Documents: Gilded Age
The law was largely ineffective until later legislation provided the means for its enforcement, but the ICC did become the model for other government regulatory agencies.
The first major example of the law being used successfully to break up a trust occurred in 1904 during Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency when the law was used to break up the Northern Securities Corporation: a railroad trust formed in 1901 by E. H. Harriman, James P. Hill, J. P. Morgan, and John D. Rockefeller which controlled all the principal railroad lines from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest. The law was also later used in 1911 during the presidency of William Howard Taft against the Standard Oil trust and the American Tobacco Company.
The founding convention of the Populist party occurred in Omaha, Nebraska, in July,1892. At this convention, the Populists adopted what came to be called the Omaha Platform.” The Preamble to this platform was written by Ignatius Donnelly, a Minnesota lawyer, farmer, and politician. In its Omaha Platform the Populists adopted a number of ideas which many Americans at the time considered radical: (1) a graduated income tax; (2) a secret ballot; (3) the direct, popular election of U. S. Senators; (4) an eight-hour work day; (5) government ownership of the railroads, telegraph, and telephone: (6) free, unlimited coinage of gold and silver; (7) limiting state and national revenue to necessary expenses of government, to keep as much money as possible in the people’s hands; and (8) government reclamation of land held by railroads and other corporations in excess of their actual needs and land held by aliens. Some of their proposals later became law in the Progressive and New Deal eras of American history.
William Jennings Bryan was a Democrat and a former two-term member of the U. S House of Representatives from Nebraska. He was an advocate for bimetallism or abandoning the gold standard and allowing the nation’s currency to be backed by silver as well. Bryan spoke on this topic in 1896 at the Democratic Party’s national convention in what came to be called his Cross of Gold speech. In a speech filled with religious imagery and righteous indignation, Bryan thundered, “having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the commercial interests, the laboring interests and the toilers everywhere, we will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”
At the start of the 1896 Democratic National Convention, Bryan was a “dark horse” candidate with little support for the party’s presidential nomination. This Cross of Gold speech is largely credited with winning him the party’s nomination. He lost the election to Republican William McKinley, and in 1900, the U. S. formally adopted the gold standard. Bryan later also lost races for the presidency in 1900 and 1908.
Supreme Court Cases
By a 7-1 vote, with only Justice John Marshall Harlan I dissenting, the Supreme Court upheld the Louisiana law and Plessy’s conviction. The majority concluded that the Louisiana law requiring “separate but equal” facilities for African Americans and whites did not violate either the Privileges and Immunities Clause or the Equal Protection of the laws Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The law mandating racial segregation, the majority reasoned, was in line with “the established usages, customs and traditions of the people, and with a view to the promotion of their comfort, and the preservation of the public peace and good order.” In his powerful solo dissent, Justice Harlan I wrote: “In view of the Constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.”
The Supreme Court’s decision in Plessy v Ferguson upholding racial segregation by law under the so-called “separate but equal rule” led more states to enact such laws. Plessy remained the law until the Supreme Court overruled the decision in 1954 in the case of Brown v Board of Education.