Ever since the signing of the US Constitution in 1787, the issue of states’ rights versus those of the federal government have been debated. In 1859, Luther Swift Dixon, Norwich class of 1847, became Chief Justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court and took on the hotly contested Fugitive Slave Act and the right of states to overrule the federal government.
A native of Milton, Vt., Luther Swift Dixon attended Norwich from 1845 to 1847 and entered the Vermont Bar in 1850. He moved to Portage, Wisc., and in 1859, at the age of 33, he became the state’s youngest Chief Justice. At that time, as each new state was added to the Union, the federal government decided whether it would be a Free State or a Slave State. The US Congress passed The Compromise of 1850 to provide rules regarding the designation of each state. One of the most divisive sections of this legislation was known as the “Fugitive Slave Law”, which required northern states to return runaway slaves to their owners under penalty of law. It was this law that led to Dixon’s historic ruling as it pertained to state vs. federal rights.
Many of the northern states did not agree with the conditions of the Fugitive Slave Law, and in 1854 the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional. In 1859 the US Supreme Court reversed the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling. Chief Justice Dixon and his colleagues argued over whether or not to file the mandate of the U.S. Supreme Court. Justice Dixon feared that if a state could overrule the federal government, it could render the U.S. Congress ineffective. Though unpopular with his constituents, Dixon concluded that the U.S. Supreme Court had the power to reverse the state court and voted to file the mandate. However no action was taken because the Wisconsin Supreme Court stood divided. To this day, the mandate has not been filed.
It is important to note that Dixon ruled in favor of federal authority in spite of his personal opposition to the Fugitive Slave Act. According to the Wisconsin Bar, “Dixon took pains to state that he personally believed the Act was unconstitutional.”
In his book, The Story of a Great Court, Justice J.B. Winslow writes of Justice Dixon’s decision, “A great question was presented to him for examination; the clamor of the partisan moved him not; neither the echoes of the battle which had just closed nor the premonitory murmurs of the contest which was soon to rage, disturbed the serenity of his judgement. Duty called him to investigate the subject for himself. This he proceeded to do, and in a luminous opinion he demonstrated that the United States Supreme Court had jurisdiction to review and reverse judgements of the state courts in cases where the validity of a law of the United States was attacked and the law held void.”
Judge Dixon died December 6, 1891. In 1911, the Wisconsin State Bar Association dedicated a 40 foot granite monument to Dixon. The inscription says, “His name is synonym of Justice, Integrity, Truth and Honor. These were the virtues which illuminated his character, radiant as the sunlight, shining as the stars.”
Submitted by: George H. Kabel, Class of ‘70
The Norwich University Archives and Special Collections has a file of notes and correspondence from William Arba Ellis’ work on Dixon’s profile for “Norwich University, 1819-1911; Her History, Her Graduates, Her Roll of Honor.” Dixon is also listed in some cadet rosters during his period of attendance.