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Law "on the circuit" in the 19th century

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

Many people have heard the colorful stories about Abraham Lincoln's law practice "riding the circuit" in frontier Illinois. Few realize that the practice of law in Wisconsin in the early days was similar to Lincoln's experience.

In 1850 Wisconsin consisted mostly of isolated villages connected by a primitive network of dirt roads and canals. Railroads were just beginning to appear. The northern half of the state was virtually a wilderness. In order to survive, many lawyers had to "ride circuit." Unlike today, when almost every county has its own judges, Wisconsin in 1850 had only six circuit judges for the entire state. They would hold sessions of court for a few days in one county, then move on -- followed by many local lawyers -- to the next county seat. Travel was slow, and as a result many lawyers spent most of the year away from home.

Court sessions provided much of the local entertainment in an age when there was no radio or television. Wisconsinites loved courtroom arguments; the longer and more colorful, the better. In major cases, it was not unusual for arguments to go on for several days. Today, an argument of more than 30 minutes is rare. One observer gave a somewhat tongue in cheek description of an argument which Joseph Mills of Lancaster gave before the Supreme Court in 1850, which was typical of the time:

[He] chops in every kind of thing, scripture, philosophy, geology, mesmerism, ichthyology, ornithology, zoology, poetry, law, rhetoric, farming and everything ... Presently they will begin to start out like rockets in all directions and all colors and heights and figures ... and after flashing and surprising a while he gathers one and another in any way he can and lays them as awkwardly as possible ... points and postures so queer that all laugh all the while and still admire his wit, good sense and nonsense.

Wisconsin did not have any law schools until 1868. A few lawyers received legal training in eastern schools, but the vast majority apprenticed with an older lawyer for a year or two and then launched into business for themselves. Sometimes this turned out to be inadequate training. One attorney commented in 1850 that "as a general thing I should say [the lawyers] are not any too much given to hard study. .... [M]ost appear to enjoy sport and leisure, and are apt to try to live by their wits." Justice Roujet Marshall of the Wisconsin Supreme Court remembered that when he practiced law in Chippewa Falls in the 1870s, his colleagues "readily turned aside from the business of the profession at most any time during business hours to enjoy a social game of cards with more or less drinks by the side."

Nevertheless the early Wisconsin bar had many men of great ability who took advantage of the extraordinary opportunities available to help shape the new state. When Wisconsin became a state, it had to create a new set of laws almost from scratch. Many lawyers attended the state's two constitutional conventions in 1846 and 1847 and helped write the state's basic legal code. Unlike today, when most lawyers remain in private life, a huge number of early lawyers served in the state Legislature and other public offices, where they filled in the details the Constitution had left blank.

Many lawyers were also active in business, particularly land development and the lumber industry. Judge James Doty was responsible for the creation of Madison and its basic central layout, and Moses Strong of Mineral Point was an early leader in the development of Wisconsin's railroads and lumber industry. Much of the economic, political and legal work of Wisconsin's early lawyers survives in our state life today.

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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