La Follette, Robert M. (1855–1925)

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LA FOLLETTE, ROBERT M. (1855–1925)

Robert Marion La Follette was one of the few giants in the history of the United States senate, ranking with henry clay and daniel webster. Born in a Wisconsin log cabin, he was graduated from his state's university in Madison, began his legal practice there, and spent three undistinguished terms (1885–1891) in Congress. During the farmer-labor unrest of the 1890s, La Follette grew considerably more liberal, and in 1901 he entered the governor's mansion with a reform program later called the "Wisconsin idea." It became the basis of the Progressive movement. La Follette, always a Republican, advocated the direct primary election as a method of nominating candidates, minimum wage and maximum hours laws, trade unionism, the popular referendum, strict regulation of the rates and services of railroads and public utilities by government commissions of experts, and radical tax reforms. His success as governor led to his election in 1905 as a United States senator.

During his twenty-year career as a senator he rivaled theodore roosevelt and woodrow wilson as an influence for political liberalism. The leader of the Senate's Republican insurgents, he exerted special efforts on behalf of increasing the powers of the Interstate Commerce Commission, energetic enforcement of antitrust law, a federal income tax law, direct election of senators, and women's suffrage. After the Supreme Court decided standard oil company v. united states (1911), La Follette denounced the rule of reason and judicial usurpation of the legislative function. Unlike most Republicans he supported the appointment to the Supreme Court of louis d. brandeis; the two men were close friends, thought alike on most matters of political economy, and had collaborated in framing many reform measures. They differed on foreign policy. La Follette opposed American entry into world war i and the League of Nations. Although unpopular for a while during the war, because of pro-German and pacifist sympathies, La Follette emerged from the war as the undisputed leader of American liberalism.

He excoriated illiberal decisions of the Supreme Court. When the Court held unconstitutional congressional measures against child labor and construed antitrust laws to cover trade union activities, La Follette began a national campaign to curb the Court. Because he opposed judicial review over Congress, he proposed a constitutional amendment that would have authorized Congress to overcome a judicial veto in the same way as it did a presidential veto, by reenacting the statute by a two-thirds majority.

In 1924, at the peak of his career, La Follette refused to support calvin coolidge and formed the Independent Progressive party, which nominated him and burton k. wheeler, a Democrat. The party had only a presidential ticket, no local, state, or other federal candidates. It supported La Follette's Court-curbing amendment and would have restricted judicial invalidation of congressional acts to the Supreme Court only; in addition, it would have fixed a ten-year tenure for federal judges. The Progressives also denounced the Ku Klux Klan, then at the height of its popularity, and the Communist party. They also favored collective bargaining by labor through union representatives of their choice, antimonopoly measures, the restoration of competition, and extensive government economic regulation. La Follette drew one vote out of every six, compared to the one in twelve received by the Populists in 1892, but carried only his own state.

When "Fighting Bob" died in 1925, his casket was placed in the rotunda of the Capitol, a rare honor, and the nation remembered him, in the words of his own epitaph, as one who "stood to the end for the ideals of American democracy."

Leonard W. Levy


La Follette, Belle Case and La Follette, Fola 1953 Robert M. La Follette. 2 Vols. New York: Macmillan.

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La Follette, Robert M. (1855–1925)

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