Articles on Wisconsin legal history

Madison Attorney Joseph A. Ranney authored 47 articles on Wisconsin's legal heritage in honor of the state's Sesquicentennial in 1998. The articles cover topics in Wisconsin history beginning in the 1700s, through the territorial days into statehood, the Civil War, World Wars, Industrialization, the Great Depression, and up to the present.

No. Title Excerpt
1 Thomas Jefferson and the Northwest Ordinance The first important figure in Wisconsin's legal history was Thomas Jefferson. Among his many other achievements Jefferson, with the help of James Monroe, wrote the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 which shaped the way Wisconsin grew to be a state.
2 Law and Wisconsin's Indians White settlers began moving to Wisconsin in large numbers in the 1820s, and it soon became clear that one way or another the Indian tribes inhabiting Wisconsin—the Sauk and Fox, the Menominees, the Chippewas, the Winnebagoes (now known as the Ho-Chunk Nation) and the Potawatomis—would have to give up their lands to the whites.
3 James D. Doty: Wisconsin's first judge James Duane Doty was born in upstate New York in 1799. After finishing school he migrated to the west and settled in the frontier community of Detroit where he was befriended by the governor of Michigan Territory, Lewis Cass.
4 Wisconsin's bank wars Up to 1836 Wisconsin was part of Michigan Territory. In 1836, Michigan became a state and Congress made Wisconsin a separate territory. During the territorial period Wisconsin's population and economy grew rapidly, and the territory's growing pains gave birth to a number of political and legal battles.
5 The beginnings of Wisconsin's progressive tradition: The 1848 Constitution Robert M. LaFollette, who was Wisconsin's governor from 1901 to 1906 and a U.S. senator from 1906 until his death in 1925, is usually credited with being the founder of Wisconsin's progressive tradition. Few people realize that tradition began long before LaFollette.
6 Great Wisconsin judges: Edward Whiton As Wisconsin's first chief justice, Edward Vernon Whiton (1805-1859) played a crucial part in creating a solid foundation for the young state's legal system. Thanks to the great respect and prestige Whiton commanded, the Supreme Court was able to weather several challenges to its authority during its early years which might have overwhelmed other judges.
7 Wisconsin abolishes the death penalty Today, Wisconsin is one of only 12 states which does not have the death penalty for murder and other serious crimes. Our dislike of the death penalty goes back a long way—to 1853, to be exact.
8 Byron Paine, Wisconsin's first civil rights leader Byron Paine of Milwaukee was perhaps the most dramatic figure ever to sit on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. He was the first great hero of the civil rights movement in Wisconsin.
9 Black Wisconsinites' struggle for the vote When Wisconsin became a state very few blacks were allowed to vote anywhere in the United States. Wisconsin became one of the first states to give them the vote—but it did so in a most unusual manner.
10 The impeachment of Judge Hubbell Wisconsin has had a reputation for effective, clean government for many years. But it was not always thus. The story of Levi Hubbell of Milwaukee, an early justice of the state Supreme Court, is one of the more colorful episodes of Wisconsin's early political history and shows that "lawyer bashing" has a long history in this state.
11 The war of the governors: Bashford vs. Barstow William Barstow, a Democrat, was elected governor of Wisconsin governor in 1853. Barstow was elected largely because there was no effective opposition party in Wisconsin. But during the next two years there was a wide outcry in the north over the national Democratic party's efforts to enforce fugitive slave laws and allow slavery to be extended into new territories west of the Mississippi River.
12 Wisconsin's fight for fugitive slaves: The Booth Case In 1850 Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, 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.
13 Chief Justice Dixon and the states right movement 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.
14 Civil liberties and the Civil War At the beginning of the Civil War the Union had no difficulty recruiting soldiers in Wisconsin and elsewhere. In fact, enthusiasm was so high that many young men had to be turned away.
15 Legislators for sale: The railroad scandal of 1856 In the mid-19th century, railroads transformed Wisconsin from a frontier wilderness to a state. In 1847 Wisconsin was connected only by a few waterways and dirt and wooden roads. That year the state's first railroad, the Milwaukee & Waukesha, began construction.
16 "Will her thoughts be wrapped up in his happiness?" When Wisconsin became a state in 1848, women were idealized but also condescended to. They were praised as nurturers of the family and preservers of the noble side of human nature, yet for those very reasons they were regarded as unfit to compete with men in the world of commerce and politics.
17 Lavinia Goodell, Wisconsin's first woman lawyer Women lawyers simply did not exist in the United States (or anywhere else in the world) before the 1860s. Society assigned women the role of staying at home and nurturing the family. It tolerated working women if their families needed the money, but only when they worked at factory jobs and menial labor.
18 Olympia Brown and Wisconsin women's struggle for the vote Olympia Brown was born in Michigan in 1835 into a family that actively supported many of the progressive causes of that time, particularly abolition of slavery and women's rights. Brown spent her life trying to destroy barriers against women in many areas, and she was the most prominent early leader of the women's rights movement in Wisconsin.
19 Chief Justice Ryan Tames "An empire within an empire" As railroads spread throughout Wisconsin in the 1860s, so did their power. Shipping costs were so high that many Wisconsin farmers and merchants had trouble making a living, and they bitterly resented the attitude of many railway officials.
20 Great Wisconsin lawyers: Matt Carpenter During its history Wisconsin has produced only a few lawyers of national reputation. Matthew Hale Carpenter (1824-1881) is the most famous of these. Carpenter was born and raised in Vermont. He studied law under Joseph Choate, a famous Boston lawyer, and moved to Beloit in 1848.
21 Great Wisconsin lawyers: John C. Spooner John Coit Spooner is a forgotten figure today, but during the late 1800s he was one of the leading figures in Wisconsin law and politics. Spooner was born in 1843. His father, Philip Spooner, was an influential Madison lawyer and John followed in his footsteps.
22 Law "on the circuit" in the 19th century 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.
23 Demon rum and Sunday lager: The temperance movement in Wisconsin Wisconsin was torn by battles over alcohol during its early years. Many of the first settlers came from New England, which was a stronghold of temperance. But Wisconsin farmers liked the liquor trade because they could make their surplus corn into profitable whiskey.
24 Of Bibles and Bennetts: Battles over language and religion in the 1890s By the late 1800s the German immigrants who poured into Wisconsin after statehood outnumbered the Yankees who had first settled the state. One of the major friction points between Yankees and Germans was religious instruction and use of German in the schools.
25 The Bay View riots and the beginning of the Wisconsin labor movement Wisconsin's labor movement began before statehood. There was a bricklayer's union in Milwaukee as early as 1847. Union membership grew dramatically after the Civil War. But labor did not become a force to be reckoned with and did not attract the attention of Wisconsin lawmakers until the "Bay View riots" of 1886.
26 The direct primary and the fight against party bossism Before Andrew Jackson became president in 1829, America had a system of "government by gentlemen." Only white men who held substantial property could vote, and they usually selected public officials from among their own ranks.
27 Civil service reform and the beginning of Wisconsin's tradition of clean government Political reform started in Wisconsin in the 1880s, well before Robert LaFollette came to power. There were several reasons for reform. Many citizens were tired of abuses committed by local party machines, and the rapid growth of Wisconsin's cities created a need for competent city employees who could do a better job than most political hangers-on.
28 Champions of the "Wisconsin Idea": Charles McCarthy Charles McCarthy was neither a lawyer nor a legislator, but many people believe he deserves more credit than anyone else for Wisconsin's many reforms during the Progressive era. Up to 1950 it was Charles McCarthy, not Senator Joseph McCarthy, whom America knew as "McCarthy of Wisconsin."
29 Champions of the "Wisconsin Idea": John R. Commons John Commons was an economist, not a lawyer or legislator, and he considered himself "not fitted for the rough and tumble of practical men." He was also a notable eccentric. Nonetheless he was one of the great practical reformers of the Progressive era, and his influence can be seen in many of the Progressives' reforms.
30 Financing reform: The overhaul of Wisconsin's property tax system How did Wisconsin pay for its government? When Wisconsin became a state in 1848, it relied almost entirely on property taxes. There was no income tax anywhere in the United States at that time.
31 How the income tax came to Wisconsin For more than half a century after statehood, Wisconsinites relied almost entirely on property taxes to finance their government. There was no income tax anywhere in the United States at the time.
32 Taming the jungle of public utilities Wisconsin became a state at the beginning of a period which brought many technological wonders to American cities. Streetcars, electric lighting, telephones and water and gas systems proliferated in Wisconsin between 1875 and 1890.
33 Reforming the workplace Working conditions in the late 1800s were vastly different than they are today. Many of the factories which sprang up throughout Wisconsin after the Civil War were uncomfortable, dangerous places to work.
34 The nation's first workers' compensation system In 1911 Wisconsin became the first state in the nation to put a broad workers compensation system into place. Despite the system's novelty, a strikingly wide variety of Wisconsinites supported it as an idea whose time had come.
35 Great Wisconsin judges: John B. Winslow, a "constructive conservative" John Winslow (1851-1920) was a justice and chief justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court. He was a self-described "constructive conservative" who played a very important role in reconciling conservatives to the dramatic changes which Governor Robert LaFollette and the Progressives made in Wisconsin.
36 Great Wisconsin judges: Roujet D. Marshall Roujet Delisle Marshall (who was named after the composer of the French national anthem, "La Marseillaise") was born in New Hampshire in 1847. His family moved to Wisconsin and settled in Sauk County when he was a child.
37 World War I and the assault on free speech in Wisconsin When World War I began in Europe in 1914, few Americans had a strong attachment to either side. But public sentiment tilted increasingly against Germany, and after the United States entered the war in 1917 anti-German feeling rose to near hysteria. The next few years were stressful ones for Wisconsin Germans.
38 Victor Berger: A reluctant martyr for free speech From 1910 to 1940 the Social Democratic party, led by Victor Berger, controlled Milwaukee's city government and was an important presence in the Legislature. In 1910, Berger became the first socialist elected to the U.S. Congress.
39 Great Wisconsin judges: Marvin Rosenberry, apostle of administrative law During the first part of the 20th century Wisconsin government underwent a fundamental change. Up to 1900 state government was very small. The job of overseeing Wisconsin's affairs could be carried out by the governor, the Legislature and a few employees.
40 To help the victim: Wisconsin modernizes its injury law While the law of personal injuries may seem a tedious subject to non-lawyers, in fact it has been subject of many exciting political and ideological struggles during Wisconsin's history.
41 The Wait case and Equal Rights for Women In 1919 the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gave women the right to vote in national elections for the first time. The years after that were a period of anticlimax for the women's movement.
42 The nation's first unemployment compensation law In 1931 Wisconsin became the first state in the nation to create an unemployment compensation system. Unemployment compensation is really an offshoot of the reforms made by Governor Robert LaFollette and his Progressive supporters between 1900 and 1915.
43 Beating the Great Depression: Wisconsin's "little New Deal" During the early 1930s, Wisconsin, like the rest of the nation, suffered through the Great Depression. President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the "New Deal," an array of creative and far-reaching federal programs, to restore the economy.
44 Great Wisconsin judges: Edward Fairchild Some Wisconsin judges have become known as great leaders; others have become famous as "great dissenters." Before the Civil War Chief Justice Luther Dixon of Portage was a lonely voice of support for the federal government at a time when many Wisconsinites regarded it as the tool of slaveholders.
45 Traditional values and no-fault divorce When Wisconsin became a state in 1848, its divorce laws were liberal for the times but much stricter than today's laws. Divorce had been regarded as almost exclusively a man's right, in keeping with earlier notions that the husband's authority over the family should not be questioned.
46 "Looking further than the skin": Wisconsin's struggle over segregation A "Great Migration" of southern blacks to the northern industrial states began during World War I, and it finally reached Wisconsin in the late 1940s. During the 1950s and 1960s the rapid growth of Milwaukee's black community and the rise of the national civil rights movement forced Wisconsinites to address racial equality as never before.
47 Attorney Lloyd Barbee Lloyd Barbee of Milwaukee is probably the most important figure in the history of 20th century Wisconsin civil rights law. Barbee was born in Tennessee in 1925. After graduating from college, he moved to Madison and earned a law degree from the University of Wisconsin.