ROBERT 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 Versailles.

Legacy

Reelected by a landslide to a fourth term in 1922, LaFollette mounted an independent campaign for PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES in 1924 and won 17% of the vote. (See PROGRESSIVE PARTY.) Exhausted by this effort, he died in Washington, D.C., on June 18, 1925. After he died his sons, Robert and Philip, carried on his work. Robert Marion Lafollette, Jr. (1895-1953),his father's secretary, succeeded him in the Senate. Though cautious by nature and frequently ill, he won great distinction during 21 years in the Senate. An authority on tax legislation, he was also active in behalf of labor and civil liberties. His last majo rachievement was the Congressional Reorganization Act of 1946. In that year he lost to Joseph R. McCarthy in the Republican senatorial primary. Philip Fox LaFollette (1897-1965), inherited his father's fiery temperament. Ambitious and aggressive, he served three terms as governor (1931-1933, 1935-1939). He won passage for the nation's first unemployment compensation act, pushed through programs to aid workers and farmers, and reorganized the state government.

Donald Young
Editor, Adventure in Politics: The Memoirs of Philip LaFollette

For Further Reading

LaFollette, Robert M., LaFollette's Autobiography (Univ. of Wis. Press 1960)
Thelen, David P., Robert M. LaFollette and the Insurgent Spirit (Univ. of Wis. Press 1986)
Young, Donald, ed., Adventure in Politics (Holt 1970)

Encyclopedia Americana: 1996 Grolier Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved

See also: Official United States Senate Historical Biography of Robert LaFollette.