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Railroads, Riverboats and the Right to Do the Obvious

As a lawyer, Abraham Lincoln represents the railroads in their defense against Jefferson Davis and the riverboat companies. The question is, "Does a riverboat have the legal right under the maritime law to prevent a railroad bridge from being built across a river?" Naturally, the Rock Island Bridge has been built to accommodate the boat traffic, but the riverboat companies continue to complain until a riverboat suddenly loses power and steers into a bridge pier and catches fire. Blame is cast upon the strange currents caused by the bridge. They declare the bridge to be a menace to navigation and they go to court. Abraham Lincoln argues that a man has as much a right to cross a river as he does to go up and down the river. That argument, along with his careful measurements of the river currents results in a hung jury. The riverboat companies then jump to the Iowa courts which find that the bridge must be dismantled at the Iowa border... mid-river. This all goes to the Supreme Court where is it is determined that bridges can be built across rivers. (That was a real nail-biter, but it was an unresolved question until now.) [1] [2]

My Take by Alex Shrugged
Just to be clear, the riverboat companies and Jefferson Davis didn't really care about bridges. They were using the issue to stop their competition. The riverboat companies were a dying business because they couldn't haul freight in the wintertime while railroads kept on going. It was believed at the time that the riverboat purposefully rammed into the bridge pier in order to destroy the bridge and thus delay the inevitable. Jefferson Davis was Secretary of War at the time. His motivation was to delay the development of the Northern railway routes until the Southern route was approved and begun. He saw that the South was being overtaken by the North economically with the advantage of moving cargo inland from the Eastern seaports using railway shipping. If the South couldn't build up their cargo transport capacity in ports like Charleston, they were going to lose out to New York, which is exactly what happened. Davis used his position as Secretary of War to declare Rock Island a military reservation even though the Island had been abandoned as a military base years ago. Yeah. The courts didn't buy that BS either.

The Dred Scott Decision

The Supreme Court says that Negros are not citizens of the United States. They said that it is in the Constitution, so you know it must be true. Right? Here is how we arrived at this point. Dred Scott was a slave married to Harriet, also a slave. Their owner was an Army surgeon named Dr. John Emerson. He was stationed in various states... some of them free states. He dies and his slaves are transferred to his wife in Missouri. The bottom line is that at several points in time Dred Scott could have plead for his family's freedom in a court of law and probably won. Instead, he continued to work as a slave to be hired out by his new owner, the wife of the Army surgeon. Finally, Dred Scott offers to buy his freedom, but his owner refuses. Scott takes his owner to court in Missouri which should have ruled in his favor, but instead, the court warns of the dark forces of anti-slavery aligned to overthrow the government. Scott is doomed. This all goes to the Supreme Court which does some fancy footwork to show that somehow the Founding Fathers did not think of Negroes as citizens... not even free Negroes. Therefore they cannot bring suit in a US court. They can pay taxes, though. [3] [4]

"In the opinion of the court, the legislation and histories of the times, and the language used in the Declaration of Independence, show, that neither the class of persons who had been imported as slaves, nor their descendants, whether they had become free or not, were then acknowledged as a part of the people, nor intended to be included in the general words used in that memorable instrument."
-- Chief Justice Roger Taney.
My Take by Alex Shrugged
Abraham Lincoln will make use of the Dred Scott decision in his "House Divided" speech to catapult himself into the national spotlight. To be as charitable as possible, the Supreme Court follows the trend. It doesn't lead. Often they won't take a case until several state and appellate court rulings have already established a trend. Then the Supreme Court will get ahead of the parade and lead it. That is not always true, but it is mostly true. This is how you get rulings like Dred Scott or forced sterilization, or "separate but equal" education that is more separate than equal. In the Dred Scott case, President-elect James Buchanan had a friend on the Supreme Court. Although it was not known at the time, he wrote to his friend and pressured other court members so that the question of slavery would "be speedily and finally settled". By "settled" he meant "dictated". Of course, the ruling didn't settle anything and this case remains one of the most boneheaded rulings the Supreme Court has ever made. ("Boneheaded" is a technical term that historians use to indicate someone who could not pour piss out of a boot even with the instructions printed on the heel.) [5]

The Economic Panic of 1857

Just a quick note on the economic conditions at this time. With all the gold from the California Gold Rush pouring in, investment in businesses has been soaring... especially in train stocks. The miles of railroad track laid has tripled. Coal production has doubled. A risky venture such as the trans-Atlantic telegraph cable would never have been contemplated without this sudden infusion of capital and optimism. As you might guess, an economic bubble is about to burst. There are rumors that Britain is about to circumvent their gold and silver reserve limits which has caused a panic. A ship bound from California to New York sinks will all its gold in the holds. The Dred Scott ruling makes people nervous about an escalation of violence in the territories. Land prices drop a little. Railroad stocks are hit and the trend becomes a slide becomes a fall. A lot of people are left holding the bag... even city governments who hoped to benefit on get-rich-quick stock tips. The economy will stabilize by next year but it won't really recover until after the War Between the States. [6] [7]

In Other News

  • Wine fermentation, vinegar and sour milk are caused by living organisms! A local wine maker asks Louis Pasteur to find out what turns his wine sour after storage. Pasteur finds that bacteria in the air is the cause. Can pasteurization be far behind? 1864 for beer and wine, and 1886 for milk. [8] [9] [10] [11]
  • The first 'safety elevator' is installed by Elisha Otis. Specially shaped rollers grab the sides of the elevator shaft if the cable breaks or the elevator exceeds a certain speed. [12] [8]
  • The laying of the first trans-Atlantic telegraph cable begins. Two ships from each side of the Atlantic pay out cable. By next year, after several failed attempts, they will meet in the middle, splice the cable and it is done. It will lose connection and fail within a few weeks. They will try again in 1865. [13] [14]

This Year in Wikipedia

Year 1857, Wikipedia.

See Also


  1. Pfeiffer, David A. Bridging the Mississippi: The Railroads and Steamboats Clash at the Rock Island Bridge, Prologue Magazine. Summer 2004, Vol. 36, No. 2. Archives.gov, 2014 [last update]
  2. Johnson, Stephen, and Roberto T. Leon. "Effie Afton case." Encyclopedia of Bridges and Tunnels. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2002. American History Online. Facts On File, Inc.
  3. Dred Scott v. Sandford - Wikipedia (2016). Retrieved on 23 August 2016. “Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 US 393 (1857), also known simply as the Dred Scott case, was a landmark decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in which the Court held that 'a negro, whose ancestors were imported into [the U.S.], and sold as slaves', whether enslaved or free, could not be an American citizen and therefore had no standing to sue in federal court, and that the federal government had no power to regulate slavery in the federal territories acquired after the creation of the United States.”
  4. Bogen, David Skillen (October 1990). "The Maryland Context of Dred Scott: The Decline in the Legal Status of Maryland Free Blacks 1776-1810". The American Journal of Legal History (Oxford University Press on behalf of Temple University) 34 (4): 381-411. http://www.jstor.org/stable/845828. Retrieved October 20, 2015. "Taney wrote Dred Scott with the hindsight of eight decades. He believed citizenship for free blacks was unthinkable to the framers in 1787 because it was unthinkable to him in 1857. In this he was wrong. Racial prejudice was strong in the early years of the nation, but the framers could have believed it possible for slavery and racial prejudice to coexist with the ideal of equality under the law for all free men. Fifty years later, Taney saw that they could not.". 
  5. Alex Shrugged notes: Thank you David Weber for that definition of boneheaded.
  6. Panic of 1857 - Wikipedia (2016). Retrieved on 25 August 2016. “Prior to 1857, the railroad industry was booming due to large migrations of people to the west, especially in Kansas. With the large influx of people, the railroads became a profitable industry and the banks seized the opportunity and began to provide railroad companies with large loans. Many of these companies never made it past the stage of a paper railroad, and never owned physical assets necessary to run one. Prices of railroad stocks as a whole began to experience a stock bubble, and railroad stocks saw increasingly speculative entries into the fray, making the bubble worse. In the meantime, the aforementioned Dred Scott decision lent uncertainty to railroads in general.”
  7. Gordon, John Steele. A Thread Across the Ocean. Walker & Company. ISBN 9780802713643. “This flood of new wealth set off one of the country's great economic expansions. Production of pig iron, a good measure of the economy as the Industrial Revolution developed, increased from 63,000 tons in 1850 to 883,000 tons only six years later. Coal production more than doubled; railroad trackage tripled. Nearly as many corporations were formed in the 1850s as had been formed in the previous half century.” 
  8. 8.0 8.1 Grun, Bernard. The Timetables of History: A Horizontal Linkage of People and Events. Simon and Schuster, 420-421. 
  9. Acetic acid bacteria - Wikipedia (2016). Retrieved on 25 August 2016. “Vinegar is produced when acetic acid bacteria act on alcoholic beverages such as wine.”
  10. Louis Pasteur - Wikipedia (2016). Retrieved on 25 August 2016. “In 1856 a local wine manufacturer, M. Bigot, the father of his student, sought for his advice on the problems of making beetroot alcohol and souring after long storage.[21] In 1857 he developed his ideas stating that: 'I intend to establish that, just as there is an alcoholic ferment, the yeast of beer, which is found everywhere that sugar is decomposed into alcohol and carbonic acid, so also there is a particular ferment, a lactic yeast, always present when sugar becomes lactic acid.' According to his son-in-law, Pasteur presented his experiment on sour milk titled 'Latate Fermentation' in August 1857 before the Société des Sciences de Lille. (But according to a memoire subsequently published, it was dated November 30, 1857).”
  11. Pasteurization - Wikipedia (2016). Retrieved on 25 August 2016. “Pasteurization of milk was suggested by Franz von Soxhlet in 1886.”
  12. Elevator - Wikipedia (2016). Retrieved on 25 August 2016. “In 1852, Elisha Otis introduced the safety elevator, which prevented the fall of the cab if the cable broke. The design of the Otis safety elevator is somewhat similar to one type still used today. A governor device engages knurled roller(s), locking the elevator to its guides should the elevator descend at excessive speed. He demonstrated it at the New York exposition in the Crystal Palace in a dramatic, death-defying presentation in 1854, and the first such passenger elevator was installed at 488 Broadway in New York City on March 23, 1857.”
  13. Transatlantic telegraph cable - Wikipedia (2016). Retrieved on 25 August 2016. “The project began in 1854 and was completed in 1858. The cable functioned for only three weeks, but it was the first such project to yield practical results. The first official telegram to pass between two continents was a letter of congratulation from Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom to the President of the United States James Buchanan on August 16. Signal quality declined rapidly, slowing transmission to an almost unusable speed. The cable was destroyed the following month when Wildman Whitehouse applied excessive voltage to it while trying to achieve faster operation. It has been argued that the faulty manufacture, storage and handling of the 1858 cable would have led to premature failure in any case.[2] The cable's rapid failure undermined public and investor confidence and delayed efforts to restore a connection. A second attempt was undertaken in 1865 with much-improved material and, following some setbacks, a connection was completed and put into service on July 28, 1866. This cable proved more durable.”
  14. Gordon, John Steele. A Thread Across the Ocean. Walker & Company. ISBN 9780802713643. 

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