Trusts & Monopolies

Business and industry were undergoing enormous changes in the U.S. during the 1890s. The first class of multimillionaires had made their fortunes in the Civil War, and during subsequent decades they began to consolidate holdings in a number of industries with national and international reach. Among the most famous were Carnegie Steel and John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil Company.

The Sherman Anti-Trust Act, passed in 1890, was the first important federal measure to limit the power of companies that controlled a high percentage of market share. Ironically, in the 1890s the Act was used primarily to block strikes, since it prevented any 'conspiracy to restrict trade,' and businesses like the Pullman Railcar Company argued that labor unions were such conspiracies. They won the support of state and federal militia to enforce this anti-labor view. At the same time, the Supreme Court ruled in 1895 that many forms of business combination did not constitute "trusts" that restrained interstate trade, and thus could not be prosecuted under federal law. The Interstate Commerce Commission had been created, but it did not yet have the powers it obtained in a later era, and critics considered it ineffectual.

Antagonism toward "trusts" and "monopolies" was wide-ranging. Critics of "The Trusts" often targeted silver and gold mines in the West and other large companies whose employees faced hazardous conditions and low wages. Others attacked "The Trusts" and "Wall Street" in the same breath, identifying J. P. Morgan and other financiers as the agents of industrial consolidation. In rural areas, the most dangerous monopolies appeared to be the railroads, which controlled shipping rates along their lines. Railroad magnates like Jay Gould and C. P. Huntington were among the targets of free-silverites ire. Farmers also denounced grain elevators and speculators: the rise of agricultural futures markets, accompanying mechanization of harvesting and processing, caused many farmers to feel increasingly helpless in the face of large institutions beyond their control. In short, denunciation of "The Trusts" symbolized broad fears about the size and power of big business in America.

Trusts also became a central issue in the 1896 campaign because of the fundraising activities of Mark Hanna and the Republican National Committee. Hanna collected large sums from leading industrialists, most of whom were terrified at the prospect of a Bryan victory. While such men opposed free silver, their fear of pro-labor and anti-trust legislation probably played a greater role in inspiring their donations. In calling attention to the connections between Republicans and industrialists, Silver Democrats and other anti-McKinleyites were not exaggerating. The Republican National Committee raised and spent (by its own accounting) at least $4,000,000 during the campaign--a staggering sum for the day, assembled largely from major gifts by industrialists and financiers. In addition, some of McKinley's allies, notably Whitelaw Reid of New York, solicited J. P. Morgan's advice in drafting the financial planks of the Republican platform.

The Democrats' Chicago platform called for greater regulation of trusts and pools. On Labor Day, Bryan gave a widely noted speech (see right) in which he suggested that one of the purposes of government was to put 'rings in the noses of hogs'--a reference to regulation of trusts, though Bryan suggested that such 'hogs' should still be allowed to get 'fat.' Both Democrats and Republicans responded with cartoons identifying other 'hogs' to be controlled (see Rocky Mountain News, September 9; National Reflector, September 26).

The strength of anti-trust sentiment was suggested by Republicans' adoption of the issue, late in the campaign, to criticize the silver mining money that the 'silver trust' added to Democratic coffers. Anti-trust sentiment continued to grow after 1896 and became a central political issue of the Progressive Era.

Can Mr. Hanna buy the voters of the Midwest? The Standard Oil Company, the great railroad corporations, the big manufacturing trusts, the bond syndicates, Mr. Carnegie, Mr. Pierpont Morgan, Mr. Huntington, and all the rest of the high-minded patriots who are furnishing Mr. Hanna with the means to defend the national honor, think he can.
--New York Journal, 13 October 1896

John Quincy Adams had been elected as a Democrat, but he abandoned the party, repudiated the principles to which it had pledged his administration, and eneavored to revive the Federalistic party whose fundamental maxim, as defined by Daniel Webster himself, was that all stable and orderly government must be based on property.
As the fundamental tenet of Democracy is that all just government must be based on manhood right and on the consent of the governed, the massed of the Democratic party felt the same hot resentment against the Adams administration which they now feel when they see Federal officeholders controlling the action of conventions called at the instance of Mr. Whitney of the Standard Oil Co. and Mr. Belmont, American agent of the Rothschild banks.
...Against plutocracy and class government the Democratic party has made its "appeal to Caesar." And in America there is no king but Caesar and no Caesar but the people.
--St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 13 September 1896

Silver-Mine Owners Buy the Popocratic Party.
Colorado Chips in a Half-million Dollars--Utah, Montana, Idaho and Nevada Will Furnish Much More to the Pool.

--Los Angeles Times, 14 September 1896

In regards to trusts in general Mr. Bryan is sound. What has Mr. McKinley to say on the subject? He knows that the trusts are not myths. He must have seen the list of 139 of them published in The World. He must be aware of the purely arbitrary advance of $1.50 a ton in the price of coal by the great Coal Trust. He cannot be ignorant of other extortions and robberies by these monopolies. He has seen Senator Sherman's opinion, telegraphed to The World, that "no doubt the existing Anti-Trust law can be enforced by a President and vigorous Attorney-General in sympathy with it."
...What do you think about the trusts?
Speak out, Mr. McKinley!
--New York World, October 6, 1896

What is the difference between Mark Hanna and a silver-mine owner?
One is a shining Mark and the other is a mining shark.
--Charles E. Farrell in New York World, 11 October 1896

[John D. Rockefeller]

John D. Rockefeller, creator of Standard Oil, in the 1870s. This portrait appeared in Ida Tarbell's History of Standard Oil (McClure's, 1904), a muckraking investigative work that stirred public opinion. Tarbell's book also contained portraits and profiles of other leading industrialists, such as Cornelius Vanderbilt. Nalinda Sapukotana of the University of Rochester has placed Tabell's History online.

From Bryan's Labor Day Speech in Chicago
I was passing through Iowa some months ago, and I got an idea from some hogs. [Laughter.] ... As I was riding along I noticed these hogs rooting in a field, and they were tearing up the ground, and the first thought that came to me was that they were destroying a good deal of property. And that carried me back to the time when as a boy I lived upon a farm, and I remembered that when we had hogs we used to put rings in the noses of the hogs, and then the thought came to me, 'Why did we do it?' Not to keep the hogs from getting fat. We were more interested in their getting fat than they were. [Laughter.] The sooner they got fat the sooner we killed them; the longer they were in getting fat the longer they lived. But why were the rings put in the noses of those hogs? So that, while theywere getting fat, they would not destroy more property than they were worth. [Laughter and great applause.] And as I thought of that this thought came to me, that one of the duties of the government, one of the important duties of government, is the putting of rings in the noses of hogs. [Applause.]

To the Editor of The World:
I desire to express for our people in this section our approval of your attacks upon the trusts and McKinley's and Hanna's participation in and sympathy therewith. We believe that it is an issue in the present campaign, and that this and the using of money to the extent that it is intended to be used by the Republican National Committee in this campaign are of far more importance to our people than the issue between gold and silver.
--"S.," North East, Pennsylvania, New York World, September 21, 1896


The following is a list in part of the members of the Union League Club Committee that has been appointed to provide funds to combat the free silver sentiment. Each man is possessed of great wealth and in control of much more:

NAME: John D. Rockefeller
OCCUPATION: Manufacturing
WORTH: $125,000,000

Cornelius Vanderbilt, Railroads

C. P. Huntington, Railroads

J. Pierpont Morgan, Banker

Joseph Milbank, Banker

Andrew Carnegie, Manufacturer

William D. Sloane, Carpets

John Sloane, Carpets

David Dowes, Banker

Herman O. Armour, Provisions

Brayton Ives, Banker

John H. Starin, Transportation

George Bliss, Banker

Samuel Thomas, Contractor

Charles L. Tiffany, Jeweler

LeGrand B. Cannon, Railroads

Henry H. Cook, Financier

... (If the wealth of this committee were converted into metallic money it would absorb all the gold in the United States and about $75,000,000 of the silver.)
--Raleigh News and Observer, September 6, 1896, reprinted from New York Journal, 3 August 1896

Are you rich? If yes, how did you get rich? Is somebody else poor because you are rich? Are you rich because somebody else was willing to work while you loafed around? Did you get rich by taking from the man who worked for you four-fifths of all he produced? If yes, is that sort of thing creditable to you? When you started out to get rich why didn't you do it by working yourself? Couldn't you get rich without stealing what another produced?
--The Coming Nation, August 1, 1896

Cartoons on the Trusts
19 March, People's Advocate
15 April, Sound Money
22 July, Rocky Mountain News
5 August, Rocky Mountain News
18 August, Rocky Mountain News
20 August, Sound Money
22 August, The Ram's Horn
3 September, New York Journal
12 September, New York Journal
17 September, Rocky Mountain News
20 September, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
21 September, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
1 October, St. Paul Pioneer Press
13 October, New York Journal
15 October, Rocky Mountain News
17 October, The Coming Nation
21 October, The Coming Nation
22 October, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
30 October, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
31 October, New York Journal
14 November, The Coming Nation


© 2000, Rebecca Edwards, Vassar College