Home / General / Abraham Lincoln: Railroad Hack

Abraham Lincoln: Railroad Hack


Lynn Parramore’s piece exposing Abraham Lincoln’s history as a railroad lawyer has some demythologizing value, but it would be a lot more useful if it placed Lincoln’s railroad history within the larger context of the early Republican Party. Thinking of Lincoln as a corrupt Gilded Age Republican politician is not at all incongruous with Lincoln the Great Emancipator. Essentially the entire generation of early Republicans turned very quickly from emancipation to corporatization without a blink; in fact, their rapidly evolving ideas of free labor ideology made these two things entirely compatible. After reading so many books on the Gilded Age, including Richard White’s Railroaded, you see again and again the people who opposed slavery essentially treating workers almost like slaves themselves. The entirety of the difference was the actual ownership of labor. Once they were no longer actually owned, you could exploit them in all sorts of disturbing ways, a distinction that helps explain why so many Republicans were essentially fine with southern treatment of black labor after Reconstruction. While you can find the occasional quote from Lincoln bemoaning capital, it’s also entirely expected for Gilded Age politicians to worry about corruption from capital in public while also being incredibly corrupt themselves.

In other words, had Lincoln lived I don’t see any reason to think the Gilded Age would have happened any differently. Reconstruction is another matter. But the fundamental questions of labor and capital in late nineteenth century America was something an aging Lincoln almost certainly would have accepted and perhaps embraced.

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  • thusbloggedanderson

    IOW, Lincoln did not confine his practice to the representation of widows and orphans???


  • Hogan

    The fact that both Lincoln and Douglas did legal work for the Illinois Central proves that even in 1860, there wasn’t a dime’s worth of difference between the Democrats and the Republicans. And I mean a 2012 dime, not the ones they had in 1860. That was real money.

    • ploeg

      Interestingly enough, the Illinois Central supported Douglas in the 1858 senate election (incumbency has its advantages), and the general superintendent of the railroad, George B. McClellan, provided Douglas with a private train for campaigning (while Lincoln had to use regular trains and hope that the conductors didn’t usher him off).

    • BikeCrasher

      That’s why I voted for Jill Stein.

    • timb

      well, enough of a difference to get 600K people killed, but, otherwise…

  • Keaaukane

    Surely his work killing vampires redeems this

    • wengler


  • wengler

    I am a bit skeptical about whether Lincoln himself would have been a corrupt Gilded Age politician. The article presents that Lincoln took cases for the Illinois Central railroad. And this indicts him how?

    Furthermore there was a lot of good legislation regarding land passed by the early Republican Congresses. The Homestead Act in 1862 and the Land Grant College Act of the same year gave out free land to people and colleges. This act was one of the biggest land giveaways in the history of the world, and ensured that the US wouldn’t develop along the lines of Latin America(at least in the short term).

    • What evidence is there that he wouldn’t have been typical of the Gilded Age on these matters?

      • timb

        His son was such a progressive on these issue that he…..hold on, I’m being handed a note which informs me Robert Todd Lincoln was a corrupt Gilded Age politician….so, there’s some circumstantial evidence.

        • ploeg

          Robert Todd Lincoln went to Phillips Exeter and Harvard. Maybe Abraham Lincoln didn’t know that he was sending Robert to hang out with the wrong crowd.

      • Halloween Jack

        Bertrand Russell sent me a message from beyond the grave, wanting to know if you’ve found his teapot yet.

        • Pestilence

          Thank you

        • Chad

          You are doubtless orbiting somewhere between Earth and Mars.

      • wengler

        Fought a war to keep the union, freed the slaves, gave away free land to people. Those first two weren’t so easy.

        Lincoln’s second term would’ve been mired in Reconstruction battles. Getting offed in the second month of it probably saved him a lot of trouble.

        The Republican presidents up until TR were bunch of bought and paid for empty suit Ohioans. Lincoln would have at least had the freedom of being his own man.

        • And he may well have used that freedom to be his own man to do the bidding of the corporations which he supported.

          • Pestilence

            or may not – demanding evidence to show he would be other than you suggest, is horribly biased and totally unworthy of you.

            • All the evidence suggests that Lincoln was a fairly run of the mill Republican on corporate issues. I don’t see the problem in recognizing that.

              • wengler

                The Republican coalition was a fairly new thing that didn’t shake itself out until after the war was over.

                Lincoln was the first elected Republican President and was fighting a war that started a month into his tenure and ended a week before he got killed. A lot of the legislation passed in the Civil War was pretty good.

                That might’ve changed after the war. But we don’t know because he died.

    • It should also be noted that the Homestead Act gave away free land–land that was already occupied by people undergoing a genocide.

      • Hogan

        In terms of square miles, how did the Homestead Act grants compare to the railroad grants?

        • According to our friends at Wikipedia, the 270 million acres were granted under the Homestead Act.

          There are some numbers here (accuracy unknown) about railroad grants and other types of land distribution, suggesting somewhat less land distributed this way.

      • timb

        Watch for presentism, Erik. It certainly would not have been the opinion of 99% of white people at the time that there was genocide going on (the exception was Kevin Costner, who was living with the natives right after the war). To the body politic, this was American land.

        We can judge them all harshly now, but we do so from an enlightened perch, I think

        • Of course most Americans thought genocide was going on, even though they wouldn’t have phrased it as such. Moreover, most Americans absolutely supported the project whole-heartedly. All you have to do is read what people wrote about the issues at the time.

        • Sly

          Indian Removal was one of the most controversial policies of the early 19th century, and countering it became one of the ways in which the abolitionist movement flexed its muscle. As shitty as Federal Indian policy was for the first forty or so years of the Republic, the sea change that occurred under Jackson appalled many, including the churches that were tasked with the civilizing mission that was at the core of the dispute in Worcester v. Georgia.

          Van Buren himself said of the issue that “more persevering opposition to a public measure has scarcely ever been,” and the condemnation of the administration by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions was the most widely read political pamphlet since Paine’s Common Sense.

          After the opposition to Indian Removal failed, the abolitionist community became largely radicalized against such ideas as the “recolonization” of West Africa with freed slaves, and for obvious reasons; the one recolonization project that the United States engaged in amounted to ethnic cleansing. Decades later, the framers of the 14th Amendment explicitly invoked the Cherokee removal as precisely how not to interpret equal protection.

          Cautions against presentism are generally appropriate, but this probably isn’t one of them.

          • shah8

            I learned something new and subtle today, thank you.

      • DrDick

        The railroads also supported the Homestead Act (as well as the later General Allotment Act), which they saw as opening up markets and business for themselves.

        • wengler

          I’m sure they did, but it was also generally a pretty good idea.

          • DrDick

            Yes and no (see Erik’s comment above), but the point is that there was no conflict with the interests of capital and the railroads in doing this.

            • wengler

              Well the interests that controlled a whole bunch of human capital hated the idea of a bunch of free homesteaders with the ability to vote.

              Once they were gone, it passed.

      • wengler

        The alternative being that a small group of very rich people got the land of people undergoing a genocide, as what happened in Latin America.

  • Xof

    Although the article is interesting (and news to me), it does rather overreach, almost stating that Lincoln’s legal shenanigans were the primary enabling factor in the rise of the rail barons. I find this argument… somewhat overstated.

    In any event, as the Jefferson Slave Wars shows, this is what happens when we want our heros to be exemplars and gods among us, rather than just people.

    • Right; it’s not the strongest piece precisely because it wants to impinge Lincoln specifically, which gives him too much power. That almost increases the mythology around him. But thinking of him as a typical Republican on these matters does have value.

      • Xof

        Agreed; it is very valuable to point out that there was a pretty broad and deep consensus as to the proper relationship of capital and labor at the time, and Lincoln didn’t transcend it as a man out of time.

    • thusbloggedanderson

      Railroad law in the 1840s and 1850s, I suspect, was comparable to internet law nowadays.

      New technology was creating novel legal issues, which – SURPRISE! – tended to be resolved in favor of the companies with the money to hire good lawyers.

      • The Dark Avenger

        Lincoln studied surveying on his own before he decided to be a lawyer:

        With the assistance of another friend, Lincoln was appointed as an assistant to county surveyor John Calhoun, a Democratic political appointee. Lincoln had no experience at surveying, but relying on borrowed copies of two works was able to teach himself the practical application of surveying techniques as well as the trigonometric basis of the process

        and such knowledge would be useful to someone having to represent railroad companies, as well as a family history of losing in court on issues of land ownership:

        However, in 1816, Thomas(Lincoln, his father) lost all of his land in court cases because of faulty property titles

        From the Abraham Lincoln Wiki article.

  • ploeg

    But the fundamental questions of labor and capital in late nineteenth century America was something an aging Lincoln almost certainly would have accepted and perhaps embraced.

    Indeed. And the fundamental question was slave labor vs. free labor, and free labor won. And the conditions of free labor can be abysmal, just as some slaves had relatively good conditions. But slaves are still slaves and the defeat of the slave power was necessary for any future progress.

    Certainly during Lincoln’s presidency, there were many contemporaries who wanted Lincoln to do more earlier regarding slavery, but Lincoln proceeded only as quickly as he thought was politically prudent. But Lincoln did proceed. Maybe Lincoln would have been satisfied with his very real level of accomplishment, but it’s certain that Lincoln could not have proceeded any further without substantial political support, and I think that’s our takeaway from all this.

    • It’s not as simple as you make it out to be. Yes, there was free labor vs. slave labor. But what was free labor? Do workers have the right to unions? Can we starve the Chinese into submission when they strike for better conditions building the railroads?

      • DrDick

        The reality is that free labor was often treated little or no better than the slaves.

        • Marek

          Guess that war was pointless, then.

        • Matt McKeon

          I don’t have much patience with this line. While a lot of jobs suck, and conditions in industry during the late 19th century(sweat shops, child labor etc.) are appalling, they weren’t slavery.

          The condition of the enslaved person is unchanged, indeed unchangeable, by definition. American slavery hummed along for two centuries, if anything, getting worse. If only ended in a terrible and costly war. The history of labor in the US is an epic struggle, still on going. But its not slavery.

        • Andrew

          Following this argument (and much of what is in this piece) to its logical conclusion, we must revile Lincoln as a war criminal for provoking the Civil War, which had an inconsequential effect on human rights and American history, both at the time and in the long run.

  • burnspbesq

    All attempts to hold lawyers accountable for the supposed bad acts of their clients are silly, meretricious, willfully ignore the fundamental reality of the attorney-client relationship in our legal system, and in any sane world would do irreparable damage to the credibility of the person making the attempt.

    • thusbloggedanderson

      I suppose there are exceptions, but I can’t think of any off the top of my head.

      Max Steuer’s defense of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory’s owners would qualify as loathsome if the clients’ evils could be imputed to their attorney, but in fact the trial is remembered today mainly for his legendary cross-examination (embellished in the retelling).

    • shah8

      This is the key sentiment to my wonder at what’s going on with the paru passi thing going on with Argentina and vulture funds. And the Bank of New York in fundamental legal jeopardy because they’re being held accountable for the bad acts of their clients (control over, which they have none)…

    • Jon H

      Indeed, Scott Brown tried using that approach against Elizabeth Warren.

  • Halloween Jack

    I really can’t completely get past the (That You Won’t Hear From Hollywood) bit. It’s evocative of all those scammy “Secrets That ‘They’ Don’t Want You To Know” ads, and sour-grapesy that Spielberg didn’t see fit to include her particular hobby horse in the parade.

  • rea

    Well, this:

    Lincoln proposed that the supposed “offsetting benefits” of such lines could be held against claims of damages. In other words, a farmer could be told that he would benefit from the railroad line, and was therefore entitled to less compensation when a track ran across his field. This assumed benefit was highly speculative. Often estimates turned out to be way off-base. The offsetting-of-benefits argument was held by many to be grossly unfair and became deeply unpopular.

    Strikes me as ignorant of some basic principles. Change in market value is a very standard way of mesuring damage to interests in real property. It is not always easy to prove. Nevertheless, I don’t think we should simply scoff at the notion that farmland with access to railroad transprotation to the market might be worth more than similar farmland where the farmer has to take his produce to market via 40 miles of oxcart hauling on dirt roads.

    • Hogan

      Assuming the line runs along the edge of his land, rather than through the middle of it, as it often did.

      • rea

        Well, yeah, maybe. But that turns on the facts of the particular case. The linked article seems to be arguing that on principle, taking into acount favorable effects of the proximity of railroads is wrong.

      • Jon H

        Seems like it wouldn’t be that big of a deal for farmers, who often farm noncontiguous fields.

        A rancher, on the other hand, whose livestock might get run over by a train running through the grazing land, might have more of a complaint.

  • CJColucci

    In one sense, it’s always true that most people don’t know [fill in the blank] because most people don’t know jack shit. But what’s the point of the article? That Lincoln had a successful practice that included representing railroads is well-known to people who are reasonably well-informed about Lincoln, legal history, or any number of other things. No revelations here. And even on the author’s breathless showing, moreover, I don’t see anything Lincoln did that was out of the bounds of honorable advocacy.
    I suspect that had he lived he would have been one of the more sensible and humane Gilded Age republicans, but why would that be surprising?

    • I think it’s worth separating Lincoln’s innate humaneness with utterly uncontroversial (among Republicans) policies toward free labor that developed by the late 1860s.

      • CJColucci

        That’s your point, and I agree with it. I’m not sure that’s the original author’s point.

    • bradP

      No revelations here. And even on the author’s breathless showing, moreover, I don’t see anything Lincoln did that was out of the bounds of honorable advocacy.

      How about this:

      One of the greatest elected officials in US history was preconditioned to the interests of industrial and financial elites through decades of paid advocacy.

      As a result he bought in whole-heartedly to publicly subsidizing an industry that would end up providing the strongest impetus for our current corporatist capitalism.

      My interpretation in short: The progressive proclivities of the Great Emancipator laid a good deal of the foundation for the wage slavery that would come to replace chattel slavery.

  • Bill Murray

    When will get the post on John Adams, agent for the British, for his defense of the accused in the Boston Massacre. I believe this led directly to the Alien and Sedition acts

    • IM

      I think that the defense of the accused in the Boston massacre is the most impressive thing about Adams.

  • mattc

    We’ve gotten this far in this thread without anyone busting out this quote?

    “Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital; that, in fact, capital is the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed — that labor can exist without capital, but that capital could never have existed without labor. Hence they hold that labor is the superior — greatly the superior — of capital.”

    Combine that with the Homestead Act and the progressive nature of the income tax enacted to fund the war (“no burdens have been imposed on the industrious laborer and mechanic!”)and the picture is, at best, muddied. There’s definitely no “proof” that Lincoln wouldn’t have been a slave to the railroad interests after the war, but who his clients were when he was a private lawyer doesn’t seem to be much in the way of proof that he would have, either.

    • md 20/400

      I’ve always liked that quote. But the context is not so hot, and it changes the quote’s meaning some. Here’s Abe just a bit further on in the same speech. His free labor doesn’t have much respect for the life-long wage worker.

      This, say its advocates, is free labor – the just, and generous, and prosperous system, which opens the way for all, gives hope to all, and energy, and progress, and improvement of condition to all. If any continue through life in the condition of the hired laborer, it is not the fault of the system, but because of either a dependent nature which prefers it, or improvidence, folly, or singular misfortune.

      Google Books has the complete speech in its scan of the Complete Works.

      • md 20/400

        Cripe. The link is not Google Books. It is to a lengthy excerpt. You could use Google books, of course.

      • Josh G.

        Keep in mind the context in which Lincoln wrote: an open frontier where anyone who wanted land could get it. The Lockean proviso of “as much and as good” was satisfied, and the option of going West meant that capitalists who got too greedy could risk losing their employees. The frontier was not officially declared closed until 1890, and it’s no coincidence that the worst abuses of the Gilded Age took place during that time period.

        • The Dark Avenger

          The frontier was declared in 1893 by Jackson Turner to have closed in 1890.

  • So answer me this: what about the “Radical Republicans?” Accepting that mainstream anti-slavery Republicans like Lincoln were pro-corporate capitalists, what about those to his left – the firebreathers who wanted more vigorous Reconstruction? Were they more or less pro-corporate than Lincoln?

  • bradP

    So is this is situation where we can learn something from the Licoln presidency, or another where we cannot?

    On one hand you seem to use this post to cast Lincoln in a negative light, but reading through the link I find out that Lincoln was a successful lawyer with industry and financial ties who firmly believed in using public funds on infrastructure (on railroads, no less) to promote economic growth.

    Without the retrospective of the railroad as the foundation of a century and a half of corporate/government grift that has now consumed and possibly doomed our society, there is little to be learned.

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