Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Wisconsin Legal History, anyone?

For references to books, and a large helping of short articles by Joseph A. Ranney, author of the most recent book (Trusting Nothing To Providence), check out Wisconsin Legal History at the Wisconsin state bar page. Nothing here to cut and paste into your Wisconsin family's genealogy, but lots of sources and ideas and background, from roistering circuit riders to angry farmers. Here's a snip from the latter -- read the whole thing:

Another Jacksonian feature of the Wisconsin Constitution was Article VIII, section 10, which prohibited the state from financing or supporting public improvements of any sort. Because state aid was not available, early railroads had to look to private investors and municipalities for the huge sums of capital they needed to build and operate their lines.12 The Milwaukee & Mississippi Railroad developed the device, copied by many other railroads, of issuing stock in return for municipal bonds or individual promissory notes that were secured by mortgages.13 A large portion of the notes and mortgages passed into the hands of eastern financiers.14

The depression of 1857 forced every railroad in Wisconsin into bankruptcy. Most farmers who had purchased railroad stock had relied on railroad dividends to pay their promissory notes; when the dividends dried up, the easterners who held the notes foreclosed on thousands of farms throughout Wisconsin. Farm mortgage leagues were formed to resist the foreclosure threat, and they became a force in state politics. Between 1857 and 1868 the Legislature passed a series of laws giving farm debtors various substantive and procedural defenses in foreclosure actions; however, the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down all of the laws, in most cases because they impaired the obligation-of-contracts clause of the U.S. Constitution. Throughout the 1860s the leagues tried to defeat the supreme court justices at the polls and obtain a more sympathetic court, but they failed narrowly at each election.15

(Hat tip to Legal History Blog.)

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