The Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 was the first measure passed by the U.S. Congress to prohibit trusts. It was named for Senator John Sherman of Ohio, who was a chairman of the Senate finance committee and the Secretary of the Treasury under President Hayes. Several states had passed similar laws, but they were limited to intrastate businesses. The Sherman Antitrust Act was based on the constitutional power of Congress to regulate interstate commerce. (For more background, see previous milestone documents: the Constitution, Gibbons v. Ogden, and the Interstate Commerce Act.) The Sherman Anti-Trust Act passed the Senate by a vote of 51–1 on April 8, 1890, and the House by a unanimous vote of 242–0 on June 20, 1890. President Benjamin Harrison signed the bill into law on July 2, 1890.
A trust was an arrangement by which stockholders in several companies transferred their shares to a single set of trustees. In exchange, the stockholders received a certificate entitling them to a specified share of the consolidated earnings of the jointly managed companies. The trusts came to dominate a number of major industries, destroying competition. For example, on January 2, 1882, the Standard Oil Trust was formed. Attorney Samuel Dodd of Standard Oil first had the idea of a trust. A board of trustees was set up, and all the Standard properties were placed in its hands. Every stockholder received 20 trust certificates for each share of Standard Oil stock. All the profits of the component companies were sent to the nine trustees, who determined the dividends. The nine trustees elected the directors and officers of all the component companies. This allowed the Standard Oil to function as a monopoly since the nine trustees ran all the component companies.
The Sherman Act authorized the Federal Government to institute proceedings against trusts in order to dissolve them. Any combination “in the form of trust or otherwise that was in restraint of trade or commerce among the several states, or with foreign nations” was declared illegal. Persons forming such combinations were subject to fines of $5,000 and a year in jail. Individuals and companies suffering losses because of trusts were permitted to sue in Federal court for triple damages. The Sherman Act was designed to restore competition but was loosely worded and failed to define such critical terms as “trust,” “combination,” “conspiracy,” and “monopoly.” Five years later, the Supreme Court dismantled the Sherman Act in United States v. E. C. Knight Company (1895). The Court ruled that the American Sugar Refining Company, one of the other defendants in the case, had not violated the law even though the company controlled about 98 percent of all sugar refining in the United States. The Court opinion reasoned that the company’s control of manufacture did not constitute a control of trade.
The Court’s ruling in E. C. Knight seemed to end any government regulation of trusts. In spite of this, during President Theodore Roosevelt’s “trust busting” campaigns at the turn of the century, the Sherman Act was used with considerable success. In 1904 the Court upheld the government’s suit to dissolve the Northern Securities Company in State of Minnesota v. Northern Securities Company. By 1911, President Taft had used the act against the Standard Oil Company and the American Tobacco Company. In the late 1990s, in another effort to ensure a competitive free market system, the Federal Government used the Sherman Act, then over 100 years old, against the giant Microsoft computer software company.