Orsamus Cole (1819-1903)
Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice
Chief Justice (1880-1892)
"Of Chief Justice Cole it was literally true that in every instance it was the office that sought the man. That he was called upon by his district and the state within ten years after coming to Wisconsin to fill these several high offices is the strongest evidence of his worth and of its appreciation by the people." - Judge George Clementson, Cole's memorial service (1903)
Orsamus Cole was born August 23, 1819, in Cazenovia, New York. He graduated from Union College in 1843 and was admitted to the New York Bar in 1845. Later that year, Cole moved to Potosi, a small mining town in southwestern Wisconsin, where he began a law practice and a career in politics.
Cole was elected by Grant County voters as their delegate to the 1848 state Constitutional Convention. One report of the convention stated: "At the close of the session but few men stood higher in the estimation of their fellows than did Orsamus Cole."
A year later, Cole was elected to the 31st U.S. Congress. He witnessed several famous congressional speeches, including the pro-Union addresses of Whig leader Henry Clay. Cole also became a friend of President Zachary Taylor.
During Cole's term in Congress, constant division existed along party and sectional lines regarding slavery. Clay proposed the Compromise of 1850, which consisted of five points of reconciliation, one of which called for a more stringent law regarding fugitive slaves. Cole opposed pro-slavery legislation and voted against the Fugitive Slave Act, deserting his party and Clay. Cole soon realized that the life of a congressman was not for him. After his term, he resumed the practice of law in Wisconsin.
Cole was elected to the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 1855. After serving as justice for 25 years, he became the chief justice. He held that position for 12 years. With 37 years on the bench, he is the longest-serving justice in Wisconsin history. He participated in cases reported in 77 volumes of the Wisconsin Reports.
In January 1892, Cole retired from the Supreme Court and moved to Milwaukee. He was married twice and died May 5, 1903.