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Reviews in American History 28.3 (2000) 428-436

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How to Succeed in Business?
"The First Thing We Do, Let's Hire All the Lawyers"

Christopher Tomlins

William G. Thomas. Lawyering for the Railroad: Business, Law, and Power in the New South. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1999. 338 pp. Photographs, maps, notes, bibliographical note on manuscript sources, selected bibliography, and index. $47.50 (cloth); $24.95 (paper).

The opening sentences of Lawyering for the Railroad are written with a vigor that promises much. "This book is about lawyers, in particular those who represented the railroads. Some of them were mean as hell, sacrificing any moral obligation before their duty to protect their clients. Others saw their way clear to a moral vision of the law, making difficult choices along the way. Many felt deep inner conflict about their role in the New South political economy, wondering about their own dependence on big, northern-owned corporations. Some of them acted in ways that we might find reprehensible. Most viewed their surroundings in plainly pragmatic ways. Whatever their choices, many of them participated in key decisions about the direction, shape, and character of the New South political economy. This book attempts to find out who they were and what kind of choices they made" (p. xi).

It cannot be said that William G. Thomas fails to deliver, descriptively, on any of these fronts. The result is an assemblage of facts, anecdotes, observations, and impressions that, collectively, give pointed emphasis to the strategic role of lawyers in American business history. Lawyers opened the early post-Civil War South to local and regional railroad development, and then guided the increasingly powerful, increasingly northern-owned corporations that grew up in the 1880s and 1890s through the thickets, increasingly hostile, of southern politics and culture. Thomas also pays heed to the impact of that role on lawyers' own professional ideology and organizational practices, making his book a useful contribution to aspects of the history of the legal profession in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, as well as to business history.

Too little of this story, however, is written with the panache that gleams briefly at the outset. The book has empirical substance--Thomas has undertaken assiduous archival research. But he has paid less attention to necessary [End Page 428] tasks of presentation and analysis. Lawyering for the Railroad is indifferently organized, resulting in needless repetition. Beyond an initial footnote, Thomas makes few attempts to develop a rich historical or a theoretical framework for the material he has uncovered. 1 As a book about lawyers it is too narrowly conceived--its examination of the ideology of the Southern legal profession does not dive deep enough, its engagement with the law business's structure and organization is limited and it tells us nothing about legal education. Finally, for a work that promises to examine business, law and power in the new South, its capacity to convince is inhibited by some important blind spots.

First let us consider Lawyering for the Railroad's substance, wherein lies its strengths. Lawyers, Thomas argues, were key actors in southern railroads' quest for unchallengeable ascendancy in the South's new postwar political economy. (By "new political economy," Thomas means the reconfiguration of economic institutions and political-cultural power that emerged in the course of the South's postwar industrialization, a process in which lawyers performed decisively both as designers and brokers.) The demise of slavery meant that the formerly commanding planter class lost its regional authority. Lawyers moved into the void, assuming a degree of local influence and power unparalleled elsewhere in the country (p. 2). Already deeply immersed in the pursuit of business opportunity in the antebellum period (p. 6), lawyers were strategically placed and equipped during the first (1870s) phase of postwar industrialization to negotiate the terms upon which hundreds of railroads sprouted in southern localities and subsequently expanded their rights of way across wider regions. Later, during the '80s, lawyers established the terms for the railroads' next...


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