In July, University of Wisconsin Press will release WISCONSIN AND THE SHAPING OF AMERICAN LAW. Author Joseph A. Ranney takes a unique look at legal history through several key individuals who worked to better Wisconsin, especially with regard to equal rights.
When I sat down to write Wisconsin and the Shaping of American Law, I faced an ambitious challenge: describe one state’s law as it evolved over more than 200 years and how it became part of the larger fabric of American history. But, a bigger challenge soon emerged. Many general readers view legal matters as intimidating, boring, or both—how to engage them?
Here enters the power of storytelling. Many of the book’s chapters begin with portraits of people whose lives and views collided in ways that changed the direction of Wisconsin and American law. As the book progressed, other diverse characters appeared on the legal stage who astonished and humbled me. Here are a few of my favorites.
Some history buffs know James Doty as an early Wisconsin pioneer and politician, but few are aware that he was one of the nation’s great territorial judges who built the first system of courts and law in the wilderness west of Lake Michigan. Doty was also an early advocate of Native American rights, a stance that eventually cost him his judgeship. Edward Ryan’s life unfolded like a Greek drama. He rose and fell as an apostle of the Jacksonian legal vision in the 1840s, fought judicial corruption and state-rights sentiment in the 1850s, and then descended into obscurity, bitterness and old age until, in the 1870s, he was picked to be Wisconsin’s chief justice and spent the last years of his life forging a new law for the age of industry. Ryan changed American law in tandem with other great judges including Michigan’s Thomas Cooley, Illinois’ Sidney Breese, Iowa’s John Dillon, and Ryan’s Wisconsin colleague and sometime rival Luther Dixon.
John Winslow, Wisconsin’s chief justice during the Progressive era, is my particular favorite, and I hope the book will help him gain the recognition he deserves. “Fighting Bob” La Follette was the leading face of Wisconsin progressivism, but a good case can be made that Winslow was the individual most responsible for the movement’s long-term success. Temperamentally conservative but sensitive to underdogs, Winslow undertook a national campaign to explain Progressives and conservatives to each other. In the process, he won both sides’ respect and turned the judicial tide in Wisconsin in favor of reform.
'Fighting Bob' La Follette was the face of Wisconsin progressivism, but a new book contends that John Winslow was most responsible for the movement’s long-term success. Click To Tweet
Even those lacking a legal voice fought to shape Wisconsin law. The book profiles several Wisconsin heroines of women’s rights: Lavinia Goodell, who overcame Ryan’s opposition to become Wisconsin’s first woman lawyer; suffragist Mabel Raef Putnam and author Zona Gale, who together induced the legislature to enact a pioneering women’s rights law in 1921; and their spiritual successor Mary Lou Munts, a state legislator who was the principal architect of Wisconsin’s modern divorce law (1977) and a pioneering marital property law (1986). Lavinia Goodell overcame Chief Justice Edward Ryan’s opposition to become Wisconsin’s first woman lawyer. Click To Tweet The book also discusses African-American lawyers who led Wisconsin’s civil rights
movement: William Green persuaded the legislature to enact Wisconsin’s first anti-segregation law (1895), and Lloyd Barbee won a long legal battle to end school segregation in Milwaukee eighty years later.
I am grateful to these legal actors for helping me from beyond the grave. They drive home the oft-forgotten truth that although law is based on reason it is also shaped by our collective hopes, fears, and the courage of those who stand by their beliefs. I hope that readers of the book will enjoy the actors’ stories and will absorb the lessons they teach us about legal history.
is the Adrian P. Schoone Fellow in Wisconsin Law and Legal Institutions at Marquette University Law School and a partner with the firm DeWitt Ross & Stevens in Madison, Wisconsin. He is the author of several books, including Trusting Nothing to Providence: A History of Wisconsin’s Legal System, honored by the American Library Association as a notable book on state and local government.