LINCOLN, Abraham. Autograph letter signed ("A. Lincoln") as President, TO SECRETARY OF WAR EDWIN M. STANTON, Washington, D.C., 23 May 1863. 2 pages, 4to, on "Executive Mansion" letterhead stationery. In superb condition. Folding morocco-backed protective case.
"IF I HAD THE LEISURE WHICH I HAVE NOT...": PREOCCUPIED BY LOOMING BATTLES ON TWO FRONTS, LINCOLN REVISITS A CASE INVOLVING THE ILLINOIS CENTRAL RAILROAD
At the time this letter was written, four months after the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, the nation was about to face a dire military crisis. Confederate General Robert E. Lee, emboldened by his successes at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, was poised to cross the Potomac and march the Army of Northern Virginia deep into central Pennsylvania, hoping to encourage Union peace movements and secure diplomatic recognition from Britain. This major offensive soon culminated in the Battle of Gettysburg, just over five weeks later. At the same time, U.S. Grant continued his dogged attempts to seize Vicksburg, the key rebel stronghold on the Mississippi.
The subject of Lincoln's lengthy letter is an impasse between the Federal government, the State of Illinois and the Illinois Central Railroad Company. The railroad line was established in 1851 on lands granted by authority of President Zachary Taylor. The Illinois Central was the first U.S. railroad to receive such grants, and established main and branch lines running from Chicago to New Orleans. But the charter arrangement had soured in a dispute over haulage (probably of military supplies) performed for the Federal government early in the war. Lincoln furnished Stanton, also a lawyer, this clear resume of the complex legal case:
"In order to construct the Illinois Central Railroad, a large grant of land was made by the United States to the State of Illinois, which land was again given to the Railroad Company by the State, in certain provisions of the Charter. By the U.S. grant, certain privileges were attempted to be secure from the contemplated Railroad to the U.S., and by the charter certain percentage of the income...was to be...paid to the State of Illinois. At the beginning of the present war the Railroad did certain carrying for the U.S. for which it claims pay; and, as I understand, the U.S. claims that at least part...the road was bound to do without pay."
"Though attempts have been made to settle the matter, it remains unsettled; meanwhile, the Road refuses to pay the...State. This delay is working badly; and I understand the delay exists because of there being no definite decision whether the U.S. will settle its own account with the Railroad, or will allow the State to settle it, & account to the State for it."
"If I had the Leisure which I have not, I believe I could settle it; but Prima Facie it appears to me we better settle the account ourselves, because that will save us all question as to whether the State deals fairly with us in the settlement of our account with a third party - the R.R." He directs Stanton to take on the dispute, confer with the former state treasurer and "see if something definite can not be done in the case."
Lincoln's involvement with the Illinois Central Railroad began a decade before, and between 1853 and 1860 Lincoln represented the railroad in some 40 cases, including the well-known case of Illinois Central Railroad Co. vs. The County of McLean. That case involved the state's grant of lands by charter, for which the railroad was to pay a "charter tax" of 5 of revenue for the first five years; thereafter 7 McLean County had sought to levy an additional tax, claiming the state had no authority to exempt the Illinois Central from county taxes. Lincoln successfully argued the railroad's case before the Illinois Supreme Court in 1855 and claimed the largest fee of his legal career - $5,000, contending that the decision in the railroad's favor was worth some $500,000. In the end the railroad was dilatory in compensating Lincoln, and he was forced to take his former clients to court to collect the fee (which he shared with his partner--later his biographer--William Herndon).
In January 1859, the state of Illinois sued the Illinois Central in state Supreme Court for back taxes due on the railroad's assets. Lincoln again represented the railroad in this high-profile case. The dispute hinged on the valuation of the railroad's taxable assets. It was determined that the state had used the wrong formula for assessment and the court ruled in favor of the railroad. But a final settlement proved difficult, as detailed by Lincoln here.
It was in the handling of cases like these--and many far more mundane cases--that Lincoln became an effective litigator and, in the process, trained himself to write clearly and to speak forcefully and eloquently. Through his legal career he honed skills that would prove invaluable to him as a politician and later, as president and commander-in-chief. In court, writes one authority, "Lincoln was preparing for the presidency, whether he knew it or not" (Patrick W. Riddleberger, "President Abraham Lincoln: An American Lawyer," Appellate Law Review (Summer 1991).