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Robert M. La Follette
Photo: Wisconsin Historical Society

Robert M. La Follette

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Robert M. La Follette was an American Republican best known as a proponent of progressivism and a fierce opponent to corporate power.

Who Was Robert M. La Follette?

Robert M. La Follette was an American Republican and politician who is best known as a proponent of progressivism and a fierce opponent to corporate power. He served as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, the Governor of Wisconsin and a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin during his career. He also ran for President of the United States in 1924.

Early Life

“Fighting Bob La Follette” was born Robert Marion La Follette in Dane County, Wisconsin, on June 14, 1855. He worked as a farm laborer before entering the University of Wisconsin in 1875. Graduating four years later, La Follette was admitted to the Wisconsin bar in 1880. He married his college sweetheart, Belle Case, on December 31, 1881.

La Follette launched his political career as Dane County District Attorney in 1881 in spite of objections from Republican bosses who felt his ideas were too progressive. In 1884, he was elected to Congress, but generally voted the “Party Line” on most issues. In 1890, he was defeated in the Democrat election landslide and returned to Madison, Wisconsin to practice law.

Declaration of War against Political Corruption

His hiatus from politics didn’t last long. In 1891, U.S. Senator Philetus Sawyer, the state’s Republican leader, offered La Follette a bribe to fix a court case. La Follette was furious and declared war on the party machine denouncing the use of money to reverse the will of the people. For the next ten years, La Follette traveled the state speaking out against the influence of powerful business interests and the corrupt politicians. Though he lost elections for governor in 1896 and 1898, he became a political celebrity with this outgoing personality and extraordinary flair for zealous oratory.

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Finally, in 1900, La Follette was elected governor of Wisconsin. In his first two terms he pushed several Progressive initiatives, but nearly all were blocked by the state legislature. Instituting a system later known as the “Wisconsin Idea”, he commissioned leading political science academics to help create a “laboratory of democracy” drafting bills and administering state agencies. Another effective tool he used was publically reading the “roll call” of votes state legislators to show citizen how their representatives were voting on key issues. The threat of exposing legislators’ votes for special interests helped and get many of La Follette’s reforms passed.

Crusading U.S. Senator

In 1906, La Follette resigned as governor and was elected to the U.S. Senate. La Follette won instant fame as a Senator not controlled by special interests. Over the next eight years he pushed for dismantling the business trusts, supporting environmental protection, protecting labor unions right to strike, and the 17 Amendment allowing for direct election of U.S. Senators. In 1909, he and his wife Belle founded La Follette’s Weekly magazine (later called The Progressive) which campaigned for woman’s suffrage, racial equality, and other progressive causes.

Seriously considered a presidential candidate in 1912, Robert La Follette was passed over by the Republican Party when Theodore Roosevelt entered the race. Bitterly disappointed, La Follette supported Woodrow Wilson’s election and his early neutrality policies. He adamantly opposed America’s entry into World War I. After the war, he campaigned against the Treaty of Versailles and U.S. membership in the League of Nations. Critics declared his war opposition political suicide, but he was reelected to the Senate in 1922.

Presidential Run and Death

Convinced the war had given big business too much influence in government, La Follette began exposing flagrant corruption. Between 1921 and 1924 he played a prominent role in exposing the Tea Pot Dome scandals. With the support of farm groups, labor organizations and the Socialist Party, La Follette ran for president in 1924, but lost to Calvin Coolidge. The experiences exhausted him both physically and spiritually. He died the following year on June 18, 1925 of cardiovascular disease. After his death, his wife, Belle, and two sons, Robert Jr. and Philip carried on his legacy. Both sons entered politics as Progressives with Philip playing a prominent role in Wisconsin politics as governor and Robert, Jr. taking his father’s seat in the U.S. Senate. 

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