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Allen C. Guelzo


Self-Improvement

The surprising connection between American political theory and cognitive psychology.

In 1855, the Rock Island Railroad and its subsidiary, the Rock Island Bridge Company, built a bridge across the Mississippi River at Rock Island, Illinois. A year later, the steamboat Effie Afton collided with one of the bridge piers, and the boat's owners promptly filed suit in federal court against the bridge company, asking for compensatory damages and the removal of the bridge as a hazard to navigation.

More was here, though, than met the eye: the bridge represented the first reach of the northern railroad system across the Mississippi, and the Effie Afton's Saint Louis owners saw this as a direct threat to the grasp that the river and the slave-holding South held on midwestern agriculture. At the trial, the bridge company's chief counsel charged that the boat had been deliberately wrecked as a political gesture, with the owners of the Afton attempting to break up the Northern railroads in just the same way that Southern politicians were threatening "a dissolution of the Union" in order to shore up the slipping hegemony of slavery. But then, he added, the wreck of the Afton was also a psychological gesture. The pilot of the Afton had been driven, not just by the politics, but by "passion"—by a mad, unreasonable urge to wreck what could not be controlled—when, if reason had been in charge, "the chances are that he would have had no disaster at all." The jury listened to both arguments, and then deadlocked, nine to three, in favor of the bridge company.

The chief counsel for the bridge company was Abraham Lincoln.

It does not come as a great surprise to find that Lincoln in 1857 would discover a political analogy between Southern threats to disrupt the railroads and Southern threats to disrupt the Union. Lincoln was a successful railroad lawyer in Illinois throughout the 1850s and had "always been an anti-slavery man," and the Effie Afton suit presented an irresistible convergence of the two.

What strikes us as peculiar was why Lincoln followed his political ...

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