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


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]

149 records found

La Fave, John 1949
La Follette, Belle Case, 1859-1931
La Follette, Bronson C. 1936
La Follette, Douglas J.
La Follette, Philip Fox, 1897-1965
La Follette, Robert Marion Sr. 1855 - 1925
La Follette, Robert Marion, Jr., 1895 - 1953
La Grange, Col. Oscar H. (1837-1915)
La Ronde, Louis Denis De 1675 - 1741
Laatsch, James F. 1940
Lacher, John Henry Alois 1856 - 1936
Ladd, Azel Parkhurst 1811 - 1854
Ladwig, Bonnie L. 1939
Lahontan, Baron, (Lom D'Arce De Lahontan, Louis Ar
Laird, Melvin R. 1922 -
Lalemant, Fr. Jérôme (Hierosme), 1593-1673
Lallensack, Francis J. 1916
Lalumiere, Stanislaus Petty 1822 - 1895
Lamb, Eugene M. 1910
Lamoreux, Silas Wright 1843 - 1909
Lampert, Florian 1863 - 1930
Landreth, Albert 1858 - 1899
Lange, Louie Augustus 1854 - 1917
Langeland, Knud 1813 - 1888
Langenberg, Conrad (1830-1899)
Langlade, Charles Michel 1729 - 1801
Langner, Arnold W. F. 1925
Laper, Jr., Oscar A. 1915
Lapham, Increase Allen 1811 - 1875
Larrabee, Charles Hathaway 1820 - 1883
Larsen, Lawrence R. 1897
Larsen, Marty 1905
Larsen, [Peter) Laur[Entius] 1833 - 1915
Larson, Gustus Ludvig 1881 - 1953
Larson, Ludvig Conrad 1899 - 1953
Larson, Robert J. 1932
LaSalle, Robert Rene Cavelier, sieur de, 1643 - 16
Lasee, Alan J. 1937
Lasee, Frank G. 1961
Lassa, Julie M. 1970
Lathan, Raymond Lee 1915
Lathrop, John Hiram 1799 - 1866
Lathrop, Stephen Pearl 1816 - 1854
Latin, Jacquelyn J. 1952
Lato, Stanley J. 1924
Latvians in Wisconsin
Laubenheimer, Jacob George 1874 - 1936
Laun, Jr., Alfred A. 1905
Lauri, Carl E. 1924
Lautenschlager, Peggy A. 1955
Law, James Richard 1885 - 1952
Lawe, George William 1810 - 1895
Lawe, John 1780 - 1846
Lawler, John 1832 - 1891
Lawson, Alfred W. (1869 - 1954)
Lawson, Publius Virgilius 1853 - 1920
Lawton, Barbara 1951
Layton, Frederick 1827 - 1919
Lazich, Mary A. 1952
Le Jeune, Fr. Paul, 1591-1664
Le Marchand de Lignery, Constant c.1663 - 1731
Le Marchand de Lignery, François-Marie, 1703 -1759
Le Mercier, Fr., 1604-1690
Le Sueur, Pierre 1657 - 1705
Leach, Eugene Walter 1857 - 1938
Lean, John S. 1851 - 1948
Lee, Joseph 1942
Lee, Mordecai 1948
Leean, Joseph 1942
Legler, Henry Eduard 1861 - 1917
Lehman, John W. 1945
Lehman, Michael A. 1943
Leibham, Joseph K. 1969
Leidersdorf, Bernhard 1837 - 1912
Leith, Charles Kenneth 1875 - 1956
Lemahieu, Daniel R. 1946
Lenroot, Irvine Luther 1869 - 1949
Leonard, Jerris 1931
Leonard, William Ellery 1876 - 1944
Leopold, Stephen R. 1944
Leopold, [Rand] Aldo 1887 - 1948
Lepak, David J. 1959
Lester, Charles Stanley 1846 - 1913
Lester, Clarence Brown 1877 - 1951
Levalley, Christopher Warren 1833 - 1918
Levander, Harry O. 1901
Leverich, James Earl
Levitan, Solomon 1862 - 1940
Levy, John Meyer 1820 - 1910
Lewis, Gov. James Taylor (1819-1904)
Lewis, James Otto 1799 - 1858
Lewis, James R. 1936
Lewis, Margaret S. 1954
Lewis, Theodore Gorman 1890 - 1934
Lewison, Bernard
Liberace 1919 - 1987
Lien, Edgar E. 1936
Lindsay, Edmond James 1838 - 1924
Lingren, Ronald H. 1935
Linton, Barbara J. 1952
Linton, Ralph 1893 - 1953
Lipscomb, Jr., Mark G. 1935
Lithuanians in Wisconsin
Litscher, Leroy "Pete" 1939
Little Priest, Ho-Chunk chief
Lochner, John Frederick Carl 1822 - 1902
Lockwood, James Henry 1793 - 1857
Loeffelholz, Gabe 1940
Loevenhart, Arthur Solomon 1878 - 1929
Logan, Ben 1920 -
Lombardi, Vincent Thomas 1913 - 1970
Loomis, Orland Steen 1893 - 1942
Lord, Clifford Lee, 1912 - 1980
Lorenz, Richard 1858 - 1915
Lorge, William D. 1960
Lorman, Barbara K. 1932
Lorman, Milton 1927
Lothian, Thomas A. 1928
Lotto, Myron P. 1925
Lotz, Oscar 1880 - 1953
Loucks, Steven 1961
Louis, Theodore 1829 - 1907
Lourigan, Joseph 1901
Louvigny, Louis de la Porte de,
Love, William De Loss 1819 - 1898
Lovejoy, Allen Perry 1825 - 1904
Low Cloud, Charles Round 1872 - 1949
Lucey, Patrick J. 1918
Luckhardt, Esther Doughty
Ludington, Harrison 1812 - 1891
Ludington, Nelson 1818 - 1883
Luebke, William 1906
Luedke, Herman August 1850 - 1917
Luedtke, Paul A. 1888
Lummpkin, Hope Henry 1882 - 1932
Lund, Einer Peter 1903
Luning, Frederick August 1811 - 1861
Lunt, Alfred 1893 - 1977
Luther, Ernest Leonard 1868 - 1953
Lutherans in Wisconsin
Luxembourgers in Wisconsin
Lynch, Richard J. 1921
Lynch, Thomas 1844 - 1898
Lynde, William Pitt 1817 - 1885
Lynn, James J. 1916
Lyon, Lucius, 1800-1851
Lyon, William Penn 1822 - 1913
Lysne, Per 1880 - 1947

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