Robert Marion La Follette (1855-1925), governor of Wisconsin and U.S. senator, was one of the leading Progressive reform politicians of his day.
Robert M. La Follette was born June 14, 1855, on a frontier farm in Dane County, Wis. As a teenager, he farmed for several years before entering the University of Wisconsin. He graduated in 1879 and was admitted to the bar in 1880. In the same year, despite the disapproval of Republican political bosses, he was elected Dane County district attorney. Four years later La Follette successfully sought a seat in Congress, again over the opposition of his party's local leadership. Nevertheless in his three terms in Congress (1855-1891) he voted with the regular Republicans on most issues. He returned to law practice after his defeat in 1890.
A turning point in La Follette's political career came the next year, when a party stalwart offered him what he interpreted as a bribe to "fix" a court case. Indignant, La Follette declared war on the party machine. In 1896 and 1898 he ran unsuccessfully for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in Wisconsin. He initiated a speaking tour of country fairs to build support and won the Republican nomination and the gubernatorial election in 1900.
During La Follette's first two terms as governor (1901-1904) little of his Progressive program—a direct primary law, Tax Commission, Railroad Commission, Civil Service Commission, conservation measures, a corrupt-practices act—passed, because conservative elements in the legislature blocked it. Uncompromising, La Follette carried his program to the voters in his 1904 campaign, using the ingenious device of "reading the roll call" of the legislature's votes to show citizens how their representatives had voted on key issues. The result was election of a Progressive legislature and his own victory; in 1905 much of his program was passed. He became U.S. senator in 1906.
La Follette defied Senate tradition by immediately taking outspoken positions in debate. He angered "Old Guard" senators and President Theodore Roosevelt by refusing to concede on railroad and banking legislation. He broke even more sharply with Roosevelt's successor, William Howard Taft, over the tariff and the issue of conservation. Seeking to capitalize in 1909 on the rise of Progressive feeling, La Follette established La Follette's Magazine to extend his ideas to a broader audience.
During Woodrow Wilson's presidency, Senator La Follette won a great legislative victory—the Seaman's Act of 1915. He approved of Wilson's early neutrality statements regarding World War I, and when the President called for war in April 1917, La Follette was one of six senators who opposed him. He also opposed the military draft and the wartime Espionage Act, which he felt violated fundamental individual liberties.
Following the war, La Follette voted against ratification of the Versailles Treaty and American membership in the League of Nations. He played a prominent role in exposing the Teapot Dome scandals of Warren Harding's administration. In 1924 he was the Progressive candidate for president, winning endorsements from the American Federation of Labor, the Socialist party, and the railroad unions. Though he lost the election, he won nearly 5 million votes and carried his home state. He died soon after, on June 18, 1925.
"Fighting Bob" La Follette was temperamentally a member of the opposition, at his best fighting the good fight from an underdog position. His independence tended to isolate him politically and to prevent him from achieving his highest goal, the presidency.
La Follette's own account of his career until 1912 is La Follette's Autobiography: A Personal Narrative of Political Experiences (1913). Belle C. and Fola La Follette, Robert M. La Follette (2 vols., 1953), is a loving, detailed memoir by his wife and daughter. See also Robert S. Maxwell, La Follette (1969). Books on segments of his career are Edward N. Doan, The La Follettes and the Wisconsin Idea (1947); Robert S. Maxwell, La Follette and the Rise of the Progressives in Wisconsin (1956); David P. Thelen, The Early Life of Robert M. La Follette, 1855-1884 (1966); and Herbert F. Margulies, The Decline of the Progressive Movement in Wisconsin, 1890-1920 (1968).
Greenbaum, Fred, Robert Marion La Follette, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1975.
Thelen, David P. (David Paul), Robert M. La Follette and the insurgent spirit, Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985, 1976. □