Robert LaFollette

Robert M. LaFollette

Robert Marion LaFollette,
(1855-1925), American political leader. A founder of the Progressive
Movement, he was a spearhead for political reform in Wisconsin and
the nation for 25 years. Unwilling to compromise on principle,
“Fighting Bob” LaFollette earned the deep admiration of his
supporters and the hatred of many foes. LaFollette was born in
Primrose, Wis., on June 14, 1855. A farmer’s son, he graduated from
the University of Wisconsin in 1879 and practiced law in Madison. In
1880 he defied a local political leader to win the office of district
attorney. He then served (1885-1891) as a Republican in the U.S.
House of Representatives.

The Governorship

Defeated in 1890, LaFollette resumed
his practice. In 1891 he became convinced that Sen. Philetus Sawyer,
a wealthy lumberman, had tried to bribe him in connection with a
legal case, and LaFollette’s outrage triggered 50 years of bitter
political rivalry. From then on the real division in Wisconsin was
almost always between pro- and anti-LaFollette factions rather than
between Republicans and Democrats. He remained a Republican, and was
opposed by conservatives in both parties. LaFollette’s subsequent
rise coincided with unrest among farmers angry at Eastern capitalists
who controlled money and credit and who dictated railroad freight
rates. Supporting LaFollette, they were joined by small businessmen,
professionals, and intellectuals disturbed by how wealthy businessmen
controlled access to political power.

This progressive spirit flourished
elsewhere, but nowhere better organized than under LaFollette in
Wisconsin. A brilliant orator, he campaigned across the state for
years. After twice losing the nomination for governor under the
convention system, he was elected in 1900. Reelected in 1902 and
1904, he achieved many of his goals. Wisconsin was the first state to
adopt the primary for nominations for state offices. A new law taxed
railroads on the value of their property, ending an inequity. Taxes
on corporations permitted the state to pay its debts. A railroad
commission was created to regulate rates. Funding for education was
increased. A civil-service law was adopted. This legislation was

drafted by political and social scientists and economists, a feature
of the “Wisconsin Idea.”

The Senate

Elected to the U.S. Senate in 1905,
LaFollette took his seat in 1906. In Washington, he fought the same
forces of privilege he had defeated in Wisconsin. A few progressive
Republicans joined him, and they often held the balance of power in a
Senate closely divided between the two parties. LaFollette opposed
the protective Payne-Aldrich tariff and worked to regulate the
railroads and other industries. He sought the GOP presidential
nomination in 1908 and 1912. He founded LaFollette’s Weekly Magazine
(1909) and the National Progressive Republican League (1911). In one
of his finest achievements, he secured approval of a bill protecting
the rights of seamen.

Representing a state with a large
German population and reflecting Midwestern isolationism, LaFollette
opposed President Wilson’s support for the Allies after war broke out
in Europe in 1914. When LaFollette opposed the arming of U.S.
merchant ships, Wilson denounced the “little group of wilful men” who
he said had made the government “helpless and contemptible.”

In April 1917, LaFollette voted
against declaring war. When he continued to criticize the war, an
attempt was made to expel him from the Senate for disloyalty. (In
1957 the Senate voted LaFollette one of the five most outstanding
senators of all time.) He also opposed the Treaty of