The Career of Robert M. La Follette

Robert La Follette developed his fierce opposition to corporate power and political corruption as a young man. Affiliated with the Republican Party for almost his entire career, La Follette embarked on a political path that would take him to Congress, the governorship of Wisconsin, and the U.S. Senate. His support for progressive reforms, rousing oratory, and frequent clashes with party leaders earned him the nickname "Fighting Bob."

Born in Primrose township, Dane County, in 1855, La Follette worked as a farm laborer before entering the University of Wisconsin in 1875. After graduating in 1879, La Follette launched his political career as district attorney the following year. Elected to Congress in 1884, La Follette was defeated in 1890 by Democrat Allen Bushnell. While for some people a defeat might have signaled the end of a political career, for La Follette it marked the beginning of a lifelong fight for political reform.

La Follette's career as a reformer began in earnest a few months later when the state Republican leader, Senator Philetus Sawyer, offered him a bribe to fix a court case against several former state officials. Furious that Sawyer would try to use money to influence the legal system, La Follette refused the bribe, angrily denouncing the use of money to shut out the voice of the people. For nearly ten years, La Follette traveled around the state speaking out against the influence of crooked politicians and the powerful lumber barons and railroad interests that dominated his own party. Elected governor in 1900, La Follette pledged to institute his own form of political reform.

Until that time, the candidates whose names appeared on ballots were selected by party leaders in private caucuses. Drawing on the ideas of other reformers to make politics more democratic, La Follette successfully pushed the legislature to pass measures instituting direct primary elections, which gave voters the right to choose their own candidates for office. He supported measures that doubled the taxes on the railroads, broke up monopolies, preserved the state's forests, protected workers' rights, defended small farmers, and regulated lobbying to end patronage politics. La Follette worked closely with professors from the University of Wisconsin to help the state become "a laboratory of democracy." By the time he joined the U.S. Senate in 1906, La Follette had become a national figure.

In Washington, La Follette pushed for the same kind of reforms he had promoted in Wisconsin. He often spoke at length on the corruption of government and the abuse of industrial workers. Arguing that the entire nation's economy was dominated by fewer than one hundred corporate leaders, La Follette supported the growth of unions as a check on the power of large corporations. In 1909, La Follette and his wife, Belle, founded "La Follette's Weekly Magazine," a journal that campaigned for woman suffrage, racial equality, and other progressive causes.

Though La Follette supported Woodrow Wilson in the 1912 presidential election, he adamantly opposed U.S. entry into World War I, believing that disputes should be solved peacefully. Although he was accused of being unpatriotic, La Follette believed that American's involvement in the war would end democratic reforms at home. Though critics declared that his opposition to the war was political suicide, La Follette was re-elected to the Senate in 1922. In 1924, he ran for president on the Progressive ticket and received almost 5 million votes, losing to Republican Calvin Coolidge. La Follette died the following year.

[Source: The History of Wisconsin vol. 3 (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin); Kasparek, Jon, Bobbie Malone and Erica Schock. Wisconsin History Highlights: Delving into the Past (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2004); "Robert Marion La Follette" Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress (online at; Unger, Nancy C. Fighting Bob La Follette: The Righteous Reformer (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000)]

Original Documents and Other Primary Sources

Link to article: How La Follette revolutionized the primary electionHow La Follette revolutionized the primary election
Link to article: La Follette decries party machines and private interests, 1897La Follette decries party machines and private interests, 1897
Link to article: A survey of progressive politics in Wisconsin, 1934A survey of progressive politics in Wisconsin, 1934
Link to article: Campaign literature from Robert La FolletteCampaign literature from Robert La Follette
Link to article: A journalist reviews Progressive achievements, 1900-1930.A journalist reviews Progressive achievements, 1900-1930.
Link to article: Wisconsin passes worker's compensation law, 1911.Wisconsin passes worker's compensation law, 1911.
Link to article: La Follette publicly opposes U.S. entry into the war, 1917La Follette publicly opposes U.S. entry into the war, 1917
Link to artifacts: Flag used to drape the caskets of La Follette Sr. and Jr.Flag used to drape the caskets of La Follette Sr. and Jr.
Link to book: Conditions on Wisconsin Indian reservations, 1909-1910Conditions on Wisconsin Indian reservations, 1909-1910
Link to images: A 1906 La Follette political cartoonA 1906 La Follette political cartoon
Link to images: A 1911 cartoon of La Follette's railroad reformA 1911 cartoon of La Follette's railroad reform
Link to images: Life magazine portrays La Follette as a traitor in 1917Life magazine portrays La Follette as a traitor in 1917
Link to images: Pictures of Robert M. La Follette, Sr.Pictures of Robert M. La Follette, Sr.