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Published in Nebraska Law Review Vol. 86:161. Copyright © Copyright held by the NEBRASKA LAW REVIEW. Used by permission.


Early in his career as a lawyer William Jennings Bryan took a principled position that set him apart from many of his colleagues at the bar. When he teamed up with Dolph Talbot in a law practice in Lincoln in 1887, the state was growing faster than any other in the nation in that decade, catapulting from 450,000 residents to over 1 million. It was a promising field for the law business by any measure. Talbot took on a wide spectrum of clientele and represented the Missouri Pacific Railroad, but Bryan refused "to accept money from a railroad company." This in itself was remarkable, as attorneys in fast-growing towns and cities across the west and south vied for the opportunity to claim such a steadily lucrative client. The list of prominent railroad attorneys who made their way into politics was long and distinguished, from Abraham Lincoln of Illinois to Thomas S. Martin of Virginia. As the bar became increasingly professionalized, and at the same time increasingly split between trial and corporate lawyers even in the small towns and cities of the west, Bryan stood squarely on the side opposed to the corporation. His law practice featured a handful of cases in which he opposed the railroads-a tort case representing a seven-year-old girl struck by a Missouri Pacific train in Lincoln, a case for a contractor who had put a lien on the railroad company for payment of services, and a case involving the validity of votes to move a county seat from one railroad line to another. Bryan, it seemed, went out of his way to maintain his political purity and to keep his distance from the largest special interests of the day-the railroads.

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