How I Wrote “Lincoln’s Greatest Case”

On May 6, 1856, a steamboat known as the Effie Afton crashed into the first railroad bridge ever built across the Mississippi River, erupted in flames, and quickly sank in the river waters. No one was killed in the crash, but the steamboat was a total loss, and the bridge itself—called the Rock Island Bridge––was badly damaged. The owners of the steamboat filed suit against the owners of the bridge to recover damages sustained in the collision. Abraham Lincoln, then practicing law in his hometown of Springfield, Illinois, was retained as one of the lawyers for the defense of the suit.

Lincoln was a skillful courtroom lawyer. Largely self-taught, he had learned how to persuade judges and juries by actually encountering them in the courtroom. He was tall and thin and had a reedy voice that, when first heard, was not impressive. But the longer people listened to him speak, the more impressed they became. Thus he was able to prevail in many—not by any means all––of the courtroom battles he engaged in.

The trial began on September 8, 1857, in the crowded courtroom of the United States Circuit Court in Chicago. John McLean of Ohio, an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, presided (it was then the duty of Supreme Court justices to spend part of their times presiding over circuit court trials). Officially titled Hurd et al. v. The Railroad Bridge Company, but better known to newspaper reporters as the Effie Afton case, the trial was recognized from the outset as one of the most important ever heard in Illinois, for the transportation future of the state, of the Middle West, and of the nation depended in large measure on its outcome. It raised important questions. Could a railroad bridge be built across the greatest river in North America without violating the navigation rights of steamboats? Could the Rock Island Bridge remain standing in the face of a great lawsuit for damages, or would the decision of the jury force it to be torn down?

Historians of Lincoln and America’s transportation history have called the trial the most significant in Lincoln’s nearly twenty-five-year career at the Illinois bar. They have described his participation in the trial his “finest hour” as a lawyer, and said that it showed him “at his most forward-looking and innovative as a legal practitioner.” It had “transcendent importance in the rivalry between the railroads and the river interests.”

My research into the trial was prompted by two of my particular fascinations––the conduct of legal trials in the mid–nineteenth century and the efforts of government representatives and forward–looking business men to tie American together by rails. The United States had only recently acquired territory that extended from the Atlantic seaboard and the Midwestern states to the far–distant Pacific Ocean. Transportation routes crossing the continent were still very primitive––stage coaches, covered wagons––or time–consuming––sailing ships, some that sailed around the tip of South America and others that transported passengers to Central America where, after crossing the isthmus, they could board other ships that would take them north along the coast to California. To build a railroad that would eliminate all of these difficulties was a dream that many progressive men and women––Abraham Lincoln among them––shared.

As I dug deep into the story of the Effie Afton case, I became fascinated.

First, I was fascinated by Lincoln’s participation in the trial (he was not the only attorney who represented the bridge interests, but he was one of the most important). He was an avid supporter of railroad construction and sincerely believed that a transcontinental railroad would help to tie the distant shores of the United States into a more perfect union.

Secondly, I was fascinated by the history of steamboat traffic on the Mississippi in the first half of the nineteenth century. I learned a lot about the progress of railroads west of the Appalachians in the middle of the century, and about the epochal clash of the railroads and the steamboats at the river’s edge. I learned how the Rock Island Bridge carried the first iron rails across the Mississippi and how steamboat owners and their supporters fought to bring it down.

Lincoln had a close relationship with the western rivers and riverboats when he was a young man, and as an adult he was never far from the railroads, which came into Illinois as he was beginning his legal and political careers. He was a river man in his early years, and a railroad attorney of sorts in his middle years (he never worked exclusively for railroads, but took cases both for them and against them). The river and the railroads form an indispensible background to the story of the Rock Island Bridge, the Effie Afton’s demise at its base in 1856, and Lincoln’s career as a lawyer and politician, both before and after the Effie Afton trial.

I was surprised to learn that historians had not focused more attention on the trial and its place in the transportation history of the United States. It has been mentioned in almost every serious book and article about Lincoln’s legal career, but often as a mere footnote to the main narrative. This may be, at least in part, because it does not have the raw appeal of a sensational murder trial (Lincoln and his partners participated in at least twenty-six homicide trials in their careers) or one that touched on slavery, the great political, moral, and legal issue of Lincoln’s time.

My research of the story was fascinating. I visited the site of the great collision––the river breadth that extends between Rock Island, Illinois, and Davenport, Iowa. I found detailed newspaper accounts of the trial proceedings, some that reported in details on Lincoln’s speech to the jury. I learned that the Rock Island Bridge was the first railroad bridge to span the largest and most important river in North America (a bridge for pedestrians, carriages, and wagons had opened a year earlier in Minnesota, but no span with rails had previously crossed the Mississippi). I learned that the bridge permitted trains of the Chicago and Rock Island and the Mississippi and Missouri railroads (and potentially other railroads as well) to cross the great river, significantly increasing their capacity to move passengers and freight from east to west. I also learned that it threatened the economic supremacy of the steamboats which had, for almost half a century, been the most important mode of transportation in the trans-Mississippi region––perhaps in the entire nation. I learned that it was a landmark in the development of the law governing America’s navigable waters, establishing for the first time that steamboats did not have the exclusive use of navigable waterways. I further learned that the trial did not end in a decision either for the railroads or the steamboats. The jury was hung––but the efforts of the steamboat interests to bring the bridge down failed, thus crushing their efforts. It was this that prompted the noted railroad historian Albro Martin to recognize the case as a “milestone in the vast changes in American law and jurisprudence.”

The struggle over the Rock Island Bridge was only one of the epochal conflicts that were fought in 1857. The widely condemned Dred Scott decision was another that took place in 1857. There was also a severe panic that shook the economic foundations of the United States. The Effie Afton trial may not have appeared to be as earth-shaking as these other conflicts. At the end of the trial, however, the Rock Island Bridge stood tall and erect. The iron rails that spanned the river remained intact, binding together the eastern and western banks of the Mississippi, providing a powerful spur to the growth of the northern city of Chicago, and stifling (for the time being at least) the transportation aspirations of southern cities like Memphis, Vicksburg, and New Orleans. It handed Chicago, a city free of slaves in a state free of slavery, a victory at the expense of St. Louis, a city where slaves toiled in the streets and in the warehouses, hotels, restaurants, and factories that led back from the crowded waterfront.

I was able to complete a full book about the Effie Afton case and the successful efforts to keep the Rock island Bridge standing (although it, of course, needed repairs, and would soon be replaced by larger and more durable spans). It touched in many places on Lincoln’s long and eventful life as a lawyer, thus helping to explain his role in the bridge case and demonstrating his skills in the courtroom. It revealed why the distinguished Lincoln historian Philip Shaw Paludan wrote that Lincoln’s legal experiences helped him develop skills that were “imperative in the crisis of disunion.” “Thinking like a lawyer,” Paludan wrote, “was a profound part of his makeup.” Lawyer, judge, and Lincoln scholar Frank J. Williams agreed. He expressed a high opinion of the legal skills that truly successful lawyers must have and that Lincoln brought to the presidency. Prolific Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer also agreed, writing that “Lincoln’s life as a lawyer informed nearly every aspect of his future, a future that became inseparable from the nation’s future.”

Other historians, of course, disagree. I do not. I think that the skills he developed in examining and cross-examining witnesses, in arguing the law to judges, and in persuading juries were keys to his ability, after he became president, to speak to the American people, to argue the case for preservation of the Union that was threatened with destruction by the Confederate rebellion, and ultimately to save the United States and its people—including its long-suffering African American people—from destruction.

After its publication by the Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W.W. Norton & Co., my book reached a good audience. I was invited to the Abraham Lincoln Bookshop in Chicago to speak. The Chicago Tribune devoted a full page of its newspaper to a description of the book, which was also reviewed by the New York Post, the Wall Street Journal, and the Christian Science Monitor, all quite favorably.