A cherished image of Abraham Lincoln has him on horseback, law books and legal papers in saddle, crossing a stretch of unbroken Central Illinois prairie from one county seat to another. Yet by the 1850s and the railroad boom, the era represented in this pastoral scene was coming to a quick end. | From Our Past page
Railroads changed everything. Lawyers, for instance, abandoned the horse and buggy for the steam engine, and they began corresponding using the telegraph. As for Lincoln, he began defending the interests of railroad companies, especially the mighty Illinois Central. By the mid-1850s, far from being the homespun, aw-shucks attorney remembered from our elementary school days, Lincoln was one of the most respected - and best paid - corporate lawyers in the state.
Today, it's hard for us to fathom what the railroads wrought. They represented the largest accumulations of capital and revolutionary industrial might ever encountered by most Americans. The Illinois Central, which when completed was the longest railroad line in the world, involved millions of dollars in New York and London capital and thousands of Irish laborers. Railroads reshaped the state's social, economic, and political landscape on an immense scale.
Lincoln embraced the pro-business, pro-development, free-labor policies of the Whig Party, including government support for internal improvements like roads, canals and later railroads, high tariffs to protect home manufacturing, and centralized banking.
With the exception of his time in government service (as state lawmaker, congressman, and then president), and his legal work on behalf of county school commissioners, Lincoln spent more time working for the Illinois Central than any other employer. All told, he represented the railroad 46 times in cases ranging from parochial issues such as injury to livestock and freight claims to weightier matters like taxation.
"I have today drawn on you in favor of the McLean County Bank … for $150," Lincoln wrote in September 1855 to James F. Joy, Illinois Central general counsel. "This is intended as a fee for all service done by me for the Illinois Central Railroad since last September within the counties of McLean and DeWitt. Within that time … I have assisted for the Road in at least fifteen cases (I believe one or two more) and I have concluded to lump them off at ten dollars a case."
Lincoln also worked for other major railroads, including what would become the Chicago and Alton, the Rock Island, and the Wabash.
One of the most significant cases in Lincoln's long and productive legal career was Illinois Central Railroad v. McLean County. The "McLean County Tax Case," as it was called, represented a crucial early victory for the railroad. At the time, Lincoln referred to this case as "the largest law question that can now be got up in the State."
The state act incorporating the Illinois Central specified the company pay a tax representing a percentage of its gross revenue. McLean County officials argued the charter language did not prohibit units of local government from also taxing the railroad.
Accordingly, the McLean County assessor levied a $428.57 tax on Illinois Central property in the county that included 118 acres of mostly right-of-way. The railroad retained Lincoln and sued the county. The case went before the McLean County Circuit Court in September 1853, when the two sides agreed to have the local court dismiss the lawsuit so the Illinois Central could appeal to the state Supreme Court in Springfield.
The stakes were high. For one, if McLean County received the OK to tax the Illinois Central, other counties and municipalities would follow suit, inflicting a potentially grievous blow to a financially shaky railroad in its formative years. The ensuing chaos might have slowed railroad expansion, and thus economic development, throughout the state for years to come.
Nothing of the sort happened because in 1856 the Illinois Supreme Court decided in favor of the Illinois Central, with Justice Walter B. Scates ruling the state legislature could exempt property from local taxation.
The McLean County case also is well known because Lincoln had to sue the railroad to get his then unheard-of fee of $5,000.
It is not entirely clear why the railroad delayed payment, though it is known that Lincoln brought suit before McLean County Circuit Court, and case was heard for a last time in June 1857. The court ruled in Lincoln's favor, and he received $4,800, less the $200 retainer. In today's dollars, that $5,000 paycheck would be worth some $110,000.
It was the highest legal fee Lincoln received in his two-plus decades before the bench.