Legendary in Wisconsin and American politics, Robert LaFollette’s legacy is inspirational and worthy of admiration. LaFollette, who served as Governor of Wisconsin, Senator from Wisconsin, and ran as an independent for President in 1924 (garnering 17% of the vote, unheard of at the time), was a leader and public servant whose story tells much about Wisconsin itself.
Wisconsin Native and Progressive Leader
Robert Marion LaFollette (1855-1925) was a founder of the Progressive Movement, an era in American politics characterized by fundamental challenges to the established order and the political power of monied interests, and by attempts at sweeping reform, many of them realized. He was a spearhead for political reform in Wisconsin and the nation for 25 years. Unwilling to compromise on principle, “Fightin’ 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 in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1885 to 1891.
Defeated in 1890, LaFollette resumed his law practice. Over the following ten years, LaFollette tirelessly campaigned across the state, both to infuse his progressive ideals into the state’s political psyche, and in anticipation of future aspirations. Twice in that time period, he ran for the Republican Party’s gubernatorial nomination. While he lost both attempts, he kept plugging away in the political arena.
Finally, in 1900, he was elected Governor of Wisconsin. LaFollette was a Republican, but his style, rather than his partisan affiliation, fueled Wisconsin’s political division during his term as Governor. His fighting spirit and willingness to create controversy in pursuit of the common good split political leaders along pro- and anti-LaFollette lines. 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.
The first wave of the progressive spirit flourished elsewhere, but was nowhere better organized than under LaFollette in Wisconsin. A brilliant orator, he continued to campaign across the state for years. Reelected Governor in 1902 and 1904, he achieved many of his goals.
The Wisconsin Idea
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.” To this day, University of Wisconsin-Madison campus facilities bear the names of many of LaFollette’s policymaking collaborators—Charles Van Hise, John R. Commons, and others.
The Wisconsin Idea was a concept first put to paper by public servant Charles R. McCarthy, who was head of what is now the Legislative Reference Bureau. McCarthy envisioned a state where experts and scientists would assist lawmakers in formulating policy, and where the state university would be deeply involved in serving the State of Wisconsin via policymaking.
As Governor, LaFollette embraced this idea and was its greatest champion. To help it along, he instituted a Saturday Club to bring together state officials, legislators, and members of the university faculty with common interests. Such social and intellectual gatherings were made possible by the uncommon circumstance that the state university and the seat of government were in the same city (this is the case in only nine states). Within a few years, delegations from all over the country arrived in Madison to see firsthand how the university was serving the state.
Robert M. LaFollette—son of a farmer who became Congressman, Governor, and Senator—instilled in Wisconsin a sense of political fair play, progressive ideals, and groundbreaking innovative strategies toward policymaking. Furthermore, LaFollette pioneered a different kind of state government, one which was connected to citizens, greatly cooperative with the University, and operated first and foremost to protect and fulfill the needs of the people.
Today, as concerns about the political power wielded by money and wealthy interests resurface, especially among many young people, LaFollette’s legacy is an important reminder of the ability of people, fairly led by a fine public servant, to change course and reshape public priorities.
Sources: Grolier Incorporated, http://gi.grolier.com/presidents/ea/side/lafoll.html, 2000; Wisconsin Blue Book, State of Wisconsin, 1999-2000.
For further reading on Robert M. LaFollette:
Barton, Albert, LaFollette’s Winning of Wisconsin (1894-1904), (Univ. of Wis. Press 1922)
Drier, Thomas, Heroes of Insurgency (Human Life Pub. 1910)
LaFollette, Robert M., LaFollette’s Autobiography (Univ. of Wis. Press 1960)
Thelen, David P., ed., Robert M. LaFollette: Memorial Addresses (delivered in Senate and House of Representatives) (Macmillan 1953)
Thelen, David P., Robert M. LaFollette and the Insurgent Spirit (Univ. of Wis. Press 1986)
Young, Donald, ed., Adventure in Politics (Holt 1970)