Swift & Co. v. United States

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Swift & Co. v. United States
Argued January 6, 9, 1905
Decided January 30, 1905
Full case nameSwift & Co. v. United States
Citations196 U.S. 375 (more)
25 S. Ct. 276; 49 L. Ed. 518; 1905 U.S. LEXIS 908
The Commerce Clause allows the federal government to regulate monopolies if it has a direct effect on commerce.
Court membership
Chief Justice
Melville Fuller
Associate Justices
John M. Harlan · David J. Brewer
Henry B. Brown · Edward D. White
Rufus W. Peckham · Joseph McKenna
Oliver W. Holmes Jr. · William R. Day
Case opinion
MajorityHolmes, joined by unanimous
Laws applied
Commerce Clause

Swift & Co. v. United States, 196 U.S. 375 (1905), was a case in which the United States Supreme Court ruled that the Commerce Clause allowed the federal government to regulate monopolies if it has a direct effect on commerce. It marked the success of the Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt in destroying the "Beef Trust". This case established a "stream of commerce" (or "current of commerce") argument that allows Congress to regulate things that fall into either category. In particular it allowed Congress to regulate the Chicago slaughterhouse industry. Even though the slaughterhouse supposedly dealt with only intrastate matters, the butchering of meat was merely a "station" along the way between cow and meat. Thus, as it was part of the greater meat industry that was between the several states, Congress can regulate it. The Court's decision halted price fixing by Swift & Company and its allies.[1]


The case originated in 1902 when President Theodore Roosevelt directed his Attorney General Philander Knox to bring a lawsuit against the "Beef Trust" on antitrust grounds using the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890. The evidence at trial demonstrated that the "Big Six" leading meatpackers were engaged in a conspiracy to fix prices and divide the market for livestock and meat in their quest for higher prices and higher profits. They blacklisted competitors who failed to go along, used false bids, and accepted rebates from the railroads. The six companies involved were Swift, Armour, Morris, Cudahy, Wilson and Schwartzchild. Together, they did $700 million a year in business and controlled half of the national market, and up to 75% in New York City.

When they were hit with federal injunctions in 1902, the Big Six agreed to merge into one National Packing Company in 1903 to continue to control the trade internally. The case was heard by the Supreme Court in 1905, shortly after it struck down a similar consolidation and the Northern Securities case of 1904. Speaking for the court, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. broadened the meaning of "interstate" commerce by including actions that were part of the chain where the chain was clearly interstate in character. In this case, the chain ran from farm to retail store and crossed many state lines.

The federal government's victory in the case encouraged it to pursue other antitrust actions. Public opinion, outraged by Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle, which depicted horribly unsanitary conditions in Chicago's meatpacking plants, supported the decision. Congress followed by passing in 1906 both the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act.[2][3]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Gordon (1984)
  2. ^ "The Supreme Court upholds Prosecution of the Beef Trust," in Frank N. Magill, ed., Great Events from History II: Business and Commerce Series Volume 1 1897–1923 (1994) pp 107–111
  3. ^ Walker (1906)

Further reading[edit]

  • Baldwin, William L. (1969). "The Feedback Effect of Business Conduct on Industry Structure". Journal of Law and Economics. 12 (1): 123–153. doi:10.1086/466662. S2CID 153607680.
  • Gordon, David. "Swift & Co. v. United States: The Beef Trust and the Stream of Commerce Doctrine," American Journal of Legal History (1984) 28#3 pp 244–279 in JSTOR
  • Levin, Leslie A. "One Man's Meat Is Another Man's Poison: Imagery of Wholesomeness in the Discourse of Meatpacking from 1900–1910," Journal of American & Comparative Cultures (2001) 24#1‐2 pp 1–14.
  • Libecap, Gary D. "The rise of the Chicago packers and the origins of meat inspection and antitrust," Economic inquiry (1992) 30#2 pp 242–262.
  • Magill, ed., Frank N. "The Supreme Court upholds Prosecution of the Beef Trust," in Great Events from History II: Business and Commerce Series Volume 1 1897-1923 (1994) pp 107-111
  • Purdy, Harry L. et al. Corporate Concentration and Public Policy (1942), chapter 23 on the meat industry
  • Walker, Francis. "The "Beef Trust" and the United States Government," Economic Journal (1906) 16#64 491-514 online free in JSTOR

External links[edit]