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Chief Justice Dixon and the states rights movement

Written by Joseph A. Ranney, Attorney at Law
Phone: (608) 283-5612

In 1850 Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required northerners to help slave owners recapture runaway slaves. The Act set off waves of protest in the north, which deeply resented being forced to support a system it hated. In 1854, in the case of In re Booth, the Wisconsin Supreme Court stood alone against the rest of the United States and struck down the law.

The court agreed with advocates of states rights who said that Wisconsin could make its own law even though the U.S. Supreme Court had said the Act was constitutional. It ignored the arguments of Wisconsin federalists such as Edward Ryan of Milwaukee and Timothy Howe of Green Bay. Ryan and Howe warned bad laws could be changed over time but courts who encouraged defiance would do permanent damage to the ideal of equal and impartial justice. The states rights movement dominated Wisconsin politics. Politicians who urged that federal laws be obeyed were turned out of office.

The federal government appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and in 1859 the high court overturned the Wisconsin Supreme Court's Booth decision. Chief Justice Roger Taney ruled that the U.S. Constitution required the states to obey federal laws, even slavery laws. "No one," said Taney, "will suppose that a government could have lasted a single year, if offenses against its laws could not have been punished without the consent of the state in which the culprit was found."

Wisconsin scorned greeted Taney's decision. Why should freedom-loving Wisconsinites honor an opinion of the author of the infamous Dred Scott decision who was clearly trying to help the Southern cause? The Legislature passed a resolution denouncing the decision as "stopping nothing short of despotism." It darkly stated: "A positive defiance is the right remedy." Carl Schurz, a Republican leader [who later served as a Civil War general, U.S. senator and Secretary of the Interior] proclaimed: "We have come to the point where it is loyalty to resist, and treason to submit."

But the tide now turned in favor of Wisconsin federalists, who gained an unlikely hero: newly appointed Chief Justice Luther Dixon of Portage. When the Wisconsin Supreme Court received a copy of Taney's decision, it ignored it and refused to file it. This was an unprecedented step: normally, filing of decisions was routine. This action was too much for Dixon. He, like his colleagues, believed the Fugitive Slave Act was unconstitutional but unlike them, he believed the Court should respect even federal laws it disagreed with. Dixon would be up for election in 1860, and he knew if he made his position public it could cost him his career. But he courageously defended the rule of law in a public statement.

Dixon warned the states rights doctrine "would place it in the power of any one state, beyond all peaceful remedy, to arrest the execution of the laws of the entire Union, and to break down and destroy at pleasure every barrier created and right given by the Constitution. Even if it be granted that both Congress and the Supreme Court have improperly discharged the high trust reposed in them by the American people, it has not tendency to prove or disprove the existence of this power."

States rights forces promptly found a candidate to oppose Dixon at the 1860 election. But many Wisconsinites admired Dixon's courage even though they disagreed with his position. They saw that northern power was growing and might soon take over the federal government, and they feared that states rights would backfire on them when that happened. After a bitter, hard-fought campaign, Dixon narrowly won re-election by a margin of 400 votes.

Dixon's re-election marked the beginning of the end of the states rights movement. When the civil war began, most states rights supporters realized their best hope now lay with the federal government. The federalists' argument that bad laws could be changed over time had proven true.

Luther Dixon served as chief justice until 1874 and made many important contributions to Wisconsin law, but his first important decision -- his dissenting statement in the Booth case -- was also his finest.

Note: The views expressed in this article are the author's alone. Distributed as a public service by the Wisconsin Supreme Court in honor of the state's sesquicentennial.

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