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Lincoln and the Illinois Central Railroad

Amy Yaeger
Mt. Vernon Township High School, Mt. Vernon

The fact that Lincoln was an accomplished lawyer is often overlooked. Lincoln argued many important cases, two of which were the Illinois Central Railroad Company v. the County of McLean and George Parke, Sheriff and Collector and State v. Illinois Central R.R. Both Lincoln's legal and political careers benefited from these cases.

Lincoln's involvement with the Illinois Central Railroad began before either one of those cases, when Lincoln was a lobbyist for the railroad. Between 1853 and 1860 Lincoln handled many cases in the Eighth Judicial Circuit involving the Illinois Central. Lincoln's representation of the railroad involved its exemption from taxation if it paid a "charter tax" of 5 percent of its annual gross revenue for the first five years, and after those five years the tax would increase to 7 percent. These were the terms of the railroad's charter with the state of Illinois. In 1853, McLean County, however, levied a tax on the railroad's property, claiming that the state did not have the authority to exempt the Illinois Central from county taxes. Lincoln presented this case for the railroad before the Illinois Supreme Court in 1855 and won.

After Lincoln successfully defended the railroad company against the efforts of McLean County to tax its property, he received the largest fee of his legal career—$5,000. However, Lincoln had several obstacles to overcome in collecting this money. When he presented his bill of services rendered (which was thought to be a fair price, not only by Lincoln, but also by many of his colleagues), Illinois Central disregarded it. He then took legal action against the railroad company. This case was brought before the McLean County Circuit Court on June 18, 1857. The lawyer for Illinois Central did not show up; therefore, Lincoln was awarded the money. Later, the lawyer for the railroad company asked for a retrial on June 23, 1857. At this trial, Lincoln only asked for the amount of $4,800 because Illinois Central had already paid $200 to him. The railroad company was ordered to pay him again. However, it still did not pay. The sheriff was then ready to seize some of the railroad's property until they paid Lincoln. This action was not necessary because Lincoln was finally paid.

Two years later on January 31, 1859, a suit was tiled with the Supreme Court by the state of Illinois against the Illinois Central Railroad Company for back taxes due on property owned by the railroad company. Lincoln represented Illinois Central. This was to become one of the biggest cases of Lincoln's legal career.

After the suit was filed, both parties agreed that the railroad would provide a list of stock, property, and assets to be filed with the state auditor. Based upon that list, the Illinois Central was to pay a certain amount of taxes to the state, which it did. The state had taxed the property according to what it would be worth when fully developed, not at its current value.

Both parties agreed that the case would finally be heard in the First Grand Division of the Supreme Court at Mt. Vernon to determine the true value of the stock, property, and assets. J. B. White, State's Attorney, Stephen T. Logan, and Milton Hay represented the state.

The court ruled in favor of the Illinois Central, stating that property should be taxed at its current value, not at its potential value. The court ruled that Illinois Central had actually overpaid taxes to the state of Illinois and, therefore, did not owe any more taxes. Illinois Central did not request that any money be refunded.

Throughout his time with Illinois Central, Lincoln's legal career got a big boost from arguing such cases as these. He had proven himself to be a very intelligent and talented man, capable of considerable accomplishment. As Lincoln's legal career moved forward, his leadership skills as well as his speaking skills sharpened. Lincoln was preparing for the presidency, whether he knew it or not.— [From Patrick W. Riddleberger, "President Abraham Lincoln: An American Lawyer," Appellate Law Review (Summer 1991); State v. Illinois Central Railroad, 26 Ill. 64 (1861).]


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