in Wisconsin History
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 http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=L000004); Unger, Nancy C. Fighting Bob La Follette: The Righteous Reformer (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000)]