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Summary Article: LA FOLLETTE, ROBERT M.
from Encyclopedia of U.S. Political History


Progressive Reformer:

U.S. Representative, Governor, Senator, and Presidential Candidate

As U.S. representative from 1885 to 1891, governor from 1901 to 1906, and senator from 1906 until his death in 1925, Robert "Fighting Bob" La Follette (R-WI) fought to bring the "Wisconsin Idea" of truer democracy to the entire nation. La Follette fought for democratic principles that he saw being subverted by the misuse of rhetoric celebrating American freedom from government intervention. Advances he championed included the direct election of senators, tax reform, the conservation of natural resources, and the rights of workers, women, and minorities. A political progressive dedicated to the more equitable distribution of the nation's wealth and power, La Follette blazed the trail for the New Deal

Early Influences

Robert La Follette's early years helped to shape his political beliefs. He was born in the proverbial log cabin in 1855 and learned the value of hard work on the family farm. In 1873, while still a teenager, La Follette was deeply impressed by a speech by Edward G. Ryan, soon to be the state's chief justice, explaining the dark power to which the new era of industrialization and urbanization was giving rise, and warning that the state might soon be led by "feudal serfs of corporate capital." (Unger 2000, 32)

La Follette was also profoundly influenced by his experiences as a student at the University of Wisconsin. He graduated from the university in 1879, and from its law school the following year; he developed and refined his considerable talents as a public speaker while in school. His victory at the 1879 Interstate Oratorical Contest brought him much recognition. He developed a close relationship with university president John Bascom, who emphasized the obligations of citizenship and championed women's rights and other forms of social and economic justice.

Political Beginnings

La Follette practiced law only briefly before being elected district attorney of Dane County in 1880—he was attracted by both the salary and the opportunity to serve the public. Four years later he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served three terms. La Follette's years as a representative were less marked by unlimited attacks on big business or by strong commitments to progressive reform than his subsequent career might suggest. Although in some respects he was a party regular, his egalitarianism was already evident, earning him the respect of leaders in the African American community and in the woman suffrage movement. He spoke passionately on behalf of American Indians and established himself as a foe of pork-barrel legislation and of lumber companies and railroads seeking land grants and other special favors from Congress.

La Follette's Political Awakening

La Follette failed in his congressional reelection bid in 1890, a casualty of the Democratic sweep that included the governor's chair and virtually all of Congress, caused in large part by the dissatisfaction of Wisconsin voters with the Bennett compulsory-education bill (mandating that only schools that taught in English met state requirements), passed in 1889 by the Republican-controlled state legislature. La Follette returned to his private law practice. In 1891, he publicly charged Wisconsin senator Philetus Sawyer, a dominant Republican in the state, with offering him a bribe to fix a case. La Follette claimed that this exposure to corruption brought him to the greatest revelation of his life: the United States was fast being dominated by hostile forces thwarting the will of the people and menacing representative government. Previously he had seen the issues of the day, including trusts, resource conservation, currency, and railroad regulation, as individual problems. Now he saw them as manifestations of one great struggle and claimed that the supreme issue, involving all the others, was "the encroachment of the powerful few upon the rights of the many" (La Follette 321). With this revelation came a new life's purpose: to thwart and ultimately eliminate this corrupting influence through reforms of the nation's political and economic systems.

La Follette sought the governor's chair in 1896. The nomination, however, went to Edward Scofield, whose supporters offered bribes to La Follette's delegates the night before the convention, a time-honored last resort of the politically corrupt. Undaunted, La Follette championed the destruction of the caucus-and-convention nominating system in favor of the direct primary. Defeated again by unscrupulous tactics in 1898, he ran a third time in 1900. During this so-called harmony campaign, La Follette for the first time enjoyed the financial support of a wealthy backer. In addition, members of the old guard who had previously opposed him recognized that La Follette had the support of the people. With La Follette's political star on the rise, they joined his organization to protect their own future interests. In 1900, La Follette became the state's first Wisconsin-born governor.

The Wisconsin Idea

As governor, La Follette sought to make the political machinery more directly responsive to the popular will and to promote equal rights over special privilege. His program involved implementing a vast spectrum of reforms, including a restructuring of the education system, protection of natural resources from corporate exploitation, and regulation of working environments. He assured corporations that he was not against big business per se, but rather was against efforts to control prices, stifle competition, and create monopolies. To help implement his programs, he relied heavily on his alma mater, creating the famed Wisconsin Idea. This commonwealth conception of society emphasized cooperation among the government, university, and private sector, with public interest transcending all lesser concerns. La Follette placed vast faith in the experts on the faculty of the university to advise, set standards, and administer Wisconsin's reform laws. The university unofficially became the fourth branch of government, and the Wisconsin Idea made its state a nationally recognized progressive leader.

As a progressive governor, La Follette struggled mightily against a conservative legislature and entrenched Republican machine controlled by special interests. The harmony campaign that had brought him into office quickly dissolved as old battle lines were redrawn. Five days before the legislature's adjournment on May 15, 1901, the state senate passed a resolution to censure La Follette for his encroachment upon their constitutional prerogatives. La Follette's response was to arraign the legislature as derelict of duty. The governor's unpopularity among his fellow politicians was massively outweighed by the support from his constituents—even though his progressive agenda remained unrealized during his first term. Wisconsin farmers, laborers, and citizens from all walks of life remained convinced that La Follette was sincerely dedicated to making their homes and workplaces safer; to reducing the disparity between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless. These dedicated supporters recognized that time was needed to lay the groundwork for such sweeping reforms and remained faithful for the duration of his long political career.

La Follette's second term was marked by the enactment of his direct primary plan, making Wisconsin the first state to require that all candidates for public office be subject to a direct vote of the people. Despite vast public support for the plan, many legislators fought it to the end, passing it only because the "referendum clause" on which they had insisted left the caucus-and-convention system in effect for nearly two years, keeping the door open for the plan's defeat. Their hopes were dashed when the public approved the direct primary. Although his opponents in the legislature refused to pass La Follette's plan to establish a railroad regulatory commission, they did bow to public pressure and agree that railroads, one of the state's most powerful and vilified industries, should be taxed on the value of their physical property, forcing railroads to pay their fair share of the tax burden previously borne disproportionately by farmers, homeowners, and smaller businesses. Such reforms increased the focus on Wisconsin as a national model. A favorable article by influential muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens in McClure's magazine also burnished La Follette's reputation.

When La Follette left the governor's chair to join the U.S. Senate in 1906, he had achieved thoroughgoing and efficient reform of railroads and other utilities; civil service reform for state officials; a stringent anti-lobbying law that required lobbyists to register with the secretary of state and to publish the details of contacts with legislators; stronger provisions against corrupt practices; conservation measures, including the forest conservation program; tax reforms; nomination by primary elections; and the innovation of drawing heavily upon university experts.

Bringing Wisconsin Progressivism to the Nation

Controversial and contentious throughout his nineteen-year tenure in the Senate, La Follette was a consistently aggressive spokesman for progressive reform. Although he and Pres. Theodore Roosevelt shared many of the same progressive goals, they first broke over Roosevelt's refusal to back La Follette's efforts to protect federally owned mineral lands from corporate exploitation in 1907. Roosevelt favored compromise—a path that La Follette almost always found abhorrent. In 1908, La Follette organized a filibuster in which he spoke for nearly nineteen consecutive hours against passage of the Vreeland-Aldrich bill (providing for the issuance of emergency currency supported by the partial backing of railroad bonds), which he believed to be harmful to the general public because such a measure would have, among other effects, restored public confidence even in worthless railroad bonds. Later that same year, although La Follette saw himself as Roosevelt's logical successor, Roosevelt backed the far more conservative William Howard Taft for the presidential nomination.

La Follette remained aggressive and tireless in his fight for what he deemed right. To detail and publicize his political ideas and goals, he began publishing La Follette's Weekly Magazine in 1909. (The magazine later became a monthly and remains in publication as The Progressive.)

La Follette grew disgusted with Taft over both the president's foreign policy (particularly his Dollar Diplomacy in Latin America) and his increasingly conservative domestic measures. La Follette, who believed that high tariffs strengthened monopolies' grip on the economy, led the opposition to the Payne-Aldrich Tariff Act, which was ultimately approved by Taft. Especially displeasing to La Follette was Taft's support of Sec. of Interior Richard A. Ballinger's efforts to open public lands to development by private business. Taft went so far as to remove Gifford Pinchot from his position as chief of the Interior Department's division of forestry when Pinchot opposed Ballinger's actions.

In 1911, La Follette led the National Progressive Republican League, an organization whose constitution he drafted. The league, which included senators and governors, advocated more genuine democracy through direct primaries; the direct election of senators; a thoroughgoing corrupt practices act; and initiative, referendum, and recall as a means for the populace to indicate and exercise its political will. Theodore Roosevelt refused to join the league; although the former president shared La Follette's disdain for Taft's political conservatism, rather than support La Follette's bid for the presidency in 1912, Roosevelt contemplated seeking an unprecedented third term in order to implement a new, more aggressive plan of government action he termed New Nationalism.

La Follette refused to withdraw from the presidential race, but in February 1912 he gave a rambling, hostile speech that so insulted his audience of newspaper and periodical publishers that it permanently damaged his reputation. The ensuing contretemps contributed to the breakup of the progressive alliance he had worked so hard to create, especially after some of his onetime supporters switched their allegiance to Roosevelt when the former president formally announced his candidacy only three weeks after La Follette's ill-fated speech.

Initially drawn to Woodrow Wilson's support for progressive reforms, La Follette was soon alienated by Wilson's resistance to direct federal involvement in American business. La Follette found Wilson's proposed New Freedom to be naive, predicated on the notion that the federal government need only restore and preserve competition in business to sweep away special privileges. La Follette asserted that even the restoration of competition could not possibly ensure the passage and implementation of social justice measures necessary to bring to individuals the dignity, decency, and basic fairness that was lacking in so many American lives. The role that economic status played in who lived and who died as revealed by the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 vividly illustrated La Follette's assertions to many horrified Americans.

La Follette continued his tireless fight for progressive reform. He was instrumental the following year in the passage of the income tax as well as La Follette Seaman's bill, the only law to carry his name, a measure ending the virtual enslavement of merchant sailors and improving safety for all passengers and crew members.

La Follette Opposes U.S. Entry into World War I

La Follette deemed the war "the money changer's opportunity, and the social reformer's doom," and dedicated himself to keeping his country out of the conflagration raging across Europe in 1914. (Unger 2000, 239-240) He led the filibuster against Wilson's Armed Ship bill in March 1917, and was among the "little group of willful men" the president denounced for rendering "the great Government of the United States helpless and contemptible." The following month La Follette was one of only six senators to vote against American entry into the war. He dedicated himself to defending progressive protections against corporate exploitation that were doubly jeopardized in wartime.

La Follette was vilified throughout the war, but the height of the frenzy against him came when he was misquoted by the Associated Press (AP) news service as saying, in a speech critical of both domestic and foreign policy, "We had no grievance against Germany." Undeterred despite being spat upon and burned in effigy, La Follette answered calls for his expulsion from the Senate not in defense of his position but with an impassioned plea for the protection of constitutional rights and freedoms, including free speech, during time of war. Although the AP issued a retraction and apology in 1918, the many tributes ultimately heaped upon La Follette for his stance on the war were slower in coming. Not until after his death in 1925, for example, did Sen. James Reed call his antiwar vote "the most superb act of courage this century has witnessed." (Unger 2000, 261)

Senator Robert La M. Follette gives the first radio address of his presidential campaign in September 1924.(Library of Congress)

Postwar Progressivism

Following the war, La Follette sought to shore up the faltering progressive movement. He spoke passionately against the Treaty of Versailles, particularly against the proposed League of Nations, which he believed would involve Americans in foolhardy foreign entanglements at the price of progress at home. La Follette won important protections for natural resources and, on April 28, 1922, demanded the investigation that culminated in the Teapot Dome oil reserve scandal and the resignation of Pres. Warren G. Harding's Interior Secretary Albert Fall.

Final Battles

Despite age and ill health, La Follette refused to abandon his progressive crusade. In 1923, he toured Europe to strengthen his authority on foreign affairs in preparation for his presidential bid in 1924. European politics, needs, and ideas, such as economic cooperatives and agricultural relief, influenced his campaign. Proclaiming himself an Independent Progressive candidate for the presidency, La Follette presented a platform reflective of his staunch commitment to progressive goals; it included environmental protections, tax reform, and protections for farmers and workers. Despite a tiny campaign chest, he received nearly 5 million votes under four different party labels (Progressive, Socialist, Farmer-Labor, and Independent Progressive), totaling roughly 17 percent of the total number cast. He died of heart disease the following year.


La Follette continues to be recognized as a leader in the Progressive Era because of his tireless efforts to more equitably distribute the nation's wealth and power. Although his influence during his lifetime was limited by a variety of factors, primarily a stubborn refusal to compromise, it did not end with his death. His son Phil served three terms as Wisconsin governor and his other son, Robert Jr., succeeded him in the Senate, serving 21 years. Both shared their father's commitment to reform and, with other key La Follette supporters, joined forces with Franklin Roosevelt, bringing many of La Follette's goals to fruition in the New Deal, including progressive income and inheritance tax schedules, the abolition of child labor and other labor legislation, and agricultural aid programs. In 1982, the National Governors Association placed La Follette first on its list of 10 outstanding governors of the twentieth century, and a 2000 Senate resolution recognized him as one of the seven greatest senators in American history.

Bibliography and Further Reading
  • Burgchardt, Carl R. Robert M. La Follette, Sr.: The Voice of Conscience New York: Greenwood Press, 1992.
  • La Follette, Belle Case, and Fola La, Follette. Robert M. La Follette New York: Macmillan, 1953.
  • La Follette, Robert. La Follette's Autobiography. 1911, 1913. Reprint, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1960.
  • "La, Follette, Robert, Marion." Biographical Dictionary of the United States Congress. (accessed Dec. 30, 2006).
  • Ritchie, Donald. "La Follette, Robert." American National Biography New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
  • Thelen, David. Robert M. La Follette and the Insurgent Spirit 1976. Reprint, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986.
  • Unger, Nancy. Fighting Bob La Follette: The Righteous Reformer Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000; revised edition, Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2008.
  • Unger, Nancy. "'I Went to Learn,' Meanings of the European Tour of Senator Robert M. La Follette, 1923." Mid-America 84, nos. 1-3 (Winter/Summer/Fall 2002): 5-25.
Nancy C. Unger
© 2010 CQ Press, A Division of SAGE

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