La Follette, Robert Marion, Sr. (1855–1925)

Early Life and First Political Experience

Robert Marion La Follette was the supreme champion of progressivism in state and national politics at the turn of the twentieth century and an ‘‘agitator’’ for free speech during World War I. La Follette was born in Primrose, Wisconsin, on June 14, 1855, to a farming family with roots in both Indiana and North Carolina. His father died during his early years, and his stern stepfather raised him on the family farm in Dane County, Wisconsin. He was able to attend the University of Wisconsin due in part to farm profits and the help from a local benefactor. While in college, La Follette excelled in oratory, which brought him notice in the local and regional newspapers. He attended law school and passed the bar in 1880. During this time, he met and married Belle Case, who was the first female graduate of the University of Wisconsin Law School. Together, the La Follettes began to understand and to promote the ideals of racial and sexual equality within their communities. After graduation, he won his first political position as District Attorney for Dane County as a Republican. He would hold this position for four years, until his election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1884.

During his tenure as a Republican member of Congress, Bob La Follette’s reform ideals continued to grow and mature in his work on the House floor. He promoted women’s suffrage and their involvement in politics. He was a friend of Booker T. Washington and other African-American leaders and spoke out against the actions of Southern Representatives to limit African-American participation in the political process. After being exiled on the Indian Affairs Committee, he pushed for greater protection of Native American property rights against lumber companies. He was soon appointed to the Ways and Means Committee and worked with Theodore Roosevelt on tariff legislation. In 1890, his support helped to ensure the passage of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. Despite his excellent record, he was voted out of office in 1890 because of the Democratic sweep of political offices in Wisconsin, which was in part due to state Republican support of ‘‘English only’’ school policies.

Fight against Corruption and the Wisconsin Idea

Bob La Follette returned back to his growing law practice in Wisconsin and was content to work as a lawyer, until one event transformed his life and political career. His brother-in-law was a judge who was presiding over a case involving men connected to Senator and lumber millionaire Philetus Sawyer. On September 17, 1891, Senator Sawyer offered La Follette fifty dollars to personally intervene in the case, and La Follette refused this request. Quickly, La Follette spread the word of this attempted bribe to his supporters and local Republicans. This outrage energized La Follette to re-enter politics to limit the power of the old network political caucuses and local ‘‘bosses.’’ He believed that the direct election of candidates was the only way to ensure the survival of representative government. La Follette, through his oratory, became a force within the progressive wing of the local Republican Party. The ‘‘Madison Ring’’ of political bosses and businessmen became the primary target of his speeches and campaigning. He remained true to the state Republican Party and worked to support the candidacy of William McKinley in 1892.

After the re-election of Grover Cleveland, La Follette’s stature continued to grow within the state. He tapped into the large Scandinavian population in Wisconsin by supporting a Norwegian-born candidate for governor and being able to converse in their language. La Follette led the charge to support William McKinley for presidency in 1896, while the other Republican national candidate had the support of the Sawyer faction in the state. With McKinley’s nomination confirmed, ‘‘Fighting Bob’’ now focused his energy to win the governor’s office in his native state. In both 1896 and 1899, La Follette was defeated in his goal to lead his beloved state. In 1896, the old party faction bribed members of his delegation to the party caucus to swing the vote to Edward Scofield. In the gubernatorial campaign of 1899, La Follette pushed himself even harder to campaign directly to the people and to continue his active law practice, but his health failed him. An extended sickness and exhaustion cut short this second quest for the governor’s chair, as well as the efforts of the old political machine to remain in power. By his third attempt in 1899, La Follette’s support grew even more with conservative Republicans coming aboard his campaign. He directed his speeches closer to moderate Republican issues and picked up support from many of Governor Scofield’s party regulars. On November 5, 1900, Robert M. La Follette was elected the twentieth governor in the history of Wisconsin and its first native-born governor.

On January 10, 1901, Bob La Follette broke with political tradition and delivered his two-hour inaugural address to the Wisconsin legislature. This speech, in effect, declared war on the old system of running state government. His speech began a political thought know as the ‘‘Wisconsin Idea.’’ This idea was that state government was to be a servant of the people and a defender against political corruption. The state would have a new partner to assist its efforts to reform itself and that partner would be its public university. The University of Wisconsin would become a ‘‘fourth branch of government’’ to assist and supervise the actions of state government. Efforts were made to introduce professionalism into all branches of Wisconsin state government and to remove political patronage from the governance of the state. Even though La Follette continued to use patronage to reward supporters, the public believed that the governor and his government were truly dedicated to their welfare.

Governor La Follette spoke about nearly two dozen topics of reform for the Commonwealth of Wisconsin but zeroed in on two main reforms: railroad tax valuation and primary election reform. These two main issues would consume the legislative activities of the state and her governor for nearly five years and three gubernatorial terms. Much of his legislative battles would be an internal fight between La Follette’s ‘‘progressives’’ and the ‘‘stalwarts,’’ who represented the old party supporters in the legislature. For five years, the governor battled the stalwarts to pass these two reform measures and survived two attempts to unseat him in political caucuses during the gubernatorial elections of 1902 and 1904. The direct primary system of electing candidates was finally passed in 1903 and was approved by referendum during the 1904 election.

A New Political Stage

During the 1905 legislative session, railroad tax valuation was passed, and a railroad commission was established to regulate the industry after much political fighting. This final success was completed while La Follette served as both governor and U.S. Senator representing Wisconsin. In the final election by the Wisconsin legislature for the U.S. Senate, the state representatives and senators elected La Follette as U.S. Senator. He quickly chose to serve his first year as U.S. Senator in Madison, Wisconsin, to finish the work of the 1905 Legislative Session. By January 1906, he resigned his position of Governor of Wisconsin to begin his nineteen-year career in the U.S. Senate.

His arrival in Washington, D.C., marked the beginning of La Follette’s fight to push a more radical version of progressivism onto the national stage. His efforts quickly ran into problems with the ‘‘old guard’’ in the U.S. Senate and the national leadership of the Republican Party. Bob La Follette quickly broke with Senate tradition by giving long speeches against business trusts and the power of the railroad companies over interstate commerce. He became known for his long filibusters on the senate floor against legislation that was crafted under President Theodore Roosevelt’s legislative supporters. La Follette’s relationship with Roosevelt and William Howard Taft began to sour as ‘‘Fighting Bob’’ pushed them to forward ‘‘progressive’’ ideals further than their conservative positions. La Follette saw Roosevelt’s ‘‘Square Deal’’ as not going far enough to punish the big trusts and their ‘‘bosses’’ for their extreme profits and power. In the 1909 Republican national primary, La Follette came in second to William Howard Taft, and as with previous elections, but La Follette continued to support his Republican Party in the general election.

During the Presidential Administration of Taft, La Follette continued to work against trusts and pushed his progressive agenda aggressively on the national stage. Increasingly, La Follette saw President Taft as an incompetent leader and unwilling to push the progressive agenda advocated by Theodore Roosevelt and La Follette. Former President Roosevelt also shared his view of President Taft, and soon the progressive wing of the Republican Party had two rivals fighting over its direction. La Follette was seen as the radical leader with socialistic connections with friendships with Eugene V. Debs and Lincoln Steffins. Roosevelt became the leader of the moderate progressives, who sought to retake the White House to push ‘‘New Nationalism.’’

In 1911, La Follette helped to create the National Progressive Republican League to challenge Taft for the Republican nomination for President. La Follette sought to get Roosevelt’s support for that organization, but the two leaders continued to argue over the direction of the progressive movement. In February 1912, La Follette gave a speech in Philadelphia, Pa., which was harsh, long, and unorganized in its content. Even though the speech was due to La Follette’s illness and stress, the local newspaper reporters described it as ‘‘political suicide.’’ The speech allowed Roosevelt to step in as the voice of reason within the progressives. The supporters of La Follette and Roosevelt split the progressive vote, which allowed William Howard Taft to win the 1912 Republican nomination for President. Instead of supporting his party, La Follette chose to support the Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson for the general election, while Theodore Roosevelt attempted a Third party candidacy with the ‘‘Bull Moose Party.’’

International Crisis and Free Speech

With the election of Woodrow Wilson, La Follette refocused his efforts to combat railroad companies and support American labor in the U.S. Senate. La Follette agreed with most of President Wilson’s progressive efforts, even though he was a Democrat. The rising international crisis began to overtake the domestic progressive agenda pushed by American politicians. La Follette had taken an antiwar stance earlier in discussions over the European conflict, which was similar to positions advocated by William Jennings Bryan and Woodrow Wilson.

Unrestricted German submarine warfare and the Zimmerman telegram inflamed pro-war supporters in the nation, such as Theodore Roosevelt. Senator La Follette continued to support President Wilson’s efforts to end the war in Europe and to maintain American neutrality. As President Wilson’s views turned toward a possible American involvement in World War I, La Follette saw himself as the lone campaigner for reason during this time of crisis. La Follette staged filibusters to stop efforts to position the United States toward military intervention. On April 2, 1917, President Wilson called the U.S. Congress into special session to consider a declaration of war against Germany and her allies. Senator La Follette took this opportunity to fight to keep his nation from going to war. With an American flag on his lapel, La Follette gave a long speech protesting the course leading to war and attacked the American press for calling for bloodshed. Despite his efforts, war was declared on Germany, and La Follette became a target of the press and the prowar lobby.

With the war a forgone conclusion, he turned his efforts to protect individual liberties during wartime. He attempted to stop the passage of the Espionage Act and was concerned that his own newspaper, La Follette’s Weekly, could be subjected to closure. Starting in September 1917, pro-war senators worked to have La Follette expelled from the U.S. Senate based on the text of La Follette’s remarks given in St. Paul, Minn., against American participation in World War I. La Follette fought back with his fiery oratory through his speech on ‘‘Free Speech in Wartime’’ in October 1917. The efforts to remove La Follette lasted from 1917–1919, as President Wilson’s legislative supporters continued to push the issue to a vote. The expulsion charge failed, and the Senate voted to dismiss all charges. At the end of the conflict, Senator La Follette sought to limit the involvement of the United States in post-war treaties. He spoke against President Wilson’s attempts to negotiate the Treat of Versailles and led the senatorial opposition against American involvement in the League of Nations.

One Last Charge

With the election of Warren Harding as President, Senator La Follette was riding a wave of popularity due to his opposition to Wilson’s involvement in World affairs and his emphasis on domestic policies. He even entertained the notion for running for Governor of Wisconsin again. Unfortunately, the hard pace of his style of politics was bringing even more bouts of sickness, which was concerning his wife and his supporters. La Follette fought hard to repair the damage that his antiwar stance had caused him and his allies back in Wisconsin. He, again, focused his energies on monitoring the railroad and oil companies. His belief was that it was his duty to protect the common laborer against the sins of capitalism. He helped to initiate the investigation on leasing of public oil fields to private companies. His work led to the discovery of leasing of the Teapot Dome oil field to Monmouth Oil Company and the discovery of corruption in the Harding administration.

In preparation for a future run for the presidency in 1924, La Follette toured Europe and made an extended visit to the Soviet Union with Lincoln Steffens and Jo Davidson. With the rejection of progressive planks from both Democratic and Republican platforms, La Follette created the Progressive Party in 1924 to support his run for the Presidency. His efforts served only to pull votes away from the Democratic challenger, and Calvin Coolidge easily won re-election in 1924. ‘‘The Little Lion of the Northwest’’ found himself completely exhausted and weak from the constant campaigning. La Follette had been bothered by heart problems before World War I and suffered a series of heart attacks in the spring of 1925. Surrounded by his family, Robert La Follette passed away on June 19, 1925.

WILLIAM H. BROWN

References and Further Reading

  • Buenker, John D. The History of Wisconsin. Volume 4: The Progressive Era, 1893–1914. Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1998.
  • Doan, Edward N. The La Follettes and the Wisconsin Idea. New York: Rinehart, 1947.
  • Greenbaum, Fred. Robert La Follette. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1975
  • La Follette, Belle C., and Fola La Follette. Robert M. La Follette. 2 vols. New York: Macmillan, 1953.
  • Thelan, David P. Robert M. La Follette and the Insurgent Spirit. Boston: Little, Brown, 1976.
  • Unger, Nancy C. Fighting Bob La Follette: The Righteous Reformer. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

See also National Security and Freedom of Speech; State Constitutions and Civil Liberties

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