La Follette, Robert Marion, Sr.

Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette (1855-1925), a progressive reformer from Wisconsin, resisted the corrupt influence of railroads, utilities, and large corporations. Like other early twentieth century activists, he challenged fellow citizens to take control of the machinery of government.

Following a brief stint as a district attorney, La Follette was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1886. Initially La Follette supported conservative Republican policies, but an 1891 encounter with Philetus Sawyer, a corrupt party boss, convinced La Follette to stand up to the special interests that threatened his state. La Follette and other activists, “the Insurgents,” responded by transforming Wisconsin into a laboratory of progressivism.

In 1901, as Governor of Wisconsin, La Follette courted the advice of “disinterested” experts, primarily university professors, who advised him on public policy issues. This interaction, later known as the “Wisconsin Idea,” was rooted in the belief that public leadership in combination with academic expertise could improve the performance of government. During his tenure as governor La Follette regulated railroads and utilities, introduced workers’ compensation laws, implemented a state income tax, and established the direct primary.

La Follette’s popularity catapulted him to the United States Senate in 1906, an office he held until his death. Belle Case La Follette, a noted feminist, encouraged her husband’s political leanings. Together they published La Follette’s Weekly Magazine to champion progressive causes, especially women’s suffrage and racial equality.

In 1911, La Follette and other Republicans established the National Progressive Republican League to protest President William Howard Taft’s conservative policies. La Follette emerged as the group’s likely presidential candidate until Theodore Roosevelt threw his “hat into the ring” and secured the Progressive Party’s nomination in 1912. La Follette responded to the decision by supporting Woodrow Wilson.

During the later stages of his political career, La Follette demanded stronger government regulation of big business and supported legislation that investigated corruption within the government. By 1920 he helped organize the Conference for Progressive Political Action in an attempt to resist corporate interference with political and economic matters. In 1924 he secured the Progressive Party’s nomination for president. Interestingly, the party’s platform promoted ownership of public utilities, labor’s right to organize and bargain collectively, farm-relief measures, and lower taxes for persons with moderate incomes. Although La Follette finished a distant third, he polled five million votes and won thirteen Electoral College votes. Physically exhausted from a strenuous campaign schedule, “Fighting Bob” died on June 18, 1925.