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Dictionary of Wisconsin History

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Term: La Follette, Robert Marion Sr. 1855 - 1925

Definition:

Robert M. La Follette, 1906 (WHI-30383)

lawyer, politician, governor, U.S. Senator, known as "Fighting Bob," progenitor of the most famous family in Wisconsin political history, b. Prim-rose, Dane County. Of French Huguenot origin, the family migrated (1850) to Wisconsin by way of Virginia, Kentucky, and Indiana. Robert grew up on a farm and entered the Univ. of Wisconsin in 1874. While there he edited the campus paper, won the Inter-State Oratorical Contest with an oration on "Iago," and was influenced by the moral and ethical teachings of President John Bascom (q.v.). After graduating (B.A., 1879), he studied law and was admitted to the bar (1880). The same year he was nominated and elected district attorney over the opposition of Madison postmaster and local political boss, Elisha W. Keyes (q.v.). In 1884 he was elected to Congress, again over the opposition of Keyes. As a Republican Congressman, he was active in support of conservation, preservation of the public lands, and economy in public spending. He supported Speaker Thomas B. Reed in organizing the House and favored the McKinley Tariff. He was friendly with Philetus Sawyer (q.v.), Wisconsin Senator and state political boss. Due to a Democratic sweep he was defeated for re-election in 1890. In 1891 he became embroiled with Sawyer in a celebrated controversy over the Treasury Cases. He charged that Sawyer had attempted to bribe him to "fix" the cases with his brother-in-law, Circuit Judge Robert Siebecker (q.v.). Sawyer claimed that he did not know of the personal relationship and had merely sought to retain La Follette as his attorney in the case. This incident colored much of Wisconsin politics for the next decade. La Follette declared war on Sawyer and sought to rid the party of its "corrupt, graftridden system of bosses and special privilege." Sawyer in turn denounced La Follette as a Populist, anarchist, socialist, and ingrate. La Follette backed Nils P. Haugen (q.v.), who was defeated for governor in 1894. La Follette sought the nomination for governor in 1896 and again in 1898 but was defeated in the Republican convention each time. In 1900, after Sawyer's death, he formed, with the assistance of Isaac Stephenson (q.v.), Congressman Joseph W. Babcock (q.v.), and Emanuel L. Philipp (q.v.), a "harmony coalition" that conducted a moderate campaign and avoided personal controversies. Without organized opposition La Follette was nominated by acclamation and elected governor on a platform promising a primary election law and more adequate taxation of railroads and other corporations. This harmony front, however, soon split and the Republican party fell into warring progressive and stalwart factions. Although his reforms were blocked in the legislature, La Follette was able to win re-election in 1902 and in 1904 he virtually destroyed the stalwart faction as a result of the famous "Gymnasium Convention," from which the stalwarts bolted when they were unable to prevent La Follette's renomination for a third term. In these years he had built a powerful Progressive machine which supported his reform program and carried elections for him for the next twenty years. In 1905 he was elected to the U.S. Senate but delayed taking his seat until January, 1906. Under La Follette, the Progressives passed a comprehensive primary election law, reorganized the tax structure of the state, established a permanent Tax Commission, a Railroad Commission, a Civil Service Commission, a Legislative Reference Library, and a State Board of Forestry. He was influential in the subsequent passage of a stringent life insurance code, a state income tax, a corrupt practices act, the establishment of a Conservation Commission, and an Industrial Commission. He promoted the growth of the Univ. of Wisconsin and made wide use of experts and specialists from the University on state boards and commissions. This practice became known as the "Wisconsin Idea" and was widely copied throughout the U.S. In the Senate, La Follette soon became the leader of a small group of progressive senators who constantly prodded the administration toward more liberal legislation. He advocated and was in part responsible for a revitalized Interstate Commerce Commission, a federal corrupt practices act, conservation, employers' liability laws, physical valuation of railroads as a basis for rate making, shorter hours for workers on common carriers, a seaman's act, a federal income tax, direct election of senators, and currency and banking reform. He was re-elected to the Senate in 1911, in 1916, and again in 1922. In 1909 he established La Follette's Magazine which gave him a forum for his views on both national and state topics. In 1912 he sought the Republican presidential nomination against President William H. Taft on an advanced progressive platform with the support of the National Progressive Republican League. Despite early successes, his campaign declined with the entrance into the race of Theodore Roosevelt, who drew many progressives to his support. An unfortunate debacle brought on by excessive fatigue at a Philadelphia publisher's banquet further crippled La Follette's chances. He remained in the race, refusing to compromise with either Taft or Roosevelt. At the convention he received the votes of the Wisconsin delegation and part of the North and South Dakota groups. During World War I he favored strict neutrality, and supported an arms embargo, restrictions on loans and credits, limitations on civilian travel in war zones, and a popular referendum before a declaration of war. He opposed the armed ship bill and was one of six senators who voted against the Declaration of War against Germany. He opposed conscription but sought generally to support the administration's war program. He urged, without success, that the administration adopt a pay-as-you-go policy of financing the war including a massive excess profits tax. He was widely denounced as a German sympathizer and his speeches, notably one in St. Paul, were grossly misquoted. A cry went up to expel him from the Senate and a Senate committee investigated his conduct for more than a year without reaching a decision. In Madison, a majority of the University faculty signed a "Round Robin" resolution protesting against his actions, a resolution of the state legislature denounced him, and the Madison Club expelled him from membership. After the end of the war, the investigation of his conduct was soon quashed, and he took a leading role in the attack upon the Versailles Treaty and the League of Nations. During the Harding administration he was the author of the resolution that launched the Senate investigation of the Teapot Dome affair. In 1924 he ran for President on an Independent and Progressive ticket making an exhausting campaign throughout the country advocating disarmament, government ownership of railroads, farm relief, and labor legislation. He polled almost five million votes and carried the electoral vote of Wisconsin. In a very real sense La Follette was the conscience of the Republican party. A surprisingly large number of measures which he advocated have become law. His portrait hangs in the Senate lounge as one of five most outstanding senators in American history. His statue looks down in Statuary Hall of the federal Capitol as Wisconsin's greatest son. View more information. Robert M. La Follette, La Follette's Autobiography . . . (Madison, 1913); Belle Case La Follette and Fola La Follette, Robert M. La Follette (New York, 1953); Robert S. Maxwell, La Follette and the Rise of the Progressives . . . [Madison, 1956]; Dict. Amer. Biog.; Edward N. Doan, The La Follettes and the Wisconsin Idea (New York, 1947).

The Wisconsin Historical Society has manuscripts related to this topic. See the catalog description of the Robert M. La Follette Papers, 1879-1910, 1922-1924 for details. See also the Robert M. La Follette Papers, 1911-1957. See also the La Follette Family Photographs. See also the Launching of the Robert M. La Follette Liberty Ship Photographs. See also the Robert M. La Follette Papers Opening Ceremony Sound Recording.

View related articles at Wisconsin Magazine of History Archives.

View newspaper clippings at Wisconsin Local History and Biography Articles.

[Source: Dictionary of Wisconsin biography]
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