By the late 1800s, American manufacturers no longer needed protection from Europe, but powerful industrialists manipulated the political system to drive tariffs ever higher. The Tariff Act of 1897 filled 70 pages and enumerated 705 categories of merchandise from aluminum and peppermint to feather dusters and “toothpicks of wood or other vegetable substance.” Many duties were exquisitely designed to benefit specific corporations, known as trusts, whose lobbyists drafted parts of the bill. Small businesses, unable to compete with the politically-connected trusts, folded or sold out. Southern and Midwestern farmers, squeezed by falling produce prices and rising costs for shipping and equipment, struggled to keep their land.
As the inequity surged, political unrest rippled through the nation’s interior. Populist third parties rose like furies from the savannas of Georgia to the plains of Montana. At the Democratic National Convention of 1896, rank-and-file delegates stunned the party establishment by nominating William Jennings Bryan, a fiery Nebraskan orator who called high tariffs “the means of extortion” by which trusts established monopolies.
The moment of reckoning was still to come, however.