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Sherman Anti-Trust Act

Restraint Of Trade, Concerted Action, Price Fixing, Market Allocations, Boycotts, Tying Arrangements

The Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890 (15 U.S.C.A. §§ 1 et seq.), the first and most significant of the U.S. ANTITRUST LAWS, was signed into law by President BENJAMIN HARRISON and is named after its primary supporter, Ohio Senator JOHN SHERMAN.

The prevailing economic theory supporting antitrust laws in the United States is that the public is best served by free competition in trade and industry. When businesses fairly compete for the consumer's dollar, the quality of products and services increases while the prices decrease. However, many businesses would rather dictate the price, quantity, and quality of the goods that they produce, without having to compete for consumers. Some businesses have tried to eliminate competition through illegal means, such as fixing prices and assigning exclusive territories to different competitors within an industry. Antitrust laws seek to eliminate such illegal behavior and promote free and fair marketplace competition.

Until the late 1800s the federal government encouraged the growth of big business. By the end of the century, however, the emergence of powerful trusts began to threaten the U.S. business climate. Trusts were corporate holding companies that, by 1888, had consolidated a very large share of U.S. manufacturing and mining industries into nationwide monopolies. The trusts found that through consolidation they could charge MONOPOLY prices and thus make excessive profits and large financial gains. Access to greater political power at state and national levels led to further economic benefits for the trusts, such as tariffs or discriminatory railroad rates or rebates. The most notorious of the trusts were the Sugar Trust, the Whisky Trust, the Cordage Trust, the Beef Trust, the Tobacco Trust, John D. Rockefeller's Oil Trust (Standard Oil of New Jersey), and J. P. Morgan's Steel Trust (U.S. Steel Corporation).

Consumers, workers, farmers, and other suppliers were directly hurt monetarily as a result of the monopolizations. Even more important, perhaps, was that the trusts fanned into renewed flame a traditional U.S. fear and hatred of unchecked power, whether political or economic, and particularly of monopolies that ended or threatened equal opportunity for all businesses. The public demanded legislative action, which prompted Congress, in 1890, to pass the Sherman Act. The act was followed by several other antitrust acts, including the CLAYTON ACT of 1914 (15 U.S.C.A. §§ 12 et seq.), the Federal Trade Commission Act of 1914 (15 U.S.C.A. §§ 41 et seq.), and the ROBINSON-PATMAN ACT of 1936 (15 U.S.C.A. §§ 13a, 13b, 21a). All of these acts attempt to prohibit anticompetitive practices and prevent unreasonable concentrations of economic power that stifle or weaken competition.

The Sherman Act made agreements "in restraint of trade" illegal. It also made it a crime to "monopolize, or attempt to monopolize … any part of the trade or commerce." The purpose of the act was to maintain competition in business. However, enforcement of the act proved to be difficult. Congress had enacted the Sherman Act pursuant to its constitutional power to regulate interstate commerce, but this was only the second time that Congress relied on that power. Because Congress was somewhat uncertain of the reach of its legislative power, it framed the law in broad common-law concepts that lacked detail. For example, such key terms as monopoly and trust were not defined. In effect, Congress passed the problem of enforcing the law to the EXECUTIVE BRANCH, and to the judicial branch, it gave the responsibility of interpreting the law. Still, the act was a far-reaching legislative departure from the predominant laissez-faire philosophy of the era.

Initial enforcement of the Sherman Act was halting, set back in part by the decision of the Supreme Court in United States v. E. C. Knight Co., 156 U.S. 1, 15 S. Ct. 249, 39 L. Ed. 325 (1895), that manufacturing was not interstate commerce. This problem was soon circumvented, and President THEODORE ROOSEVELT promoted the antitrust cause, calling himself a "trustbuster." In 1914, Congress established the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to formalize rules for fair trade and to investigate and curtail unfair trade practices. As a result, a number of major cases were successfully brought in the first decade of the century, largely terminating trusts and basically transforming the face of U.S. industrial organization.

During the 1920s, enforcement efforts were more modest, and during much of the 1930s, the national recovery program of the NEW DEAL encouraged industrial collaboration rather than competition. During the late 1930s, an intensive enforcement of antitrust laws was undertaken. Since WORLD WAR II, antitrust enforcement has become increasingly institutionalized in the Antitrust Division of the JUSTICE DEPARTMENT and in the Federal Trade Commission, which over time, was granted greater authority by Congress. Justice Department enforcement activities against cartels are particularly vigorous, and criminal sanctions are increasingly sought. In 1992, the Justice Department expanded its enforcement policy to cover foreign company conduct that harms U.S. exports.


Hylton, Keith N. 2003. Antitrust Law: Economic Theory and Common Law Evolution. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Mann, Richard A., and Barry S. Roberts. 2004. Essentials of Business Law. 8th ed. Mason, Ohio: Thomson/South-Western West.

Posner, Richard A. 2002. Antitrust Law. 2d ed. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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