THE UNITED STATES has experienced numerous periods of populism, reform, and progressive politics and one of the most famous and successful individuals associated with this in the last 100 years was Robert M. La Follette, Sr., of Wisconsin. “Fighting Bob,” as he was known, was born in Primrose Township, Wisconsin, and would go on to establish a long and successful political career and a minor dynasty in the state. Known for his great oratory and boundless energy, the elder La Follette was educated at the University of Wisconsin, where despite a spotty academic record, he was granted a bachelor’s degree in 1879. His wife, Mary Case, was also a graduate of the university and was the first woman to graduate from the law school in Madison, Wisconsin
After graduation, La Follette studied law for five months and was called to the bar, and his first major political victory was the district attorney’s race in 1880, a campaign he succeeded in despite the opposition he faced from the dominant Republican Party machine. In this period, Wisconsin was virtually a one-party state, controlled by the Republicans, the party of Abraham Lincoln, but the party contained two wings within it, the stalwarts and the progressives. La Follette was elected to the House of Representatives in 1885, based largely on the support of the progressive wing, and during his six years in Washington, D.C., he became a member of the powerful Ways and Means Committee. He then moved home and was elected governor of Wisconsin in 1900. In 1905, he was elected to the U.S. Senate by the Wisconsin legislature, though he would spend almost a year finishing his work as governor before taking up the post. He served in the Senate for almost 20 years until his death in 1925. La Follette spent most of his public life as a member of the progressive wing of the Republican Party, but left the party and ran in the 1924 presidential election on the Progressive Party ticket, garnering 16.6 percent of the vote. After his death, he was succeeded in the Senate by his son, Robert M. (“Young Bob”) La Follette. Another son, Philip, would also serve as governor.
La Follette was one of the best-known figures in Progressive-era America. Like the Progressive movement, La Follette accepted a set of ideas that were not always consistent. La Follette was a critic of capitalism, but never an open advocate of socialism. He was an advocate of reform, but had an ambiguous view of Democratic President Woodrow Wilson, and ultimately, of Teddy Roosevelt.
Certainly, like the Progressives generally, he was many years ahead of his time. As a legislator in the U.S. Senate, he sponsored successful legislation to provide an eight-hour work day for most women in the District of Columbia and to regulate hours and working conditions for U.S. sailors. He opposed the declaration of war against Germany in 1917, he voted against the Espionage Act and other legislation he regarded as oppressive, and he worked to protect the rights of conscientious objectors. For his critique of Woodrow Wilson and his position against the war, he was almost expelled from the Senate, though he was probably ultimately saved because of the close outcome in the 1918 mid-term elections, and the Republican majority needed his support to maintain control of the chamber. Throughout his life, La Follette was a strong supporter of democratic values and was suspicious of monopolistic corporations and their influence on mainstream politicians.
Like other Progressives, La Follette’s popularity and influence peaked before World War I, and the Russian Revolution and the Red Scare that followed in the United States did not help his cause.
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