, they do not choose to insist on its being reasonable for the purpose of raising the question. For this purpose, therefore, the question may be taken to be whether they may claim an unreasonable rent. But though this be private property, yet the principle laid down by Lord Hale attaches upon it, that when private property is affected with a public interest it ceases to be juris privati only; and, in case of its dedication to such a purpose as this, the owners cannot take arbitrary and excessive duties, but the duties must be reasonable.'

We have quoted thus largely the words of these eminent expounders of the common law, because, as we think, we find in them the principle which supports the legislation we are now examining. Of Lord Hale it was once said by a learned American judge,——

'In England, even on rights of prerogative, they scan his words with as much care as if they had been found in Magna Charta; and the meaning once ascertained, they do not trouble themselves to search any further.' 6 Cow. (N. Y.) 536, note.

In later times, the same principle came under consideration in the Supreme Court of Alabama. That court was called upon, in 1841, to decide whether the power granted to the city of Mobile to regulate the weight and price of bread was unconstitutional, and it was contended that 'it would interfere with the right of the citizen to pursue his lawful trade or calling in the mode his judgment might dictate;' but the court said, 'there is no notive . . . for this interference on the part of the legislature with the lawful actions of individuals, or the mode in which private property shall be enjoyed, unless such calling affects the public interest, or private property is employed in a manner which directly affects the body of the people. Upon this principle, in this State, tavern-keepers are licensed; . . . and the County Court is required, at least once a year, to settle the rates of innkeepers. Upon the same principle is founded the control which the legislature has always exercised in the establishment and regulation of mills, ferries, bridges, turnpike roads, and other kindred subjects.' Mobile v. Yuille, 3 Ala. N. S. 140.

From the same source comes the power to regulate the charges of common carriers, which was done in England as long ago as the third year of the reign of William and Mary, and continued until within a comparatively recent period. And in the first statute we find the following suggestive preamble, to wit:—— 'And whereas divers wagoners and other carriers, by combination amongst themselves, have raised the prices of carriage of goods in many places to excessive rates, to the great injury of the trade: Be it, therefore, enacted,' &c. 3 W. & M. c. 12, § 24; 3 Stat. at Large (Great Britain), 481. DJS 506

Common carriers exercise a sort of public office, and have duties to perform in which the public is interested. New Jersey Nav. Co. v. Merchants' Bank, 6 How. 382. Their business is, therefore, 'affected with a public interest,' within the meaning of the doctrine which Lord Hale has so forcibly stated.

But we need not go further. Enough has already been said to show that, when private property is devoted to a public use, it is subject to public regulation. It remains only to ascertain whether the warehouses of these plaintiffs in error, and the business which is carried on there, come within the operation of this principle.

Justice Field and Justice Strong dissented.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Munn v. Illinois, 94 U.S. 113 (1876).
  2. ^ "Munn v. Illinois". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 16 June 2014.


  • Kitch, Edmund W.; Bowler, Clara Ann (1978). "The Facts of Munn v. Illinois". Supreme Court Review. 1978: 313–343. JSTOR 3109535.

External links[edit]