Monday, April 13, 2015

My Amazon Review of Brian McGinty's "Lincoln's Greatest Case: The River, the Bridge and the Making of America"

Lincoln as Railroad Lawyer

Abraham Lincoln made his living as a railroad lawyer specifically for the Illinois Central and the Chicago and Rock Island. Lawyer/historian Brian McGinty turns his keen eye on the now obscure struggle between steamboat and rail interests for dominance over Midwest transportation that chrystalized with sinking of the steamboat Effie Afton at the Rock Island Bridge. The owners of the Effie Afton supported by the St. Louis river interests sued for damages and argued that the bridge should come down because it was a hazard to navigation. Lincoln’s role in the case was to assist Norman Judd in defending the bridge and its railroad owners. This is a book more for history nerds than for the general reader.

The Rock Island Bridge was the first to cross the Mississippi in 1853 and sinking occurred in 1856. The steamboat interests rightly feared the railroads and fought tooth and nail against them with a strong ally in Washington, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis. Davis was not anti-railroad; he just wanted a more southern route to extend slavery into the southwest. As a Secretary of War he surveyed the west and came up with four potential routes. Although not mentioned in the book, those routes ultimately became the backbones of the Union Pacific, Southern Pacific, Santa Fe and Northern Pacific railroads, but that was to come later.

Lincoln’s main role at the trial was in his summation where without notes he demonstrated his knowledge about all things mechanical and his deep understanding of the currents of the Mississippi River. Although the jury verdict was not unanimous, the 9-3 vote in favor of the bridge opened the way for railroad penetration west of the Mississippi. Norman Judd, the lead counsel, ultimately would become one of the key backers of Lincoln’s presidential run three years later.

McGinty tells a good story, but there is lots of trial stuff here that only a lawyer would love.

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