During the Progressive Era, roughly from 1890 to 1920, monopolistic trusts proliferated as odious fruits of big business. While certain monopolies arose as a natural result of business competition, others were artificial constructs, designed to control market behavior. Critics of both types of monopolies, including President Theodore Roosevelt, urged lawmakers to counteract monopolistic tendencies through unprecedented acts of government regulation.
In the late 19th century, monopolistic trusts were pervasive, resting upon a foundation of "Social Darwinism." Trusts controlled the production of such diverse products as whiskey, linseed oil, sugar, lead, cotton oil and cattle. The menacing propensities of monopolies is apparent in the aggressive business policies of the Milwaukee streetcar and electric light monopoly, "which raised its fares, got a court to prevent the city from lowering them, rejected arbitration with its striking employees, and, through the guile of its general manager, the Republican boss of Wisconsin, lobbied the state legislature to halve its taxes and kill legislation requiring it to stop fouling the air," according to Jack Beatty, author of "Age of Betrayal: The Triumph of Money in America, 1865-1900."
Monopolies of this era did not necessarily arise as a result of the conscious efforts of agents of big business. Rather, some monopolies came into existence primarily as a result of business competition, with the victors in certain sectors of the economy gaining the spoils. Other types of monopolies were artificially formed, as the result of concentrated efforts to influence the economy. In an influential monograph published in 1887, "Relation of the State to Industrial Action," Henry Carter Adams recognizes this distinction, commenting that "the peculiar privileges of the past, so far as they were of an industrial character, usually rested on royal grants or charters; but those of which complaint is now heard, spring from the conditions of modern business activity, or from the peculiar nature of certain lines of business."
Vociferous criticism of monopolistic practices arose from various quarters of society, including from economic theorists, government officials, disenfranchised businessmen and citizen activists. Members of each of these groups felt victimized by the acquisitive nature of monopolies. Such groups considered that the rights of common men were being curtailed by the expansive character of trusts. "The right to follow any of the common occupations of life is an inalienable right; it was formulated as such under the phrase 'pusuit of happiness' in the Declaration of Independence," states U.S. Supreme Court Judge Joseph P. Bradley in the 1883 case of Butcher's Union, etc., Co. v. Crescent City, etc., Co., adding that "to deny it to all but a few favored individuals, by investing the latter with a monopoly, is to invade one of the fundamental privileges of the citizen . . . ."
An initial effort to regulate trusts appeared with the passage of the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890. Unfortunately, this piece of government regulation proved weak in the face of monopolistic enterprises. Eventually, with the election of President Theodore Roosevelt in 1901, trusts gained a fierce opponent. Roosevelt placed pressure upon legislators to deal with the problem of monopolies. However, he advised that they should proceed with caution, lest the mechanism of modern business be compromised as a result of rash action.
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