For The Railroad: New Study Shows Key Role Of Rail Lawyers In Creating
New South After The Civil War
Dec. 20, 1999 -- 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 University of Virginia 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
Hartog, professor of American legal history at Princeton, cites
Thomass study as "an extraordinarily important contribution
to the social history of American law." According to Daniel
R. Ernst, professor of law at Georgetown University, "Lawyering
for the Railroad" is "a milestone in the history of the
American legal profession" that shows how the rail lawyers
were a driving force behind the integration of the New South into
the national economy.
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. As some of them at the time saw themselves, lawyers
had succeeded the Souths planter class in wielding the regions
real power after the abolition of slavery.
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 Souths
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 Souths
largest interstate railroads -- including the Southern, Norfolk
& Western, Illinois Central, Louisville & Nashville, the
Gulf, the Colorado and Santa Fe, and the Southern Pacific.
the Guilded Age and Progressive Era, periods when the South experienced
explosive growth and sharp change, Thomas shows how the railroads
tried to use the law to mold the southern political economy to their
ends. The legal departments of these vast corporations served as
clearinghouses for every means the railroads used to bring change
to southern communities.
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."
all in all, he says, "the monopoly power of the railroads was
more pervasive than legislative electioneering. It was present in
the daily attempts of everyday southerners to use the legal systems
to seek redress for railroad corporation wrongs and inequities."
"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."
interviews William Thomas may be reached at (804) 924-7834 (office)
or (804) 978-7081. For review copies of "Lawyering for the
Railroad," contact Bob Brickhouse at (804) 924-6856 or LSU
Press at (225) 388-6666, or by fax to LSU Press at (225) 388-6461.
Bob Brickhouse, (804) 924-6856