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American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

American Government


The New York Times
February 1, 1912

How did Senator Townsend of Michigan get the idea into his head that an automobile is commerce? Some joker, by what arts and cajoleries we know not, has persuaded him that an automobile, or the driver of an automobile, is commerce, and therefore, that when the vehicle and the driver traverse a State boundary they are engaged in inter-State commerce. Senator Townsend was bred in the law, he is a member of the Jackson Bar, and he has practised since 1895, yet he has introduced in the Senate a bill "providing for the identification and registration of automobiles engaged in inter-State commerce, and the licensing of the operators thereof," of which the second section provides:

The provisions of this act shall apply to any automobile while engaged in commerce with foreign States or among the several States and operated and driven from one State to another State of the United States, or from one State in the United States to a foreign country or from a foreign country to any State in the United States.

By an exercise of moderation and self-restraint the Senator has made his bill provide that it shall not apply to any automobile operated and driven wholly within one State. The bill is not compulsory, but it permits automobile owners or operators to register themselves or their vehicles in the Office of Public Roads of the Department of Agriculture upon the payment of a modest fee of $10, filing therewith a verified description of their car such as is required for State registration. They are not exempted thereby from the provisions of State laws in regard to automobiles except that, when the owner or driver thus registered goes out of the State in which he resides to another State, his Federal license number shall entitle him to "enjoy all the rights and privileges and be subject to all the requirements of the laws of the last mentioned State," save that he is not required to display the distinctive State number or to have a State license of that State. It may be admitted that this would be a convenience. It would enable an automobile owner residing in New York, wheb equipped with a Federal license, to grin defiance in the face of a New Jersey constable calling attention to the fact that he had no Jersey license number. Convenience is probably the only merit of the bill.

How does Senator Townsend figure it out that the driver of an automobile not carrying goods or passengers is engaged in inter-State commerce? Is he a commercial traveler, canvasser, or solicitor, or an agent selling by samples? Is he an express company? Is he a grain elevator? Is he a ferry or a tug boat? Is he a railroad or stage company? Is travel commerce? The Supreme Court has never said so. It has said that commerce is the interchange of commodities, but that it is something more than traffic; it is commercial intercourse between nations and parts of nations. It is not even limited to mere buying and selling, but embraces all commercial intercourse, whether by land or water, and includes communication by telegraph. But if the use of an automobile for tours of pleasure or for journeys of utility and convenience is commerce, then we should say that kite-flying and duck shooting are commerce, and under the proper conditions inter-State commerce. Checker playing is a little doubtful, but golf playing across a State boundary must be inter-State commerce, since the reports of important matches speak of the player as "negotiating" a hole. Any one of these pastimes or recreations is just as much commerce, inter-State or intra-State, as is the driving of an automobile. Mr. Volstead of the House has introduced a bill apparently identical with that of Senator Townsend, and both have gone to the appropriate committees. We have little doubt that they will remain in committee.

We recognize in Senator Townsend one of our old friends of the Esch-Townsend combination, who were so very much before the public during the discussion of the Ratemaking bill. They filled that measure overflowing full with their peculiar views and studded it with absurdities that had to be drawn out with a clawhammer, until Senators and Representatives capable of understanding how grotesque were their ideas were nearly worn out in their endeavors to bring the measure into some decent conformity with the Constitution. Mr. Townsend's automobile bill can never be brought into conformity with the Constitution and the decisions of the court.

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