Glittering Generalities

"Which shall rule -- wealth or man; which shall lead -- money of intellect; who shall fill public stations -- educated and patriotic free men, or the feudal serfs of corporate capital?"

Edward G. Ryan
Wisconsin Chief Justice (1873)


Roadkill said...


Interesting quote -- so much so that I did a little digging on just who Chief Justice Edward G Ryan was and what he stood for.

It appears that he was a Jacksonsian Democrat, typically racist and sexist while ardently denouncing corporate America.

For instance, when in 1854 the Wisconsin Supreme Court found the Fugitive Slave Act (requiring escaped slaves to be returned to their southern masters) unconstitutional, Mr. Ryan, then a practicing attorney appointed to defend the Wisconsin Court, urged his clients to reconsider: "If the compromises of the Constitution be thus practically nullified," Ryan argued, "the Constitution cannot be sustained ... And the system which, with all its inherited evils and all its own sins, is still the political hope of all mankind, may be led step by step into dissension, disruption and civil warfare, [by] those who, trusting nothing to concession, nothing to time, nothing to Providence, would destroy everything imperfect, in a world in which nothing is perfect."

I.e. Let the slavers have their way

During the Civil War, Ryan became the leader of the "peace" or "Copperhead" faction of the Democratic party in Wisconsin, which opposed emancipation and any expansion of federal powers in order to prosecute the war.

His denunciations of President Lincoln, together with an intemperate speech he made to the Democratic state convention in 1863criticizing the president as "a mere doll, worked by springs" in the hands of those who were "growing rich on the misfortunes of the nation," made him anathema to many Wisconsinites.

Ryan's fortunes thereafter fell.

Providentially, however, a new reform movement arose in the early 1870's, fueled mainly by Wisconsin voters' resentment of high railroad freight rates and their sense that the Republican party unduly favored railroads over agrarian interests.

In late 1873 the movement elected William Taylor governor and gained control of the legislature.The new legislature promptly enacted a law known as the Potter Law - Wisconsin's first major regulatory law - that fixed maximum railroad rates and created a commission to enforce them.

The state's major railroads challenged the Potter Law as an unconstitutional taking of property. Shortly before their case was to be heard in the supreme court, Wisconsin Chief Justice Dixon resigned unexpectedly. After some hesitation, Gov. Taylor concluded that Ryan's honesty and his Jacksonian prejudice against concentrated power meant he would be "all right" on the Potter Law issue and that he was the best candidate to replace Dixon.

Your quote is contained in Ryan's opinion from the Potter Case.

Of interest also is a case (In Re Goodell) from 1875, which stemmed from Ryan's denial of Lavinia Goodell's application for admission to the supreme court bar. In his ruling, Ryan lectured that the "callings of women, inconsistent with [the] duties of their sex, as is the profession of law, are departures from the order of nature; and when voluntary, treason against it.

Fortunately, the legislature did not agree. It promptly enacted a statute allowing women to practice law, and in 1879 Goodell renewed her application and was admitted to the supreme court bar over Ryan's dissent.

So, there it is. Some context for that wistful quote, which appears to be one of the lone sparks of enlightenment emitted from Chief Justice Edward G. Ryan.

Sunny B. said...


Looks like you got most of the info from the WisBar.org site. Here's the link to an article on Ryan: http://www.wisbar.org/AM/Template.cfm?Section=Wisconsin_Lawyer&template=/CM/ContentDisplay.cfm&contentid=75070

I was watching American Experience Monday night and it was about Alexander Hamilton. One to the quotes by Hamilton was almost exactly the same as the one by Ryan.

On Tuesday night I was watching a program on the WIS (HD) channel of WPT called "The Search For Gray Goal" about the history of the lead mining industry in SW Wisconsin. Much time was spent talking about the slaves brought into Wisconsin to work with their masters. Dodge -- another Jackson follower -- was instrumental in chasing out the Indians to get control of their land. Abe Lincoln was in one of the Illinois regiments that fought to push the Indians west of the Mississippi.

Ryan would pretty much be reflecting the prevailing thought of the day. The program also mentioned that a large portion of the law that found its way into Wisconsin can from New York...where Ryan came from.

Interesting too was that one of Alexander Hamilton's was involved in the lead mining industry.

This Wisbar.org article points out that Ryan suffered great from his opposition to President Lincoln and the Civil War. I believe that was a prevalent mindset in Wisconsin at the time. Many of the immigrants didn't see any reason to be marching off to do battle of an issue resided below the Mason-Dixon line. It was a small world back them.