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John Sherman was a United States Congressman, Senator, Secretary of the Treasury, and finally Secretary of State in the critical second half of 1800s America. His most lasting achievement that had a permanent and meaningful impact on posterity proved to be his signature Sherman Antitrust Act that he sponsored and saw passed while he was in government leadership. This act still regulates competition and works to prevent and break up monopolies to this day more than a hundred years later.
Sherman began his seminal career in national government as a Republican party loyalist when he was first elected to the United States House of Representatives. He represented Ohio as one of its two senators from 1860 to 1877, an impressive 17 year span of time. The year 1877 saw him leave the halls of Congress to serve as the Secretary of the Treasury for President Rutherford B. Hayes. In the next decade, he sponsored the Sherman Antitrust Act, which Congress passed in 1890.
This key act was intended to limit monopolies and prohibit trusts within the United States. Before it became law, some states had passed their own variations on this bill. The problem was that they were only effective concerning business within the given states. There was finally sufficient opposition to the rising buildup of economic power in trusts and enormous corporations and various colluding business concerns that Congress had to take decisive action.
The act utilized the Congressional constitutional power to effectively regulate all interstate commerce. It made all conspiracies, combinations in trust form, and contracts that worked against foreign and interstate trade entirely illegal. Fines were initially set at a then-hefty $5,000 amount and included the possibility of a year in prison as the maximum punishments for violating the new act.
At first the efforts of John Sherman and this act were effectively stymied by the U.S. Supreme Court. This judicially supreme body ruled against the Fed utilizing the act verses the trusts for several years. Under President Theodore Roosevelt, he began successfully to run his campaigns of trust busting and enjoyed a degree of success. Finally, the Supreme Court came on board by upholding the 1904 decision of the government to dissolve the Northern Securities Company. President Taft again employed it as a potent weapon to break up the Standard Oil Company Trust of John D. Rockefeller in 1911 as well as against the American Tobacco Company.
As far as John Sherman himself went, when the Hayes administration ended, he returned to the Senate in 1881 and served another 16 years. During these years, Sherman became important and connected enough to run unsuccessfully for the Republican presidential nomination fully three separate times. Finally President William McKinley chose Sherman to be his Secretary of State in 1897.
This appointment did not work out to be a harmonious one between the two leaders. Tensions became so high because of sharp disagreements over foreign policy that the Assistant Secretary of State William R. Day began to act as lead negotiator on such important national interventions as the annexation of Hawaii and the outbreak of the Spanish-American War with imperial Spain. Things grew so strained between the President and John Sherman that Assistant Secretary Day commonly attended Cabinet meetings in place of Sherman, a move intended to disgrace and embarrass the Secretary of State.
John Sherman’s legacy as Secretary of State was not completely tarnished. He served as the lead interpreter of the most favored nation status in concerns pertaining to international trade. He also strove tirelessly to secure Chinese commercial concessions for the U.S. so that the country was not alone left out by the great international European powers and their spheres of influence in China. A great number of his original policies later became a cornerstone of the Open Door Policy employed by the turn of the 20th century. Unfortunately for Sherman, his weakness within the president’s cabinet meant that he could not win the day with his strenuous opposition to both the Spanish-American war and the subsequent acquisition of Cuba from Spain.
Four days after the Spanish-American War erupted in 1898, Sherman angrily resigned out of moral protest. He remained actively bitterly opposed towards President McKinley, his cabinet members, and overall administration all the way until his death which took place in 1900.