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Lawyers fueled railroad's takeover of the South

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Lawyering for the RailroadLawyers fueled railroad's takeover of the South

By Robert Brickhouse

I 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.

A 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.

Lawyering 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.

Thomas 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.

In 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.

Thomas 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.

The 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 of prosperity."


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