Digital History

The Gilded Age

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Digital History ID 3119



The 1880s marked the emergence of trusts, companies that bought out locally-owned factories and merged them into conglomerates that sought to monopolize entire industries. The concentration of industry aroused "deep feelings of unrest," said Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan, a conservative Republican:

The conviction was universal that the country was in real danger from another form of slavery...that would result from the aggregation of capital in the hands of a few individuals controlling, for their own profit and advantage exclusively, the entire business of the country.

A national consensus emerged that monopolies were dangerous to democracy. The Interstate Commerce Act of 1887, which applied only to railroads passing through more than one state, declared that railroads could only charge just and reasonable rates. It required railroads to post their rates, provide 10-day notice before raising rates, prohibited railroads from charging less for a long haul than a short haul over the same line. The act also set up the first federal regulatory commission, the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) had authority to investigate the railroads. Railroad operators found ways to circumvent the law, and many of the ICC's decisions were reversed by the Supreme Court.

The Sherman Anti-Trust Act passed in 1890 outlawed any combination "in restraint of trade." In 1894, in the case of U.S. v. Debs, the Supreme Court ruled that the act could be used to stop labor unions from interfering with commerce. Between 1890 and 1901, the federal government filed 18 suits under the law, four against labor unions.

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