100th Anniversary of US Shipping Board

The Federal Maritime Commission, established in 1961, traces its origins to the U.S. Shipping Board created via the Shipping Act of 1916. President Woodrow Wilson signed the Shipping Act of 1916 into law on September 7, 1916. To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Shipping Act, we will be highlighting key dates in the history of the U.S. Shipping Board

Confirmation of the First Four Shipping Board Commissioners, January 19, 1917

Photo of Judge Denman is courtesy of Archives of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
With appreciation for the assistance of the Louisiana and Special Collections at the University of New Orleans Library

On December 22, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson nominated five individuals to serve as members of the newly authorized U.S. Shipping Board.

The five names sent to the United States Senate for its advice and consent were William Denman of California, Bernard Baker of Maryland, John Donald of New York, John White of Missouri, and Theodore Brent of Louisiana.

The United States Senate confirmed four of those nominees on January 19, 1917. Those confirmed were Messrs. Denman, Baker, White, and Brent.

William Denman, a Californian and a lawyer whose practice included maritime law, would serve as the Board’s first Chairman, at least until July 24, 1917 when he resigned from the Commission. He was succeeded as Chairman by Edward Hurley.

Mr. Denman would later serve as a Judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit from 1935-1959. During his tenure on the bench, he served as Chief Judge from 1948-1957.

Mr. Brent, who was from Muscatine, Iowa originally, joined the Commission from New Orleans, Louisiana where he was an executive with the Mississippi Shipping Company. A self-made man, Brent left school after completing the seventh grade to work as a railroad stenographer. By the time he passed away in 1954, Brent had risen to the top of his profession, serving as chairman and former board president of the Mississippi Shipping Company and president of the International Trade mart.

Mr. Baker, a prominent business leader and steamship line owner from Baltimore, Maryland, served as a Commissioner for only one week before resigning his position.

Signing of the Shipping Act, September 7, 1916

Photograph of President Wilson at his desk in the White House.
Courtesy of the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library & Museum

The Shipping Act of 1916 was sponsored by Representative Joshua W. Alexander, Chairman of the House Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries. Under Representative Alexander, the Committee conducted a two year investigation into the competitiveness of the ocean transportation industry. This review culminated in the publication of the Report on Steamship Agreements and Affiliations in the American Foreign and Domestic Trade, commonly referred to as the "Alexander Report."

The Alexander Report found that there was indeed cooperation between shipping lines to set service and rates offered to "shippers", the individuals and companies contracting for services. The investigation also found there was a commercial benefit to allowing lines to cooperate and argued that rather than trying to abolish this practice, the government should seek to allow regulated coordination.

Based on the recommendations of the Alexander Report, Congress passed the Shipping Act of 1916 creating the U.S. Shipping Board, a body that consisted of five Presidentially appointed Commissioners who were charged with regulating foreign and domestic shipping. The Board was also charged with promoting and developing the American merchant marine.

While the motivation for Representative Alexander’s legislation was to address competitive commercial concerns in the shipping sector, Europe had been at war since 1914 and the Board soon became very involved in building the maritime capacity the United States would need when it ultimately entered the conflict in 1917.

Though created in law in 1916, the U.S. Shipping Board would not be fully comprised until March of 1917.