From The Archives: Lincoln’s Greatest Case–Sort of

One of the recurring themes this fall as we worked our way along the Great River Road, crossing the Mississippi back and forth between Iowa and Wisconsin was, in fact, the question of crossing the river.  We think of “bridge-building” as a metaphor for bringing communities together, but the construction of real-life bridges was often a contentious matter, whether it was a question of paying tolls or protecting the value of river front businesses that would be cut off by the installation of a bridge.*

The hardest fought battles were over bridges that limited the ability of steamboats to travel freely up and down the river.  The lumber industry and the steamboat companies that served it were anti-bridge.  But there was a new steam-driven technology that needed to cross the river in order to expand, the railroads.  The competition between steamboats and railroads led to tragedy, change, and an interesting step in the career of a small-time attorney named Abraham Lincoln.

Mississippi steamboat race

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

Brian McGinty  uses his skills as both attorney and historian in Lincoln’s Greatest Case: The River, The Bridge and The Making of America.

In May, 1856, the steamboat Effie Afton hit a pillar of the Rock Island Bridge–the first railroad bridge across the Mississippi. Both steamboat and bridge caught fire. The Effie Acton sank, with all its cargo. The Illinois side of the bridge collapsed onto the wreck of the steamboat the next day. In the trial that followed, the powerful steamboat interest fought the developing railroad industry for control of the Mississippi, and the nation’s shipping business.

McGinty sets out the complicated story with the clarity of a legal brief. He places the trial and its issues solidly in a historical context that includes the role of the Mississippi in American economic life, the Dred Scott case, Abraham Lincoln’s career, and westward expansion. He leads readers through the intricacies of legal principles governing interstate commerce and judicial jurisdiction, steamboat operation, bridge construction and river currents with a sure hand. He reports the day-to-day unfolding of the trial with an eye to both the personalities and the issues involved.

Lincoln’s Greatest Case tells an intriguing story that will appeal to anyone interested in the commercial and industrial history of the United States, but the title is misleading. Anyone expecting a courtroom drama with Lincoln at its center will be disappointed. There’s a reason the Effie Afton trial is little more than a footnote in most Lincoln biographies: Lincoln was not the lead attorney in the team defending the Rock Island Bridge. He is simply the best-known character in a colorful cast.


* A phenomenon familiar to anyone who has seen a small town that withered after the installation of the interstate routed all traffic away from its downtown.

This review originally appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.