In the following passage from an interview on C-SPAN with Brian Lamb, Dr. Thomas DiLorenzo accuses Lincoln of being personally corrupt.
LAMB: In another one of your columns you said, ”Lincoln was personally corrupt as well.”
DILORENZO: Yes. Well, one example is there’s an old book that was published in the ’20s and recently reprinted called ”Lincoln and the Railroads” and Lincoln was an attorney for all of the main railroads in the Midwest. He was offered the job of general counsel of the New York Central Railroad, and that, of course is not corrupt, that’s a perfectly legitimate thing.
But one of the things that I found in this book was that Lincoln bought a bunch of land in Council Bluffs, Iowa in 1957 and around the same time he was offered the job of the general counsel of the New York Central Railroad at a pay of $10,000 a year which was a very princely sum in those days, 1857 and he turned it down. And then, a few years later after he got elected president, he – one of the first things he did was to call a special session of Congress and the war had started, to get the ball rolling on the Pacific Railroad bill. And the bill passed about a year or so later and the bill gave the president the right to determine the eastern terminus of the transcontinental railroad and guess where he chose? He chose Council Bluffs, Iowa. And so he must have made a killing on that.
And there was another instance written about in this book where Lincoln worked for his client, the Illinois Central tax case which he won and he presented them with a bill for $5,000 and that was an enormous bill. And the vice president of the Illinois Central that he was dealing with said, ”My board of directors will not pay a $5,000 bill to a country lawyer from Illinois.” So he sued. He sued the Illinois Central. And then, when he went to court, the lawyers for the Illinois Central did not show up and he won the $5,000 by default. And the author of this book John W. Star, he can’t prove that there was some sort of corrupt deal between this vice president of Illinois Central and Lincoln but he strongly suggests there was something, and I think there probably was. By the way, the vice president was George B. McClellan and I’ve read about this and I kept reading it over and over and thought, surely this is not the George McClellan the general, but it was. It was the same man that he was dealing with at the time who would become the commander of the army of the Potomac four years later after this whole episode happened.
So – and I have a speech in Springfield, Illinois last year and I visited Lincoln’s home and he lived on a place now in Springfield that’s called old aristocracy row and he lived in the biggest house in old aristocracy row and his law offices are still there, Lincoln and Herndon law offices are about 100 paces from the old state capital building in Springfield and so he was essentially a lobbyist, the way we would think of him today, for the railroad companies. And that in itself is not corrupt, but I think he did demonstrate some corruption in his career.
Crossroads Comments: The tale of the selection of Council Bluffs is an interesting one. Lincoln had indeed purchased some land in the vicinity in 1857, along with his law partner, Norman Judd. However, Judd bought him out two years later; then Judd borrowed money from Lincoln, who took the land title as collateral. When it came to picking the eastern terminus of the transcontinental railroad in 1863, the two other recommended sites were in areas where war was raging (the Kansas City area and St. Joseph’s Missouri), while Iowa was well north of military operations. If anyone was under suspicion for the selection, it was Grenville Dodge. But wait, wait, there’s more …
Lincoln did have to sue to collect legal fees owed him by the Illinois Central Railroad. In fact, he had to go all the way to New York City in an effort to collect his fee. When the officials failed to pay the fee, Lincoln returned to Illinois and secured a court order against the railroad’s property, causing the railroad to pay up. The proceeds from that settlement were used by Lincoln to lend money to Judd to buy his Iowa lands. All of that, by the way, is in David Donald’s biography of Lincoln (see in particular pages 196-97). As Dr. DiLorenzo speaks well of Donald’s work, I’m at a lost to speculate as to why he ignored all that information. In turn, Donald secured his information from Henry E. Pratt’s Personal Finances of Abraham Lincoln (1943), available here. You might want to take a look at the chapter on Lincoln as a money lender, specifically pages 77-79. That account draws the connection between Lincoln’s legal fee and his transactions with Judd: in turn, perhaps DiLorenzo might consider revisiting his claim.
Finally, I want to draw your attention to DiLorenzo’s remark:
one of the first things he did was to call a special session of Congress and the war had started, to get the ball rolling on the Pacific Railroad bill.
You understand the inference: Lincoln called Congress into session on July 4, 1861, not because it was time to pass measures concerning the conduct of the war, but because he wanted to make a killing on a real estate investment we now know he didn’t have.
I’ll let you draw your own conclusions on what this says about DiLorenzo’s scholarship.
I assume DiLorenzo knows the difference between representing railroads in court and serving as a lobbyist. Oh, Lincoln could do some lobbying for friends on various matters, but I’m not sure how that merits the charge of being personally corrupt. Still, if you want to read his case in detail (a case which rests in large part upon a single book he read), you’ll find it here.