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Dictionary of Wisconsin History

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Term: Ryan, Edward George 1810 - 1880


lawyer, politician, judge, b. County Meath, Ireland. He attended Clonggowes Wood College in Ireland (1820-1827), and in 1830 migrated to the U.S., settling in New York. In 1836 he became a citizen, was admitted to the bar, and the same year moved to Chicago, Ill. There he worked as a newspaper editor for two years (1840-1842), practiced law, and served briefly as state's attorney (1841). In 1842 he moved to Wisconsin, settling in Racine, and in 1846 was a delegate to the first state constitutional convention where he gained recognition as the author of the anti-banking article. In 1848 he moved his law practice to Milwaukee, and in 1853 served as special prosecutor in the impeachment trial of circuit judge Levi Hubbell (q.v.). In 1855 Ryan prosecuted Sherman M. Booth (q.v.) for violation of the Fugitive Slave Law, and in 1856 argued the case for Republican Coles Bashford (q.v.) in the contested William Barstow (q.v.)--Coles Bashford gubernatorial election. Ryan served as leader of the Democratic party in Wisconsin during the years 1862-1863, and was strongly critical of the Lincoln administration's conduct of the Civil War and its violations of Constitutional liberties. With the waning strength of the Democrats following the war, Ryan withdrew temporarily from political activities. He served as Milwaukee city attorney (1870-1873), and in 1873 again gained statewide attention with a vigorous attack on state railroad policies. In June, 1874, he was appointed chief justice of the state supreme court by Democrat- Reform Governor William R. Taylor (q.v.), and in the same year delivered his opinion upholding the validity of the short-lived Potter Act regulating Wisconsin railroad rates and fares. Although the Potter Act was soon repealed and coalition Governor Taylor defeated, Ryan continued to hold his position as chief justice until his death. His other significant work on the high court bench concerned jurisdictional questions, federal-state relations, and the conduct of the bar. Irascible and over-sensitive, Ryan was frequently at odds with his colleagues, but at the time of his death he was acknowledged one of the nation's leading jurists. He was for many years one of the most colorful and important figures in state Democratic politics. Dict. Amer. Biog.; R. S. Hunt, Law and Locomotives (Madison, 1958); A. J. Beitzinger, Edward G. Ryan (Madison, 1960); J. B. Winslow, Story of a Great Court (Chicago, 1912); Wis. Law Review, July, 1955, Mar., 1956; Wis. Mag. Hist., 39; WPA MS; E. G. Ryan Papers.

The Wisconsin Historical Society has manuscripts related to this topic. See the catalog description of the Edward G. Ryan Papers for details.

[Source: Dictionary of Wisconsin biography]
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