William Jennings Bryan was born in Illinois and moved to Nebraska in 1887 where he practiced law. Running on a populist platform, he was the first Democrat elected from Nebraska to the House of Representatives. He lost his bid for the Senate in 1894 and became editor of the Democratic newspaper, the Omaha World-Herald.

Bryan became an advocate of “Free Silver” policy, delivering his “Cross of Gold” speech at the 1896 Democratic National Convention. His charisma impressed many of the delegates. He ran unsuccessfully for president 3 times, taking progressive and anti-imperialist stances. He supported President Woodrow Wilson, who appointed Bryan Secretary of State. He served for 2 years but resigned in protest when Wilson led the country into World War I.

In his later life, Bryan worked to secure prohibition and women’s suffrage. He became concerned about the teaching of evolution, calling it “consummately dangerous.” He argued for a literal interpretation of the Bible and in opposition to the teaching of evolution against Clarence Darrow in what became known as the Scopes Monkey Trial. He died five days after that trial ended.

Andrew Carnegie’s rags-to-riches story is one of perseverance, initiative, and resourcefulness. Born in 1835 to a working-class Scottish family, Carnegie came to the U.S. with his family when he was thirteen years old. In 1853 he took a job at a railroad corporation. He quickly advanced at the company. In 1889, he founded the Carnegie Steel Company. This business combined with others to create U.S. Steel. U.S. Steel helped meet the country’s great demand for steel—used in railroads, skyscrapers, and other examples of great technological achievements.

Concerned with the growing power of monopolies and their impact on economic rights, the federal government tried to break up the U.S. Steel Company under the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. At the time, U.S. Steel provided two-thirds of all steel produced in the country. However, the government was unable to show any misconduct on the part of the company and the case was dismissed.

Later in life, Andrew Carnegie dedicated his life to philanthropy, and he advocated an idea he called the Gospel of Wealth in which he encouraged the wealthy to give away their fortunes to worthy causes. He used his fortune to found the Carnegie Corporation of New York, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

Born in Ohio in 1847, Edison had little schooling, and was completely deaf in one ear from a young age. Despite these circumstances, he saw every obstacle as an opportunity. He pursued his interests with industry and passion. He loved science and mechanics and was driven to invent. By 1868, Edison had improved the telegraph and the typewriter. He made an electric vote recorder and a stock ticker. Two years later at the age of twenty-three, he had enough money to open his first “invention factory.”

He and his team of engineers and scientists prided themselves on their perseverance, thinking of every failed experiment as one that would bring them closer to success. They also cherished their economic rights, protecting their hard work by registering patents with the federal government. Within five years, he and his team had perfected the telephone and created the phonograph. Next, they became famous for the incandescent light bulb. Later, they worked on the motion picture camera, “talking” movies, a car battery, and an x-ray machine. In his lifetime, Edison registered 1,093 patents.

Even though he was born on a farm, Henry Ford showed more interest in mechanical things than in agricultural work. Early on, he alternated from working as an apprentice on steam engines to working on his father’s farm tools to occasionally working in the fields. By 1891, he decided to become an engineer full time. Even though he was not the first to build a self-propelled vehicle with a gasoline engine, he became the most significant person in the development of the U.S. automobile industry, creating Ford Motor Company in 1903. In 1908 the Model-T was introduced as an affordable, reliable, and efficient auto for everyone. By 1918, half of the cars in the United States were Model-T's. To meet the demand, Ford installed a mass production system using standardized and interchangeable parts, a division of labor, and assembly lines. This totally revolutionized the industry and made his company the largest automobile manufacturer in the world during his lifetime. In 1918 he lost a bid for a seat in the U.S. Senate.
Frances Willard, born in 1839, was an influential reformer in the early part of the 19th century. She was the founder of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, a group concerned about the destructive effects of alcohol. During this time, women would meet in churches and then march to saloons to try to get owners to close their establishments. In 1882, she was instrumental in organizing the Prohibition Party. This party advocated the passage of the 18th amendment which prohibited the manufacture and sale of alcohol. As a writer, she would become the first woman dean at Northwestern University and the first woman to be represented in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol.
Wilbur and Orville Wright’s industry and perseverance changed a nation—and the world. Many had tried but no one had been able to perfect a machine that could be controlled in flight. The Wright brothers observed birds, studied wings and engines, physics and dynamics. They conducted wind tunnel tests on more than 200 kinds of wings. They continued in their research and experiments over several years, during which time they suffered some disappointing failures. In 1900, they traveled to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, a location they selected after extensive study of weather data. Its ocean breezes and soft landing sites would be perfect. On December 17, 1903, they succeeded. Their engine-powered airplane flew 120 feet, landing twelve seconds after takeoff.

The Wright brothers knew that citizens had the ability to protect their inventions through patents. They patented their invention as a “flying machine,” and almost immediately had to begin defending their work from rival inventors. Wilbur spent much of the last years of his life in this endeavor, traveling to consult with lawyers and testifying in court. He saw it as his responsibility to defend not only his own economic rights, but those of other citizens. Orville persevered in the legal battle until the case was decided in the Wrights’ favor in 1914.


For many years in the nation’s early history, few, if any, Asians immigrated to the United States. However, beginning in the 1840s, natural disasters, economic hardship, and political unrest in China, together with developments in the western United States, namely the California Gold Rush, caused a large number of Chinese males to immigrate to the United States. By 1850, there were over 20,000 Chinese in the U. S., most living in California. Construction of the Transcontinental Railroad in the late 1850s and early 1860s brought more Chinese who were used as cheap labor. By 1870, there were a little over 63,000 Chinese in the U. S., and by 1880, a little over 105,000. Over 90 percent were on the West Coast. By the early 1870s, the Chinese made up a large number of the individuals laboring in farming, fishing, factories, and businesses such as laundries. As the U. S. economy faltered after the Civil War, the national economic depression of the 1870s, along with other factors, led to growing resentment against the Chinese on the West Coast. Some California citizens began to resent the Chinese laborers whom, they felt, were “culturally and racially inferior” and, in addition, a threat to wage levels and working conditions. Some anti-Chinese critics began speaking of what they called “the yellow peril” because they were “taking jobs from American citizens.” Anti-Chinese feeling in California was strong. In 1858, the California Legislature passed a law making it illegal for any person “of the Chinese or Mongolian races” to enter California. This law was later struck down by the California Supreme Court. As time passed, violence aimed at the Chinese broke out in several California cities. In 1878, the U. S. Congress passed a law excluding Chinese from entering the United States, but President Rutherford B. Hayes vetoed it. In 1879, California adopted a new state constitution which, among other provisions, authorized the state government to determine what persons could live in the state and banned corporations and state or local governments from hiring Chinese. Senator John F. Miller, a Republican serving his first term in the U. S. Senate introduced what eventually became the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. It quickly passed the Senate and then the House of Representatives and was signed into law by President Chester Alan Arthur. It provided an absolute 10-year moratorium on Chinese labor immigration and required the few non-laborers seeking entry to obtain certification from the Chinese government that they were qualified to immigrate. It also placed new requirements on those Chinese who were already in the U. S. by providing that if they left the U. S., they had to obtain certifications to re-enter. Finally, the law specifically denied state and federal courts the power to grant citizenship to Chinese resident aliens. When the law expired in 1892, Congress extended it for 10 more years in the form of the Geary Act. That extension was made permanent in 1902 with the additional restriction that each Chinese resident had to register and obtain a certificate of residence without which he or she could be deported. The law, of course, had long-term consequences for U. S. relations with China. In 1905, the Chinese government, in an unsuccessful effort to persuade the U. S. to alter its anti-Chinese immigration policy, placed a boycott on American goods. The Chinese Exclusion Act marked the end of free immigration in American history. It was the first major legislation restricting immigration. Never before had the U. S. restricted immigration by a specific ethnic group. It remained law until 1943 when Congress repealed it after the U. S. and China became allies in the World War II fight with Japan.
In the United States, “the spoils system” is a term used to describe the practice of awarding individuals with government positions based on their political loyalties rather than on their merit or ability. This system developed early in the political history of the U. S. under its new U. S. Constitution with the rise of two competing political groups: the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans. While it was a practice followed to some extent at the national government level by all of the nation’s early Presidents, many historians associate the term most directly with the administration of President Andrew Jackson. In fact, the origin of the term itself is frequently attributed to New York Senator William Marcy who, referencing the victory by Andrew Jackson and his fellow Democrats in 1828, said “to the victor goes the spoils.” Jackson and his successors seem to have utilized “the spoils system” so much more than before, that by the late 1860s there was some talk about reforming the system. In 1871, Congress authorized the President to set regulations for admission to public service and to appoint members of a Civil Service Commission to oversee the process. However, the commission was rendered useless in 1875 when Congress failed to appropriate funds for its operation. After the assassination in 1881 of President James Garfield by a disappointed office-seeker, the movement for reform of “the spoils system” gained momentum. In the early part of 1882, Senator George Hunt Pendleton of Ohio drafted a bill to reform the government’s hiring system, which became known as the Pendleton Act. This act provides for the selection of federal government employees through performance on competitive exams. It also makes it illegal to fire or demote those covered by the law for political reasons and forbids requiring these employees to perform political services or to make political contributions. The Pendleton Act transformed the public service. Before the act, new officials inundated government offices after every election, bringing chaos and inexperience to federal service. With the new system, the government was better able to rely on the experience and skills of its workers and to ensure adequate preparation for their jobs.
After the Civil War, railroads were privately owned and completely unregulated by the government. They had become increasingly important in the American economy. In areas of the country where only they operated they held a monopoly. They set prices and controlled the market. They discriminated by providing rebates or refunds to large shippers or buyers. These practices were especially harmful to farmers who lacked volume needed to receive more favorable rates. The U. S. Congress passed the Interstate Commerce Act in 1887 under the authority given it in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution “to regulate commerce with foreign nations and among the states.” The Act created the Interstate Commerce Commission, the first of many regulatory agencies of the national government. Railroads thus became the first industry to be regulated by the U. S. government. The Interstate Commerce Act changed the laissez faire or hands-off philosophy which had previously dominated the American economy by establishing the government’s clear power to regulate private companies engaged in interstate commerce. The Act banned secret rebates and required that railroad rates be openly published. It required railroad rates to be “reasonable and just.” It prohibited special rates or rebates for individual shippers, preferential rates for certain localities, shippers, or products, and unfairly charging more for a short haul than a long haul.

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.

In the decades following the Civil War, the American economy came to be characterized by the growth of large corporations and monopolistic business practices. The Sherman Anti-Trust Act passed by Congress in 1890, using the power given it in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution “to regulate commerce with foreign nations and among the states,” was Congress’ first attempt to limit monopolies. It was named for Senator John Sherman of Ohio who was Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and a former Secretary of the Treasury under President Rutherford B. Hayes. The law gave Congress the power to investigate and dissolve contracts or business combinations (mergers) that restrained interstate or foreign trade or commerce. Specifically, the law authorized the U. S. government to act against any “combination in the form of trusts or otherwise, or conspiracy, in restraint of trade.” For about the first ten years of the law’s existence, more actions were brought against labor unions for restraining trade than against large corporations which wasn’t the original intent of the law. Only rarely was the law employed against monopolies and then without success. Part of the reason was that the law did not carefully define key terms such as “combination,” “conspiracy,” “monopoly,” or “trust.” Also working against the law were narrow judicial interpretations as to what constituted trade or commerce among the states. For example, in 1895 the U. S. Supreme Court in U. S. v E. C. Knight struck a blow against the law. In that case, the American Sugar Refining Company had purchased four independent operations, thus giving it control of 98% of the nation’s sugar production. The Supreme Court ruled that acquiring refineries and businesses that manufactured sugar within a state had no direct relation to interstate commerce and thus was not a violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act.

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 People’s Party (popularly known as the Populist Party) had its origins in the 1870s and 1880s among farmers in the South, Midwest, and West who were experiencing difficult times. One of the farmers’ problem s was the high rates which railroads charged to transport the farmers’ products. Another was the high tariff in place at the time on certain imports to the United States which meant that these farmers had to pay large amounts of money for imported goods which they required while the items that they produced were undervalued. Banks and other loan institutions were also foreclosing on farmers who were struggling to meet their financial obligations. In general, the farmers felt that neither of the country’s two major political parties were concerned with the farmers’ interests or those of “the common man.”

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.

Article I, Section 8 of the U. S. Constitution gives Congress the power “to coin money and regulate the value thereof.” In 1791, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton proposed bimetallism or in other words, that the nation’s new currency would be equal to a given amount of gold or a larger amount of silver. During Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, the Congress passed the Legal Tender Act which authorized the issuance of paper money called greenbacks to finance the Civil War. Greenbacks were unable to be converted into gold or silver. That ended longstanding U. S. policy of using only gold or silver in transactions. In 1873 however, the nation went exclusively on the gold standard by ending silver coinage and bimetallism. This limited the money supply but eased trade with other nations. For the next twenty years, the nation became divided over the nation’s monetary standard. Many people once more had come to believe that bimetallism, making gold and silver legal tender, was necessary. Most Republicans wanted every dollar printed to be backed only by gold known as the gold standard. Many Democrats argued that silver, which was more plentiful, should also be used to back every dollar which would make it easier for Midwestern farmers to pay their debts.

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

In 1890 Congress passed the Sherman Antitrust Act which made it illegal for businesses to contract, combine, or conspire to create a trust or monopoly for the purpose of restraining free trade and monopolizing interstate or foreign commerce. The American Sugar Refining Company, which already controlled a majority of the sugar-refining companies in the U. S., purchased stock in and sought to control four other companies, including E. C. Knight. As a result, the American Sugar Refining Company would then control over 98 % of the nation’s sugar refining. The U. S. Department of Justice sought a court order forbidding the sale as a violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act. A lower federal court denied the Justice Department’s request. The lower court held that the companies were engaged in manufacturing, not interstate commerce, and thus were not subject to the Sherman Antitrust Act.

By an 8-1 vote, with only Justice John Marshall Harlan I dissenting, the Supreme Court, while conceding that this was a monopoly, ruled that Congress had exceeded its power under the commerce clause. The Court held that the manufacture of an item was done entirely within a state and therefore was properly a matter of intrastate commerce. While the sugar was intended eventually to move in interstate commerce, until it did so the power to regulate its manufacture was within the state’s police power. The majority held that any effect on interstate commerce was “indirect” and Congress could only regulate those activities that had a “direct effect” on interstate commerce.

In 1890, the Louisiana legislature passed the Separate Car Act which required railroads “to provide equal but separate accommodations for the white and colored races” in order to protect the safety and comfort of all passengers. In 1891, a group of African Americans and Creoles formed the “Citizens Committee to Test the Constitutionality of the Separate Car Law.” The Committee chose Homer Plessy, who was one-eighth African American, to test the law by violating it. He bought a first-class ticket on the East Louisiana Railway that traveled from New Orleans to Covington, Louisiana. He boarded the train, walked past the coach clearly marked “For Coloreds Only,” and took a seat in the coach clearly marked “For Whites Only.” When the train conductor asked Plessy to move to the other coach, he refused, was arrested, and charged with violation of the Separate Car Act. Tried in a Orleans Parish court, Plessy was found guilty and sentenced to jail. After his conviction was upheld by the Louisiana Supreme Court, he appealed to the U. S. Supreme Court.

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.

Scholars who have written about the so-called Insular Cases identify between three and thirty-five Supreme Court decisions between 1901 and 1922. The cases developed after the United States acquired certain territory as a result of the outcome of the Spanish-American War. Three important questions involving the U. S. Constitution and laws of Congress were involved in these cases: (1) Can the government of the U. S. acquire territory by treaty? (2) Do certain congressional laws apply to American territories? and (3) Does the Bill of Rights apply to U. S. territories? or, put another way, Does “the Constitution follow the flag”?

The Supreme Court in 1901 in one of the earliest Insular Cases ruled that the U. S. did have the power to acquire territory by treaty. In other Insular Cases, a very divided Supreme Court ruled that American territories were of two types: “incorporated” and “unincorporated.” “Incorporated” territories were those which were supposedly destined for eventual statehood while “unincorporated” territories were those which were not destined for statehood. A majority of the Court determined that in the so-called “incorporated” territories, all the rights and privileges of the Constitution apply except those clearly available only to state citizens. In the so-called “unincorporated” territories, on the other hand, a majority of the Court concluded that only certain “fundamental” rights are guaranteed. Since Congress’ admission of Alaska and Hawaii to the union as states in the 1950s, there are no “incorporated” territories.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the Supreme Court had begun to provide some support for enforcement of the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890. However, it was not until President Theodore Roosevelt sought to use the law to break up the Northern Securities Company that the question arose whether the law reached stock ownership. The Northern Securities Company had acquired the stock of three major railroads: the Great Northern Railway, the Northern Pacific Railway, and the Burlington Railroad. This gave Northern Securities a monopoly over the routes that the three had previously competed for as separate companies. At Roosevelt’s urging, the U. S. government sought to prevent the merger by invoking the Sherman Antitrust Act. The Act forbids actions that will result in a loss of competition. In a victory for the government and Congress’ 1890 Sherman Antitrust Act, the Court held that the merger did result in a restraint of trade in violation of the Act. The Court’s decision in the Northern Securities case breathed new life into the Sherman Antitrust Act. Prior to this case, the government had not enthusiastically enforced the law, and when the government had attempted to do so, the Supreme Court had not provided great support for the government’s action.
In 1895 the New York legislature passed the Bakeshop Act that limited the number of hours bakers could work to 10 per day and 60 per week. The law was championed as a health measure because breathing flour dust for long periods of time could result in numerous lung-related diseases. Joseph Lochner owned a bakeshop in Utica, New York. He was charged by the state with having allowed an employee to work more than 60 hours per week, tried, convicted, and fined $50. He appealed to higher New York state courts which upheld his conviction, and he then appealed to the U. S. Supreme Court. Lochner challenged the constitutionality of the law by asserting that it violated the due process of law clause of the Fourteenth Amendment in that it infringed upon the “liberty of contract.” In essence, Lochner argued that the law infringed upon the right of both the employer and the employee to negotiate the terms of the latter’s employment. Lochner’s position was based on the premise that employer and employee were “equals” in the negotiation of hours and wages. By a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court struck down the New York law and thus ruled in Lochner’s favor. The Court’s decision was widely criticized for creating a “substantive” right to contract when no such right to contract exists in the Constitution. It was also seen as a setback for progressive labor laws that tried to protect the rights of workers.
In 1903, the state legislature of Oregon passed a law limiting to a maximum of ten hours per day that women could work in factories and laundries in the state. Curt Muller’s Grand Laundry in Portland, Oregon, required a female employee to work more than ten hours. Previously, in 1905 in Lochner v. New York, the Supreme Court had ruled that a state law restricting the number of hours bakers could be employed per day and per week was an unconstitutional violation of the “liberty of contract” of the due process of law clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In Lochner the Supreme Court reasoned that employers and employees should be free to contract for wages and labor free of state interference. However, in Muller v Oregon, the Court unanimously upheld the Oregon law. The Court reasoned that women were not as capable of negotiating terms of employment as were men and that the state had a valid interest in protecting women from harsh labor conditions. The Court’s decision was an example of the patronizing attitude which courts had at this time toward women.

Apparently of great influence on the Court’s decision in Muller was a brief filed by a well-known attorney (and future Supreme Court justice) named Louis Brandeis who argued the case for Oregon before the Supreme Court. Brandeis utilized a very innovative strategy that became known as “the Brandeis Brief” and led to significant changes in future legal analysis and Supreme Court litigation. Brandeis devoted only two pages to his discussion of the legal issues. In the over one-hundred pages of the remainder of his brief, Brandeis presented evidence of the harmful effects of long hours of labor on the health, safety, morals, and welfare of women. He included evidence from a great variety of sources such as medical reports, psychological and sociological writings, and statistical reports which he used to show that there was basis for the Oregon law.