United States v. E.C. Knight Co.

156 U.S. 1 (1895)

Quick Summary

The United States (plaintiff) challenged E.C. Knight Co. (defendant) over its acquisition of other sugar refineries, which resulted in a monopoly. The dispute centered on whether this monopoly violated federal antitrust laws by restraining trade among states or with foreign nations.

The Supreme Court ruled that while there was a monopoly in manufacturing, it did not directly affect interstate commerce and thus did not infringe upon the Sherman Antitrust Act. The decision from lower courts to dismiss the government’s case was therefore affirmed.

Facts of the Case

The United States government (plaintiff) filed a lawsuit against the E.C. Knight Company (defendant) alleging that the company’s acquisition of other sugar manufacturers was in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act. The American Sugar Refining Company, by purchasing stock in the E.C. Knight Company and other manufacturers, had garnered nearly a complete monopoly over the sugar refining industry in the United States, controlling about 98 percent of production.

This acquisition was claimed to constitute a combination in restraint of trade, aiming to monopolize the trade and commerce of refined sugar among the states and with foreign nations. The government sought to dissolve this alleged monopoly by requesting the cancellation of the stock transfers and an injunction against further implementation of these agreements.

Procedural Posture and History

  1. The United States government filed a lawsuit against the E.C. Knight Company alleging violations of the Sherman Antitrust Act.
  2. The Circuit Court initially heard the case and dismissed the government’s bill.
  3. The government appealed the decision to the Circuit Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.
  4. The Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the decision of the Circuit Court, leading to further appeal by the government to the Supreme Court of the United States.

I.R.A.C. Format


Whether the acquisition of multiple sugar refining companies by the American Sugar Refining Company, resulting in a near-complete monopoly, constitutes a violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act by restraining interstate and foreign trade.

Rule of Law

The Sherman Antitrust Act prohibits combinations, contracts, or conspiracies to monopolize trade and commerce among the several states or with foreign nations. However, manufacturing monopolies within a state that do not directly control or restrain interstate or international trade fall under state jurisdiction and do not violate federal antitrust laws.

Reasoning and Analysis

The Supreme Court reasoned that while the American Sugar Refining Company’s acquisition of a dominant share in the sugar refining industry could be seen as a monopoly in manufacturing, this did not necessarily equate to a direct attempt to monopolize interstate trade or commerce.

The Court distinguished between the regulation of commerce, which is within federal jurisdiction, and monopolies in manufacturing, which remain within state control unless they directly affect commerce.

The Court emphasized that indirect effects on commerce were insufficient to establish a violation under the Sherman Act. Furthermore, it highlighted that accepting such an interpretation would extend federal control over all productive industries contemplating interstate commerce, which was not intended by the framers of the Constitution nor the Sherman Antitrust Act.


The Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the lower courts, concluding that the government failed to prove a direct restraint on interstate or foreign trade as required by the Sherman Antitrust Act, and thus no violation occurred.

Key Takeaways

  1. The Sherman Antitrust Act does not apply to monopolies in manufacturing that do not directly restrain interstate or international commerce.
  2. State jurisdiction covers monopolies in manufacturing unless they have a direct effect on commerce among states or with foreign nations.
  3. The Supreme Court differentiated between indirect effects on commerce, which do not constitute a violation, and direct restraints on trade, which do.

Relevant FAQs of this case

What factors determine if a company’s actions directly affect interstate commerce under the Sherman Antitrust Act?

The determination hinges on whether the company’s activities have a substantial and intended effect on trade or commerce that crosses state boundaries. This includes any agreements that fix prices, restrict markets, or limit production, with the intent of manipulating interstate commerce.

  • For example: If a large steel manufacturer sets an agreement with distributors to only sell within certain states, intentionally restricting the flow of steel to other states and controlling prices, this would likely affect interstate commerce directly and fall under the Sherman Antitrust Act.

How does a monopoly in manufacturing differ from one that restrains trade, and which might violate federal antitrust laws?

A monopoly in manufacturing refers to control over the production of goods within a single state, which may not necessarily impact trade beyond its borders. In contrast, a monopolistic restraint of trade occurs when such control extends beyond production, affecting competitive conditions in multiple states or international markets, potentially violating federal antitrust laws.

  • For example: A company solely dominating the production of widgets in one state is different from that company creating contracts that prohibit out-of-state competitors from selling widgets across state lines, the latter being a restraint of trade impacting interstate commerce.

What legal protections does an individual state have against monopolies compared to the federal government?

Individual states can regulate and sanction monopolistic practices within their borders using their antitrust statutes and laws that mirror or even exceed federal protections. However, when it comes to interstate or international commerce, federal law through legislation like the Sherman Antitrust Act takes precedence over state laws.

  • For example: A state may pass stringent antitrust laws that prevent local monopolies from forming in utilities or essential services; yet if a monopoly’s activities cross state lines and impact nationwide trade, it would be subject to federal scrutiny and potential action under federal laws.


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