The primary document I chose is a cartoon drawn by Joseph Keppler in 1889. This cartoon portrays the idea that monopolies and big businesses had become so influential that they actually had control over the government and politics. The cartoon is not meant to be taken literally, as monopolists did not generally hold positions in Senate or elsewhere in government. However, monopolists had power in the sense that the government allowed them virtually uninhibited growth, often ignoring the injustices they committed and the laborers’ pleas for reform. Perhaps the most famous case is that of Lochner v. New York, in which the Supreme Court denied a law that called for a maximum workday of 10 hours and a maximum of workweek of 60. In the case of U.S. v. E.C. Knight Co., the Supreme Court ruled that they would not use the Sherman Antitrust Act to break up a monopolistic sugar refinery. In other cases the courts refused to place restrictions on work hours for women and children and even allowed laborers to participate in work that was unsafe.
However, the government didn’t only turn a blind eye to monopolies’ unfair tactics; they also took action to directly aid their growth and suppress any opposition. Military and policemen were often used to stop strikes and labor gatherings, and sometimes they used force that was fatal. In the 1877 Great Railroad Strike, police shot and killed 20 laborers that were boycotting against a pay cut. In 1886, iron workers carried out a strike at the McCormick plant; police killed four people. At a later rally, an unidentified person threw a bomb into the crowd, killing an officer. As a result, 8 people were arrested and convicted for throwing the bomb with little to no evidence against them; half were executed. The government also supported “liberty of contract”, a system in which workers would sign contracts that clearly stated their obligations and their rights. Theoretically, this would allow laborers to decide the conditions under which they worked. In reality, however, many people were forced to sign contracts with terms that they weren’t entirely happy with because they had no choice; working conditions were the same almost everywhere.
The question, however, is why the government seemed to be siding with the monopolies and failing to protect workers’ rights. Well, there was the very obvious fact that industrialization was turning America into a great global superpower. Why hamper thriving industries because of a few whining workers? Many officials believed it was best to let businesses operate and be successful on their own, with minimal government interference. Another slightly more unsettling reason for the governments’ blind aid of monopolies was the simple fact that certain officials either had investments in, or received stocks and/or salaries from, a particular company. Often, they supported legislation that would most benefit the company, and, by extension, themselves. This was surely a corrupt era in history, and the cartoon is a wonderful illustration of the ugly truth; monopolies really did have significant power over politics and government.