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Robert M. La Follette, Sr.

Robert Marion La Follette, Sr. nicknamed "Fighting Bob" La Follette (June 14, 1855 June 20, 1925) was an American politician who served as a U.S. Congressman, the 20th Governor of Wisconsin (1901–1906), and Republican Senator from Wisconsin (1905–1925). He ran for President of the United States as the nominee of his own Progressive Party in 1924, carrying Wisconsin and 17% of the national popular vote.

He is best remembered as a proponent of Progressivism and a vocal opponent of railroad trusts, bossism, World War I, and the League of Nations. In 1957, a Senate committee selected La Follette as one of their five greatest Senate predecessors. A 1982 survey of historians that asked them to rank the "ten greatest Senators in the nation's history" based on "accomplishments in office" and "long range impact on American history," placed La Follette first, tied with Henry Clay.

His wife Belle Case La Follette and sons Robert M. La Follette, Jr. and Philip La Follette led his political faction in Wisconsin into the 1940s. La Follette has been called "arguably the most important and recognized leader of the opposition to the growing dominance of corporations over the Government."

Early life

La Follette was born in the Town of Primrose, Wisconsin, just outside New Glarus, to Josiah La Follette and Mary Ferguson Buchanan; his paternal great-grandfather, Joseph La Follette, was born in France, and he also had English ancestry. La Follette grew up in rural Dane County, Wisconsin. The death of his father in 1856 and the subsequent bad relationship with his stepfather made for a difficult childhood.

After the death of his stepfather, his mother sold the family farm and moved to nearby Madison. He began teaching school for tuition money for the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he was "a very mediocre student who enjoyed social activities."

At the school, he was deeply influenced by University president John Bascom on issues of morality, ethics and social justice. La Follette studied oratory and, during his senior year, won a major Midwestern oratorical competition. He graduated in 1879.

La Follette met Belle Case while attending the UW, and they married on December 31, 1881, at her family home in Baraboo, Wisconsin. She became a leader in the feminist movement, an advocate of women's suffrage and an important influence on the development of La Follette's ideas. La Follette attended law school briefly and passed the bar in 1880.

Political career

District Attorney and Representative

Soon after obtaining his law degree he won the Republican nomination to the general election for Dane County District Attorney and went on to win the seat in 1880. After two terms, he went on to be elected to the United States House of Representatives, where he served for three terms. There he was noted for championing Native and African-American rights. His opposition to patronage and his support for a protective tariff helped secure his appointment to the Ways and Means Committee headed by William McKinley, where he helped draft the Tariff Act of 1890 (McKinley Tariff). The Act, however, was so unpopular that he lost his seat in the 1890 Democratic landslide.

After his defeat for a fourth term in the House, La Follette returned to Madison to begin a private law practice and spend more time with his wife and four children. In the early 1890s he began to believe that much of the Republican Party had abandoned the ideals of its anti-slavery origins and become a tool for corporate interests. In his home state, he was convinced industry and railroad interests had too much sway over the party. To counter this, La Follette began building an independent organization within the party that stressed voter control.

In 1891, La Follette claimed that Philetus Sawyer, one of Wisconsin's Senators and a powerful Republican leader, attempted to bribe him in order to fix a case. The incident cemented La Follette's resolve to reform the party. The party dissidents who joined La Follette became known as "Insurgents" (or the "Progressive" faction), and their opponents within the party were called the "Stalwarts". The Insurgents stressed the need for more direct voter control and championed consumer rights. The Insurgents' call for reform gained more support after the Panic of 1893 shook up the economic, class, and ethnic assumptions held by most Americans.

In 1894, the Insurgents began to openly challenge the Stalwarts for leadership of the Republican Party. The Insurgents' Nils Haugen sought the party nomination for governor in 1894, and La Follette followed in 1896 and 1898. His speeches decrying the sway of big business (especially the railroads) and his call for a more direct democracy (including direct election of nominees in party primaries) drew ever larger crowds.

In 1900, La Follette formed a coalition that temporarily disrupted the Stalwart hold on the nomination process. After securing the nomination, he "traveled to sixty-one counties, gave 216 speeches and spoke to 200,000 people." He gave many of his campaign speeches (which often lasted over three hours) from the back of a buckboard wagon. He won the 1900 race for governor by 100,000 votes.

Governor of Wisconsin

From 1901 until 1906, La Follette served as Governor of Wisconsin. During his first term, he proposed to set up a railroad commission, impose an ad valorem tax on the railroad companies, and establish a direct primary system. The Stalwarts blocked his agenda, and he refused to compromise with them.

During the 1904 elections, the Stalwarts organized to oppose La Follette's nomination and moved to block any reform legislation. La Follette began working to unite insurgent Democrats to form a broad coalition. He did manage to secure the passage of the primary bill and some revision to the railroad tax structure.

When the legislative session concluded, La Follette traveled throughout Wisconsin reading the "roll call"; that is, he read the votes of Stalwart Republicans to the people in an effort to elect Progressives. During this campaign, La Follette gained national attention when muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens began to cover his campaign.

With the press coverage and his successful re-election, La Follette rose to become a national figure. His message against "vast corporate combinations" attracted more journalists and more progressives.

As governor, La Follette championed numerous progressive reforms, including the first workers' compensation system, railroad rate reform, direct legislation, municipal home rule, open government, the minimum wage, non-partisan elections, the open primary system, direct election of U.S. Senators, women's suffrage, and progressive taxation. He created an atmosphere of close cooperation between the state government and the University of Wisconsin in the development of progressive policy, which became known as the Wisconsin Idea. The Wisconsin Idea promoted the idea of grounding legislation on thorough research and expert involvement. To implement this program, La Follette began working with University of Wisconsin-Madison faculty. This made Wisconsin a \"laboratory for democracy\" and \"the most important state for the development of progressive legislation\". As governor, La Follette signed legislation that created the Wisconsin Legislative Reference Library (now Bureau) to ensure that a research agency would be available for the development of legislation.

Nominates self for U.S. Senate

The first item on the agenda for Wisconsin's 1905 legislature was to elect a Senator. La Follette nominated himself and was confirmed by the State Senate. He kept serving as Governor and left Wisconsin's U.S. Senate seat unfilled until January 1 1906, when he resigned to join the U.S. Senate. He publicly proclaimed this unusual action was done to ensure that his 1904 platform was enacted in Wisconsin.


La Follette spent the remainder of his life, from January 2, 1906, until his death in 1925, serving in the U.S. Senate. While in the Senate, he strongly opposed American involvement in World War I and campaigned for child labor laws, social security, women's suffrage, and other progressive reforms. He opposed the prosecution of Eugene V. Debs and other opponents of the war and played a key role in initiating the investigation of the Teapot Dome Scandal during the Harding Administration.

A brilliant orator given to periodic bouts of \"nerves,\" La Follette made many enemies over the years, particularly for his opposition to American entry into World War I and his defense of freedom of speech during wartime. Roosevelt called him a \"skunk who should be hanged\" when he opposed the arming of American merchant ships; one of his colleagues in the Senate said he was \"a better German than the head of the German parliament\" when he opposed the Wilson Administration's request for a declaration of war in 1917.

In 1906, when La Follette went back to Washington, D.C., the American economy had changed due to an increasing number of mergers that consolidated financial power in fewer hands. Senators Nelson Aldrich and John C. Spooner where widely seen as representing the interests of these fiscal elite. Journalist David Graham Phillips wrote a series of articles decrying corruption and subservience to corporate interests within the body entitled Treason of the Senate.

As the conservative leader, Aldrich was able to limit the effectiveness of La Follette and his Insurgents by placing them on insignificant committees. In response, La Follette took every chance to demand consumers' rights. When Congress adjourned, he went on a national speaking tour where he \"read the roll\" to expose senators he felt had voted against consumers. The tour added much to his national following.

Returning to the capital, he was viewed as the leader of the Progressives. He joined with Jonathan Dolliver, Albert Cummins, and others to form a fairly formal group. They were often joined by muckraking journalists such as Steffens, Phillips, and Louis Brandeis to discuss issues and strategies to limit conservative power in the legislature and the judiciary. To expand this forum, he began publishing La Follette's Weekly in 1909.

La Follette believed his fears about the American economy were confirmed during the Bankers' Panic of 1907. La Follette opposed Aldrich's proposal (which had been created with the aid of financiers such as J.P. Morgan). He saw the plan to issue $500 million in emergency currency backed in part by railroad bonds as an effort to establish economic centralization and crush free institutions. La Follette's troubles in the Senate worsened when fellow Progressive Theodore Roosevelt did not seek another term and William Howard Taft became President.

Opposition to American involvement in World War I

Perhaps one of the most notable positions of Senator La Follette was his opposition of American entry into World War I and, failing that, his critique of the wartime policies of President Woodrow Wilson. Historian Thomas Ryley summarizes the common feeling at the time saying, \"More than any of the other objectors to war, he remained a symbol of opposition to the conflict and to Wilsonian policies for prosecuting it.\" La Follette had cautiously supported most of Wilson's domestic program, but by 1916 he was becoming increasingly critical of the president's foreign policy.

In many people's eyes during 1917 and 1918, La Follette was the most hated man in the country, for insisting that America had no business in the war and had been led into it by lies and trickery.\" La Follette and others who opposed entry into World War I (and who later opposed endorsing the Treaty of Versailles) were referred to as Irreconcilables.

From the beginning, La Follette opposed taking any side in World War I. He was a leader in filibustering the Armed Ship bill, which would have authorized the President to arm merchant vessels. In his speech opposing the measure, La Follette pointed out that its main supporter was a subsidiary of the International Mercantile Marine Company, which had been formed in England. In his eyes this bill would have had American gunners answering to English ship owners who "take their orders from the British Admiralty. Hence we, professing to be a neutral nation are placing American guns and American gunners practically under the orders of the British Admiralty." La Follette's opposition to the measure caused President Wilson to name him as part of "A little group of willful men, representing no opinion but their own...." Most media outlets condemned La Follette in editorials and political cartoons (some of which mockingly portrayed him as receiving the Iron Cross ).

La Follette's staunch position against joining the war caused Senator John Sharp Williams to label him "pro-German, pretty near pro-Goth, and pro-Vandal." He was denounced in press editorials and political cartoons. After America joined the war, La Follette was a leader of the opposition to military conscription, the Espionage Act, and the President's measures to finance the war.

On August 11 1917, he introduced a War Aims resolution that called on the US to "declare definitely its strategic goals, to condemn the continuation of the war for the purposes of territorial annexation, and to demand that the Allies restate their peace terms immediately." This position was attacked by both the press and public officials.

On September 20 1917, he addressed the Non-Partisan League convention in Saint Paul, Minnesota, to discuss war taxation. Responding to an audience question, he said that while America had "suffered the hands of Germany" they were not sufficient to provoke war. "I say this, that the comparatively small privilege, of the right of an American citizen to ride on a munitions loaded ship flying a foreign flag, is too small to involve this government in the loss of millions and millions of lives!!" He insisted that the President knew there was ammunition on the RMS Lusitania but hadn't prevented Americans from boarding it. After much audience cheering, he then defended free speech during wartime and received a standing ovation after his conclusion.

Despite the existence of three stenographic reports of the address, the Associated Press misquoted La Follette claiming he had said "We had no grievance against Germany" and that he argued the sinking of the Lusitania was justified. The AP also categorized the meeting as disloyal. La Follette was characterized as treasonous by speakers and editors across the nation.

Historian David Thelen reports that after the St. Paul speech La Follette "became the main focus of official and vigilante campaigns to suppress antiwar spokesmen." Many organizations sent resolutions to Congress calling for his expulsion, including the influential Minnesota Public Safety Commission presentation made to the Senate on September 29, 1917. La Follette asked for the Senate to schedule time to allow him to make an address in response to the charges of disloyalty and sedition.

His address was scheduled for October 6 1917. His opponents in Congress manipulated the schedule so they could speak after him and not allow for any rebuttal. The public, sensing drama, packed the viewing galleries, and the majority of Senators made sure they were present to hear all the speech. Upon taking the floor, La Follette read in an unemotional detached manner a speech he had prepared defending free speech in wartime. Upon his conclusion there was a spontaneous outburst of applause that had to be gaveled into order. This speech is hailed as "a classic argument for free speech during time of war".

After the speech, Senators Frank B. Kellogg (Minn.), Joseph Taylor Robinson (Arkansas), and Albert B. Fall (N.M.) in turn attacked La Follette's position on the war. Senator Robinson was a combative and fiercely partisan defender of Wilson and the Democratic Party. His speech "synthesized the scattered attacks on La Follette that had been filtering in for seven the speech progressed, he became more agitated and abusive. The virulence of Robinson's attack shocked the floor and galleries into complete silence."

A United Press correspondent described Robinson's speech as "the most unrestrained language that ever has been heard in the Senate." La Follette sat motionless in his chair, even when Robinson began shaking his fist at him. Near the conclusion of his speech, Robinson violated the custom of the Senate and addressed his colleague directly, pointing at La Follette and shouting, "I want to know where you stand." La Follette was not allowed to take the floor to refute the other Senators before adjournment, though Senator Fall did allow him a brief statement (whereupon he announced he was prepared to substantiate everything he said in St. Paul and desired the chance to rebut the charges being made against him by his fellow Senators). Throughout the rest of his time in the Senate, his opponents used procedural maneuvers to ensure he never was allowed to address charges of disloyalty again.

La Follette's opposition to US entry into World War I caused a break between him and his academic friends. He built a new base of support among anti-war German Americans.

Presidential campaigns

In 1911, La Follette set up a campaign to mobilize the progressive elements in the Republican Party behind his presidential bid. He made a disastrous speech in February 1912 before a gathering of leading magazine editors that caused many to doubt his stability. Most of his supporters deserted him for Theodore Roosevelt.

Embittered, La Follette opposed both Roosevelt and William Howard Taft in the 1912 election. When his former ally, Governor Francis E. McGovern, supported Roosevelt, La Follette broke with him, allowing the conservative Republicans under Emanuel Philipp to take control of Wisconsin in the decisive 1914 election. La Follette's forces were out of power in the state from 1912 to 1920.

In 1924, the Federated Farmer-Labor Party (FF-LP) sought to nominate La Follette as its candidate. The FF-LP sought to unite all progressive parties into a single national Labor Party.

However, after a bitter convention in 1923, the Communist-controlled Workers Party gained control of the national organization's structure. Just prior to its 1924 convention in St. Paul, La Follette denounced the Communists and refused to be considered for the FF-LP endorsement. With La Follette's snub, the FF-LP disintegrated, leaving only the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party.

Instead, La Follette formed an independent Progressive Party and accepted its nomination in Cleveland with Democratic Senator Burton K. Wheeler of Montana as his running mate. The American Federation of Labor, the Socialist Party of America, the Conference for Progressive Political Action and most of the former supporters of the FF-LP along with various former "Bull Moose" Progressives and midwestern Progressive movement activists then joined La Follette and supported the Progressive Party.

La Follette's platform called for government ownership of the railroads and electric utilities, cheap credit for farmers, the outlawing of child labor, stronger laws to help labor unions, more protection of civil liberties, an end to American imperialism in Latin America, and a referendum before any president could again lead the nation into war.

He came in third behind incumbent President Calvin Coolidge and Democratic candidate John W. Davis. La Follette won 17% of the popular vote, carried Wisconsin (winning its 13 electoral votes) and polled second in 11 Western states. His base consisted of German Americans, railroad workers, the AFL labor unions, the Non-Partisan League, the Socialist Party, Western farmers, and many of the "Bull Moose" Progressives who had supported Roosevelt in 1912. LaFollette's 17% showing represents the third highest showing for a third party since the American Civil War, only surpassed by Roosevelt's 27% in 1912 and Ross Perot's 19% in 1992. Following the 1924 election, the Progressive Party disbanded.

Death and legacy

La Follette died in Washington, D.C., of cardiovascular disease several months after the election. He was buried in the Forest Hill Cemetery on the near west side of Madison.

After La Follette's death, his wife, Belle Case La Follette, remained an influential figure and editor. His sons Philip and Robert entered the political arena. By the mid 1930s, the La Follettes had reformed the Progressive Party and had returned to power in the state; all but one of Wisconsin's congressmen were Progressives. Fighting Bob's son, Philip La Follette, was elected Governor of Wisconsin. La Follette's other son, Robert M. La Follette, Jr., succeeded his father as Senator where he led the Progressive caucus composed of Progressive, Farm-Labor, American Labor, and various Republican and Democratic Party congressional representatives.

La Follette Jr. returned to the Republican Party in 1946, where he was defeated in the primary by former Democratic State Senator Joe McCarthy. His grandson Bronson La Follette served as Wisconsin's attorney general in the 1980s.

His son-in-law was the playwright George Middleton, who was married to his daughter Fola.


  • "The will of the people shall be the law of the land."
  • "In times of peace, the war party insists on making preparation for war. As soon as prepared for, it insists on making war."
  • "The underlying reason indeed why both parties have failed to take the people's side in the present crisis is that neither party can openly attack the real evils which are undermining representative government without convicting themselves of treachery to the voters during their recent tenure in office."
  • "Every nation has its war party. It is not the party of democracy. It is the party of autocracy. It seeks to dominate absolutely. It is commercial, imperialistic, ruthless. It tolerates no opposition. It is just as arrogant, just as despotic, in London, or in Washington, as in Berlin. The American Jingo is twin to the German Junker.... If there is no sufficient reason for war, the war party will make war on one pretext, then invent another."
  • "The purpose of this ridiculous campaign is to throw the country into a state of sheer terror, to change public opinion, to stifle criticism, and suppress discussion. People are being unlawfully arrested, thrown into jail, held incommunicado for days, only to be eventually discharged without ever having been taken into court, because they have committed no crime. But more than this, if every preparation for war can be made the excuse for destroying free speech and a free press and the right of the people to assemble together for peaceful discussion, then we may well despair of ever again finding ourselves for a long period in a state of peace. The destruction of rights now occurring will be pointed to then as precedents for a still further invasion of the rights of the citizen."
  • "America is not made, it is in the making. Mere passive citizenship is not enough. Men must be aggressive for what is right if government is to be saved from those who are aggressive for what is wrong."



  • John D. Buenker, The History of Wisconsin. Volume IV The Progressive Era, 1893–1914 (1998), detailed narrative and analysis.
  • Carl R. Burgchardt; Robert M. La Follette, Sr.: The Voice of Conscience Greenwood Press. 1992; on his oratory, with selected speeches.
  • Garraty, John A. "Robert La Follette: The Promise Unfulfilled" American Heritage (1962) 13(3): 76–79, 84–88. ISSN: 0002-8738 article
  • K. C. MacKay, The Progressive Movement of 1924 (1947)
  • Herbert F. Margulies; The Decline of the Progressive Movement in Wisconsin, 1890–1920 (1968), detailed narrative.
  • Karen A. J. Miller; Populist Nationalism: Republican Insurgency and American Foreign Policy Making, 1918–1925 Greenwood Press, 1999.
  • David Thelen, Robert M. La Follette and the Insurgent Spirit 1976. short interpretive biography.
  • Nancy C. Unger. Fighting Bob La Follette: The Righteous Reformer (2000), full scale biography.

Primary sources


See also

External links



Pending and recent legislation

  • , An Act to designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 215 Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard in Madison, Wisconsin, as the "Robert M. La Follette, Sr. Post Office Building"
  • , Honoring the life of Robert M. La Follette, Sr., on the sesquicentennial of his birth
  • , A bill to authorize the President to posthumously award a gold medal on behalf of Congress to Robert M. La Follette, Sr., in recognition of his important contributions to the Progressive movement, the State of Wisconsin, and the United States
  • , Robert M. La Follette, Sr. Commemorative Coin Act

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