- The Jacksonian Conservatism of Rufus P. Ranney: The Politics and Jurisprudence of a Northern Democrat from the Age of Jackson to the Gilded Age, by David M. Gold
What did it mean to be a "radical" in the context of mid-nineteenth century American politics? A "conservative"? A proponent of "limited government"? These are some of the questions explored by historian and independent scholar, David M. Gold, who has ably integrated legal, political, economic, and biographical history in his examination of the life and career of Rufus P. Ranney, a lawyer, jurist, and Jacksonian Democrat from Ohio. Gold finds in Ranney an individual who started out as a "Radical Democrat" in the 1840s but thought of himself as a laissez-faire conservative in the 1870s. While on the surface this would suggest a major reversal, in fact, as Gold argues, Ranney consistently defended individual property rights and limited government against the interests of state-sanctioned monopolies (158–59).
Throughout his career, Ranney ran unsuccessfully for Congress three times, vied for the state's governorship, served as a delegate in the Ohio state constitutional convention, and left behind a legal record as a lawyer and Ohio state supreme court judge. A relatively obscure figure for those who are not experts in nineteenth-century Ohio politics, Ranney destroyed much of his personal correspondence, so by necessity Gold has reconstructed Ranney's portrait from court cases, legislative records, newspapers, and what his contemporaries said about him. The resulting contribution of this work is both a careful analysis of the tensions within Jacksonian political ideology and a distillation of Jacksonian jurisprudence, which historians have often extrapolated loosely from only a handful of cases.
Chapters 1 through 4 examine Ranney's early political and legal career as a Western Reserve Democrat and leading figure at Ohio's 1850 state constitutional convention. Like many Jacksonians, Ranney promoted anti-monopolism, equal rights, limited government, states' rights, opposition to excessive taxation and eminent domain powers, and an individual right to property. When national politics and the union itself began to splinter over the [End Page 85] irreconcilable differences over slavery, radicalism and conservatism took on different meanings, a transition Gold covers in chapters 5 through 7. Considered radical in 1850, by 1859 Ranney had articulated a position that was now moderate and even conservative—supporting the Union army during the Civil War but blaming both antislavery Republicans and southern fire-eaters as extremists (102–4). Gold clarifies that it was not so much Ranney's views that had changed but the country as a whole. In the last third of the book, which addresses the Civil War and Gilded Age, Gold takes us through Ranney's opposition to the Republican Party's program of tariffs, taxes, debts, and state-sanctioned monopoly, as well as his legal advocacy on behalf of oil and railroad companies.
Gold is strongest in his discussion of legal history, as he possesses an impressive knowledge of case law. At times, if only subtly, he seems to sympathize with Ranney's defense of the Tenth Amendment, skepticism of taxation, ability to compromise, and hold the line on strict construction and limited legislative authority (69, 108, 125). But this is not an uncommon characteristic in biographical works. The parts of this book most likely to engender spirited discussion are the ones relating to the author's core arguments and terminology. For his argument to work well, he needs clear definitions and expositions of radical, laissez-faire, and conservative ideologies, because these terms are contested, dynamic, and context-specific. A conservative in Mexico during the period of Gold's study, for example, would most likely support a strong military, autocratic rule, state-sanctioned religion, and a landholding aristocracy—all of which were anathema to Ranney's beliefs. When Gold describes Ranney as a conservative, he is saying that within the context of the Gilded Age, he met much of the criteria of what...