Lawyers fueled railroad's
takeover of the South
By Robert Brickhouse
think a good lawyer is about the best man in the world, and a
mean lawyer is probably about the meanest man in the world.
-- Alexander Hamilton, vice president and general counsel,
Atlantic oast Line railroad, ca. 1900
In nearly every 19th-century Southern county seat, two buildings
stood at the center of the landscape: the courthouse and the railroad
depot. In the decades after the Civil War in these towns, certain
familiar figures could be seen strolling regularly between the
two landmark buildings.
new book by a U.Va. historian examines in detail for the first
time the central role these powerful but largely forgotten men
played in transforming the entire region. They were railroad lawyers,
hired by the growing monopolies that were spreading their lines
into almost every corner of the South to transport its lumber,
coal, cotton and other products.
for the Railroad: Business, Law, and Power in the New South by
William G. Thomas, recently published by the Louisiana State University
Press, provides the first full account of how this interstate
railroad monopoly power developed in the South and traces its
wide-ranging, long-lasting effects on the Southern political economy.
The research has drawn high praise both from historians and legal
scholars as a significant blend of Southern history, business
history and legal history.
describes how these late 19th- and early 20th-century Southerners,
who included both corporate counsel in cities and local attorneys
in dusty crossroads, worked in often amoral ways to protect the
railroads from adverse legislation. Methods ranged from giving
free rail passes to legislators to hiring lawmakers themselves
as railroad counsel. Railroad lawyers also worked to protect the
interstate corporations from lawsuits over property rights-of-way
and from litigation stemming from the numerous train wrecks as
the rail lines spread throughout the region.
every county where these lines ran, the railroad corporations
retained attorneys to represent their interests, Thomas documents.
These lawyers became a powerful group of pro-growth advocates,
and many became the most effective proponents of the new business
economy of the region. Some of them saw themselves at the time
as having succeeded the South's planter class in wielding the
region's real power after the abolition of slavery. Thomas, who
directs the Virginia Center for Digital History at U.Va. and received
his Ph.D. here, shows how railroad attorneys, often in their roles
as lobbyists, were constantly enmeshed in the South's political
and economic action in that era. They laid out all the legal agreements
to create the monopolies and assured quick and favorable settlements
for the railroads.
crisscrossed the South to visit archives of railroad and court
materials. He probed legal department records from some of the
South's largest interstate railroads -- including the Southern,
Norfolk & Western, Illinois Central, Louisville & Nashville, the
Gulf, the Colorado and Santa Fe, and the Southern Pacific -- and
covered the Guilded Age and Progressive Era, periods when the
South experienced explosive growth and sharp change.
railroad lawyers included both good and bad extremes, Thomas makes
clear. Some "saw their way clear to a moral vision of the
law, making difficult choices along the way. Many felt deep inner
conflict about their role in the New South political economy,
wondering about their dependence on big Northern-owned corporations.
Some of them acted in ways that we might find reprehensible."
Railroads "united and divided the region in new ways, imposing
their own system and design on the old landscape," Thomas
says. As for the lawyers who did their bidding, he found, most
felt "it was their professional duty to defend the railroad
corporations' wrongs. They believed that their public behavior
was necessary, even good, for the community and this made up for
any private misgivings. Free of moral responsibility, lawyers
could gain a comfortable living through collusion with railroad
corporations in manipulating a region desperate for a measure