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Great Wisconsin lawyers: Matt Carpenter

Written by Joseph A. Ranney, Attorney at Law
Phone: (608) 283-5612

During its history Wisconsin has produced only a few lawyers of national reputation. Matthew Hale Carpenter (1824-1881) is the most famous of these.

Carpenter was born and raised in Vermont. He studied law under Joseph Choate, a famous Boston lawyer, and moved to Beloit in 1848. Carpenter became showed a taste and a talent for developing cases that involved some of the leading social issues of his day. In 1858 he moved to Milwaukee, where he plunged into a tangle of cases created by the financial collapse of Wisconsin's railroad in the depression of 1857.

Local businessmen who wanted to take over one of the largest of the failed railroads, the La Crosse & Milwaukee, hired Carpenter to represent them in an effort to fend off the takeover bid of Russell Sage of New York, one of the great national railroad barons. Carpenter ultimately failed but he forced Sage to spend 10 years and make several appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court before Sage prevailed.

Carpenter started his career as a Democrat but during the Civil War he was more supportive of the Union war effort than many of his political associates and he switched to the Republican party. He rose quickly, and in 1869 his new party elected him to the U.S. Senate.

Carpenter's oratorical skills and unflagging energy quickly made him a leader in the Senate. He was a curious mix of conservative and reformer. He was known as "one of the most notorious spoilsmen of his age" in an era famous for political corruption, but he did not personally accept bribes or use his office to become wealthy. During his time in Washington he continued to argue cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, some of which have become landmarks of American constitutional law, and he represented underdogs in many of these cases.

In Ex parte Garland (1867), Carpenter represented a former Confederate official and convinced the Supreme Court to strike down a loyalty oath which Congress required former Confederates to take if they wished to practice law again.

In Bradwell v. State (1872) he represented Myra Bradwell in her attempt to become the first woman lawyer admitted to practice in Illinois. He did not win the case but he persuaded the Supreme Court to say that if the Illinois Legislature wanted to admit Bradwell, it could. This was an important concession by the court.

Carpenter also participated in The Slaughterhouse Cases (1873). These were the first cases interpreting the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, on which most modern anti-discrimination laws are based. Carpenter persuaded the Court that the amendment did not prohibit states from regulating big business.

Carpenter became known as one of the greatest lawyers ever to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court. He gained the nickname "Webster of the West" after one justice commented that "I have heard nothing equal to Mr. Carpenter's effort today since [Daniel] Webster was before us." The justices admitted privately that they looked forward to arguments in which Carpenter appeared as special treats -- a rare admission for a judge.

Carpenter lost his Senate seat in 1875 when a reform movement temporarily won control of the Legislature, but he was re-elected in 1879. He died soon afterwards in 1881 at the age of 57, a victim of overwork and general bad health.

Note: The views expressed in this article are the author's alone. Distributed as a public service by the Wisconsin Supreme Court in honor of the state's sesquicentennial.

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