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Lawyering 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.

A 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.

"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.

Hendrik Hartog, professor of American legal history at Princeton, cites Thomas’s 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.

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. As some of them at the time saw themselves, lawyers had 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.

During 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.

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."

But 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."

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."

For 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.

Contact: Bob Brickhouse, (804) 924-6856

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: please contact the Office of University Relations at (804) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (804) 924-7550.
SOURCE: U.Va. News Services

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