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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Lawless Legislators

Laws are the basis of society. The words in our statutes define what we must, can, and must not do. Our police make people comply with them, and our judges punish those who don’t, by refering to what the law says. That's why it's odd that for the first few years of Wisconsin's existence, not even legislators could get their hands on a copy of the laws.

They certainly tried. When Wisconsin was created as a territory on July 4, 1836, the laws of Michigan Territory as printed in the Revised Statues of Michigan remained in force, but few copies of this book had ever left Detroit.

The Wisconsin laws passed during the first session of the territorial legislature in Belmont in 1836 were printed in a little pamphlet of 88 pages, but that didn't include the Michigan laws which still governed the bulk of public affairs.

So when the lawmakers met for the second time, in the winter of 1837-38 at Burlington, Iowa (Madison's capitol not being finished yet), they ordered that all of the Michigan laws pertaining to Wisconsin Territory should be printed alongside the ones they themselves had passed.

Unfortunately, communications technology was so primitive that no local printer could manufacture such a book. The one they hired, James Clarke, found himself unable to fulfill his contract and in the spring of 1838 went east to Pennsylvania to get it printed. When lawmakers convened again in June of 1838, they heard testimony "that Mr. Clarke left Burlington destined for some of the eastern cities, taking along with him several extracts from the statutes of Michigan, as he supposes, for the purpose of procuring the printing of them in pamphlet form; and to await the arrival, after they should have been prepared for that purpose, of the manuscript copies of the laws passed" in the current summer session.

But the legislators considered that Clarke had failed to honor his contract and decided to start over. They hired another Iowa printer, and he agreed to print the extracts from the Michigan statutes, the laws passed in the winter 1837-38 session, and those passed at the current summer 1838 session, "the whole to be done up in one volume to be half bound in calf, and fifteen hundred copies thereof to be delivered … within seventy-five days."

When lawmakers sent for their 1,500 copies seventy-five days later, their agent reported back, "I am sorry that I am compelled to inform you that the laws … are not even yet entirely printed… It would not probably be practicable to send them to your territory until the opening of navigation in the spring." Once again they were disappointed.

Meanwhile, Clarke, the first printer, had managed to get copies manufactured back East but "owing to the low stage of water in the Ohio they have not been received and will not probably arrive before spring."

The frustrated legislators – who had started passing laws in 1836 and more than two years later still hadn't got a reliable printed version of them -- sent a messenger from Madison to Green Bay to search for copies of the Michigan statutes, and "to procure for the use of the legislature such numbers as may be had of copies of these laws.” At least that way they'd have some part of the laws to refer to during their deliberations.

And then they formed a committee to put together from scratch a new and revised edition of the complete laws of Wisconsin Territory, to be published in 1839. In the spring, some copies of Clarke's first compilation and some copies of his successor's arrived, but by then their half-finished, ad hoc publications had been made obsolete by the comprehensive 1839 edition.

By the time it was ready, the territory had functioned for two and half years without lawyers, judges, citizens, or even the legislators themselves being able to cite the text of any law by which their society was governed.

Source: Cole, Theodore L. "A Rare Wisconsin Book." Wisconsin Historical Collections 12: 383-389

:: Posted in Curiosities on July 27, 2006

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