Robert La Follette Essay Definition

Robert M. La Follette was a charismatic politician who created major innovations in public policy. He was the recognized leader of the Progressive Moment.

He was born in rural Wisconsin in 1855. When he completed his legal trainging at the University of Wisconsin in 1879 he immediately went into the public sector. He became the county attorney in a county of southwestern Wisconsin in 1880. He ran for Congress in 1888 but failed to be reelected in 1890.

He returned to his home district and practiced law. But he never left politics. He began developing a personal political organization within the Republican Party. He initiated a crusade against political bosses. He even went so far as to public report that the head of his party, the Repubican Party, tried to bribe him. La Follette began organizing an alternate Republican Party which eventually became the Progressive Party.

La Follette was great public speaker. The combination of a extroverted personality, great administrative and organizational ability and ambition made him a natural candidate for governor. Robert La Follette was quite simply a great human being. He started his campaign for the 1900 governorship election in 1897.

He campaigned on issues, such as

  • tax reform
  • political democracy
  • regulation of corporations
  • a direct primary to select the candidates for the political parties

La Follette was elected in 1900 and re-elected in 1902 and 1904. He was responsible for many innovations. One that he was most famous for was utilizing the faculty of the University of Wisconsin to propose and draft legislation. Professor John R. Commons was a notable consultant in public policy for La Follette. La Follette called upon the university faculty to serve on the regulatory commissions that were created.

During his governorships he persuaded the legislature to pass legislation to:

  • tax the railroads
  • establish a transportation commission to regulate the railroads
  • reform the state civil service
  • create direct primaries for party candidates

La Follette did not serve out the term as governor that he was elected to in 1906. Instead, before the end of the year he resigned his governorship and campaigned for the U.S. Senate. He won a six year term in 1906. He continued to be reelected to the Senate until his death in 1925.

As Wisconsin governor La Follette gave special attention to the regulation of the railroads because his constituents, the farmers, were particularly vulnerable to the actions and rates of the railroads. In the Senate La Follette moved beyond his focus on the railroads to consumer and labor legislation. He had been concerned with these as a governor but had less success in these fields. La Follette became the acknowledged leader of the Progressives in Congress and throughout the country.

He was promoted by politicians to be the presidential candidate for the Progress Party in the 1912 election. But at a late stage Theodore Roosevelt accepted the nomination. La Follette, feeling like a jilted groom, was bitter and expressed his bitterness publically. This cost him support and respect.

Over time La Follette became more and more anti-business. When the Senate debated the entry of the United States into World War I La Follette campaigned against it and later when it passed he campaigned against the measures such as the draft which were required to support the U.S. entry into the war.

La Follette was widely criticized for his anti-war stance.

In 1924 La Follette was the presidential candidad for the Progressive Pary. La Follette took about one sixth of the vote total. He died in 1925. His family tried to perpetuate the Progressive Movement, but it eventually faded.

Historical Essay

"Fighting" Bob La Follette

Governor and Progressive

"Fighting" Bob La Follette | Wisconsin Historical Society


Fighting Bob La Follette, 1906

Portrait of Robert M. La Follette during his tenure as U.S. senator from Wisconsin. View the original source document: WHI 10650

b. Primrose, Wisconsin, 1855
d. Washington, D.C., June, 1925

Robert La Follette was a Progressive politician and governor of Wisconsin. He developed a fierce opposition to corporate power and political corruption as a young man. Affiliated with the Republican Party for almost his entire career, La Follette worked in Congress, as the governor of Wisconsin and in the U.S. Senate. His rousing oratory, support for progressive reforms and frequent clashes with party leaders earned him the nickname "Fighting Bob."

First Failure

Born in Primrose township, Dane County, in 1855, La Follette worked as a farm laborer before attending the University of Wisconsin in 1875. La Follette graduated in 1879. The following year, he launched his political career as district attorney. La Follette was elected to Congress in 1884 and defeated in 1890 by Democrat Allen Bushnell. For some a defeat might have signaled the end of a political career. But 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 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. For nearly ten years, La Follette traveled around the state and spoke out against crooked politicians, powerful lumber barons and the railroad interests that dominated his own party. Elected governor in 1900, La Follette pledged to institute his own sweeping political reforms.

Direct Elections and the Laboratory of Democracy

Until that time, candidates listed on ballots were selected by party leaders in private caucuses. Drawing on the ideas of other reformers, La Follette pushed the legislature to institute direct primary elections to let voters choose their own candidates. He supported measures that doubled the taxes on 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.

Washington and Presidency


Belle Case La Follette, 1885

Formal studio portrait of Belle Case La Follette wearing a black lace dress. This photograph was taken about 1885, the year in which her husband, Robert M. La Follette, Sr., first went to Washington, D.C., as a Republican congressman. It is probably a dress that she wore to official parties and gatherings in the capital. View the original source document: WHI 3841

In Washington, La Follette pushed for the same kinds 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 to check the power of large corporations. In 1909, La Follette and his wife Belle founded "La Follette's Weekly Magazine," a journal that campaigned for 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 next year.

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[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; Unger, Nancy C. Fighting Bob La Follette: The Righteous Reformer (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000)]

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