Antitrust Political Cartoons

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Antitrust Political Cartoons

"A Trustworthy Beast"

Originally published in Harper's Weekly (October 20, 1888)

William A. Rogers, artist

"A Trust Giant's Point of View"

Originally published in The Verdict (January 22, 1900)

Horace Taylor, cartoonist

In the latter part of the Gilded Age (the era of industrialization from the early 1860s to the turn of the century in which a few wealthy individuals gained tremendous power and influence), a growing number of the American population became alarmed about the increasing power of big business. Of particular concern were the giant trusts, which were groups of companies within an industry that joined together under one board of directors—called trustees—in order to reduce competition and control prices. As the trusts got bigger and stronger, they were able to buy out more and more of their competition, and the wealth became concentrated in just a few huge corporations, especially in transportation and heavy industry (industries that manufactured on a large scale with the use of complex and expensive machinery). To most people it seemed that there was no law or organization strong enough to break the trusts. Though many state governments tried to regulate business, the trusts could avoid the state regulations by moving their headquarters to another state, and the federal government continued to follow its long-standing policy of not interfering.

Public dissatisfaction with the power of the giant trusts was vividly and intensely expressed in political cartoons, which were extremely popular during the Gilded Age. Political cartoons have their roots in fifteenth-century Italy, where artists drew caricatures of important political and religious figures. These drawings exaggerated their subjects' prominent physical characteristics or personality traits in a humorous way that tended to ridicule the subject, affectionately or with malice. By the eighteenth century, political cartoons had become an established means of commenting on many kinds of political issues, as well as people, in Europe. The first political cartoon in the United States is thought to be Benjamin's Franklin's drawing called "Join or Die," published in his Philadelphia newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, in 1754. The cartoon depicts a snake divided into eight parts, each representing one of the colonies. It urged the colonies to join together to fight against common enemies and would eventually become a symbol for the American Revolution (1775–83), when the American colonists fought England to win their independence.

During the Gilded Age, political cartoons became a popular means of expression. This was partly because of new publishing technology that allowed them to be produced for mass circulation in inexpensive weekly or monthly magazines. But it was also due to the intensity of political feelings and conflicts at the time. The most noted of the political cartoonists of the time was Thomas Nast (1840–1902; see "Did you know …" section) who was especially noted for his cartoon attack on the political corruption in New York City. There were many other popular cartoonists, representing all sides of each political issue. Most cartoonists were associated with a particular magazine, such as Puck, Harper's Weekly, or The Verdict. The political cartoons show some of the frustrations and fears of everyday people living in the time of rapid industrialization.

Two of the largest trusts of the Gilded Age, Carnegie Steel, formed by Andrew Carnegie (1835–1919), and the Standard Oil Company Trust, created by John D. Rockefeller (1839–1937), were frequently targets of political cartoons. Public opinion was divided as to whether these two hugely successful industrialists were robber barons—men who ruthlessly destroyed smaller businesses for their own profit—or captains of industry—men who courageously forged the way for industrialism (the development of industry) and made the United States the richest country in the world. The political cartoons of the era clearly expressed the uneasiness of those who viewed Carnegie and Rockefeller as robber barons and the government as a weak force that was powerless to stop them.

Andrew Carnegie and Carnegie Steel

Andrew Carnegie was born in Dunfermline, Scotland, in 1835. His father was a skilled weaver, but by the 1840s hand weaving had been replaced by machines, and Carnegie's father could no longer make a living at his craft. The family immigrated to the United States in 1848, and both Carnegie and his father found jobs in a cotton factory in Pennsylvania. Andrew worked as a bobbin boy, carrying the spools on which the yarn or threads were held, for $1.20 a week.

The young Carnegie hoped to someday have a successful career so he studied on his own during his free time to make up for his lack of formal education. At the age of fourteen he became a messenger boy in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, telegraph office and within two years was promoted to a telegraph operator position. He was such a quick and responsible worker that within two more years he became the secretary to Thomas A. Scott, the superintendent of the western division of the Pennsylvania Railroad. During the American Civil War (1861–65; a war between the Union [the North], who were opposed to slavery, and the Confederacy [the South], who were in favor of slavery), Carnegie was promoted to Scott's position while Scott served in the Union army. By the end of the war, Carnegie was a reasonably wealthy young man. He left the railroad in 1865 and made a large fortune by buying and selling investments in England and the United States.

Around 1865 steel slowly began to replace iron as the building material of choice for many projects in the United States. Steel was an alloy (a compound made up of two or more metals) of carbon and iron that was harder and stronger than iron. Before the 1860s it had been too expensive to produce steel in large quantities, but in 1856 British inventor Henry Bessemer (1813–1898) invented a machine that was able to mass-produce steel cheaply. Carnegie observed the exciting new changes taking place in the English iron industry as a result of the adoption of Bessemer's system, and in the early 1870s he began building the largest steel mill in the United States.

Carnegie found talented partners, and by using the latest technology and keeping costs down, his company produced steel more efficiently than its rivals and was able to sell at the lowest prices on the market. In 1881 he combined his company with several others, naming it the Carnegie Steel Company. Carnegie obtained vast acres of coalfields and iron-ore deposits that furnished the raw materials needed to make steel. Then he purchased the ships and railroads needed to transport these supplies to the mills. Carnegie was able to consistently defeat his competitors by always having the lowest prices and the highest profits. By the end of the nineteenth century, the Carnegie Steel Company controlled all the elements it used in its production process and was producing one-fourth of the nation's steel.

Although he became one of the wealthiest men in the nation, Carnegie never forgot his humble beginnings. He was one of the few industrialists of his time to consider the unfortunate situation of his workers in public writings, initially arguing for their right to form labor unions in order to bargain collectively for better wages and working conditions. In spite of these views, conflict with a union arose at his plant in Homestead, Pennsylvania. In 1892, even though he knew that trouble was coming, Carnegie went overseas, leaving his strongly antiunion business partner in charge. When a strike began at the mill, the partner brought in outsiders to forcefully remove the workers, starting a violent confrontation that led to military intervention and the breaking of the union in Carnegie's steel mills. By not speaking up on behalf of the workers, Carnegie accepted his partner's actions, allowing his company to remain strongly antiunion for many years to come.

John D. Rockefeller and the Standard Oil Trust

John D. Rockefeller was born in New York state. His father was a trader who traveled frequently, disappearing for months and even years. He eventually married another woman, leaving Rockefeller's mother solely responsible for the family. The Rockefellers moved from one home to another, often without a steady income, until they reached Cleveland, Ohio. Rockefeller attended school for two years, then, at sixteen, he went to work as an accountant for a wholesale trading company. Even as a very young man, Rockefeller was serious, hardworking, religious, and had an overwhelming desire to succeed. Though he was very careful in planning his future, he made some daring moves. The first was to leave his job and invest $2,000 of his savings in a partnership in a wholesale grocery business. During the first years of the Civil War, Rockefeller's business did extremely well, and he earned a small fortune that was very useful as he moved into the oil business.

Prior to the 1850s, crude oil (liquid petroleum in its natural state) could be refined into kerosene for lighting lamps, but it was not a practical fuel because it could only be obtained by a difficult process of skimming it off the top of pond water. When the first modern oil well was drilled in Pennsylvania in 1859, crude oil suddenly became available in large quantities. In 1861 the first oil refinery (an industrial plant where crude oil is processed to remove impurities and create oil products) opened in the United States. In 1865 Rockefeller decided to get involved in oil refining as a side business, even though few thought there was much of a future in it. By the end of the year, his Cleveland oil refinery was producing at least twice as much as any other refinery in the city.

Since Rockefeller's refinery was not close to the oil wells in Pennsylvania or to many of its consumers, he and the other refiners in Cleveland shipped massive quantities of oil on a regular basis. Low shipping rates were essential to maintaining competitive prices and high profits. Railroads at the time commonly gave rebates, or partial refunds of payment, to favored shippers. The larger the shipper, the higher the rebate they received. Rockefeller skillfully controlled the railroads to get the lowest rates possible, offering them large amounts of consistent business in return. This allowed him to sell for a lower price than his competitors.

Rockefeller invested in the best machinery and often altered his manufacturing processes in order to save a few cents per step. Standard Oil began making its own barrels to ship oil, and, since the company needed wood for the barrels, Rockefeller bought his own timber tracts (wooded areas used for logging). He owned his own warehouses, bought his own tank cars, and owned or produced a large portion of the raw materials and transportation he needed to operate.

Early in 1872 Rockefeller decided to buy out most of the twenty-six other Cleveland oil refineries. The owners were offered either cash or Standard Oil stock in exchange for their companies. If they did not sell, they risked being driven out of business by the powerful Standard Oil Company. Twenty-one refiners sold out within three months. Some claimed they had been pressured into selling at prices less than their businesses were worth, while others said they felt threatened by Standard Oil's railroad rate advantages. Rockefeller merged the stronger companies he had purchased into Standard Oil and shut down the weaker ones.

Rockefeller pursued a similar course in all of the refining centers of the country. He developed a bad reputation with the public for the distasteful methods he used, which sometimes included sending thugs to physically intimidate competitors into selling. By the end of 1872, Rockefeller and his associates controlled all the major refineries in Cleveland, New York City, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Over the next decade, the Standard Oil Company developed a pipeline system, purchased new oil-bearing lands, acquired extensive oil shipping facilities, and constructed an efficient marketing system.

In the process of buying up its competition, Standard Oil acquired stock in other companies, which was illegal in Ohio. To get around the law, the stocks were simply purchased in the names of various stockholders acting as trustees. A more formal arrangement was needed, so in 1882 the Standard Oil Trust was created by an agreement that placed all properties owned or controlled by the Standard Oil Company in the hands of nine trustees, including Rockefeller. The trustees exercised general supervision over all forty companies in the trust. Standard Oil became one of the biggest companies in the United States, and by 1899 it controlled between 90 and 95 percent of the American oil refining capacity, dominating the country's petroleum industry. The trust was the first of its kind and became a model for U.S. business despite the constant complaints about Rockefeller's ruthless elimination of his competitors.

In 1892 the Ohio Supreme Court found Standard Oil to be an illegal monopoly and forbade the trust to operate in that state, leading to the dissolution, or breaking up, of the Standard Oil trust back into its independent companies. The court declared, declaring in its ruling that "Monopolies have always been regarded as contrary to the spirit and policy of the common law…. A society in which a few men are the employers and the great body are merely employees or servants, is not the most desirable in a republic" (Ohio v. Standard Oil Co. 49 Ohio, 137 [1892]). Standard Oil responded by shifting its central holding company from Ohio to New Jersey, where state laws governing business combinations were looser, and restructuring and enlarging its other properties. To most people, there seemed to be no way to limit its domination of the industry.

The artists of the two cartoons in this chapter have captured the sense of helplessness of the nation against the seemingly unstoppable forces of these two businessmen and their monopolies. Like most forms of political expression, the cartoons' purpose is not simply to reflect the views of the artists and their readers, but also to urge the American public to rally for reform.

Things to remember while viewing these political cartoons:

  • The first cartoon, "A Trustworthy Beast," presents a well-dressed and smiling Andrew Carnegie talking to an upset Uncle Sam (a figure representing the United States). Behind Carnegie is a many-headed monster, complete with horns and tongues. Each of the heads of the monster represents one of the major trusts of the Gilded Age: salt, lumber, sugar, oil, and steel. The caption quotes a newspaper interview of Carnegie that had appeared a few weeks earlier.
  • The second cartoon, "A Trust Giant's Point of View," shows John D. Rockefeller holding the U.S. capitol building in the palm of his hand. A huge spread of Standard Oil buildings and refineries looms in the background. Rockefeller is viewing the capitol through what appears to be a jeweler's microscope, as if the government was a diamond that he is considering purchasing. He also appears to be removing coins from it as if it were a piggy bank.

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What happened next …

Concern among the American public about trusts finally convinced Congress to pass the Sherman Antitrust Act in 1890. The act barred any "contract, combination in the form of trust or otherwise, or conspiracy, in restraint of trade" and made it a federal crime "to monopolize [dominate by excluding others] or attempt to monopolize, or combine or conspire … to monopolize any part of the trade or commerce among the several states." Despite the act's passage, however, the government still preferred not to interfere in business. In fact, more combinations and trusts were formed between 1897 and 1901 than at any other time in American history.

In 1901 investment banker J. P. Morgan (1837–1913) bought Carnegie Steel, paying Carnegie the extremely high price of $480 million for his company. Morgan merged Carnegie Steel with ten other steel companies, naming the new company U.S. Steel. It was the world's first billion-dollar company. U.S. Steel operated with expenses and revenues greater than all but a few of the world's governments, and was responsible for about 80 percent of the nation's steel production by 1910.

In Standard Oil v. United States, decided on May 15, 1911, the U.S. Supreme Court found the Standard Oil Trust guilty of violating the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890. The court declared the trust had restricted trade by buying out small independent oil companies and cutting prices in selected areas to force out rivals. The case resulted in the separating of the parent Standard Oil from its thirty-three branch companies.

In 1920 the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed an antitrust suit against U.S. Steel. The court explained that U.S. Steel was not formed with the intent to monopolize or restrain trade or to restrict competition, and that the formation of the steel trust was a natural result of the existing industrial technology. Despite its gigantic size, the corporation did not abuse its market power to increase profits by reducing the wages of its employees or lowering product quality or output. The court did not find any evidence of unfair practices or trade restraints.

Did you know …

  • Political cartoons were a popular and influential form of political expression during the Gilded Age. Sometimes cartoons were more powerful than newspaper articles. Thomas Nast, a German immigrant who served as staff artist for Harper's Weekly from 1862 to 1886, was the most popular political cartoonist of the time. In 1869 Nast began a crusade against the dishonest New York political machine (an unelected governing system) run by William Marcy "Boss" Tweed (1823–1878), who was stealing millions from the city. Nast ran a year-long series of cartoons presenting Tweed as a thief and mocking his crooked associates. Nast's readers were outraged at Tweed's actions. Tweed reportedly told Nast: "Let's stop those damned pictures. I don't care so much what the papers write about me—my constituents [voters] can't read, but damn it, they can see pictures" (as quoted in HarpWeek).
  • Carnegie and Rockefeller spent much of their vast fortunes on philanthropy, the desire or effort to help humankind, as by making charitable donations. Andrew Carnegie gave away huge amounts of money long before his retirement in 1901 and pursued philanthropy fulltime thereafter. He disliked the idea of charity, and only put his money into institutions that helped people to improve themselves. Carnegie funded 2,509 public libraries, built Carnegie Hall in New York City, and founded the Carnegie Institute of Technology, which later became Carnegie-Mellon University. In 1905 he established the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and in 1910 the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. In 1911 he founded the Carnegie Corporation of New York. In his lifetime he gave away an estimated $350 million.
  • John D. Rockefeller retired from Standard Oil Company in 1896 at the age of fifty-six and then devoted his time and fortune to philanthropy. He practically created the University of Chicago by donating gifts and money that totaled $80.6 million. He created the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in 1901 and the General Education Board in 1902. In 1913 he formed the giant Rockefeller Foundation. During his lifetime he gave away an estimated $500 million.

Consider the following …

  • Satire is a technique of writing or art that makes fun of or attacks its subject in a humorous or witty manner in order to provoke change. Explain the way that each of these cartoons uses satire to make its point. Do you find these cartoons funny? Do they change the way you feel about Carnegie and Rockefeller and their trusts?
  • How is the U.S. government portrayed in each of the cartoons? How do these representations of the government compare to the images of Carnegie and Rockefeller? Look at facial expressions, size, positions, and any other details that distinguish these figures.

For More Information


Cashman, Sean Dennis. America in the Gilded Age: From the Death of Lincoln to the Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. New York and London: New York University Press, 1984.

Chernow, Ron. Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. New York: Vintage Books, 1998.

Smith, Page. The Rise of Industrial America: A People's History of the Post-Reconstruction Era. Vol. VI. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1984.


"A Trustworthy Beast." Harper's Weekly (October 20, 1888). William A. Rogers, artist. This article can also be found online at (accessed on July 6, 2005).

"A Trust Giant's Point of View." The Verdict (January 22, 1900). Horace Taylor, cartoonist. This article can also be found online at The Authentic History Center. (accessed on July 6, 2005).

Web Sites

Adler, John. "Background: Harper's Weekly." HarpWeek. (accessed on July 6, 2005).

"The Richest Man in the World: Andrew Carnegie." American Experience: PBS. (accessed on July 6, 2005).

"The Rockefellers: John D. Rockefeller Sr. 1839–1937." American Experience: PBS. (accessed on July 6, 2005).