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Champions of the "Wisconsin Idea": Charles McCarthy

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

Charles McCarthy was neither a lawyer nor a legislator, but many people believe he deserves more credit than anyone else for Wisconsin's many reforms during the Progressive era. Up to 1950 it was Charles McCarthy, not Senator Joseph McCarthy, whom America knew as "McCarthy of Wisconsin."

McCarthy was born in Massachusetts in 1873. After graduating from college and briefly coaching college football in the East, he came to the University of Wisconsin. He studied with Frederick Jackson Turner, Wisconsin's most famous historian, and earned a Ph.D. in 1901. The Legislature had just created a new agency, the Legislative Reference Library, and McCarthy got the job as its first head.

Before McCarthy, the state library had consisted of just a few books. When legislators wanted to prepare bills, they did the drafting themselves or had lawyers and lobbyists do it for them. McCarthy turned the Legislative Reference Library into a virtual "bill factory." He assembled a huge collection of literature on all of the issues which interested the Legislature during the Progressive era, and he and his staff would prepare bills for any legislator who asked. The Library became a national model, with legislatures all over the United States copying it.

The Progressives came to rely on McCarthy. He helped write many of their major reform laws including the civil service law (1905), Wisconsin's first law regulating power companies and other utilities (1907), and the workers compensation law and workplace safety law of 1911.

McCarthy was always careful to offer the Library's help to legislators of all political stripes. He once even helped draft a bill to abolish the Library. This helped ensure the Library's political survival. When Governor Emanuel Philipp, a conservative, held hearings in 1915 to determine whether the Library should be abolished, McCarthy protested that he was "the same as an architect on a building. A fellow sees from some experience that comes in and then he talks it over and asks, is this what you want? Is that the way you want it? and if it is the way he wants it, he takes it. It isn't forced on him." Philipp decided to keep the library.

Above all else, McCarthy believed in the Legislature. He felt that of all the branches of government, it was the most direct expression of the people's will. He shared the Progressives' suspicion that the courts were stocked with conservative judges who looked for opportunities to strike down Progressive legislation. He believed courts were "the abomination of desolation, the destruction of representative government." However, the Wisconsin Supreme Court generally upheld the Progressives' reforms and did not justify McCarthy's suspicions.

McCarthy also found time to run unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 1918 and to help administer Wisconsin's draft system and the federal war effort during World War I. He was only 48 years old when he died, quite literally from overwork, in 1921. After his death the Legislature erected a tablet in his honor, which can still be seen today in the state capitol. McCarthy is the only career state employee who has ever been given such an honor.

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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