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Theodore Roosevelt: Special Message
Theodore Roosevelt
Special Message
May 4, 1906
Messages and Papers of the Presidents
Theodore Roosevelt
Theodore Roosevelt
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To the Senate and House of Representatives:

I transmit herewith a report by the Commissioner of the Bureau of Corporations in the Department of Commerce and Labor on the subject of transportation and freight rates in connection with the oil industry. The investigation, the results of part of which are summarized in this report, was undertaken in accordance with House Resolution 499, passed February 15, 1905, but for the reasons given in the report it has been more general and extensive than was called for in the resolution itself.

I call your especial attention to the letter of transmittal accompanying and summarizing the report; for the report is of capital importance in view of the effort now being made to secure such enlargement of the powers of the Interstate Commerce Commission as will confer upon the Commission power in some measure adequately to meet the clearly demonstrated needs of the situation. The facts set forth in this report are for the most part not disputed. It is only the inferences from them that are disputed, and even in this respect the dispute is practically limited to the question as to whether the transactions are or are not technically legal. The report shows that the Standard Oil Company has benefited enormously up almost to the present moment by secret rates, many of these secret rates being clearly unlawful. This benefit amounts to at least three-quarters of a million a year. This three-quarters of a million represents the profit that the Standard Oil Company obtains at the expense of the railroads; but of course the ultimate result is that it obtains a much larger profit at the expense of the public. A very striking result of the investigation has been that shortly after the discovery of these secret rates by the Commissioner of Corporations, the major portion of them were promptly corrected by the railroads, so that most of them have now been done away with. This immediate correction, partial or complete, of the evil of the secret rates is of course on the one hand an acknowledgment that they were wrong, and yet were persevered in until exposed; and on the other hand a proof of the efficiency of the work that has been done by the Bureau of Corporations. The Department of Justice will take up the question of instituting prosecutions in at least certain of the cases. But it is most desirable to enact into law the bill introduced by Senator Knox to correct the interpretation of the immunity provision rendered in Judge Humphrey's decision. The hands of the Government have been greatly strengthened in securing an effective remedy by the recent decision of the Supreme Court in the case instituted by the Government against the tobacco trust, which decision permits the Government to examine the books and records of any corporation engaged in interstate commerce; and by the recent conviction and punishment of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad and certain of its officers.

But in addition to these secret rates the Standard Oil profits immensely by open rates, which are so arranged as to give it an overwhelming advantage over its independent competitors. The refusal of the railroads in certain cases to prorate produces analogous effects. Thus in New England the refusal of certain railway systems to prorate has resulted in keeping the Standard Oil in absolute monopolistic control of the field, enabling it to charge from three to four hundred thousand dollars a year more to the consumers of oil in New England than they would have had to pay had the price paid been that obtaining in the competitive fields. This is a characteristic example of the numerous evils which are inevitable under a system in which the big shipper and the railroad are left free to crush out all individual initiative and all power of independent action because of the absence of adequate and thorough-going governmental control. Exactly similar conditions obtain in a large part of the West and Southwest. This particular instance exemplifies the fact that the granting to the Government of the power to substitute a proper for an improper rate is in very many instances the only effective way in which to prevent improper discriminations in rates.

It is not possible to put into figures the exact amount by which the Standard profits through the gross favoritism shown it by the railroads in connection with the open rates. The profit of course comes not merely by the saving in the rate itself as compared with its competitors, but by the higher prices it is able to charge, and (even without reference to these higher prices) by the complete control of the market which it secures, thereby getting the profit on the whole consumption. Here again the only way by which the discriminations can be cured is by conferring upon the Interstate Commerce Commission the power to take quick and effective action in regulating the rates.

One feature of the report which is especially worthy of attention is the showing made as to the way in which the law is evaded by treating as State commerce what is in reality merely a part of interstate commerce. It is clearly shown, for instance, that this device is employed on the New York Central Railroad, as well as on many other railroads, in such fashion as to amount to thwarting the purpose of the law, although the forms of the law may be complied with.

It is unfortunately not true that the Standard Oil Company is the only great corporation which in the immediate past has benefited, and is at this moment benefiting, in wholly improper fashion by an elaborate series of rate discriminations, which permit it to profit both at the expense of its rivals and of the general public. The Attorney-General reports to me that the investigation now going on as to the shipments by the sugar trust over the trunk lines running out of New York City tends to show that the sugar trust rarely if ever pays the lawful rate for transportation, and is thus improperly, and probably unlawfully, favored at the expense of its competitors and of the general public.

The argument is sometimes advanced against conferring upon some governmental body the power of supervision and control over interstate commerce, that to do so tends to weaken individual initiative. Investigations such as this conclusively disprove any such allegation. On the contrary, the proper play for individual initiative can only be secured by such governmental supervision as will curb those monopolies which crush out all individual initiative. The railroad itself can not without such Government aid protect the interests of its own stockholders as against one of these great corporations loosely known as trusts.

In the effort to prevent the railroads from uniting for improper purposes we have very unwisely prohibited them from uniting for proper purposes; that is, for purposes of protection to themselves and to the general public as against the power of the great corporations. They should certainly be given power thus to unite on conditions laid down by Congress, such conditions to include the specific approval of the Interstate Commerce Commission of any agreement to which the railroads may come. In addition to this the Government must interfere through its agents to deprive the railroad of the ability to make to the big corporations the concessions which otherwise it is powerless to refuse.

The Government should have power by its agents to examine into the conduct of the railways--that is, the examiners under the direction of the Interstate Commerce Commission should be able to examine as thoroughly into the affairs of the railroad as bank examiners now examine into the affairs of banks.

It is impossible to work a material improvement in conditions such as above described merely through the instrumentality of a law suit. A law suit is often a necessary method; but by itself it is an utterly inadequate method. What is needed is the conferring upon the Commission of ample affirmative power, so conferred as to make its decisions take effect at once, subject only to such action by the court as is demanded by the Constitution. The courts have the power to, and will undoubtedly, interfere if the action of the Commission should become in effect confiscatory of the property of an individual or corporation, or if the Commission should undertake to do anything beyond the authority conferred upon it by the law under which it is acting. I am well aware that within the limits thus set the Commission may at times be guilty of injustice; but far grosser and far more frequent injustice, and injustice of a much more injurious kind, now results and must always result from the failure to give the Commission ample power to act promptly and effectively within these broad limits.

Though not bearing upon the question of railroad rates, there are two measures, consideration of which is imperatively suggested by the submission of this report. The Standard Oil Company has, largely by unfair or unlawful methods, crushed out home competition. It is highly desirable that an element of competition should be introduced by the passage of some such law as that which has already passed the House, putting alcohol used in the arts and manufactures upon the free list. Furthermore, the time has come when no oil or coal lands held by the Government, either upon the public domain proper or in territory owned by the Indian tribes, should be alienated. The fee to such lands should be kept in the United States Government whether or not the profits arising from it are to be given to any Indian tribe, and the lands should be leased only on such terms and for such periods as will enable the Government to keep entire control thereof.


Citation: Theodore Roosevelt: "Special Message," May 4, 1906. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=69667.
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