Foreign Affairs: Monopoly Versus Democracy

December 8, 2020 Anti-Monopoly Policies & EnforcementFinance

The so-called Gilded Age in the United States began with the Compromise of 1877, which settled the disputed presidential election of 1876 by awarding the White House to the Republican candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes, in exchange for the withdrawal of federal troops from three Southern states. In the short term, the compromise effectively ended Reconstruction. In the longer term, it empowered white terrorists in the South and led to a major realignment in U.S. politics that weakened the federal government’s ability to govern the “Money Power,” the term used by critics at the time to describe the forces that were steadily taking over markets and political systems.

By 1900, one percent of the U.S. population owned more than half of the country’s land; nearly 50 percent of the population owned just one percent of it. Multimillionaires, who made up 0.33 percent of the population, owned 17 percent of the country’s wealth; 40 percent of Americans had no wealth at all. Black men had been violently and systematically deprived of the hard-won right to vote in the South, where authorities had thrown up every possible barrier—literacy tests, poll taxes, gerrymandering, grandfather clauses—to prevent the restoration of Black political rights and the growth of Black economic power. After a quarter century, it had become impossible to see these outcomes as aberrations: monopolization and repression had come to define the American system.

The president was William McKinley, a Republican. Both his 1896 and his 1900 campaigns were fueled by large corporate donations collected by his chief strategist, “Dollar Mark” Hanna. John D. Rockefeller of the Standard Oil Company alone kicked in a direct contribution to McKinley’s first campaign equal to more than $7 million in today’s dollars. The resulting war chest allowed McKinley to outspend his populist Democratic rival, William Jennings Bryan, by a factor of 20. Rockefeller was one of a handful of men who controlled the monopolies that had come to dominate virtually every sector of the newly industrialized economy. Men such as Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jay Gould, and J. P. Morgan had built up power by acquiring a foothold in various markets and then destroying or buying out their competitors. These magnates defended their dominance by claiming they merely represented new, more efficient systems and technologies. They had enormous access to capital, with a long leash from creditors on Wall Street.