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  • Mike Martinez

Congressional Lions: Robert M. La Follette, Sr.

Robert Marion La Follette, Sr., was nicknamed “Fighting Bob” for a reason: he was an outspoken and tenacious supporter of numerous progressive causes even at the risk of antagonizing friend and foe alike. During a lengthy political career, La Follette served as a congressman, governor, and United States senator from Wisconsin during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Mistrustful of political bosses and powerful corporations, La Follette was a passionate critic of American conservatism. He favored workers’ compensation for laborers injured on the job, a minimum wage, an open primary system, nonpartisan elections, women’s suffrage, progressive taxation, and direct election of United States senators. Those prescriptions were radical ideas at the time. One admirer described La Follette as “arguably the most important and recognized leader of the opposition to the growing dominance of corporations over the government.”

A fiery, mesmerizing orator, he could whip a crowd into a frenzy, which he did on numerous occasions throughout his career. Although he was a hero to many common people, his radical populism and criticism of America’s entry into World War I earned him scores of powerful political enemies. President Woodrow Wilson dismissed La Follette as a little man who should keep his opinions to himself. Mississippi senator John Sharp Williams believed that La Follette’s opposition to the nation’s entry into World War I transformed the Wisconsin senator into “a better German than the head of the German parliament.” Although Theodore Roosevelt also considered himself a progressive, the former president held no love for La Follette. TR once remarked that Fighting Bob was a “skunk who ought to be hung.” I discuss La Follette’s life and career in my recently published book, Congressional Lions.

Fighting Bob was born on June 14, 1855, on a farm in Primrose, a small town in Dane County, Wisconsin, 25 miles southwest of Madison. He was the youngest of five children born to Josiah La Follette and Mary Ferguson La Follette. Leaving Indiana in 1850, the couple landed in Wisconsin. Josiah died only eight months after his youngest child was born, and so young Bob never knew his father. What he did know, however, was his family’s commitment to activism as well as his mother’s strong belief in the necessity of acquiring a first-class education.

Bob La Follette came of age during the American Civil War, and it colored his world view for the rest of his life. Although he was too young to fight, he became an ardent Republican. He believed that Democrats, as the political party of southerners and southern sympathizers, was the home of, at best, disloyal persons or, at worst, traitors.

His mother remarried in 1862. A quarter of a century older than Mary, and a fundamentalist with a penchant for strict discipline, John Saxon, a wealthy merchant, was an overbearing personality. He was especially unhappy with his stepson, believing the boy to be disrespectful and rebellious. The dissatisfaction was mutual. Young Robert resented Saxon’s heavy hand, often chafing at the rules and resisting attempts to rein in his spirit. The boy resented his stepfather’s insistence that Josiah La Follette was roasting in hell for his agnostic views on religion. Having heard stories of Josiah’s gallant deeds, Robert La Follette idealized his dead father. Not surprisingly, he detested the new man who dared to assume the role of paterfamilias.

In 1873, Mary sold the farm and moved the family to Madison. There, her son enrolled in the University of Wisconsin. He was, at best, a mediocre student, but no matter. La Follette excelled in other areas. First and foremost, he was already a gifted, first-class orator. Everyone who saw him speak testified to his powers of persuasion. He was mesmerizing, even at a young age.

After he graduated from college, he studied law for a year before earning admission to the Wisconsin Bar in 1880. The young lawyer soon became district attorney for Dane County. Along the way, he established a reputation as a zealous, moralistic prosecutor, dazzling juries with his bombastic, emotional appeals.

Within a few years of becoming district attorney, he set his sights on winning a seat in Congress. In 1884, he threw his hat in the ring for Wisconsin’s Second Congressional District. Incredibly, he won. He was not yet 30 years old. Off he went to Washington, D.C, the youngest member of the 49th Congress.

La Follette would one day be attacked for his strident radicalism, but the young lawyer who stepped into the House of Representatives in 1885 was anything but radical. He reflected the cautious, moderately right-of-center views of most northern Republicans during the 1880s. Reflecting orthodox Republican ideology, he supported high tariff rates and consistently promoted the interests of state dairy farmers.

By 1890, he had served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and had gradually forged a reputation as a moralistic crusader. If he had not quite assumed the mantle of a dyed-in-the-wool progressive or the legendary gadfly he was to become, he was on his way. He was already known as a man who would not hold his tongue. In light of his unwillingness or inability to temper his public comments, La Follette suffered from no shortage of opponents when election time rolled around. He was already compiling an impressive list of enemies who longed to see him laid low. Accordingly, he lost his 1890 reelection bid to his Democratic opponent, Allen Bushnell.

During his wilderness years, La Follette claimed that he experienced an epiphany when Philetus Sawyer, one of Wisconsin’s United States senators, met with La Follette in the parlor of a Milwaukee hotel on September 17, 1891. According to La Follette, the senator offered him a bribe. La Follette’s brother-in-law, Judge Robert G. Siebecker, was presiding over an embezzlement case involving several Republican officials—a case that greatly embarrassed Sawyer. La Follette believed that Sawyer offered the bribe in hopes that Siebecker could be persuaded to be lenient. The senator later insisted that he had offered no such bribe, and that La Follette had misunderstood the nature of the conversation. Sawyer claimed he was only attempting to hire La Follette as an attorney in the case, and he did not know that Siebecker was La Follette’s brother-in-law. The claim sounded unbelievable, but it could not be disproved. In any event, to ensure that no hint of impropriety existed, Siebecker recused himself from the case.

Throughout the long years—a full decade out of office—he never lost faith in the cause, or in himself. By 1900, La Follette benefited from changing sensibilities. Following the Panic of 1893, many Wisconsin voters, mirroring citizens across the country, worried that entrenched political and economic interests were handicapping the “common man.” They were more willing to embrace a progressive agenda than they had been in earlier times. La Follette, once the out-of-step pariah, was in tune with the new age. He argued in favor of primary elections, which allowed individual voters to select party nominees directly, in lieu of relying on party caucuses and conventions, which provided an opportunity for bosses to circumvent the political will of ordinary citizens. Echoing the progressive agenda, La Follette denounced corporate power and urged his party to become more responsive to people’s needs. This appeal to common people, especially rural inhabitants with little education and few job prospects, propelled La Follette to victory in the 1900 Wisconsin gubernatorial election.

He had fought long and hard to win the state’s top job. Now that he was in office, he intended to use his political power as effectively as he could. La Follette aggressively squared off against Democrats as well as conservative Republicans who felt betrayed by his progressive stance. He vetoed a primary election bill that he believed did not go far enough because the measure only applied to local elections. He railed against the legislature when it failed to vote on his tax bill. In retaliation, legislators voted to censure the governor. When the tax bill finally passed, it was a model of progressive legislation, equalizing property taxes, establishing a permanent tax commission, creating an inheritance tax, and launching a proposed state constitutional amendment that eventually led to the creation of the nation’s first state income tax.

Wisconsin governors stood for reelection every two years. In 1902, conservative leaders maneuvered to deny La Follette’s renomination, but the popular governor was too politically strong to buckle under the pressure. He handily won the Republican nomination as well as a second term.

Emboldened by his successful reelection and the enactment of his tax plan, he took on the powerful railroads. Railroad executives were already furious at the governor because the new tax plan required companies to pay taxes on the property they owned, not the profits they earned. As a result, railroad companies paid almost twice as much in taxes as they had paid the previous year. When La Follette pushed a plan to regulate railroad rates, the opposition successfully blocked the measure. Despite the short-term loss, the governor eventually established a state railroad commission, which his successors expanded into a full-fledged public service commission. No longer would railroad companies operate in Wisconsin without state government oversight.

As the 1904 gubernatorial election approached, the party fractured, with the conservatives holding a convention separate from La Follette’s more liberal Republican backers. Despite the schism, La Follette won reelection with 51 percent of the vote. He was gratified when voters also agreed in a state referendum that Wisconsin would hold direct primary elections.

Always looking to the future, La Follette mulled over the possibility of securing a U.S. Senate seat. At the time, state legislators still selected United States senators. Although La Follette preferred direct election of senators, he knew that he could not wait for a constitutional amendment to alter the status quo. He arranged for a close political ally and confidant in the state legislature, Irvine L. Lenroot, to promote his candidacy. Lenroot successfully convinced his colleagues to elect La Follette. Because the governor had pledged during the 1904 campaign that he would not resign his office to become a senator, he stayed on in Madison until the end of the year. As the incumbent governor with a Senate seat waiting, La Follette stood at the apex of his political career.

He resigned as governor in December 1905, and took his seat in the U.S. Senate the following month. La Follette served until his death almost two decades later. During his tenure, he continued to advance a progressive agenda. Along with two presidents—Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson—he became a recognized leader of American progressivism. He also repeatedly campaigned for president.

Arriving in Washington, D.C., with a national reputation as a trailblazing progressive hero, La Follette resumed his attack on railroads, which he viewed as the worst of many corporate offenders. In 1907, he backed the Railway Hours Act, which prohibited railroads from requiring workers to labor for more than sixteen consecutive hours. The following year, he opposed the Aldrich-Vreeland Act, a reaction to the Panic of 1907. The statute established the National Monetary Commission, which eventually recommended enactment of the Federal Reserve Act of 1913, but La Follette feared the law would only help bankers at the expense of the individual depositor. The senator filibustered for more than 18 hours—a record at the time—against the act, which nonetheless passed the Senate.

Beginning in 1908, La Follette set his eyes and his heart on capturing the presidency, but it is difficult to assess how serious he was. Without a strong base of support outside of his home state, he faced enormous odds against securing the Republican nomination. Even within Wisconsin, he seemed intent on burning his bridges. He had a falling out with two former progressive lieutenants, Francis E. McGovern and Irvine L. Lenroot. Needless to say, the 1908 presidential campaign failed.

Assessing the field of potential opponents, he thought that his best chance for winning the presidency would come in the 1912 election. The incumbent, William Howard Taft, was politically inept and demonstrably weak. La Follette’s old nemesis, Theodore Roosevelt, had been out of office since early 1909. Although the old lion made noises about challenging Taft, it was not clear that he could navigate a path back to power.

Throwing himself into the race, La Follette campaigned vigorously for the Republican nomination. As he expected, his detractors came out in droves to thwart his efforts. The common charge was that the Wisconsin senator was a radical demagogue seeking to effect wholesale change by promoting a dangerously naïve and unrealistic progressive agenda that would undermine American security. La Follette knew that it was an uphill battle to win over hearts and minds, but he persevered, as he always did, by seeking to work harder than his rivals. He drove himself to exhaustion. After he collapsed following a speech in Philadelphia on February 2, 1912, even some of his few supporters transferred their loyalty to Theodore Roosevelt. The former president had organized a third party, the Progressive Party (nicknamed the “Bull Moose” Party, after TR’s favorite sobriquet), when he failed to win the Republican nomination. With La Follette and Roosevelt split—and with Roosevelt and Taft split—the Republicans entered the 1912 election season in disarray. Capitalizing on the schism, the Democratic nominee, Woodrow Wilson, captured the prize in the 1912 general election.

After 1912, La Follette became increasingly isolated in the Senate. Wisconsin voters repeatedly returned him to office, but his ability to enact progressive legislative declined precipitously. He simply had amassed too many enemies over the years. His political impotence enraged the senator, causing him to deliver fiery, sometimes self-defeating tirades. He ran again for president, but he could not recapture the magic.

La Follette died of heart disease complicated by pneumonia on June 18, 1925, four days after his seventieth birthday. His last audible words, according to his son, summed up his devotion to the common folk. “Bob, I am at peace with all the world, but there is a lot of work I could still do. I don’t know how the people will feel toward me, but I will take to my grave my love for them, which has sustained me throughout my life.”

He had been a controversial, polarizing figure throughout his adult life. After his death, Robert La Follette, Sr., became a progressive icon, a symbol of the lonely man of principle fighting to ensure that government protected its least disadvantaged citizens. He detested greed, corruption, war, and entrenched power. According to lore, he always fought to level the playing field so that all persons within the American regime could enjoy a decent life with a decent wage. He often fell short of his ideals, but his shortcomings and failings never prevented him from seeking new, innovative solutions to the ongoing, intractable problems of society.

A frequent La Follette critic provided Fighting Bob’s most fitting epitaph. “I hate the son of a bitch,” the fellow said. “But, my God, what guts he’s got.”

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