"The Modern Buccaneers"

February 25, 1888

William A. Rogers

"The Modern Buccaneers"

Business, Trusts/Monopolies; Symbols, Uncle Sam;

No 'People' indexed for this cartoon.

No 'Places' indexed for this cartoon.

No caption

This Harper's Weekly cartoon by W. A. Rogers portrays the rise of the large business corporation ("monopoly") as an illicit enterprise (a pirate ship) which menaces economic competition, and depicts the response of the federal government as woefully inadequate (Uncle Sam shooting a toy cannon).

Business enterprises had, of course, existed in America since colonial days, and industrialization had been underway since the early-nineteenth century.  It was in the late-nineteenth century, however, that technological advances and economic needs combined to facilitate the emergence of the large business corporation.  In that transitional period from an agrarian society to an industrial one, the vast majority of business firms remained small, but it was the few giant corporations that received most of the attention then and now.  

Before the Civil War, most businesses were necessarily local in scope and limited in personnel and product line.  The railroad and telegraph diminished the obstacles of space and time in the sprawling nation, easing the development of national markets and the establishment of business corporations which could plan, communicate, coordinate, and distribute their products nationally, and even internationally.  Other inventions or innovations, such as electrical power and steel-processing, further advanced the productivity and diversity of American business and industry.  The dramatic growth of the urban population in the post-war decades provided expanding markets for more, new, or improved goods, and promoted mass merchandizing, mass production, and mass distribution.  By 1900, the United States was the leading industrial nation in many fields.

Large business corporations arose in industries dominated by a few companies, such as railroads, petroleum, and steel.  These enterprises required a hierarchy of managers and a tremendous amount of capital investment, especially for equipment, buildings, and other overhead costs.  The latter made the competition for revenue between firms often fierce, leading to overproduction or price reductions which threatened the solvency of the companies.  One strategy for preventing the frequent bankruptcies was the establishment of (sometimes secret) trade associations called "pools," in which firms in a given industry agreed to cooperate by regulating their rates and dividing the market.  

Pools were often unsuccessful, however, so business mergers became an effective alternative.  John Rockefeller's Standard Oil Company, for example, bought up other petroleum companies, so that by the late 1870s he controlled 90% of the nation's oil industry.  Standard Oil also formed a legal trust, through which a board of trustees held stock in all the subsidiary companies.  Other firms expanded vertically by buying or creating companies in other areas of the flow of goods; for example, Carnegie Steel purchased mining operations and Singer Sewing Machine Company opened retail stores.

Although large corporations were a small minority of American businesses in the late-nineteenth century, their substantial size and influence on the American economy, their often clandestine deal-making, and their sheer novelty on the economic landscape were among the factors provoking fear and heated rhetoric among critics.  Political movements, like the Grangers and the Populists, arose to combat what they perceived as the problems resulting from business consolidation.  State governments began creating regulatory commissions, primarily aimed at railroad companies, but in 1886 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that only Congress was constitutionally authorized to regulate interstate commerce.  The next year, Congress enacted the Interstate Commerce Act, which established the first federal regulatory commission.

There was a general impression (correct or not) that many Americans wanted legal constraints on big business.  In January 1888, shortly before the appearance of this cartoon, the first of several antitrust bills was introduced in the House of Representatives. Although none of them made it out of committee, Senator (and former Treasury Secretary) John Sherman, an Ohio Republican, drafted a bill which passed Congress in June 1890 with only one dissenting vote.  The sweeping but vague language of the Sherman Antitrust Act outlawed any "restraint on trade," and subjected violators to fines or prison.  At first, the federal government instituted only a few lawsuits, and in 1895 the Supreme Court limited the scope of the law.  Not only was business consolidation not halted, but the period from 1893 to 1904 is sometimes called the Great Merger Wave for the record number of business mergers.

While large business corporations could arouse fear and concern, most Americans willingly accepted the products and services which they provided.  For all the attendant problems which industrialization and business consolidation brought, by the turn of the twentieth century the United States had the most productive economy and the highest standard of living in the world.  The economy provided citizens with a dazzling array of choices and transformed luxuries into commonplace items.

This double-page cartoon makes it clear that the motivation for checking the power of the "Monopoly" is to safeguard economic competition (or free enterprise).  The big businessmen are demonized as buccaneers (i.e., pirates) who ruthlessly attack and sink the good ship Competition.  In the left background, Uncle Sam futilely fires his toy cannon at the pirate ship.  On the bow of Competition is the mutilated figure of Mercury, the god of commerce.  The octopus on the stern of Monopoly symbolizes the corporations' massive size and grasping reach into every area of the economy.  The metaphor derives from Henry Demarest Lloyd's three-part exposť in The Atlantic Monthly (1881), concerning the allegedly underhanded and threatening practices of the Standard Oil trust, which he called an octopus.  (The term was later taken up by Frank Norris in his novel, The Octopus (1899), to identify the Southern Pacific Railway.)  

(For more information on the early oil industry, see the archive for the Harper's Weekly cartoon of February 11, 1865, "Deep Speculation." )

Robert C. Kennedy

"The Modern Buccaneers"
December 6, 2023

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