Posted Online: Feb. 08, 2013, 2:32 pm

Abe Lincoln, rail splitter to well-paid railroad lawyer

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By Marlene Gantt

Abraham Lincoln spent more time working for the Illinois Central Railroad than any other employer aside from his public service as a state representative, a Congressman and president of the United States.

He received the largest law fee of his career from the Illinois Central -- more than he received from any other source, public or private, before becoming president, according to Paul M. Angle, historian and Lincoln biographer.

Lincoln was employed by the railroad from 1853 until his nomination for the presidency in 1860. He tried cases for the company in the courts of the Eighth Judicial Circuit in central Illinois and 11 cases before the Supreme Court of Illinois. He also represented the company in an important case tried in federal court in Chicago.

In some of these cases he was associated with local attorneys for the company. A celebrated case at the time was Illinois Central Railroad vs. the County of McLean and George Parke, Sheriff and Collector -- commonly known as the "McLean County Tax Case."

The taxing officers of several counties where the railroad was being built said that the tax provision of the railroad charter required the company to pay the state a charter tax. The tax was to represent a percentage of the railroad's gross earnings, in lieu of other state taxes.

It did not, the taxing officers argued, affect taxes levied against the railroad by the counties. On this assumption, local tax officers assessed the value of the Illinois Central property in McLean County. In 1852 the right-of-way value was estimated at $53,682. Thus the county attempted to collect $428.56 in taxes from the company.

In view of the charter provision, the company refused to pay. A court order was issued to Sheriff Parke to advertise and sell the property to raise the taxes levied. Attorneys for the railroad filed for an injunction restraining the sheriff from carrying out the court order. Lincoln was retained on Oct. 7, 1853.

Lawyers Mason Brayman, Asahel Gridley and Lincoln represented the railroad during a hearing. The bill for injunction was dismissed -- a decision in favor of the county. Lincoln, Brayman and James F. Joy, another attorney, appealed to the Supreme Court of Illinois in February 1854 and again in January 1856 with Lincoln and Joy. Stephen T. Logan and John T. Stuart, former law partners of Lincoln, were the attorneys for McLean County.
After winning the appeal, Lincoln charged the railroad a fee of nearly $5,000 ($60,000-$70,000 today). It was considered by some to be excessive according to what was customary in those days.

But Benjamin Thomas in his book "Abraham Lincoln" said that fees for railroad lawyers went up in the 1850s because cases were more specialized and complex. At any rate, the company declined to pay the fee considering it too large. It may have been embarrassing for the company to pay such a large fee without being sued for it After all, by 1856 the Illinois Central had English shareholders who were interested in the economics of the company.

The company suggested to Lincoln to bring suit against them. They said they would not defend against it. That would give the company a sense of fairness, according to the reasoning of other lawyers. If it appeared fair to them, the company would pay it. While the lawsuit was pending, Lincoln was still asked by the railroad to handle other cases -- much to his surprise.

On June 18, 1857 a trial was held at Bloomington. No one appeared for the railroad, so the judgment went to Lincoln by default. However, the case was retried.

At the next trial Lincoln represented himself. Judge Charles L. Capen was in the courtroom. He later related an amusing incident Judge Capen said that when Lincoln got up to speak to the jury, a button on his pantaloons gave way. "'Wait a minute, boys,' said Lincoln according to Capen,'till I fix my galluses (suspenders for trousers).' He took out a pocketknife, whittled a stick and used that in place of a button, much to the amusement of the jury and spectators." Lincoln prevailed and the $5,000 was paid to him. This enabled him to finance his increased political activities.

Lincoln was in Council Bluffs representing the railroad in 1859, according to an issue of the Palimpsest published by the State Historical Society of Iowa.
In 1859 he presented a case for Illinois Central at Galena. After the case in Galena. He went to Dubuque with a party of railroad officials and spent a day and night at the Julien House. (It is now the Hotel Julien Dubuque that reopened in 2009 after a $32 million makeover.)

(Mark Steiner in his recent book "An Honest Calling," offers two reasons Illinois Central retained Lincoln during the time of the lawsuit: Lincoln was the most prominent lawyer in his political party and he was a special adviser to Illinois Gov. Bissell who was ex-officio member of the Board of Directors of Illinois Central.)
Marlene Gantt of Port Byron is a former Rock Island school teacher.