Robert Marion La Follette

views updated May 17 2018

Robert Marion La Follette

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.

Further Reading

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).

Additional Sources

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. □

La Follette, Robert Marion

views updated Jun 11 2018


Robert Marion La Follette was an important U.S. political leader during the first part of the twentieth century. He served as governor of and senator from Wisconsin, and was at the fore-front of the political reform movement that has been labeled Progressivism.

La Follette was born in Primrose, Wisconsin, on June 14, 1855. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1879 and then studied law without going to law school. He was admitted to the Wisconsin bar in 1880 and began a legal practice in Madison. He was district attorney for Dane County, Wisconsin, from 1880 to 1884. In 1885 he was elected as a Republican representative to the U.S. Congress. He served three terms and then was defeated in 1890.

Following his loss La Follette resumed his law practice in Madison. During the 1890s he became a vocal opponent of state leadership of the republican party. He rejected its conservatism and its reluctance to allow government a role in correcting social, political, and economic problems that had grown larger during the last two decades of the nineteenth century.

La Follette's reform desires were part of the national Progressive movement. Though not a unified political philosophy, Progressivism was built on the assumption that all levels of government must play an active role in reform. Progressives like La Follette argued that corporate capitalism had given too much power to large economic elites and had created inequities in the social and economic order. In addition, Progressives argued, the political parties, especially at the state and local level, had too much control and were stifling democratic change.

La Follette's ideas proved popular in Wisconsin. He was elected governor in 1900 and immediately began implementing his Progressive agenda. The Wisconsin Legislature passed many of his measures, including those mandating the nomination of candidates by direct vote in primary elections, the equalization of taxes, and the regulation of railroad rates.

He returned to the national political arena, serving as U.S. senator from 1906 to 1925. He became a leader of the Progressive wing of the Republican party and frequently voiced opposition to the conservative party leadership. As a senator he advocated tougher regulation of railroads, going so far as to call for public ownership of the rail industry. He believed in progressive income taxes, government control of banking, and conservation of natural resources.

La Follette was an isolationist, holding that the United States should not become entangled in foreign alliances and foreign wars. He voted against the U.S. entry into world war i and later opposed President Woodrow Wilson's plan to have the United States join the league of nations and the World Court.

The conservative Republican administrations of warren g. harding and calvin coolidge proved too much for La Follette. In 1924, after the Republican National Convention rejected his platform proposals, La Follette left the party. He formed the League for Progressive Political Action, commonly known as the progressive party, and accepted its presidential nomination. Drawing support from farm groups, labor unions, and the Socialist party, La Follette waged a spirited third-party campaign. He earned almost 5 million popular votes. But La Follette was not a serious threat to the election of Coolidge; he received only thirteen electoral votes, carrying only his home state of Wisconsin.

"Neither the clamor of the mob nor the voice of power will ever turn me by the breadth of a hair from the course I make out for myself."
Robert Marion La Follette

Following his defeat La Follette continued as U.S. senator. He died in Washington, D.C., on June 18, 1925. His son, Robert M. La Follette, Jr., succeeded him as senator. The younger La Follette kept the Progressive party alive for another twenty years.

further readings

Unger, Nancy C. 2000. Fighting Bob La Follette: The Righteous Reformer. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press.

La Follette, Robert Marion

views updated Jun 11 2018

La Follette, Robert Marion (1855–1925) US statesman. He was a Republican congressman (1885–91) and governor of Wisconsin (1900–06). His progressive administration carried out wide-ranging social reforms. As a US senator (1906–25), he fought for workers and farmers against Republican-supported business. He was chosen as Progressive presidential candidate before being replaced by Theodore Roosevelt in 1912. He ran again in 1924.

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