Abraham Lincoln, Railroad Lawyer Extraordinaire

All of us identify Abraham Lincoln with the Civil War and the abolition of slavery. In his PBS National Parks series, Ken Burns reminded us that Lincoln was even more than that – that in the midst of the brutal war, he signed the Yosemite Land Grant to protect the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of giant Sequoias. That historic measure set aside land for public use and preservation and put the land under the soon-to-be questioned protection of California, not the federal government. It was a first step toward what would later become a system of national parks. (Yellowstone became the first national park in 1872. Yosemite became part of the national park system in 1890.)

But before Lincoln became a president worthy of Mount Rushmore, he had to make a living. And he made that living as a very successful lawyer – primarily a very successful railroad lawyer. Admitted to the Illinois state bar in 1836, Lincoln pretty much took whatever business he could get early in his career. That meant traveling town to town, often sharing rooms, and beds, with other struggling lawyers – that’s just the way it was.

By the early 1850’s, railroads were on the rise, offering an alternative to other forms of transportation such as riverboats and stagecoach lines. As a member of the Whig Party, Lincoln supported “internal improvements,” private transportation projects subsidized by state funds. The Whigs, and later the Republicans, saw such projects as benefiting the economy.

The railroads also provided another revenue stream for lawyers. In the 1850’s, Lincoln began handling a significant amount of railroad litigation, sometimes as a railroad company’s lawyer, sometimes representing the railroad company’s adversary. By 1860, he had established a solid reputation as an attorney with railroad litigation expertise. He counted as his most valuable client the Illinois Central, whose general superintendent was George McClellan, with whom he later locked horns when McClellan served as commander of the Army of the Potomac.

In one case, Lincoln earned $4,800 in legal fees from the Illinois Central. That amount is equivalent to almost $150,000 in 2015 currency. Lincoln represented the Illinois Central in more than fifty cases.

Because of his support for internal improvements and his representation of the railroads, it came as no surprise that Lincoln strongly supported plank 16 of the 1860 Republican Party platform:

That a railroad to the Pacific [O]cean is imperatively demanded by the interests of the whole country; that the Federal Government ought to render immediate and efficient aid in its construction ….

As President, Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act of 1862 and its amendment in 1864. Although little progress on the country’s first transcontinental railroad would take place until the nasty business of civil war ended, Lincoln saw the railroad as critical to the country’s future. Railroading had become part of his DNA. While the war in one sense impeded the progress of the railroad, in another way it served to accelerate the project because Congress no longer included Southern politicians holding out for a southern route. Thus, war was a mixed blessing.

The Central Pacific’s construction of the western leg of the transcontinental railroad serves as the historical backdrop of my second novel, Trouble at Mono Pass. Search this blog for other articles about the Central Pacific’s interesting cast of characters.


  • Abraham Lincoln Historical Society, “Abraham Lincoln, the Railroad Lawyer,”   abraham-lincoln-history.org.
  • Bain, David, Empire Express (Penguin Group 1999).
  • Central Pacific Railroad Photographic History Museum, org/Museum/Tunnels.html.
  • Ely, James W., Jr., “Abraham Lincoln as a Railroad Attorney,” indianahistory.org.
  • Shultz, Jay, Hurd v. Rock Island Railroad Company,” lib.niu.edu.

1 Comment

Filed under Transcontinental Railroad

One response to “Abraham Lincoln, Railroad Lawyer Extraordinaire

  1. sheafferhistorian

    Reblogged this on Practically Historical.

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