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An Inconvenient Truth About Lincoln

Society & Culture  (tags: americans, culture, dishonesty, education, ethics, freedoms, government, Lincoln, media, movies, politics, religion, rights, society )

- 2011 days ago -
The president was a complicated man whose advocacy of railroads birthed a network of monopolies.

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Kit B (276)
Wednesday November 21, 2012, 8:43 am
(Photo Credit:

Over this Thanksgiving week, you may find yourself in a movie theater watching Steven Spielberg’s treatment of Abraham Lincoln and the battle to pass the 13th Amerndment, which abolished slavery once and for all. There’s much to be said for Lincoln: marvelous acting, less mythologizing than usual, and a fascinating window into raucous realpolitik. Spielberg’s film stands several cuts above any movie depiction of the Lincoln presidency you’re likely to see.

Lincoln himself stands several cuts above the vast majority of U.S. presidents. After some equivocating, he freed the slaves, a monumental undertaking that was a service to the country and to humanity in general. He was also friendlier to workers than most presidents, an affinity noted by Karl Marx, who exchanged letters with Lincoln leading up to and during the Civil War. (You won’t see the GOP acknowledging that!)

But there’s a side of Lincoln that no Hollywood film shows clearly: He was extremely close to the railway barons, the most powerful corporate titans of the era.

Liberals are fond of referring to Lincoln's concern about corporate power, summed up in a letter he wrote to Col. William F. Elkins in November 1864:

"I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country....corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed."

Lincoln’s observation is prescient. But here’s the inconvenient truth: Some of the most powerful corporations of his time were wildly enriched by having a friend in one Abraham Lincoln.

This friendship goes back to Lincoln’s early days as a scrappy young lawyer. After being admitted to the bar in 1827, he hopped around and finally landed in Springfield, Illinois in the law practice of William H. Herndon in 1844. Like any young lawyer, he had to hustle to handle enough cases to live comfortably. And, like most young lawyers, he went where the money was. And the money was in the burgeoning railroad industry.

In 1851, Lincoln tried his first major railroad case, representing the Alton & Sangamon Railroad before the Illinois Supreme Court. The defendant had bought stock on the belief that railroad lines would run near his home and give his property value a boost. Unfortunately for him, the Illinois legislature subsequently amended the company’s charter and changed the route so that it no longer ran near his land. The defendant refused further payments to the railroad company, arguing that the original contract was altered and thus nullified.

Lincoln argued otherwise, and convinced the Supreme Court. His victory was a big deal and set a precedent that was evoked throughout the rest of the century. The railroad industry was deeply impressed. Lincoln’s career as a railroad lawyer took off.

Through Lincoln’s skilled legal arguments, the railroad barons increased their wealth and a lot of others got the short end of the stick. Land owners were sharply limited in the compensation they could receive when a right-of-way was granted over their property for a railroad line. As historian James W. Ely Jr. has documented, 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. But it was great for the railroad barons, and sparked increased railroad development.

Lincoln also argued in court that farmers and ranchers would have to bear the expense of building fences so that their animals did not wander onto train tracks. Through his carefully prepared cases, railroad companies got windfall tax exemptions that many felt constituted favoritism and unfairly burdened other taxpayers. Through his prowess, railroads won the right to limit liability for damage to cattle and other animals caused by delay in transit.

Lincoln first appeared for the Illinois Central Railroad, probably the largest business corporation in the state, in May 1853. He was handsomely rewarded for his successful advocacy for the company. By October of that year, Illinois Central placed him on retainer and gave him the special bonus of a free annual pass on the line.

It’s important to point out that despite Lincoln’s commitment to the railroad industry, he also handled suits against the carriers. Ely reminds us that lawyers in those days couldn’t afford to take only cases on one side. So whatever his philosophical leanings, Lincoln went for the cases that would support his practice. This plays out in his handling of cases related to slavery. Though Lincoln was a lifelong opponent of slavery, he would represent the interests of slave owners, such as runaway recovery, when he was paid to do so.

Lincoln was also a Whig, and as such, railroads were a key part of his vision for economic growth. As an Illinois legislator, Lincoln threw his support behind state subsidies for internal improvements and voted for several railroad charters. Like many other Whigs, he believed that railroad expansion would bring enormous economic and social benefit to the country.

During the late 1850s, Lincoln collected more fees from Illinois Central Railroad than from any other single client, and he was closely associated with Illinois Central until his election to the presidency. Just before his nomination for president in May 1860, Lincoln won a big tax case for his main client, Illinois Central.

Lincoln was elected president on a platform that declared: “That a railroad to the Pacific ocean is imperatively demanded by the interests of the whole country; that the Federal Government ought to render immediate and efficient aid in its construction.” President Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act of 1862 and the 1864 amendments to that act. He was clearly a major railroad booster in the political world.

The relationship between corporate interests like the railroad industry and slavery was complex. Political scientist Thomas Ferguson has observed that some of the railway tycoons genuinely disliked slavery, and their support for Lincoln had an element of moral and philosophical conviction. But for most, the bottom line was the bottom line. They needed an advocate who could help them expand a profitable industry westward, and Lincoln was their man. In his essay “Beyond Their Means? The Costs of Democracy From Jefferson to Lincoln,” Ferguson writes:

“There is no doubt about the deep involvement of railroads and allied business interests in the Lincoln candidacy from its earliest days. Nor is there any question that the lawyer who made a famous argument on behalf of the rights of railroads to build bridges anywhere won the nomination by garnering crucial support from iron manufacturers, coal mining interests, and other firms intent upon tariffs, land grants, and other national developmental measures.”

The railroad industry connected the country and did indeed bring many benefits. No longer did every community have to be self-sufficient. The materials needed to build the railroads boosted other industries, like iron and steel.

But there’s a reason the railroads feature so prominently in the ever-popular board game Monopoly (which you might break out during the holidays). The railroads were America’s first big business. The industry led to the growth of Wall Street, which needed to handle the enormous amounts of capital required to build and operate the lines. As they grew more powerful, the railroad companies began to squeeze out competitors and charge outrageous prices. Farmers were held hostage to railways that refused to move their goods unless they paid what was demanded. Because of their wealth, railroad barons could afford to buy and rent politicians in Washington.

Nineteenth- and early 20th-century cartoonists depicted the monopoly threat in the form of a gigantic octopus, its tentacles reaching into every nook and cranny of the country. America, for a long time, was held in a stranglehold by the railroad monopoly.

*For more on Lincoln’s railroad advocacy, see James W. Ely Jr.’s "Abraham Lincoln as a Railroad Attorney".

Lynn Parramore is an AlterNet senior editor | Alternet |

pam w (139)
Wednesday November 21, 2012, 1:03 pm
It's always a mistake to judge events of the past by today's standards.

Kit B (276)
Wednesday November 21, 2012, 2:11 pm

Indeed, but it's done all the time., Pam.

It's very difficult to imagine being a part of another time but our own. First, Lincoln was a politician, and all things fall from that tree.

Nyack, in today's world that is a fine line.

Kit B (276)
Wednesday November 21, 2012, 2:33 pm

Well that's true, just not everyone learned those basic lessons. There is a line about right and wrong.

Brad Miller (120)
Wednesday November 21, 2012, 3:44 pm
Complicated, contradictory, all too prone to human foibles and failings: Abe, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy and FDR, JFK, many others who ultimately shaped this nation for better and worse but more for the better IMHO. We must strive to improve the human condition.

Past Member (0)
Wednesday November 21, 2012, 4:14 pm
Thanks for this article.

Yvonne White (229)
Wednesday November 21, 2012, 5:51 pm
Manifest Destiny, Eminent domain - it's always something happening to the weaker/poorer/more Foreign people (the Chinese built quite a bit of those railroad barons' wealth, while Native Americans tried to put a dent in it).. Lincoln was a (1.) Lawyer & (2.) a politician - he was better than most & he deserves better than most. Illinois would like to pretend he was a god, but compared to most Illinois politicians he WAS a saint!;) Can I get an Amen?;)

Tamara Hayes (185)
Wednesday November 21, 2012, 6:38 pm
Thanks for the article Kit. It was definitely illuminating. All of the posts here had very good points. Lincoln most assuredly set a trend but it was inevitable that someone would at some point. There is no stopping progress whether it be good or bad.

MmAway M (506)
Wednesday November 21, 2012, 9:56 pm

Daniel Partlow (179)
Thursday November 22, 2012, 6:29 am
Corporate greed and the current belief that nothing is imoral or wrong as long as YOU are getting rich, is what is bringing down our country. These days anything goes as long as you don't get caught. And if you do, just lie like mad and hire a damned good lawyer. If you're rich enough, you can get off anything!

Donna Hamilton (159)
Thursday November 22, 2012, 7:31 am
Noted. Interesting, Thanks, Kit.

Bill C (353)
Thursday November 22, 2012, 7:55 am
anyone who makes a comparison void of the country structure and need is a poor sourse

this blog and the link are blind to reality

did you forget w hd no rail system and wikthout it we would have not grown as we did?

David C (131)
Thursday November 22, 2012, 9:35 am

. (0)
Thursday November 22, 2012, 9:44 am
Great article Kit. Lincoln would have been foolish, yes, even stupid not to support the railroads. Without them, the development of this country would have lagged for decades. We would have settled the west by covered wagon caravans into the 1890's.

Kit B (276)
Thursday November 22, 2012, 9:58 am

Let's remember that while TR did support the industrialization of the US, he also did his best to "bust" monopolies, began the USDA to insure food safety and strongly supported universal health care. He also believed that children should not be in the labor force, that each person working should be paid a fair days wage. Radical thinking for those times.

Marie Therese Hanulak (30)
Thursday November 22, 2012, 1:45 pm
You cannot currently send a star to Kit because you have done so within the last week.

He was a grest president, with a vision for the future that way beyond his time. I see nothing wrong with what he did concerning the railroads.

Christeen A (369)
Thursday November 22, 2012, 2:29 pm
Very interesting but I think it was more about progress than anything else. Thank you.

Past Member (0)
Thursday November 22, 2012, 5:59 pm
Finally, a bit of historical truth. But, the author neglects to say that the South rejected the northern railroad owners' attempts to expand in the South, and Lincoln's election represented a victory for the northern railroads that the South would not stand for.
Too many people are under the mis-perception that the Civil War was fought over slavery. Lincoln once said that if he could re-unite the Union without freeing one slave, he would do so. Also, as the author states, Lincoln successfully represented slave owners to get run-away slaves returned to them, so not many Southerners feared Lincoln would end slavery. And, the 3rd thing is, the Proclamation of Emancipation wasn't even written until mid way through the war, when the North was losing badly. The Proclamation was as much a desperate attempt to turn the tide of the war, as it was to give slaves freedom, and it didn't end slavery in all states, some were allowed to keep slaves until the 1880s . The Civil War was started more because of railroad power grabbing than to free slaves, though it is true that most of the railroad magnates financially supported the abolitionists, but i believe that was for personal gain on their part. In the 10 years that followed the Civil War, the railroads saw unprecedented growth nationwide, especially in the South and West.

Phyllis P (237)
Thursday November 22, 2012, 6:28 pm
I can't wait to see it because it was filmed in Richmond :)

Freya H (357)
Thursday November 22, 2012, 6:52 pm
Great people are always complex people.

Nimue Michelle Pendragon Gaze (339)
Thursday November 22, 2012, 9:17 pm
Lincoln was a great man. Nobody's perfect.

James Maynard (84)
Thursday November 22, 2012, 9:27 pm
Excellent post Kit. Thank you.

reft h (66)
Thursday November 22, 2012, 10:09 pm
thanks for the post

Jay S (116)
Thursday November 22, 2012, 11:37 pm
Interesting, and not surprising. Lincoln, like too many humans, is invested with god-like qualities he often doesn't deserve. He didn't care so much about the poor slaves as what slavery was doing to the country.

The US is the discordant mess it is today, in our opinion, because Lincoln caused a bloody, costly, destructive war to force half of a country to stay connected with the other half they didn't want to be part of. That was wrong. Had the Confederate States been allowed to go their own way and form their own nation the remaining United States would most probably have been a far more progressive and enlightened nation than it is now. And the Confederate States would be another 'Developing Country' among many others.

Another 'Inconvenient Truth About Lincoln' that few dare mention is his homosexuality, which in that ignorant, intolerant era, he would never be able to fulfill, and his marriage to a woman who treated him appallingly and violently. "She used to beat the hell out of him" (, , C.A. Tripp The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln pg xxx Free Press 2005)

Interesting article, Kit. Thank you for posting it.

Melania Padilla (122)
Friday November 23, 2012, 11:19 am

Wilde Thange (10)
Friday November 23, 2012, 11:46 am
Very interesting and in the interests of imperial development of the nation, a ghastly, demonic war is just the ticket and freeing slaves to a new kind of slavery a moral justification for a small gain they may eventually have gotten anyway but it was another good war we can point to and say all war are great moral victories for mankind despite the death and destruction and lifelong injuries and suffering while the rich profit..

Wilde Thange (10)
Friday November 23, 2012, 11:51 am
I think the story indicates who was shaping our country and it wasn't Lincoln. He wasn't shaped by it but destroyed by it and lots of others were too including my great grand father..

Diane K (134)
Friday November 23, 2012, 12:30 pm
Interesting. I like the movie about Lincoln, though mostly about abolishing slavery. thanks

Madhuri Pillai (22)
Friday November 23, 2012, 1:04 pm
Human beings, we are just that nothing more, nothing less, not perfect, we all have feet of clay!

Mary Donnelly (47)
Friday November 23, 2012, 1:42 pm
Thanks Kit--great post, useful comments

Joanne D (38)
Friday November 23, 2012, 1:42 pm
I've long had a soft spot for John Quincy Adams myself, not his Presidency, but his career after he was President. From all accounts he was personally an inflexible SOB (no reference to Abigail intended), but he did accomplish some impressive things in Congress, and arguing before the Supreme Court, and apparently being freed of electioneering (that was a condition of his running, that he would never solicit votes) was good for him and allowed him to live his conscience.

Nelson Baker (0)
Friday November 23, 2012, 2:31 pm
Thank you for the article.

Past Member (0)
Friday November 23, 2012, 8:49 pm
Merci for this, Kit :-)

Gloria Morotti (14)
Friday November 23, 2012, 8:50 pm
Thanks for the information.

John B (185)
Friday November 23, 2012, 9:48 pm
Thanks Kit for this great post and the link to the full article. Excellent read. Lincoln was a good human and a good politician. The best example of "the good, the bad and (and in his case) the ugly" Read and noted.

paul m (93)
Saturday November 24, 2012, 5:34 am


Esther Z (94)
Saturday November 24, 2012, 6:31 am
Unregulated Capitalism will always lead to unrestrained greed. Period.

Sergio Padilla (65)
Saturday November 24, 2012, 4:30 pm
Thank you for posting

Kit B (276)
Saturday November 24, 2012, 4:55 pm

I'm thrilled to read how many of you "GOT IT" while others just missed the point. That's okay the most important factor about reading these articles, the better ones offer a perspective into history, often from a differing point of view that we are not expecting.

Michael C (217)
Sunday November 25, 2012, 10:20 pm
Noted, excellent article, Kit

Parvez Zuberi (7)
Sunday November 25, 2012, 11:22 pm
Interesting article thanks
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