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The Supreme Court in 1896

The 1896 decision most remembered today is Plessy v. Ferguson, in which the court sanctioned segregation in public facilities. At the time, this was far less controversial than other recent decisions concerning taxation and regulation of trusts.

The Supreme Court in 1899

The Supreme Court in 1896:

  • Stephen J. Field (appointed by A. Lincoln, Republican)
  • John M. Harland (Rutherford Hayes, R)
  • Horace Gray (Chester Arthur, R)
  • Melville W. Fuller (Grover Cleveland, D)
  • David J. Brewer (Benjamin Harrison, R)
  • Henry B. Brown (Benjamin Harrison, R)
  • George Shiras, Jr. (Benjamin Harrison, R)
  • Edward D. White (Grover Cleveland, D)
  • Rufus W. Peckham (Grover Cleveland, D)

With the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, passed in 1890 and sponsored by Republican John Sherman, Congress had attempted to 'protect trade and commerce against unlawful restraints.' In 1895, in U.S. v. E. C. Knight Co., the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government could not regulate the Knight sugar-refining monopoly because it was a manufacturer, and manufacturing was not 'commerce.' (The Court seems to have hoped that individual states would provide regulation--a hope that proved misplaced in the coming years.)

Also in 1895, the Court ruled that the Sherman Act could be used against labor strikes that were organized across state lines, since strikes did constitute 'restraint of trade.' And it struck down a progressive federal tax on high incomes (in Pollock v. Farmers' Loan & Trust Co.), arguing that taxing higher incomes at a higher rate was an unconstitutional attack on property. Such decisions were characteristic of 'legal formalism,' a term describing the Court's emphasis on protecting individual rights to make contracts and hold property--above all else.

Many Bryan supporters were outraged that small measures of federal regulation, as well as taxation on the new millionaire class, had been defeated by the Court. The Democratic platform referred to these issues and demanded regulation of trusts and a progressive income tax. Conservatives, in the meantime, hailed the Court as a bulwark against encroachments of government power. (A New York banker hailed the institution, in a celebratory toast, as 'guardian of the dollar, defender of private property, enemy of spoliation, sheet anchor of the Republic.') The presidential election results did little to assuage rising concern over the power of corporations, the criminalization of union activity, and the growing gap between rich and poor.


Click here for U.S. Supreme Court decisions, searchable by year or title, are available on the web.


The motives of the Supreme Court judges should not be assailed. But the journalist and the layman may say that the court has misconceived the law, that some other day a legal and proper way will be found to make wealth bear its just share of the burdens of government. —Raleigh News and Observer, 20 September 1896

If there be any fruit which has grown for the benefit of all mankind out of the establishment of our republic, it has been the demonstration that it is possible, by the organization of an independent tribunal, to safeguard the rights of every citizen.... The very existence of that power pre-supposes the existence of an independent tribunal. Yet we have this Populist convention, because a Populist measure was condemned as unconstitutional, proposing not to amend the Constitution in the ordinary way prescribed by that instrument itself, but proposing to pack the court, to reorganize it. —Bourke Cockran, speech at Madison Square Garden, in New York World , 19 August 1896


The opponents of Mr. Bryan are fond of declaring that they cannot vote for him because the convention that nominated him "made an attack on the judiciary, which shows that the Democrats are revolutionists." ... Those who make the charge ought to be fair enough to give the specifications. It will be observed that they never do this, because an attempt to prove the assertion would justify the wisdom of the Chicago convention, and as most of the critics are trying to dodge an income tax they carefully refrain from going into particulars.

... The Democrats favor a constitutional amendment that will permit the levy of an income tax, or, if the President is called upon to fill a vacancy on the bench he will name a lawyer who believes the Supreme Court has been right for one hundred years instead of being right now by the slim majority of one.

...This is not the first time that a political party has declared itself opposed to a decision of a bare majority of the Supreme Court. Hostility to the Dred Scott decision breathed the breath of life into the Republican party. —Raleigh News and Observer, 6 September 1896

The notion that any court is above criticism is a slavish, old-world notion, and utterly repugnant to the national American spirit. —New York Journal, 13 October 1896

Cartoons on the Supreme Court

  • Aug 20: L.A. Times: Popocratic Witches
  • Aug 30: St. Louis Globe Democrat: Dime Museum
  • Sept 12: Harper’s Weekly: Populist Supreme Court
  • Sept 26: National Reflector: Rings On The Hog

© Rebecca Edwards, author of New Spirits: Americans in the Gilded Age, 1865-1905 by Rebecca Edwards, Oxford University Press

© 2010 Rebecca Edwards, author of New Spirits: Americans in the Gilded Age, 1865-1905 by Rebecca Edwards, Oxford University Press

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Major events of the campaign,
in cartoon and story. (Click date)

  • Feb 27: People’s Advocate: Reading Tillman's Speech
  • Mar 19: People’s Advocate: Pitchfork
  • Apr 4: The Ram’s Horn: Rescued
  • Apr 15: Sound Money: History Repeats Itself
  • Apr 25: The Ram’s Horn: The Stranger at Our Gate
  • May 28: Prohibitionist’s convention, Pittsburgh, PA
  • June 16: Republican convention, St. Louis, MO
  • June 21: Denver New Road: Cleveland's Romance
  • June 28: L.A. Times: Bucking a Wall
  • July 4: Socialist convention, New York, NY
  • July 11: Democratic convention, Chicago, Illinois
  • July 9: Rocky Mountain News: A Soliloquy
  • July 11: Harper’s Weekly: Gold Bugs
  • July 12: L.A. Times: The Old Lady and Her New Wheel
  • July 16: People’s Advocate: McKinley's Evil Sprit
  • July 18: Harper’s Weekly: Altgeld and Bryan
  • July 22: Silver convention, St. Louis, MO
  • July 25: People’s Party convention, St. Louis, MO
  • July 22: Rocky Mountain News: Wall Street's Private Studio
  • July 25: Harper’s Weekly: Farmer McKinley
  • July 25: Judge: The Silver Candle
  • July 27: Chicago Record: Bryan's Tightrope
  • Aug 5: Rocky Mountain News: The Plain English of It
  • Aug 6: Sound Money: Spain and Rothschilds
  • Aug 8: McKinley accepts Republican nomination
  • Aug 9: Denver New Road: Bryan's Romance
  • Aug 12: Bryan accepts Democratic nomination
  • Aug 13: American Non-Conformist: Farmer Hanna
  • Aug 15: Rocky Mountain News: Bryan the Lion
  • Aug 16: L.A. Times: Aesop's Fox
  • Aug 18: Rocky Mountain News: Hanna the Wizard
  • Aug 20: Sound Money: The Cross of Gold
  • Aug 20: L.A. Times: Popocratic Witches
  • Aug 22: The Ram’s Horn: A Double Burden
  • Aug 29: Harper’s Weekly: McKinley the Veteran
  • Aug 29: Labor Advocate: Look at This
  • Aug 30: St. Louis Globe Democrat: Dime Museum
  • Sept 2: National (Gold) Democratic convention, Indianapolis, IN
  • Sept to Nov 1: McKinley front-porch campaign, Canton, OH
  • Sept 3: New York Journal: Li Hung Chang
  • Sept 5: Harper’s Weekly: The Crown of Thorns
  • Sept 5: St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Just the Bare Facts
  • Sept 6: L.A. Times: Comrades in Arms
  • Sept 6: St. Paul Pioneer Press: A Bryan Dollar
  • Sept 8: Early election day in Arkansas and Vermont
  • Sept 9: Rocky Mountain News: John Bull
  • Sept 10: St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Arkansas and Vermont
  • Sept 11 to Nov 1: Bryan travels 13,000 miles by train, stump-speaking around the nation.
  • Sept 11: St. Paul Pioneer Press: The Divorcee
  • Sept 11: St. Louis Globe Democrat: Uncle Sam Diagnoses
  • Sept 12: Labor Advocate: Their Argument Misses Fire
  • Sept 12: The Ram’s Horn: Building Up His Business
  • Sept 12: Harper’s Weekly: Populist Supreme Court
  • Sept 12: New York Journal: Hanna's Funds
  • Sept 13: Boston Globe: The Silver Dog
  • Sept 13: L.A. Times: Uncle Sam's Circus
  • Sept 14: L.A. Times: Populist Pandora
  • Sept 14: Rocky Mountain News: Playing Upon a Single String
  • Sept 17: Rocky Mountain News: Chinese Immigration
  • Sept 18: St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Against Turkey
  • Sept 18: Rocky Mountain News: A Horrible Suspicion
  • Sept 19: Judge: Bryan's Cross
  • Sept 19: Labor Advocate: How They Love The Farmers
  • Sept 19: St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Election-Year Friend
  • Sept 20: Boston Globe: Writ of Replevin'
  • Sept 20: L.A. Times: Populist Delilah
  • Sept 20: L’Abeille de Nouvelle Orleans: The Sultan Laughs
  • Sept 20: St. Louis Post-Dispatch: John Bull's Theft
  • Sept 21: St. Louis Post-Dispatch: The Robber And His Victim
  • Sept 24: L.A. Times: Resurrecting Secession
  • Sept 24: St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Treachery
  • Sept 25: Daily Inter-Ocean: Democratic Jonah
  • Sept 26: Harper’s Weekly: Silver Bullfight
  • Sept 26: L.A. Times: For Sale
  • Sept 26: National Reflector: Rings On The Hog
  • Sept 26: Seattle Post-Intelligencer: Bicyclist Bryan
  • Sept 29: L.A. Times: Poor Circulation
  • Oct 1: Pioneer Press: Silver Trust Hog
  • Oct 3: St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Workingman's Friend
  • Oct 4: Raleigh New and Observer: Hanna and Dixon
  • Oct 6: Election Day in the state of Florida (not all states voted on the first Tuesday in Nov).
  • Oct 6: Chicago Times: X-Ray of Bryan's Brain
  • Oct 6: Pioneer Press: Silver Conversation
  • Oct 6: St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Florida's Lifeline
  • Oct 8: St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Democratic Florida
  • Oct 8: New York Journal: Confident Hanna
  • Oct 10: Harper’s Weekly: Three Witches
  • Oct 10: The Coming Nation: The Worker's Treadmill
  • Oct 11: St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Resurrection
  • Oct 13: New York Journal: Hanna and Workers
  • Oct 13: St. Louis Globe Democrat: Bryan as Jack Cade
  • Oct 13: St. Louis Post-Dispatch: The Gold Balloon
  • Oct 15: Coxey's Sound Money: Uncle Sam Enslaved
  • Oct 15: Rocky Mountain News: Elected McKinley
  • Oct 16: Boston Globe: Bryan the Salesman
  • Oct 17: Coming Nation: Labor Exploitation
  • Oct 20: L.A. Times: Burning Cross of Gold
  • Oct 21: The Coming Nation: Socialism
  • Oct 22: Sound Money: The Old Party Scale
  • Oct 22: St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Hanna's Crown of Thorns
  • Oct 24: Harper’s Weekly: Altgeld and Guiteau
  • Oct 25: Daily Inter-Ocean: Bryan's Balloon
  • Oct 25: Omaha World Herald: Getting Women to Register
  • Oct 27: St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Hanna, Trusts, and Morgan
  • Oct 28: Puck: A New Civil War
  • Oct 30: St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Hanna in Lehigh Valley
  • Oct 31: Republicans announce “Flag Day,” then argue with Democrats and Populists over meaning of the flag
  • Oct 31: Harper’s Weekly: Democratic Wind-Up Toys
  • Oct 31: New York Journal: Buncombe Brigade
  • Oct 31: The Ram’s Horn: Ignorance, Stupidity, and Fraud
  • Nov 2: McKinley wins presidential election
  • Nov 2: L.A. Times: Clown Bryan
  • Nov 4: L’Abeille de Nouvelle Orleans: Knock-Out Punch
  • Nov 4: St. Paul Pioneer Press: Elephant on the Silver Pillow
  • Nov 5: Sound Money: Prediction for 1900
  • Nov 14: Judge: Republican Tam O'Shanter
  • Nov 14: Coming Nation: Our Farmers Situation
  • Dec: Overland Monthly: Uncle Sam Looks Abroad
New Spirits
New Spirits
Perceptions and Realities: The Victorian Age Inventions of the era Tramps and Millionaires Yellowstone Park Journals of the era White City/1893 Worlds Fair The Civil War President McKinley