The Fight for the Commission
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The Legislative Session of 1889
During the election year of 1888, the Farmers’ Alliance called for both a railroad commission and for anti-trust legislation. A new political party, the Non-Partisans, even called for government ownership of railroads and telegraphs, and won many adherents among farmers, workers, and ranchers. Farmers and ranchers were in the majority when the legislature met in 1889, and they made railway regulation the number one issue.
Two bills were introduced that would create a railroad commission. The words of sponsor Thomas J. Brown of Grayson clearly express the sentiment of the public against the arguments of the railroad lobby:
We have been told that when we were poor and without the means of transportation, we invited the railroad people into this country to make their investments, and now we are disposed to confiscate their money; that it is ungrateful and unjust. We were not poor, for every man was independent. It is not true that Texas invited the railroads to come. The facts are that some capitalists at Houston and Galveston, with others in other cities saw that this was a goodly land in which to invest in railroad building, and they went before the Legislature and sought to be permitted to invest in railroad building and they went before the Legislature and sought to be permitted to build in Texas and in the magnanimity of a great State, we gave them large donations of land to aid them. After having been permitted to enter into our house and have partaken of our hospitality, we are charged by them with ingratitude because we will not move out, and give entire possession. Well, we are a magnanimous and a generous people, but this is requiring more than we can consent to, and by the boldness of the demand we are warned to buckle on the armor for defense of home and right. The stand must be made at this point.
Brown rejected the idea that the commission would destroy the railroads, declaring, “If I had the choice to have the railroads remain and be the master of the land or that they should go and the people be free, I would prefer to bid farewell to the railroads and return to the days of independence and equality.”
The railroad commission bills passed the House of Representatives but were rejected in the Senate on the grounds that any such act would violate the Texas Constitution. Railroad opponents recognized that a constitutional amendment would be necessary in order to make a commission legal.
The Election of 1890
Jim Hogg's campaign speech at Rusk, 1890
Years of public agitation finally came to a head in 1890. A constitutional amendment would be on the ballot to make it legal to create a state railroad commission. Now, it was up to the Farmers’ Alliance and other railroad opponents to persuade the public to vote for it. The railroads were equally determined to defeat the amendment.
Many politicians had laid the groundwork for the amendment. Judge A.W. Terrell, Sawnie Robertson, Jot Gunter, Horace Chilton, and Web Finley were just a few who had kept the issue alive over the years. But the most well-known opponent of the railroads had never taken a stand on the need for a commission. Jim Hogg was famous for his vigorous attacks on trusts and corporations; in fact, some argued that his success proved that a commission was not necessary. But Hogg’s experience had led him to believe that railroad regulation could not be effectively handled through a series of expensive and time-consuming lawsuits. For the public good, a permanent commission with enforcement powers was needed. Reform-minded Democrats settled on the articulate and charismatic Hogg to sell the issue to the public.
Hogg opened his campaign with a strong pitch for the commission, telling an audience in Rusk, “The issue so sharply drawn in the present campaign is, shall corporate power or the State control? The fight is on and the issue is unmistakably presented. Its disguise by either side will be reprehensible.” Hogg demonstrated how rates in Texas were much higher than in states that had already instituted commissions and called for a Texas railroad commission of three trusted citizens to act as a fair body to investigate and arbitrate disputes in the interests of all parties, railroads and shippers alike.
In the meantime, Jay Gould arrived in Texas — for his health, he said — and began to tour the state giving interviews and entertaining. Gould spoke of his plans to build new depots and packing and refrigeration works for his railroads and to pave streets, implying that such investment would not be forthcoming if the commission amendment were to pass. In fact, the Katy laid off workers in Texas and declared that there would be no more construction until the election was settled. Among Texans, railroad attorney George W. Clark acted as chief spokesman for the railway interests.
The country and farm press supported Hogg, but the cities, most of which owed their prosperity to the railroads, did not. The Galveston News called the commission “anarchistic” and “communistic,” and the Dallas News editorialized that the railroad commission “and every such measure points to the final conversion of government into an engine of communism.”
Hogg was a popular figure and was elected by a wide margin. The railroad commission amendment also proved to be an idea whose time had come. It passed 181,954 to 73,106.
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