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 fastgrowing 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.
Later, in his political career, Bryan tried to turn this principled position into a virtue and at key moments took a vigorous stand against the railroads. His opposition to the railroads, it turns out, was remarkably consistent, and throughout his career he tried to focus widespread resentment against the big corporations into meaningful political change and greater economic opportunity for working people. After a trip to Europe in 1906, he was so impressed with the efficiency of government-run rail that he came back convinced the United States should make the railroads a publicly owned enterprise, a stance he had avoided earlier. Indeed, he quickly backed away from this idea only to return to it again in 1919. The railroads and the corporate power they symbolized were a political lodestar for Bryan, guiding his course through decades of his political life, a reference point again and again to gain his bearings on the problem of economic and social justice for the laboring classes. The political problem Bryan faced throughout his career was how to confront the railroads successfully, for after all they were, in effect, both the engine of corruption and the engine of growth.
William G. Thomas, III,
William Jennings Bryan, the Railroads, and the Politics of "Workingmen",
86 Neb. L. Rev.
Available at: https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/nlr/vol86/iss1/7