Robert M. La Follette
(1855-1925), Progressive Era political leader and reformer. 'Democracy is a life,' wrote La Follette in 1911, 'and involves continual struggle.' His own intense seventy years fully confirmed that faith. Born into a poor but respectable farming family in pioneer Wisconsin on the eve of the Civil War, La Follette ranks high among those progressives who tried to bring the twentieth century into harmony with the Republican ideal of a self-ruling republic of independent producers. At the University of Wisconsin his first loves were theater and declamation, but ambition and the need to make a living led him into law and elective office. From district attorney of Dane County he moved up to Congress, serving three terms in the House (1885-1891) as a more or less orthodox Republican, but one who shone in debate.
Although his district unseated him in 1890, the defeat only led to his insurgency and fame. During his eight years of private practice in Madison, where echoes of agrarian revolt were loud, La Follette claimed to see in full profile at last a sinister alliance between the 'interests' (Wisconsin's lumber and railroad corporations) and the 'bosses' (the major-party leaders, predominantly Republican) who worked together to cheat 'the people'-the farmers, small businessmen, and workers. He became the popular champion of these groups as he set out on a series of statewide speaking campaigns that led finally to his election as governor in 1900. The elements of his platform were open nominating primaries, equal and fair taxation of corporate property, state regulation of railroads and public utilities charges, and management of public resources in the public interest. Administration was to be entrusted to nonpartisan civil servants drawn largely from the Wisconsin faculty. Journalists publicized the 'Wisconsin Idea,' and La Follette's continual struggle to implement it soon marked him as a rising star in the nationwide progressive firmament. In 1905 he was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he remained until his death.
La Follette never became a successful Senate insider despite his long tenure. He gave his name to only one major law, the 1915 act protecting merchant seamen from exploitation. His role instead was to push uncompromisingly for progressive legislation on the floor and on the nationwide lecture circuit. So well did he play it that by 1912 he was considered the standout among the Senate group of Republican insurgents challenging conservative party regulars.
La Follette sought to take the presidential nomination away from the incumbent William Howard Taft that year, but his bid was preempted by that of Theodore Roosevelt (whose progressive credentials La Follette had always doubted). When Woodrow Wilson won the election as a Democratic progressive, La Follette supported his domestic programs but broke decisively with him in 1917 by heading up the opposition to American entry into the First World War. For this unpopular stand he was punished by widespread public vilification and ostracism during 1917-1918 (and nearly expelled from the Senate). But in the postwar period he was forgiven and assumed a new part-the aging, respected conscience of a progressive movement in eclipse under Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge.
In 1924 he ran as an independent Progressive candidate for president, polling nearly 6 million votes out of some 30 million cast, but winning only Wisconsin's electoral votes. After his death the following June, his older son, Robert M. La Follette, Jr., followed him in the Senate and served until 1946. His younger son, Philip F. La Follette, served as governor of Wisconsin in the thirties.
The Reader's Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
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Robert M. La Follette
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Robert M. La Follette. The History Channel website. 2013. Available at: http://www.history.com/topics/robert-m-la-follette. Accessed May 22, 2013.