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Agrarian Protests of the Nineteenth Century and Today

1877’s Supreme Court case Munn v. Illinois created much controversy. It dealt with whether or not the Illinois legislature possessed the constitutional rights to control charges for grain storage. After examining many perspectives, including merchants, farmers, and the government, the judge and some justices still differed in views. They faced tough questions with trying answers. Did the government hold the right to manage private institutions? For that matter, what defined a private or public institution? This problem plagues America today, in situations like eminent domain, but clearly, neither federal nor state officials retain the right to control non-government establishments.

One important perspective included farmers. After facing several decades of suffering-falling crop price levels, increasing necessary expenses, and capricious charges from monopolistic services (chiefly railroads)-the Midwestern cultivators formed the Illinois State Farmer’s Association. At a convention in 1873, they passed a series of resolutions, dealing with grievances, in hopes to better their essential occupation. Mainly, they grew exasperated with the corrupt railroads but concluded that all railways needed to connect, thus lessening the difficulties of travel and trade.

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Also, the farmers wanted tariffs for iron, steel, lumber, and other railroad and machinery materials to cease, and to gain railroad support for this matter. Meanwhile, they desired legislative support for themselves and strong punishment for the law-breaking and unconstitutional railroads. Most importantly, they decided that railroads needed government regulations to subdue the public by implementing equal train fares.

Therefore, the case four years later should have overjoyed the farmers; although Munn v. Illinois centred on grain storage, one implication of the ruling included railroads. Chief Justice Morrison R. Waite determined whether the state of Illinois carried the right to decide “a maximum of charges for the storage of grain in warehouses.” By citing the fourteenth amendment of the U.S. Constitution, “no state shall deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law . . .”, he noted that government already limited its power, a notion as old as the Magna Carta. He remarked that almost every U.S. State Constitution maintains this principle and to deny it destroys a part of citizenship.

However, Waite continued with a description of a “body politic” as defined by the Massachusetts Constitution, though the case lied in Illinois. Simply stated, a body politic exists when all citizens live and work for the common good. People cannot manage this alone though; it requires much federal and state governing and monitoring of the people and their property. Thus, certain unalienable rights seem to evaporate. But, Waite continued his argument by addressing Lord Hale’s “De Portibus Maris”, an accepted and unquestioned “element of the law.” It furthered the body politic ideology by stating that a business requires governmental control when its purposes interest the public. If the public uses the resource or business, Waite considered it a public institution, thus the government won more power.

Conversely, Stephen J. Field impugned Waite’s decision by also citing the fourteenth amendment and Lord Hale’s doctrine. He stated that Hale’s “De Portibus Maris” only considered buildings of public interest when donated to the public or government, and even so, the subject was merely grain so he continued, “. . . public is interested only as they are interested in other products of the soil.” No one cared-except the government. He argued that the existing state legislature and the Munn v. Illinois decision contradicted and that all businesses, by Waite’s definition serve the public someway, therefore, submit to government ruling. He finished by stating that this verdict infringed on all parts of the fourteenth amendment: life, liberty, and property.

Though Waite fluently and eloquently revealed his conclusion, it seems neither constitutional nor ethical. It helped the Midwestern farmers by finally fixing the railroad problem they “contest(ed) until the corporations [railroads] acknowledge(d) the supremacy of law,” however; would it not have also directly harmed them when the government dominated their grain storage capabilities? The farmers maintained that monopoly and, therefore; needed their real rights protected. Field’s dissent accomplished this.

By quoting the fourteenth amendment, he proved that life exists as “something more . . . than mere animal existence” and liberty as “something more . . . than mere freedom from physical restraint or the bounds of a prison.” Therefore, property, the final item in that amendment, deserves equal rights, as do American citizens. Therefore, the government undeniably, in 1877 or 2007, possesses no power to control or regulate private property-no matter what its use.

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Agrarian Protests of the Nineteenth Century and Today. (2021, Feb 16). Retrieved June 19, 2021, from