Rantoul, Robert, Jr.

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Robert Rantoul Jr. was a Massachusetts attorney who served in various state and federal offices during his brief life. He is best remembered, however, for his denunciations of the common-law tradition, for his leadership in the codification movement, and for his defense of labor unions.

Rantoul was born on August 13, 1805, in Beverly, Massachusetts. He attended private schools before enrolling at Harvard University. He was admitted to the Massachusetts bar and practiced law in Salem.

Rantoul served in the Massachusetts legislature for several terms before becoming U.S. attorney for the district of Massachusetts. He was briefly a Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives in the late 1840s. In 1851 he was elected to serve the last year of a term as U.S. senator.

Rantoul's congressional service was short but distinguished. He opposed the fugitive slave act of 1850 and supported the expansion of railroads to the western territories. The town of Rantoul, Illinois, was named in his honor for his railroad legislation.

Nevertheless, Rantoul's importance lies in his critique of the common-law tradition and his call for the codification of all law by the legislature. The codification movement, of which Rantoul was a prominent spokesperson, attacked the common law as unsuitable for a democratic republic. Randolph believed that allowing judges to interpret and adapt the law led to decisions about issues that were properly within the province of the legislature. Rantoul advocated that the legislature write a set of laws, to be contained in a code book, that judges would apply to the cases before them.

Rantoul presented his ideas about the common law and codification in their fullest form in a two-hour Fourth of July address at Scituate, Massachusetts, in 1836. Rantoul stated that "the Common Law is but the glimmering taper by which [English] men groped their way through the palpable midnight in which learning, wit, and reason were almost extinguished." "The Common Law," he continued, "had its origin in folly, barbarism, and feudality."

Rantoul believed that the problem in the common-law method was the discretion permitted the judge. He claimed that judge-made law is ex post facto law and therefore unjust. Persons could not know the law because "no one knows what the law is before [the judge] lays it down." Moreover, a judge was able to rule differently from case to case.

Because the poor could not afford legal counsel, they were at a disadvantage when they entered a courtroom. Without an attorney, a person was at the mercy of the court. The only solution, Rantoul argued, was to abandon the common-law system and codify all laws into one book that everyone could read and understand.

The codification movement had limited success during the nineteenth century. Rantoul advocated a code but never tried to write one. david dudley field, a New York attorney, wrote what became known as the Field Code of Civil Procedure. His code was enacted in 24 states, most of them in the West. California adopted it in 1872.

"Judge-made law is ex post facto law, and therefore unjust. An act is not forbidden by the statute law, but it becomes by judicial decision a crime. The judiciary … runs riot beyond the confines of legislative power."
—Robert Rantoul Jr.

Rantoul also distinguished himself as an advocate for labor unions in the landmark Massachusetts case of Commonwealth v. Hunt, 45 Mass. (4 Met.) 111, 38 A.M. Dec. 346 (1842). Rantoul defended members of the bootmakers union who had been indicted for criminal conspiracy because they sought to bargain collectively. The charge of criminal conspiracy had been a potent weapon in preventing the formation of unions. Rantoul persuaded Chief Justice

lemuel shaw and the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts to set aside the indictments. In his opinion, Shaw agreed with employers that competition was vital to the economy but concluded that unions stimulated competition. Shaw stated that, as long as the unions used legal methods, they were free to seek concessions from employers.

Rantoul died at age 47 on August 7, 1852, in Washington, D.C.


Field Code of New York.