La Follette, Robert M.

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Robert M. La Follette

Born June 14, 1855 (Primrose, Wisconsin)

Died June 18, 1925 (Washington, D.C.)

Politician Lawyer

Robert M. La Follette served in the United States Senate for nearly twenty years, and was a key figure in the Progressive Era (the period of the Industrial Revolution that spanned roughly from the 1890s to about 1920, in which reformers worked together in the interest of distributing political power and wealth more equally). Before heading to Washington, La Follette spent five years as governor of his home state, Wisconsin. In both offices he championed some of the first laws in the country that placed government regulations on business and supported others that were aimed at helping average wage earners and farmers. La Follette was a well-known figure in his time and enjoyed immense popular support. When he ran for president as a third-party candidate in 1924, he won an impressive five million votes. That year he was the front-runner of the Progressive Party, which he had founded.

"Free men of every generation must combat renewed efforts of organized force and greed to destroy liberty."

Background and early career

La Follette was born in June 1855, in his family's log cabin on a farm near Primrose, in Wisconsin's Dane County. His father, Josiah, was originally from Kentucky, where La Follette's grandfather farmed land that was next to the property belonging to the father of U.S. president Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; served 1861–65). Josiah died when La Follette was still an infant, and his mother remarried a much older man. He was a stubborn child and teen, and sometimes his stepfather disciplined him with beatings.

La Follette studied at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and emerged as an impressive public speaker. After graduation he took law classes at Madison and worked in the office of a local attorney before taking the bar examination. Admitted to the Wisconsin bar in February 1880, he opened his own practice in the city, which was also the state capital, and became active in Republican Party politics. He quickly became a noted figure in Madison, known for his compelling speeches, and for the fact that his thick hair seemed to stand straight up and add some inches to his below-average height. In 1882 he married Belle Case (1859–1931), whom he had met in college. She went on to become a lawyer as well, and would take an active role in his political career.

La Follette's first experience with politics came when he ran for the Dane County district attorney job in 1880, though he did not have the local Republican Party support to do so, who favored another candidate. He won the job and was reelected two years later. In 1884 he ran for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, once more defying his party bosses, and won that election as well. He went on to win two more two-year terms, but failed to win reelection in 1890. Other Republican Party members in the House also lost seats that year. One of the reasons for this was the Tariff Act of 1890, which called for a 50 percent tax on all goods coming into the United States from foreign producers. The act was designed to protect American farmers, but it was deeply unpopular. It had succeeded because of a closed-door congressional pact to pass the Sherman Silver Purchase Act along with it. That bill resulted in higher prices for many consumers because it put much more American currency into circulation, and Americans expressed their disapproval at the polls that year.

Once out of office La Follette returned to his Madison law practice, but in late 1891 the state Republican Party leader asked him to take a case defending some Republican officials—caretakers of the state treasury—who were accused of financial wrongdoing. La Follette claimed that he was offered a bribe to sway the case, which was going to be heard in the courtroom of a Democratic judge who also happened to be his brother-in-law. Disgusted by this and other acts of political dishonesty he had witnessed over the past decade, La Follette turned against the party and its Wisconsin leadership. He decided to shape his political career around his own ideals, not the party line.

Belle Case La Follette

When Belle Case accepted Robert La Follette's proposal of marriage, she asked that the word obey be removed from their wedding vows for the 1882 ceremony. Like her husband, La Follette was an independent thinker who had also been born in a Wisconsin log cabin. They met while students at the University of Wisconsin, and he encouraged her to pursue a law degree at the school after their marriage. This was an unusual choice of profession for her gender, for at that time few women worked outside of the home. In 1885 she became the University of Wisconsin's first female law graduate.

La Follette had returned to school after the birth of her first child, a daughter named Fola. The couple went on to have three more children: Bob Jr., Philip, and Mary. She was known as an efficient manager of the La Follette household, but she was also active in many other projects during her long career. Committed to women's suffrage (right to vote), she spoke at county fairs, urging women to become more politically active. In Washington she was shocked by the segregation of the Jim Crow era, as the laws were known that gave local communities the right to maintain separate public facilities for blacks and whites. She thought it shameful that the nation's capital was the site where African Americans from northern cities on their way to visit relatives in the South were forced to change trains and board segregated trains. She wrote several articles on the matter for La Follette's Magazine, the weekly she founded with her husband in 1909.

La Follette's husband often said that his wife was his best political adviser, and she played an essential role in writing many of his most important political speeches. He described her as "altogether the brainiest member of my family," according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and claimed that his wife's "grasp of the great problems, sociological and economic, is unsurpassed [not exceeded] by any of the strong men who have been associated with me in my work." After her husband's 1925 death, La Follette carried on his work at the magazine, which became The Progressive. She turned down an offer to serve out the remainder of his Senate term in favor of one of her sons and died in 1931, just after completing a biography of her husband.

La Follette's Progressive agenda

Some of La Follette's beliefs came from other political movements of the era, such as the Grange movement and Populism. The Grange movement arose in the late nineteenth century when American farmers banded together in local organizations to fight the excessive fees the railroads charged for transporting their goods. The Populist Party emerged out of an economic crisis for farmers in 1873, when the entire U.S. economic system collapsed briefly because of the bankruptcy (a state of financial ruin in which an individual or corporation cannot pay its debts) of a well-known Philadelphia banking house that had extensive ties to the railroad industry. The price of agricultural goods fell sharply, and dozens of railroads went out of business in the subsequent panic. The Populist Party had widespread support in the relatively new western U.S. states, where farmers resented the influence of the East Coast financial establishment; the Populists believed that there should be more local control of prices and goods, not those dictated by Wall Street.

La Follette believed that the problem of political dishonesty could not be solved unless the caucus system was abolished. A caucus is a meeting of party members during which they choose who will become the party's next candidates. La Follette had been shut out of the process himself more than once and believed that the caucus system kept political power in the hands of a few. Direct primaries, in which voters went to the polls to choose candidates from a list of Republican or Democratic contenders, would become one of the main goals of his political career. He argued so forcefully for the change that he won over many Wisconsin voters, and the primary system would later become the standard in most American states. This was one of the Progressive movement's most lasting achievements.

La Follette's Progressive platform also supported a relatively new idea during the era: regulatory laws. These were regulations designed to keep businesses from operating without regard to the health and safety of their workers, the surrounding environment, and in some cases even the nation's overall financial stability. He found increasing support for his political views during two races he entered for the governor's office in 1896 and 1898. Struggling farmers in the western part of Wisconsin came to hear him speak at country fairs and were influenced by his ideas. He also found sympathetic audiences when he campaigned in the northern part of the state, where there was much resentment of the powerful lumber industry. During these campaigns La Follette was unable to win the Republican Party nomination as a candidate, but he finally did so in 1900 when the party bosses realized that he had tremendous popular support. He won the governor's race later that year.

Popular support

When La Follette became governor at the turn of the twentieth century, Wisconsin was deeply divided between rich and poor. Nearly half of all farms were mortgaged, meaning their owners owed money to banks for their land. The railroads charged high rates to transport crops, which cut into any small profit the farmer might earn for his labor. While many people were barely managing to cover their bills, railroads and other businesses were required to pay few taxes. The cities of the eastern part of Wisconsin—Milwaukee and Green Bay—were industrialized, but urban factory workers lived in terrible poverty.

La Follette's solution, which came to be known as the Wisconsin Idea, involved reform on several levels. The first was the passage of a law that ended the caucus system in favor of direct primaries. There would also be direct election of U.S. senators, who had previously been chosen by state legislatures. La Follette also called for a progressive tax, or one in which the wealthier citizens and corporations would pay a higher tax rate based on their income. Workers' compensation laws were another important issue he focused on once he entered the governor's office. At the time if a worker was permanently injured on the job, they were simply out of a job, even if the injury was the result of a dangerous workplace or improperly maintained machinery. Their only way to obtain compensation for the loss of income was to sue the employer, and the burden fell on the factory worker to prove that the employer was at fault for the injury. La Follette's workers' compensation law, a radical one in its day, called for automatic payments to the disabled who could no longer work and whose injuries were the result of their employers' disregard for workplace safety. Wisconsin was the first state to pass such a law.

La Follette battled to win support for these ideas during his first two terms, but they were blocked in the legislature by more conservative members of his own party. One fellow Republican even bought the Milwaukee Sentinel and regularly attacked La Follette in its editorial pages. Supporters established the Milwaukee Free Press and the Capital Times in Madison to counter the challenge. The fight served to split the state Republican Party in half, with the anti-La Follette side behaving so badly that in 1904, Wisconsin voters elected him to a third term and also replaced many Republicans in the state house with new Progressive lawmakers. A year later nearly all of La Follette's Wisconsin Idea bills were passed by the legislature and signed into law by him. He remained, if in name only, a member of the Republican Party.

La Follette in the Senate

La Follette then moved on to national politics, winning an election to become Wisconsin's U.S. senator in 1905. He took office the following year and served for the next nineteen years. By then Progressivism was gaining national recognition and had been adopted by President Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919; served 1901–9). Roosevelt had been vice president under William McKinley (1843–1901; served 1897–1901) and took office when McKinley was assassinated. He immediately announced his intention to eliminate the mighty trusts that dominated the American economy. A trust is a group of companies joined for the purpose of reducing competition and controlling prices. There were oil trusts, railroad trusts, and even beef and sugar trusts. Roosevelt ran a 1904 reelection campaign on promises to break up the trusts and ensure fair market competition in the marketplace.

La Follette believed that Roosevelt was not truly committed to the Progressive platform but had merely recognized its appeal to a broad spectrum of voters in the Midwest and joined it as a political strategy. His battles with the president, and with Roosevelt's Republican and Democratic successors in the White House, were legendary. There was a rise in popular support for Progressive ideas in the years before 1914, however, and many of La Follette's Wisconsin Ideas began spreading to other states and were passed into law.

Unlike many in the U.S. Senate—which was known as the "millionaires' club" at the time because of the vast personal wealth of its members—La Follette was a supporter of labor unions. Organized labor, he believed, was one way that businesses could be restrained from taking advantage of their workers in order to make higher profits. Curbing corporate greed was important, he believed, because if workers continued to suffer they might turn to socialism, a political and economic theory that advocated collective or government ownership and administration of the production and distribution of goods. He wrote about many of his ideas in La Follette's Magazine, a weekly that he and his wife launched in 1909.

In 1911 La Follette's Washington home was the site of the first meeting of the National Progressive Republican League. The new political organization championed direct primaries and the direct election of senators. La Follette seemed to be the logical choice for its 1912 presidential ticket, but Roosevelt stepped in and won the nomination as the Progressive Party's candidate instead. A three-way race occurred, and Roosevelt and current president William Howard Taft (1857–1930; served 1909–13) were defeated by the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924; served 1913–21).

World War I

La Follette supported many of Wilson's domestic programs, which borrowed heavily from his own Progressive platform. These included the creation of a Federal Reserve System, which was charged with regulating banks, and the Federal Farm Loan Act, which granted low-interest loans to struggling farmers. The Keating-Owen Act outlawed child labor, and the Kern-McGillicuddy Act of 1916 established a national workers' compensation system. La Follette's most lasting legacy of this period in his political career was the Seaman's Act of 1915, which regulated working conditions and hours for merchant seamen aboard any American-owned ship above a certain tonnage, or weight. It required improved safety measures on board and even set conditions for the meals served. The act, which came in the wake of a Senate investigation into the sinking of the Titanic, also reduced some of the total rule of the captain and made clear what sailors' legal rights were while at sea.

With the onset of war in Europe, La Follette emerged as a strong opponent against America's entry into the conflict that became known as World War I (1914–18; a war in which Great Britain, France, the United States and their allies defeated Germany, Austria-Hungary, and their allies). In April 1917, when Wilson asked Congress to pass his Armed Neutrality Bill, which allowed for the arming of American merchant ships, La Follette was one of just six senators who opposed the bill. He was even responsible for launching a Senate filibuster, or lengthy debate session, in order to delay voting on it.

La Follette warned that some American companies would profit richly from the war and called attention to the fact that these businesses seemed to be trying to influence politics and even foreign policy. He objected to Wilson's bill that authorized a military draft, asserting that it was the poor who were killed in warfare, not the rich, who were generally able to avoid conscription. That remark was considered almost an act of treason (an attempt to overthrow the government) and there was an unsuccessful attempt to expel him from the Senate.

The press was critical of La Follette for these views, but his popular support remained strong and he was easily reelected to the Senate in 1922. He was a key figure in the buildup to the Teapot Dome scandal that nearly brought down the administration of Warren G. Harding (1865–1923; served 1921–23). La Follette authored the Senate resolution that called for an investigation into charges of political dishonesty in Harding's administration. The inquiry that followed found that Harding's secretary of the interior, Albert B. Fall (1861–1944), had granted access to Navy-owned oil reserves—two in California and one in Teapot Dome, Wyoming—to oil companies owned by his political supporters. In return Fall received generous personal loans. Fall would become the first U.S. cabinet member to be sentenced to prison for misconduct committed in office.

Candidate for president

La Follette was a strong supporter for the elevation of the Bureau of Labor into a new, cabinet-level Department of Labor in 1913. He supported the regulation of telephone rates and was an early champion of women's rights and civil rights. In 1924 he made his final bid for office, this one for the U.S. presidency. La Follette ran as an independent candidate, on the Progressive Party ticket, with Burton K. Wheeler (1882–1975) as his vice-presidential running mate. Wheeler was a progressive-minded Democrat and also a senator. Their campaign pitted them against Republican Calvin Coolidge (1872–1933; served 1923–29) and the Democratic candidate, John W. Davis (1873–1955).

La Follette's 1924 campaign was viewed by many historians as the most radical presidential race in American electoral politics. La Follette's Progressive Party platform proposed several daring ideas, including the government takeover of the railroads, the elimination of private utility companies, and the passing of laws that protected workers' rights to organize a union. It also called for an end to U.S. involvement in Latin America, where U.S. troops were stationed and some local elections were being illegally influenced in favor of pro-American candidates. Finally, La Follette argued that in the event of another armed conflict, a national plebiscite, or popular vote, had to be held before a declaration of war was announced.

The response from La Follette's opponents, and from media and corporate interests, was swift and extreme: newspapers warned that America would descend into chaos if La Follette was elected. Some of his enemies even claimed he was linked to agents of Soviet Russia, the world's first communist nation (a nation adhering to socialism, an economic system in which the means of production and distribution is owned collectively by all the workers and there is no private property or social classes). However, he won endorsements from the American Federation of Labor, railroad workers' unions, farmers, and many African-American organizations. In the voting La Follette carried his home state of Wisconsin and came in second place in eleven other states. He won five million votes, or about one-sixth of the total. But his health was already suffering, and he died in June 1925. Forever remembered in Wisconsin as "Fighting Bob" La Follette, his sons carried on his political legacy. Bob Jr. (1895–1953) followed him into the U.S. Senate, while Phillip (1897–1965) served as Wisconsin's only Progressive Party governor.

La Follette's political movement spurred the formation of liberal parties in other Midwestern states. More importantly, however, it helped shift the Democratic Party to the left, making it more progressive and an advocate of change. Party leaders recognized that La Follette's ideas had great popular support among the working classes and minorities, and they adjusted their ideals accordingly. When Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45) was elected president in 1932 in the midst of the Great Depression (1929–41; a time of great economic hardship world-wide), Democrats in Congress enacted many sweeping reforms that protected workers' rights and regulated big business and the financial markets.

For More Information


Thelen, David P. Robert M. La Follette and the Insurgent Spirit. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.


McCann, Dennis. "Belle Case La Follette Was Her Husband's Key Political Adviser." Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (October 15, 1998).

Nichols, John. "Portrait of the Founder, Fighting Bob La Follette." Progressive (January 1999): p. 10.

Web Sites

La Follette and His Legacy. (accessed on July 7, 2005).

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La Follette, Robert M.

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