Abe Lincoln, Railroad Attorney

by Terry Hogan

Illinois and this country are full of fact and lore about the lanky, homely man, born in a Kentucky log cabin, self-taught, having down-home simple humor, wisdom, and honesty, who became President of the United States. He was the living Horatio Alger.

But there is not so much written about his time as a well-known and successful railroad attorney. Prior to becoming President, he learned a lot about railroads and railroad law and more often than not, he defended the railroads rather than opposed them in the courtroom. Later, while in the White House and while the Civil War raged, Lincoln would use his considerable influence to promote the first railroad across the continent, to tie California’s future to the North’s future. It was the (railroad) tie that binds.

But I should back up. After Lincoln served his two years in the US Congress, he returned to his law practice in Springfield, Illinois. During this period of time, he accepted a retainer from the Illinois Central Railroad. The specifics of his arrangement appear to be a little vague, but at least one reference suggests that Lincoln’s retainer was a railroad pass (free passage) and that all the legal work for the Illinois Central Railroad in the Springfield area was given to him. He would charge his normal rate for representing the Illinois Central. This arrangement may have lasted from about the inception of the railroad until he became President, although there are conflicting references available concerning the details of his association with this railroad.

The first documented case in which Abe Lincoln represented the Illinois Central Railroad appears to have been a tax case in which Lincoln and James Joy, chief counsel for the Illinois Central, argued the case all the way to the Illinois Supreme Court. Illinois Central won the case. He also represented the Illinois Central in a number of other lawsuits in Illinois, including two cases in 1857 involving damage to livestock while in shipment.

While performing legal work for the Illinois Central, Lincoln had the opportunity to meet with a vice president of the Illinois Central, by the name of George B. McClellan. McClellan was later to become a notable general in the Civil War. McClellan is attributed as writing "More than once I have been with him [Lincoln] in out-of-the-way county-seats where some important case was being tried and, in the lack of sleeping accommodations, have spent the night in front of a stove listening to the unceasing flow of anecdotes from his lips. He was never at a loss, and I could never quite make up my mind how many of them he had really heard before, and how many he invented on the spur of the moment. His stories were seldom refined, but were always to the point."

Lincoln was well paid by Illinois Central for at least some of his work, even if he had to sue his client to collect his fee. In 1853, Lincoln won a large case for the Illinois Central Railroad. According to at least one version of the story, Lincoln presented a bill for $2,000 for his fee. Not only did the railroad decline to pay the fee, but according to the story, did it while suggesting that Lincoln was overcharging for his talents. In response, Lincoln, after seeking written support from several other notable Illinois lawyers, filed suit for payment, with a new demand of $5,000. The judgment was paid after it came to trial in 1857. (To put this amount of money into perspective, during the Civil War, a private was paid $13 per month.) Despite the lawsuit against the Illinois Central, Lincoln continued to represent it. Perhaps the Illinois Central concluded that even though Lincoln could act like a junkyard dog, it was better to have him as its junkyard dog.

There is also the recorded story of Lincoln showing up in Dubuque, Iowa, arriving with a group of officials of the Illinois Central Railroad. They had traveled to Dubuque in a private rail car, and Lincoln was sporting his own free pass for rail travel. Apparently this mode of travel impressed some of the young Iowan Republicans who observed Lincoln’s arrival.

Lincoln’s last case that he argued for the Illinois Central wasn’t decided until after Lincoln had become President. The case was argued before the Illinois Supreme Court on January 12, 1860, but the court did not rule until 1861.

In fact, and for purposes of honesty, I suppose, I should note that Lincoln did, on occasion, take work in opposition to railroads. It is reported that the first case in opposition to a railroad that he argued before the Illinois Supreme Court was against none other than the CB&Q Railroad. The case was heard in December 1855. It involved the setting of compensation for the taking of lands for railroad use.

Perhaps one of the more significant cases that Lincoln argued for the railroads involved the Rock Island Bridge case. In short, the case involved a railroad bridge that spanned the mighty Mississippi River at Rock Island. Steamboats that used the river to travel and ship supplies north and south opposed the construction of the bridge. The bridge acted as a potential obstacle to steamboat movement, as well as creating potentially greater competition against the steamboats. Initially, the opponents to the bridge tried legal challenges to prevent the bridge from being constructed. But the opposition failed. The bridge was built and shortly thereafter, in May of 1856, a steamboat named Effie Afton hit the bridge and burst into flames. The steamboat and a portion of the bridge burned. The steamboat owners filed suit against the bridge owners and the bridge owners claimed the "accident" was intentional. There is much folklore concerning Lincoln’s role in defending the bridge owners and the right to build a bridge across the river. However, Lincoln made the argument that a person had as much right to build a bridge across the river in order to cross it as another person had the right to travel up and down the river. Lincoln argued that it was no different than the rights of a person to cross a street and to travel down its length. Both had the right, and neither should impede the other.

The jury did not reach a decision and Lincoln was paid $500 for his effort by the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad. The case was finally resolved before the US Supreme Court in 1862, consistent with Lincoln’s argument.

In one of those "what ifs" veins, there is a story that Lincoln was offered the position of "General Counsel" for the New York Central Railroad in early 1860. While speaking out East, Lincoln was heard by Erastus Corning, President of the New York Central Railroad. Corning, being impressed by Lincoln, met with Lincoln and offered him the position, with an annual salary of $10,000/year. Corning’s cousin, James B. Merwin who was a friend of Lincoln, facilitated the meeting between Lincoln and Corning. It is recorded that Merwin also followed up with Lincoln after the meeting, encouraging him to accept the very lucrative offer.

Of course, assuming that the events did occur, Lincoln turned down the opportunity to become a full-time, and very well paid Corporate Railroad Attorney. Perhaps his wife, who had a flair for spending money and running up excessive bills, might have been happier if Lincoln had taken the position and abandoned politics.

Lincoln - the Railroad Attorney. Who would then have become the President of the United States? Whose profile would have been on the penny and the dollar bill? We probably wouldn’t be celebrating Lincoln’s birthday, or visiting Lincoln’s tomb. Springfield would not have its tourist attraction. What would Illinois be "The Land of…."? Perhaps even log cabins would be a little less popular.

Such are the things that feed the minds of historical novelists.

Suggested Reading

Starr, John W. 1927. Lincoln and the Railroads. Dodd, Mead and Company. 325 pages.