The Supreme Court in 1896

The 1896 decision most remembered today is Plessy v. Ferguson, in which the court sanctioned segregation in public facilities. At the time, this was far less controversial than other recent decisions concerning taxation and regulation of trusts.

With the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, passed in 1890 and sponsored by Republican John Sherman, Congress had attempted to 'protect trade and commerce against unlawful restraints.' In 1895, in U.S. v. E. C. Knight Co., the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government could not regulate the Knight sugar-refining monopoly because it was a manufacturer, and manufacturing was not 'commerce.' (The Court seems to have hoped that individual states would provide regulation--a hope that proved misplaced in the coming years.)

Also in 1895, the Court ruled that the Sherman Act could be used against labor strikes that were organized across state lines, since strikes did constitute 'restraint of trade.' And it struck down a progressive federal tax on high incomes (in Pollock v. Farmers' Loan & Trust Co.), arguing that taxing higher incomes at a higher rate was an unconstitutional attack on property. Such decisions were characteristic of 'legal formalism,' a term describing the Court's emphasis on protecting individual rights to make contracts and hold property--above all else.

Many Bryan supporters were outraged that small measures of federal regulation, as well as taxation on the new millionaire class, had been defeated by the Court. The Democratic platform referred to these issues and demanded regulation of trusts and a progressive income tax. Conservatives, in the meantime, hailed the Court as a bulwark against encroachments of government power. (A New York banker hailed the institution, in a celebratory toast, as 'guardian of the dollar, defender of private property, enemy of spoliation, sheet anchor of the Republic.') The presidential election results did little to assuage rising concern over the power of corporations, the criminalization of union activity, and the growing gap between rich and poor.

U.S. Supreme Court decisions, searchable by year or title, are available on the web.

The motives of the Supreme Court judges should not be assailed. But the journalist and the layman may say that the court has misconceived the law, that some other day a legal and proper way will be found to make wealth bear its just share of the burdens of government.
--Raleigh News and Observer, 20 September 1896

[supreme court] The Supreme Court in 1899.

Justices in 1896:
Stephen J. Field (appointed by A. Lincoln, Republican)
John M. Harland (Rutherford Hayes, R)
Horace Gray (Chester Arthur, R)
Melville W. Fuller (Grover Cleveland, D)
David J. Brewer (Benjamin Harrison, R)
Henry B. Brown (Benjamin Harrison, R)
George Shiras, Jr. (Benjamin Harrison, R)
Edward D. White (Grover Cleveland, D)
Rufus W. Peckham (Grover Cleveland, D)

If there be any fruit which has grown for the benefit of all mankind out of the establishment of our republic, it has been the demonstration that it is possible, by the organization of an independent tribunal, to safeguard the rights of every citizen.... The very existence of that power pre-supposes the existence of an independent tribunal. Yet we have this Populist convention, because a Populist measure was condemned as unconstitutional, proposing not to amend the Constitution in the ordinary way prescribed by that instrument itself, but proposing to pack the court, to reorganize it.
--Bourke Cockran, speech at Madison Square Garden, in New York World , 19 August 1896

The opponents of Mr. Bryan are fond of declaring that they cannot vote for him because the convention that nominated him "made an attack on the judiciary, which shows that the Democrats are revolutionists." ... Those who make the charge ought to be fair enough to give the specifications. It will be observed that they never do this, because an attempt to prove the assertion would justify the wisdom of the Chicago convention, and as most of the critics are trying to dodge an income tax they carefully refrain from going into particulars.
... The Democrats favor a constitutional amendment that will permit the levy of an income tax, or, if the President is called upon to fill a vacancy on the bench he will name a lawyer who believes the Supreme Court has been right for one hundred years instead of being right now by the slim majority of one.
...This is not the first time that a political party has declared itself opposed to a decision of a bare majority of the Supreme Court. Hostility to the Dred Scott decision breathed the breath of life into the Republican party.
--Raleigh News and Observer, 6 September 1896

The notion that any court is above criticism is a slavish, old-world notion, and utterly repugnant to the national American spirit.
--New York Journal, 13 October 1896

Cartoons on the Supreme Court
20 August, L.A. Times
30 August, St. Louis Globe Democrat
12 September, Harper's Weekly
26 September, National Reflector


© 2000, Rebecca Edwards, Vassar College