Abraham Lincoln did not have a doctorate, but he did have "the highest possible degree in the art of persuasion." Robert Krasner, treasurer of the Palm Beach County Civil War roundtable, and a member of the Abraham Lincoln Association, recently gave a talk at the Broward County main library in Ft. Lauderdale about Lincoln and his legal work on behalf of the railroads.
In his early career Lincoln was a member of the Illinois legislature, first elected in 1834. By the time of his re-election in 1836 he had also become a lawyer. "He was involved in 4,000 cases and at times he was a judge," said Krasner. "He was regarded as one of the most successful lawyers in the history of the Illinois bar. In cases which had no precedent he had the advantage."
So he became the logical choice for the Illinois Central Railroad (ICR) when it was faced with a major problem in the 1850s. The ICR was given an exemption from taxes on its property for the first six years of the railway, but McLean county objected, and tried to levy a tax on the ICR. The case was a critical one, "as every other county would also be entitled to make a similar assessment for taxation," thus bankrupting the ICR.
Lincoln took the case on behalf of the ICR for a $200 retainer. The case went to the Supreme Court, which had to decide if a state legislature was constitutionally competent to offer such a sweet deal to a railroad company. They ruled in favor of the ICR, which eventually had 700 miles of track, the longest in the world.
"Lincoln saved the railroad a lot of money so he increased his fee to $2,000. The ICR refused to pay." Lincoln then advice from colleagues who said he should raise his fee to the astronomical sum of $5,000 and go to litigation to get it! Lincoln had six lawyers certify the change to $5,000 was justified and the Illinois Circuit Court awarded him the fee. The importance of this case was great in two ways- it meant the railroads throughout the country could proceed with their plans to expand, and the money Lincoln got "enabled him to finance his campaign for the Presidency."
Krasner asserted that "Lincoln exerted a powerful influence and became a proponent of the transcontinental railroad. By 1859 half the railroad tracks in the world were in the United States." While he did live to see it, the last spike connecting the transcontinental railroad was hammered in 1869.
Visitors to the Broward library in central Ft. Lauderdale should have a look at the 6th floor exhibit Lincoln: the Constitution and the Civil War. A traveling exhibition for libraries, it was organized by the National Constitution Center and the American Library Association Public Programs Office. The travelling exhibition, which began in 2009, has been made possible by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Two more panels from the exhibit can be seen in another article in this feature series: Lincoln Stretched Powers of Presidency.
The Union Flag of 1864, owned by Bob Matis.A local collector of Civil War memorabilia, Bob Matis, has also donated some objects for the exhibit including a dramatic 34-star US flag that was carried in the Battle of Cold Harbor in 1864. The exhibit is on view through May 1, 2012, and is next on view at Kennesaw State University in Georgia beginning May 16.
This is the fifth in a series of feature articles by Clifford Cunningham about Lincoln and the Civil War.