Robert La Follette Essay Contests

The Progressive was founded 104 years ago by the great Robert "Fighting Bob" La Follette -- Wisconsin governor, U.S. senator, presidential aspirant, and leader of the populist half of the Progressive Movement. Among historians and progressive activists, La Follette is widely seen as a forerunner of the even-more-iconic Franklin Delano Roosevelt. La Follette died in 1925, after his third presidential campaign. Roosevelt was elected president seven years later.

FDR enjoyed the support of many GOP progressives in 1932. Liberal Republicans like Robert La Follette Jr., Philip La Follette, Hiram Johnson, George Norris, Henrik Shipstead, Bronson Cutting, Fiorello La Guardia, Harold Ickes, and Amos Pinchot openly endorsed Roosevelt over Hoover. Peter Norbeck, James Couzens, Lynn Frazier, and Gerald Nye did not endorse Roosevelt but support for him was implied by their refusal to endorse Hoover. La Follette's 1924 running mate, Senator Burton Wheeler, backed Governor Roosevelt for the 1932 Democratic nomination.

In addition to Secretary of the Interior Ickes and Director of Civilian Defense La Guardia, notable La Follette Republicans who joined the Roosevelt administration included Felix Frankfurter (Supreme Court justice), Ernest Gruening (governor of Alaska Territory), Robert Morss Lovett (government secretary of Virgin Islands), David K. Niles (Works Progress Administration and FDR administrative assistant), Frederic C. Howe (Department of Agriculture), Basil Manly (Federal Power Commission), Frank Walsh (National War Labor Board), and Thomas Amlie (would-be Interstate Commerce Commission). This is an impressive list, but most held second- or third-tier positions, and we cannot exclude the possibility that they were chosen not so much because of ideological affinity but because of political usefulness. The most powerful and prestigious Cabinet positions went to pro-corporate appointees. In his introduction to Howe's autobiography, James Richardson says that "Howe's brand of liberalism was back in style" with the inauguration of Roosevelt, yet later concedes that "the New Deal's approach to the issue of concentrated economic power was half-hearted, inconsistent, and self-contradictory."

In their article "American Electoral History," Peter Argersinger and John Jeffries provide a useful literature review of the origins and composition of the New Deal coalition. They quote B.M. Stave, who argued "that in Pittsburgh a 'La Follette revolution' in 1924 had preceded the Al Smith revolution in shaping a new urban, ethnic, working-class coalition that prefigured Roosevelt's of the 1930s."

In an endnote to the introductory pages of her La Follette biography, Nancy Unger mentions that Otis Graham's Encore for Reform provides "an alternative view of the New Deal as a logical extension of progressivism," with Graham rejecting the notion that early-century GOP progressives naturally culminated in the presidency of FDR. She does not hold the alternative view herself. Unger quotes the observation of reactionary Senator James Watson (R-IN), in the mid 1930s, that La Follette's 1924 platform contained "very many of the identical propositions" that the Roosevelt administration was then instituting, and that "many of the very men" engaged in aiding the president were "in Wisconsin at that time helping La Follette." Kenneth Campbell MacKay, historian of the '24 Progressive Party, made a similar point -- and quoted Watson a half-century before Unger -- when he wrote, "A comparative study of the Progressive platform of 1924 and the policies enacted into law by Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal indicate that, perhaps unintentionally, much of the latter was plagiarised."

Are these perceptions correct? Was FDR more a protégé of Senator La Follette than President Wilson? First, it is worth reiterating that Roosevelt supported J.P. Morgan & Co. attorney John W. Davis -- not La Follette -- for president in 1924. Also, a closer look at the La Follette platform is instructive. Paraphrasing MacKay, Unger writes, "Elements found in the 1924 platform ... that came to life in the New Deal include the Tennessee Valley Authority, progressive income and inheritance tax schedules, the Wagner Labor Relations Act, various aid programs to agriculture, the Securities [and] Exchange Commission, and the abolition of child labor." Perhaps, but this list may give the wrong impression. More consistent and traditional progressives than FDR were arguably more responsible for most of these reforms (e.g., Norris and Wagner). Implementation of these programs is also debatable. For example, administration of AAA disproportionately benefited large farmers and food processors, to the disadvantage of small farmers and sharecroppers.

La Follette did not advocate widening the federal income tax net and instituting payroll withholding to shift the tax burden down to the middle class. On the contrary, he sought to "relieve the people of the present unjust burden of taxation," in the words of the Progressive platform. If the burden was unjust in 1924, how much more so was it after the Revenue Acts of 1942 and 1943? Historically, the federal income tax was a rich man's tax. Average Americans paid no income tax prior to the "temporary" enlargement of the tax burden to pay for the war. Jeffersonian liberal opponents of the 1943 bill, which put a 20 percent pay-as-you-go tax on wage and salary earners, included Robert Wagner, Theodore Bilbo, Elmer Thomas, and Homer Bone. New Deal Democrats on many domestic issues, these senators objected to the hardship the measure would place on the common people. Robert La Follette Jr. and fellow GOP progressive William Langer voted Nay on the "progressive" income tax that we know today.

Early on, the 1924 platform states, "The reactionary continues to put his faith in mastery for the solution of all problems. He seeks to have what he calls 'the strong men and best minds' rule and impose their decision upon the masses of their weaker brethren." This reactionary description anticipates the Roosevelt administration, with its pragmatic emphasis on power; its paternalistic, top-down approach to reform; and its reliance on a brain trust and managerial elite. As mentioned above, New Deal liberalism was an ideology preeminently concerned with power, in the estimation of La Follette's son Philip. It was exemplified by "the liberal realpolitiker, the 'social engineer' who Gets Things Done and thinks in terms of efficient conduct of modern mass-society," as described by Dwight Macdonald.

When La Follette called for "public ownership of railroads," he stipulated "with democratic operation, with definite safeguards against bureaucratic control." The New Deal epitomized centralized bureaucracy with its proliferation of federal agencies and the use of federal power for social engineering. The administration had little apparent interest in democratic control, which would have required devolution of power and grassroots accountability. La Follette called for "Abolition of the tyranny and usurpation of the courts" and "Election of all federal judges." In the eyes of many of his liberal allies, including a plurality of the public, Roosevelt's effort in 1937 to enlarge the Supreme Court to prevent judicial vetoes of his laws seemed to emanate more from personal pique than democratic principle. It did nothing to address judicial tyranny on an institutional level. The extraconstitutional power and fundamental problem of judicial review was left untouched by Roosevelt's proposal. La Follette's Progressive running mate, Burton Wheeler, led opposition to the Court-packing plan in the Senate. On the other hand, La Follette's sons, Senator Robert La Follette Jr. and Governor Philip La Follette, supported the plan, as did Senator George Norris. Most progressive populists, including Senator Hiram Johnson, Senator William Borah, Oswald Garrison Villard, and Amos Pinchot joined Wheeler in opposition.

A biographer of La Follette's progressive Republican ally, William Borah, has nicely summarized the differences in perspective between Borah (also, by extension, La Follette) and Franklin Roosevelt

Walter Lippmann averred that the real key of the future would lie between the kind of liberal individualism which Borah represented and the kind of regulated monopoly in which Roosevelt seemed to believe. Many Republicans, especially in the East, thought there was no real difference between Borah and Roosevelt, but there was a very deep difference.... Borah was in the main a lineal descendent [sic] from the early American liberals, an individualist who opposed all concentration of power, political or economic. He was against private privilege and private monopoly, political bureaucracy, and centralized government.... Roosevelt, on the other hand, had no such instinctive appreciation of American liberalism in its oldest and most authentic sense. He was disposed to think that these old liberal principles no longer fitted the modern world, that they belonged to a horse-and-buggy age, and that the future would bring a highly organized society controlled by a very powerful government. He was not greatly concerned about the old safeguards of liberty. What he was really concerned about was sufficient governmental power to provide welfare and security for everybody.... Generally his method of reform was to create new privileges to balance old ones, not to liquidate old privileges in order to provide more equal opportunity.

Progressive, public-minded administration of state government occurred in Wisconsin under Governor La Follette from 1901 to 1906, and then continued under like-minded Republicans for the next nine years. La Follette's reform agenda, known as "the Wisconsin Idea," set an example for the nation and brought him to national attention. Eventually, state regulation of railroads was extended to other areas of public concern, including electricity, water, telegraph, telephone, and insurance. In addition, the La Follette political machine -- disciplined but honest -- and other liberal-minded legislators enacted state laws dealing with primary elections, food protection, public health, child labor, and labor working hours.

La Follette-backed government activism at the state level opened him to the charge of government-by-bureau and infringements on liberty and democracy. Plutocratic, reactionary big business interests naturally resented government regulation on behalf of the public and their denunciations of La Follette and his allies were strident and, at times, disingenuous. Over the years, La Follette received criticism and lost some of his support from those who genuinely believed in commonwealth but objected to high levels of state government spending and taxing, as well as unelected administrative officials wielding great power over the lives of Wisconsin citizens. In the 1914 election, corporate conservatives gained the governorship partly because progressives were split in the GOP primary and partly because the accusation that "'tax-eating commissions' that constituted the Wisconsin Idea formed an elitist, unresponsive 'bureaucracy'" struck a chord with many voters. La Follette publicly argued "that the commissions saved more than they cost but he was privately angry at his lieutenants for raising state budgets so fast." It was an ongoing concern, recognized by La Follette's own son. Referring to 1937, three-term Governor Philip La Follette, later recalled, "Under my father's tenure, Wisconsin had pioneered in establishing boards and commissions that were aimed at giving the public inexpensive, speedy relief in their grievances against the railroads and other public utilities. Thirty years later it seemed to me that these boards and commissions, as well as the administration of education and taxation, had become bureaucratized and needed to be streamlined."

Unlike his Democratic counterpart William Jennings Bryan, Robert La Follette made extensive use of experts, especially during his years as governor. Intellectuals were part of his state political organization (including University of Wisconsin president Charles Van Hise and professors Richard Ely, John Commons, and Edward Ross). Gabriel Kolko writes, "Perhaps to a greater degree than any contemporary political leader, it was La Follette who adopted the cult of expertise, science, and rationality. As Governor he exploited the combined talents of a great university, and let the political decision-making process increasingly fall into the hands of the presumably positivistic academics." In Kolko's judgment, La Follette's reliance on experts and emphasis on "clean, impartial, and fair government run by a competent bureaucracy" made him a great political reformer and a less-than-great economic reformer. While there is truth in this assessment, Kolko seems to be focusing too much on La Follette's gubernatorial years and not enough on his senatorial years. By 1910, he had developed a strong critique of monopoly capitalism and was willing to name names. At times, La Follette's reliance on experts may have diluted his populism, but it did not negate it. He was a staunch supporter of democracy and of procedures designed to democratize the American political system (e.g., primary, initiative, referendum, recall).

We can conclude that there were some similarities between La Follette's brain trust and bureaucracy at the state level and Roosevelt's equivalents at the federal level. This fact should not be overlooked. At the same time, there is no evidence that the latter consciously patterned his administration after the former. There is considerable evidence that FDR instead emulated Woodrow Wilson, who was by nature an elitist, not a populist. Historian Ronald Schaffer points out, "Wilson became the world's most celebrated champion of democracy. In private, he was a snob, bored by the ordinary citizens of his country. He told his fiancée during his first term that the great majority of people who came to his office, the majority or even the minority of congressmen, and most American voters were 'not of our kind.'" In this, as in many other ways, Wilson was very different from Bryan and La Follette. Overall, there was also a substantial difference between the philosophies and affiliations of the individuals who staffed the La Follette administration in Wisconsin versus those who worked at the highest levels for Wilson and FDR in Washington. For instance, it is unlikely that La Follette would have appointed Paul Warburg to the Federal Reserve Board or Edward Stettinius Jr. to the State Department.

The Groves Bill, backed by Governor Philip La Follette and designed by several of his friends on the University of Wisconsin faculty, was an unemployment insurance law that was the first of its kind in the nation when it passed in 1932. It helped to inspire the Social Security Act of 1935. Historian John E. Miller notes that while the "Wisconsin Plan" was innovative, it was not "radical" because it was "basically a preventive rather than compensatory measure." An academic mentor of the Wisconsin professors, economist John Commons, praised it as "an individualistic and capitalistic scheme." Another protégé of Professor Commons, University of Wisconsin economist Edwin Witte also played a role in creating the Wisconsin Plan and became known as the "father of the Social Security Act." During discussion over the nature of the Social Security bill, Governor La Follette and some other traditional progressives objected to the rival Ohio Plan for being too centralized and too much like a "dole" (financial handouts by the federal government -- i.e., welfare).

In the early 1930s, Wisconsin progressives, led by Governor Philip La Follette, claimed at least parts of the New Deal as their own, boasting, "The national administration has taken its policies and principles for its recovery program direct from the platform of Progressives in Wisconsin." At the same time, they were critical of aspects of the New Deal. In 1934, The Progressive would boast that a host of New Deal programs were at least partly inspired by Governor La Follette's administration, including many of the federal "alphabet soup" agencies, but a historian comments, "Although the Wisconsin experience provided part of the context in which New Deal policies were established, it would be hard to demonstrate a single instance in which the state's example was decisive, except perhaps with regard to Social Security."

In regard to President Roosevelt, it could be argued that neither his financial nor foreign policies were consonant with Senator La Follette's. According to his platform, La Follette wanted to "use the power of the Federal Government to crush private monopoly, not to foster it." The National Recovery Administration and other Roosevelt initiatives fostered both private and public monopoly, making big business a partner with big government. One interpretation of the resulting system is to see it as a form of state capitalism or corporate state. Wall Street financier Bernard Baruch and General Electric president Gerard Swope were pivotal National Recovery Administration (NRA), figures, in terms of conceptualization and administration. U.S. Chamber of Commerce president Henry I. Harriman and Standard Oil of New Jersey president Walter Teagle also played important roles. The Swope Plan of 1931-32, a forerunner of the NRA supported by the Chamber, was viewed as "fascism" by figures as diverse as President Herbert Hoover and Socialist Party leader Norman Thomas.

Economic journalist John T. Flynn, a self-described Bryan Democrat who voted for Roosevelt in 1932, examined the roots of the NRA, shortly after its creation, concluding, "The share of the Brain Trust in its paternity was microscopic; the share of the Chamber of Commerce and other business interests was predominant." Flynn believed that the resulting legislation was a complete victory for big business: "They got more than they hoped -- modification of the anti-trust laws, self-rule in industry, defeat of the Black and Connery bills, the right to regulate hours and minimum wages transferred to the trade associations under NRA supervision instead of by statute."

Sociologist Michael Webber provides statistical evidence to show that business leaders who contributed to Roosevelt's reelection in 1936 tended to be from smaller companies, and tended to be Southerners, Jews, or Catholics. Using the description of William Mayer, Webber argues that Democrats under FDR were a "party of peripheral regions and disaffected minorities." Economic journalist Ferdinand Lundberg has provided a similar assessment, writing, "Those numerous wealthy persons who became staunch Rooseveltians were mainly of the second or third tier of wealth and nearly all in merchandising and light industry, immediately dependent upon the stagnating mass-consumption market." At the same time, there is evidence to the contrary. Elite figures such as Vincent Astor, Francis Biddle, Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, Sidney Weinberg, Herbert Lehman, Russell Leffingwell, W. Averell Harriman, James Forrestal, Walter Chrysler, Paul Hoffman, William Benton, Thomas J. Watson, and Sosthenes Behn were supporters of the New Deal. The House of Rockefeller helped the administration at times and received some favors in return (e.g., role of Walter Teagle in the 1930s, role of Nelson Rockefeller in the 1940s, the 1942 decision to turn management of the Elk Hills naval petroleum reserve over to Standard Oil of California). The Council on Foreign Relations, the Business Advisory Council, and the Committee for Economic Development provided sustained institutional links between the Roosevelt administration and Wall Street (and the multinational corporations in its orbit).

Although Bryan and La Follette each had a handful of financial angels who gave large contributions to their campaigns and looked with favor upon their political endeavors, few, if any, were intimately linked to the New York financial-industrial establishment. This was not true of FDR. Both the quantity and quality of his upper-class allies were on a much higher level. Certainly many businessmen hated Roosevelt and denounced the New Deal, but these tended to be associated with smaller domestic-oriented, anti-labor companies, while executives of large international-minded banks and corporations were more congenial to many parts of the president's agenda.

Norman Thomas, active in the La Follette '24 campaign, not only failed to support Roosevelt, but personally ran against him in all four presidential elections. During Roosevelt's first term, Thomas dismissed the charge that the administration was highly socialistic: "Roosevelt did not carry out the Socialist platform, unless he carried it out on a stretcher." With the possible exception of the TVA, he believed that the New Deal was best described as "state capitalism." While giving Roosevelt some credit for ameliorist measures, Thomas thought "capitalistic collectivism" was the president's ideal and it might inadvertently set the stage for fascism. Thomas also opposed Roosevelt's increasingly martial foreign policy during the 1937-41 period. Like Thomas, Congressman William Lemke (R-ND) was a La Follette '24 veteran who also tried to prevent FDR's first reelection. Even though 1936 was the high-water mark in populist rhetoric by the president, Roosevelt was challenged by two parties who ran to the left of the New Deal on domestic issues (Socialist and Union). At the time, columnist Walter Lippmann noted that there were no great issues separating Roosevelt and Landon in 1936. The sound and fury associated with FDR's denunciation of "economic royalists" and his Republican rival's denunciation of "socialism" evidently signified little or nothing.

In 1924, La Follette denounced "the mercenary system of foreign policy" which operated "in the interests of financial imperialists, oil monopolists and international bankers." On the campaign trail, La Follette pledged, "We will end the partnership between our State Department and imperialistic interests, and we will divorce it from Standard Oil and international financiers." In the two succeeding decades, Roosevelt put the State Department under the leadership of Cordell Hull and, eventually, Edward Stettinius Jr. Although Hull had some progressive credentials from his congressional career, his appointment was welcomed by corporate conservatives within the Democratic Party, including J.P. Morgan attorneys John W. Davis and Frank Polk. One of Hull's closest confidantes was Norman H. Davis, a fellow Tennessean. More importantly, Davis was a banker who made his fortune as president of the Trust Company of Cuba before serving in the Wilson administration, and then became president of the Council on Foreign Relations in the 1930s. (The CFR was created largely through the instrumentality of the Morgan firm.) The point is not Secretary Hull's social or political connections to this or that person, but rather the fact that he apparently did not represent a departure from U.S. foreign policy being conducted "in the interests of financial imperialists, oil monopolists and international bankers." In any event, FDR often relied more on Hull's top aides in the State Department -- patricians William Phillips and, later, Sumner Welles -- than he did Hull.

Stettinius was the son of a J.P. Morgan partner and was himself an executive for two Morgan-dominated enterprises: General Motors and U.S. Steel. Stettinius's right-hand man was Under Secretary of State Joseph Grew. Grew was a career diplomat, but he came from a Boston banking family, his cousin Jane Norton Grew was the wife of J.P. Morgan Jr., and he held the same position twenty years before under Coolidge. The Roosevelt administration's at-times friendly relationship with the Standard Oil-Chase National Bank empire culminated, on a personal level, with the appointment of Nelson Rockefeller as Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs in 1940 and then Assistant Secretary of State for Latin American Affairs in 1944. Opposing his selection for the second post, Senator Robert La Follette Jr. argued that the confirmation of Rockefeller and several other State Department appointees would "tend to destroy the hope of the American people for a just and democratic peace." Old-style Republican liberals Hiram Johnson, Henrik Shipstead, and William Langer joined "Young Bob" in voting against Rockefeller's nomination.

It was right after the 1944 election that Roosevelt nominated Stettinius and Grew to the top two State Department posts and Rockefeller as one of their deputies. Will Clayton, millionaire cotton trader and conservative Democrat of the American Liberty League type, was given the assistantship for economic affairs. The question could be raised whether or not such individuals were mavericks within their social circles. Perhaps they represented a left-leaning fringe within the economic elite and their selections were welcomed by the heirs of Bryan and La Follette. This was not the case. Objecting to Stettinius, Senator Langer quoted then-Secretary of State Bryan in warning Wilson against allowing J.P. Morgan & Co. to make a sizeable loan to the French government. He also quoted the exchange of letters between Morgan partner Thomas W. Lamont and Senator La Follette Jr., ten years earlier, on public power and the Saint Lawrence Seaway. Langer told his colleagues, "I cannot forgive a system whereby Wall Street is able to permeate our governmental system and influence the peace of the world to come." He declared his belief that Stettinius had "no qualifications" for the high post "other than the fortune of birth and the backing of bankers whom the President of the United States, in his inaugural address on March 4, 1933, promised to drive from the temple." Langer cast the sole vote against Stettinius's confirmation.

Concerning Grew, Rockefeller, and Clayton, the Philadelphia Record editorialized,

We cannot take them as a whole without uttering a protest that this series of appointments is neither in the character nor in the spirit of the New Deal.... To allow the State Department to be dominated by a single ultraconservative element, in this most critical period, is an inexcusably dangerous experiment.... We believe that President Roosevelt was elected to a fourth term because the majority of voters believed he would give liberals -- not conservatives and reactionaries -- a large share of responsibility for building the peace. One of the reasons for the defeat of Governor Dewey was that the majority of voters believed he would put the administration of our vital foreign and domestic policies in the hands of the Wall Street interests which supported him so generously. Wall Street must wonder today why it spent so much money for a futile cause -- only to get exactly what it wanted for free.

Although not opposed to any of the nominees, as individuals, "Happy" Chandler (D-KY) remarked on the Senate floor, "I sometimes wonder who won the election which we recently held. I was told that the poor folks would be given opportunities as a result of the election, and it was said that the common man would be given a better chance.... Instead of poor folks obtaining jobs, the Wall Street boys are obtaining jobs."

Twenty years after serving as La Follette's running mate, Burton Wheeler (D-MT) said, "We now have what is supposed to be a great liberal administration.... Yet, we know that the heads of all the various departments are representatives of the big business interests of the country. They represent the Morgan interests, the Rockefeller interests, the Dillon-Reed [sic - should be Read] interests, and all the big corporations of the country at the present time." In an attempt to shield FDR from criticism, Senator Claude Pepper (D-FL) asserted that this slate of nominations for the State Department was "out of character with the President of the United States." Wheeler was less inclined to allow Roosevelt to evade responsibility, replying,

If we review the last 12 years of this administration -- and I say this in all kindness -- we must say that it was not out of character.... These appointments are in line with the appointment of Mr. Stimson [as Secretary of War], who, as we all know, was a Republican and represented, when he was practicing law, big interests in the city of New York ... These appointments are not out of character with the appointment of Mr. Knox as Secretary of the Navy. He was one of the most reactionary Republicans in the United States.... They are not out of character, let me say, with hundreds of other appointments which have been made by this administration, because -- I submit it without fear of contradiction -- this administration has appointed more men from the offices of big business and more men who have been the heads of big business than has any other President of the United States during the past 50 years. No Senator on this floor will challenge the accuracy of that statement.... But on the other hand, I say that the President has appointed some very great liberals. Not only has he done so, but he has done many liberal things to which I have subscribed.

The credibility of Wheeler's assessment is enhanced by his even-handedness. Even after years of major disagreements with the president, he was still willing to say, "He has done some of the finest things that have ever been done by a President of the United States during my period of service as a Member of the Senate," citing the "many things" Roosevelt had done "for labor and for the famers." This was no reactionary excoriating "That Man in the White House." Wheeler voted to confirm Stettinius (whom he judged to be a representative of the House of Morgan) and Grew, but he was tired of the revolving door between Wall Street and Washington.

Conceding Grew's reputation as an able career diplomat, Senator Johnson commented, "I shall not vote, and I have never voted in my career in any aspect heretofore, to turn the State Department over to the house of Morgan. That is the reason, and the only reason, why I shall vote against Mr. Grew." In addition to Johnson, the seven votes against Grew included La Follette Jr., Langer, and George Aiken (R-VT), an ally of the La Follette bloc. These four, with the addition of Shipstead, also voted against Rockefeller. It was during the Franklin Roosevelt years that the first official link between the State Department and the CFR was established, in the form of the Advisory Committee on Postwar Foreign Policy. A related development was the rise of the foreign policy "Wise Men" who would move so freely between economic power in New York and political power in Washington for the next three decades.

La Follette was a non-interventionist ("isolationist") who wanted to "outlaw wars, abolish conscription, dramatically reduce land, air and naval armaments and guarantee public referendums on peace and war" (quoting his platform). Roosevelt represented the opposite. He moved the nation toward war, instituted peacetime conscription, pushed preparedness and universal military training, and killed the popular Ludlow Amendment which would have mandated a national referendum on war after any congressional declaration. For these reasons, La Follette's sons, Major General Smedley Butler, Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin, the Farm Bloc in Congress, and most other Republican liberals were opposing FDR's foreign policy by 1940.

On both domestic and foreign issues, Roosevelt was closer to the Hamiltonian camp than the Jeffersonian. As leader of the Democratic Party, the president naturally paid homage to the Sage of Monticello but that did not mean he followed his principles. Ironically, Roosevelt anticipated the New Deal during his Commonwealth Club of San Francisco address, in September 1932, when he summarized Alexander Hamilton's thought: "Fundamentally he believed that the safety of the republic lay in the autocratic strength of its Government, that the destiny of individuals was to serve that Government, and that fundamentally a great and strong group of central institutions, guided by a small group of able and public-spirited citizens, could best direct all Government." It may or may not have been Roosevelt's intention to preside over an administration that operated in this manner, but that is what happened over the next thirteen years.

There are hints in the speech that Roosevelt intended to follow a far more Hamiltonian course than assumed by his progressive populist supporters. He criticized his opponent, President Hoover, for dispensing government subsidies and bailouts to big business:

The same man who tells you that he does not want to see the Government interfere in business ... is the first to go to Washington and ask the Government for a prohibitory tariff on his product. When things get just bad enough, as they did two years ago, he will go with equal speed to the United States Government and ask for a loan; and the Reconstruction Finance Corporation is the outcome of it. Each group has sought protection from the Government for its own special interests, without realizing that the purpose of Government must be to favor no small group at the expense of its duty to protect the rights of personal freedom and of private property of all its citizens.

Roosevelt is speaking like a laissez-faire, special-privileges-to-none Jeffersonian here. Similarly, he warned, "Put plainly, we are steering a steady course toward economic oligarchy, if we are not there already."

Yet late in his speech, Roosevelt gingerly turns against the Jeffersonian tradition:

The responsible heads of finance and industry instead of acting each for himself, must work together to achieve the common end. They must, where necessary, sacrifice this or that private advantage; and in reciprocal self-denial must seek a general advantage.... Whenever in the pursuit of this objective the lone wolf ... declines to join in achieving an end recognized as being for the public welfare, and threatens to drag the industry back to a state of anarchy, the Government may properly be asked to apply restraint. Likewise, should the group ever use its collective power contrary to public welfare, the Government must be swift to enter and protect the public interest. The Government should assume the function of economic regulation only as a last resort, to be tried only when private initiative, inspired by high responsibility, with such assistance and balance as Government can give, has finally failed.

On the heels of populist rhetoric that would be understood by the average voter, when disseminated by the national press, Roosevelt closes with a proposal contradicting the free-enterprise, anti-monopoly tradition of his party that would be understood by the sophisticated voter. He was urging a rejection of competition ("anarchy") and an embrace of German-style corporate cartels ("work together"). These would be public cartels, exempt from antitrust laws and enforced by the power of the federal government, which would be the sole determiner of what is and is not in "the public interest." Roosevelt implemented this approach after becoming president. As the political scientists who include the Commonwealth Club address in their anthology note, "Some of his speeches consist of mere rhetoric for purposes of holding popular support, but many provide rich substance and the rationale for a government-business partnership in which the executive branch and the corporate community would be the key elements."

There were superficial similarities between the platform of Robert La Follette and the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt but the differences were not only of magnitude but of kind. There was an underlying ideological kinship between pragmatic, power-centric forms of mid-century statism -- Soviet, German, and American. There was some convergence between La Follette liberalism and the New Deal when it came to populist language, administrative reliance on experts, and, in a few cases, specific personnel, but they embodied two different species of politics.

A perusal of the 1920 book The Political Philosophy of Robert M. La Follette shows how far removed La Follette was from Roosevelt. The details of history are important, but an overview is also valuable. The kind of language that came naturally to La Follette -- including the quote on the book's cover: "The will of the people shall be the law of the land" -- was occasionally found in the speeches of FDR but was almost entirely absent from his administration, in terms of policy implementation. In fact, the opposite was often the case. Roosevelt was no champion of democracy, civil liberties, or peace. He was no enemy of monopoly, machine politics, or militarism. As with Bryan, La Follette was a hero to millions of Americans, including a substantial wing of one of the two major political parties. It was natural that Roosevelt would seek this support by using relevant language and making minor appointments. Ever the poser and pragmatist, Roosevelt seemed to have few core political principles. The principles he apparently did have -- for example, militarism -- were foreign to La Follette.

In comparison to traditional liberals such as La Follette and Bryan, modern liberals like Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt entered far more fully into the elite zeitgeist (spirit of the age). La Follette and Bryan were progressive in the sense of wanting to make the world a better place -- specifically, more just, more free, and more peaceful -- but they did not belong to the cult of progress in the same way as did Wilson and the Roosevelt cousins. La Follette and Bryan recognized that not every change is an advance and they knew that some of the best American political values are rooted in the past. Unlike many modern liberals, they were not willing to sacrifice morality for the sake of efficiency. Power was not an end in itself. The corrupting nature of power was recognized -- whether private or public, it was a tool with great potential for both good and evil. Early-twentieth-century elitist emphases on Social Darwinism, selective human breeding (eugenics), scientific management (Taylorism), economic modernization, and centralized government-approaching-totalitarianism were mostly missing in the thought and practice of Bryan and La Follette.

Robert La Follette was attracted to expertise but his belief in democracy and identification with the common people kept him from becoming an elitist. Wilson and FDR never personally identified with the common man so their elitism was natural and abiding.

Jeff Taylor is professor of political science at Dordt College. He can be reached at wherego@aol.com. This article is excerpted from his new book, Politics on a Human Scale: The American Tradition of Decentralism © Lexington Books, 2013.

La Follette and His Legacy


Robert M. La Follette
June 14, 1855 - June 18, 1925

"Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free"


La Follette and His Legacy
by
Alice Honeywell

Published originally in 1984 with funds from the William T. Evjue Foundation, under the author's previous name, Alice Van Deburg.

Cover design is by Earl Madden, Office of University Publications, an adaptation of the cover of La Follette's Magazine. Photographs are from the Iconographic Collection of the Wisconsin State Historical Society.

© 1984, 1995 Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System
All rights reserved

Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
The University of Wisconsin-Madison
1225 Observatory Drive
Madison, Wisconsin 53706


Robert M. La Follette

Dane County Beginnings

In 1858, when Robert La Follette was just three years old, he recited a two-line poem at the newly built schoolhouse a mile from his home. Someone lifted him up to stand on the teacher's desk so that he could say:
    You'd not expect one of my age
    To speak in public on the stage.

    Those words also predicted the nature of a great statesman's future career. Not only did La Follette always seem to do the unexpected, he also was often the youngest to do so and was a most gifted and agile public speaker on a variety of stages.
    His father, Josiah, died when La Follette was only eight months old. Although he had no memory of his father's physical presence, his wife, Belle, later recalled that he felt an "almost morbid" reverence for the man's integrity. Mary, his mother, married again when Bob was six years old. Her husband, John Saxton, was 26 years her senior, a man very different and much more severe than La Follette's father, but a man whom he respected. Saxton saw his stepson's potential and observed
once that the child would "either turn out to be a very wonderful man or a very bad one." When La Follette at one time expressed his desire to be a statesman, his stepfather suggested that he study law.
    Toward the end of his stepfather's life and after his death, La Follette became the family's sole financial supporter. At 18 he ran the family farm and marketed its produce in much the same manner as many of his Scandinavian neighbors. Like them, he espoused Republicanism, partly because of his belief in Republican ideals and partly because of his family's historical association with the party. Family legend had it, for example, that La Follette children of his father's generation were Abraham Lincoln's playmates when the families lived on adjacent land in Kentucky prior to their emigration northward. That tradition, his primary school education during the Civil War, and the concerns and beliefs of the surrounding agricultural community ensured his early adherence to the Republican Party.


Robert M. La Follette's birthplace near Primrose, Wisconsin

    In addition to continuing to support his mother, La Follette enrolled at the University of Wisconsin where he excelled in social activities and oratory. A gifted dramatist, he entertained campus gatherings with acting performances in which he pitted good against evil and championed causes that had been ignored or unrecognized by others. In 1878 he won the state oratorical contest, and the following year he triumphed at the Inter-State Oratorical Contest with his recitation of "Iago." Madison newspapers praised his delivery, calling it "an art above painting and sculpture" in power and influence. Not serious about his other studies, however, he barely managed to graduate. Had it not been for President John Bascom casting the tie-breaking vote, La Follette would have failed to receive his diploma.


Belle Case La Follette crusaded for women's s suffrage at county fairs and local gatherings throughout the state.

    Throughout his college career, one of La Follette's closest friends and most respected classmates was Belle Case. She, too, excelled at oratory but unlike La Follette, she also did well in other academic subjects. Like her husband-to-be, Belle was an independent thinker and earned the admiration of professors and students for her novel approaches to subject matter. When she and La Follette married in 1882, they agreed to delete "to obey" from their wedding vows, a move that symbolized their commitment to individual independence. Even though he was to become the public political figure, their relationship was one based on egalitarian principles. In 1885, after the birth of their first child, Fola, Belle became the first woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin Law School, an achievement that served her, her husband, and her children well. She had begun the law course with her husband's encouragement but only after deciding herself that "there is no inherent conflict in a mother's taking good care of her children, [and] developing her talents ...." In later years she would demonstrate such a belief often as she divided her time between the lecture circuit and La Follette's Magazine, while she also dispensed legal advice to her husband and managed a household.

The Campaign Trail

    Desirous of public office, La Follette had launched his campaign for District Attorney in 1880, in spite of opposition from the local Republican Party machine. He had begun practicing law a few months earlier and had spoken eloquently and performed successfully as a trial attorney. La Follette was well liked in the community, was respected as a hardworking attorney, and was supported by his Scandinavian farmer-neighbors for being a fair and honest man.
    Elected and reelected as Dane County District Attorney, he enhanced his reputation by doggedly prosecuting all types of offenders, especially drunkards and vagrants. Espousing the Republican belief in hard work to achieve self-sufficiency, La Follette had no sympathy for the lawbreakers.
    But he also didn't advocate any stiffer laws regarding alcohol use. Throughout his political career he avoided the divisive prohibition issue and instead concentrated on what he felt to be more weighty problems-oppression of individuals by powerful corporations, undemocratic decisionmaking and corruption in government, and foreign military actions by the national government.
    In 1884 La Follette defied the party machine that was led by U.S. Senators Philetus Sawyer and John Spooner. He campaigned instead with a personal organization and at age 29 won the Republican nomination and election to the U.S. House of Representatives. He was the youngest member of the 49th Congress.
    Not content with the normal role of a freshman representative, he found himself challenging his fellow Republicans. For example, a bill that would have given railroad companies rights to Wisconsin Indian lands in order to build company towns smacked of robbery and unnecessary privilege to La Follette. As he drew criticism from Republican Party officials for opposing the party line, he began to earn the reputation of an insurgent, a label that broadened rather than narrowed his base of support back home.
    A Democratic landslide in 1890 resulted in La Follette's return to Madison and to private law practice. The McKinley Tariff, which La Follette supported, was the issue in most states that year, but in Wisconsin and. in the Third District it was the Bennett Law that drew large numbers of Democratic voters to the polls. The law passed by the state's Republican legislature required that schoolchildren be instructed in English. Wisconsin's numerous immigrant families who feared the loss of their cultural heritage and domination by a pietistic Yankee majority rebelled at the legislation and showed their displeasure in the voting booth. La Follette had not been involved in the issue but was voted out with the rest of the Republicans.


Twenty-nine-year-old Robert M. La Follette as U.S. Congressman from Wisconsin's Third District.

    After taking control in 1890, the Democrats moved immediately both to repeal the Bennett Law and to prosecute Republican state treasurers who had misused state funds while in office. The story of Philetus Sawyer, a bondsman who stood to lose $300,000 in the treasury case, stands out in Wisconsin history and in La Follette family memoirs. According to La Follette, Sawyer offered him a bribe to influence the judge, La Follette's brotherin-law, to "decide the case right." The judge ultimately withdrew from the case, but La Follette, largely as a result of the experience, resolved to expose corruption in the Republican Party and win the governorship.

Wisconsin's Chief Executive

After several unsuccessful attempts at thwarting the Republican machine at nominating caucuses and conventions, La Follette finally won the nomination for governor in 1900. Sawyer had died, other machine leaders were aging, and the spirit of reform was growing. During the campaign, La Follette gave 208 speeches in 61 counties-sometimes 10 or 15 in one day. He concentrated on promoting the direct primary as a means of democratizing the policymaking process but he also tirelessly assailed the railroads, machine politics, and any other noticeably powerful interest.


Using whatever stage was available, La Follette made the rounds of county fairs to promote progressive reform.

    The direct primary, said La Follette, was the means by which citizens could wrest control from the hands of large corporations. It was this change from the caucus system, he felt, that could lead to more accountability of officeholders and eventual regulation of corporations, especially the railroads.
    Running as much on human energy as on funds, La Follette drew large attentive crowds wherever he went. The Milwaukee Journal, a Democratic paper, seldom supported his political candidacies but nonetheless respected his enthusiasm. In a story about one of the early county fair speeches, a reporter for the paper observed:

Disgust, hope, honor, avarice, despair, love, anger, all the passions of man, he paints in strong words and still stronger gestures. This may sound like exaggeration-but into the most commonplace of his word paintings he throws the energy of a man apparently fully impressed with the whole force and truth of his statements. He never wearies and he will not allow audiences to weary. He carries his subject and his hearers both, and compels the latter to listen, if he cannot compel them to endorse what he may say. Near the conclusion of his speech, as he folds his arms across his chest with the air of a man who has done all that can be done, and in a quiet and impressive way delivers his peroration, there is a wonderful change. It is a change that does not detract from your opinion of the orator, but rather aids it. You realize then that he has been speaking a long time. He has tired you out, but you did not know it before. However, he does not seem to have become weary himself. As he bows for the last time and withdraws he seems as fresh as ever. You are impressed with the belief that the man is a sort of steam engine. He is iron in the sense that iron conveys the idea of endurance.

    La Follette often spoke for two to three hours using his written notes more as a weapon than as a crutch, gesticulating wildly and keeping his audience entranced for the duration.
    As effective as he was in appealing to the public for votes, as governor he was not able to convince the Republican legislature to accept his reforms. When he won the office again in 1902, he carried along enough progressive Republicans to control the state Assembly but he still lacked a majority in the Senate. This imbalance once again prevented passage of most of the reform legislation he envisioned, although public pressure did finally enable passage of a railroad tax measure.
    Thinking that the public would agree that a direct primary was too radical a change in election procedure, and convinced of their own ability to defeat the proposal, the regular Republicans, known as Stalwarts, did eventually agree to allow a referendum on the issue. It was during the 1904 campaign that La Follette unleashed his famous "roll call" tactic. Everywhere he stumped he recited the voting record of Stalwart legislators to crowds of their constituents hoping to embarrass them and bring about the election of their progressive Republican opponents. The direct primary referendum passed and La Follette was also handily reelected, along with enough progressives to comprise a long-awaited majority in both houses of the legislature.
    The way finally had been paved and in the 1905 legislative session several reforms were instituted. A railroad commission was established, a bill to control lobbying was passed, and the civil service system took shape. Many students of Wisconsin progressivism agree that in addition to the direct primary, one of the most significant legacies of La Follette's governorship was the passage of a comprehensive civil service act. John R. Commons, La Follette's ally at the university, drafted the law and worked successfully with progressives in government to secure its passage. In his 1911 autobiography, La Follette praised the landmark civil service law as a triumph in removing partisanship and patronage from government.
    La Follette left the governorship in 1906 to take the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Stalwart Joseph Quarles. Elected governor three times, he left a legacy that would be built upon by progressive governors and legislatures for years afterward.
    One of the most important and enduring legacies was his development of the Wisconsin Idea. As the first Wisconsin-born governor and the first University of Wisconsin alumnus to hold the state's highest office, La Follette naturally maintained his ties to the university when he entered the political arena.
    Charles Van Hise, a classmate whom he helped to become president of the university in 1903, economists John Commons and Richard Ely, historian Charles McCarthy, and other faculty members and former classmates joined state officials to propose and discuss ideas for new public policies both during and after La Follette's tenure as governor.
    McCarthy, as the first director of the Legislative Reference Library, relied heavily on former university colleagues for assistance in bill-drafting. The university, as a land-grant institution, originally had been conceived as a service center for the state, but La Follette and his successors set a precedent that ensured effective communication between the "twin domes of law and learning" on opposite ends of State Street in the capital city.

On to the U.S. Senate

As La Follette took on duties in the U.S. Senate, progressives' efforts continued in Wisconsin under governors and legislators still convinced of the need for regulation and reform. La Follette had laid the base for such change with his fiery oratory and vilification of machine politicians and greedy corporate bosses, but it was Francis McGovern who, during the 1911 legislative session, put through a record number of progressive acts. In that session, with the help of university experts drafting and polishing the legislation, the lawmakers created the first workers' compensation program, instituted a state income tax, enacted several conservation measures and created. a number of regulatory boards and commissions, among them the Industrial Commission and a highway commission. Progressivism was at high tide in Wisconsin.
    While Wisconsin governors and legislators were reaping the harvest from La Follette-sown seeds, La Follette himself was making his mark in the Senate. There he took up the progressive cause and publicized it with the help of muckraking journalists Lincoln Steffens, Ray Stannard Baker, William Allen White, and others. Progressivism was also becoming a national movement.
In January 1909, in spite of Belle's concern over the financial wisdom of such a venture, La Follette launched what was to become the mouthpiece of progressivism - La Follette's Magazine. Borrowing from the Gospel of John, he used for the masthead the injunction, "Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free." The magazine was a family venture from the start, Belle editing and contributing her own section, and the La Follette children publishing articles also. Steffens, White, and others were regular columnists. Never as great a financial success as La Follette envisioned, the magazine nonetheless was backed by several wealthy philanthropists. It found a market among progressive farmers and working people. It was published for the rest of La Follette's life, first as a weekly and later as a monthly. In 1928 it was renamed Vie Progressive. It continues publication today under the same name.
    When he was not working on the magazine, La Follette was diligently pressing reform bills in the Senate. Just as in the House of Representatives, La Follette refused to abide by the unwritten code of etiquette for freshman lawmakers-to be seen and not heard. He took the floor whenever he felt compelled to do so and expounded upon the evils of corruption in government and corporate abuse of consumers and workers. Early in his tenure as senator he gave one speech that continued for several days. During that lengthy oration and others like it, he harangued fellow senators for leaving the chamber but at the same time endeared himself to the press and the spectators in the gallery for his persistence in the face of ridicule. He suffered physically from overwork and periodically collapsed from fatigue.
    By 1911 he was the undisputed leader of the progressives in the Senate. When an investigation showed that state legislators received bribes to vote for certain individuals for U.S. Senate seats, La Follette persuaded his colleagues to begin the amendment process that would lead to the direct election of senators. Unhappy with President Taft for being unsupportive of consumers, La Follette was giving serious consideration to challenging Taft for the Republican nomination for president. With encouragement from his numerous progressive supporters, he undertook the challenge and sent emissaries into other states to launch the campaign.
    After months of preparation that included extensive writing and speaking stints, La Follette was disappointed to learn that Theodore Roosevelt was also joining the competition. Roosevelt feared that La Follette had alienated more voters than he had attracted, was covetous of the presidency himself, and thus challenged both La Follette and Taft for the Republican nomination. The result was Taft's nomination, Roosevelt's ill-fated campaign as an independent Progressive (the Bull Moose candidate), and Democrat Woodrow Wilson's ascendancy to the highest office.
    Partly because of his disgruntlement with both Taft and Roosevelt, La Follette supported Wilson, especially as long as he remained isolationist in regard to the political and military struggles going on in Europe. Fearful that a war would thwart domestic progressive programs and convinced that military expansion would benefit only the corporate industrialists and investors, La Follette became the leader of the outspoken anti-war faction in the Senate.
    In 1917 he led a filibuster that prevented Wilson from securing congressional approval for arming merchant ships. On the floor of the Senate, La Follette and his opponents nearly came to blows over the issue. Even though La Follette drew Wilson's criticism for being the leader of "a little group of willful men," La Follette maintained that he had public support for opposing U.S. involvement. When a German submarine sank the Lusitania, public opinion throughout the nation shifted in favor of war, and La Follette became a lonely voice in the Senate for his opposition to the war. He was one of only six senators to vote against Wilson's war declaration in April 1917, arguing that the incident could have been avoided.
    Along with the war went the Espionage Act, a measure that sanctioned suppression of individual liberties. La Follette strenuously objected to infringement of civil liberties but the more lie objected the more criticism he faced. When he was misquoted by the Associated Press as saying, "We had no grievances against Germany," he became the target of vicious attacks. He had actually said, "I don't mean to say that we hadn't suffered grievances; we had-at the hands of Germany." Even though the news service later apologized for its error, the damage had been done and he was assailed by former friends and adversaries alike. Roosevelt called him a "Hun within our gates." The Senate seriously considered a resolution to expel him; a group of 421 faculty members at his beloved alma mater, the University of Wisconsin, signed a petition condemning his lack of patriotism; and he was burned in effigy on the campus. Such criticism cut deeply, but he was sustained throughout the period by a few close friends and large numbers of supporters in the sizable German communities back home. Among his loyal supporters in Madison was William T. Evjue. Evjue's employer, the Wisconsin State journal, had supported La Follette in the past but denounced him when he refused to support the war. Evjue remained in La Follette's camp, resigned his post as business manager of the State journal, and launched the Capital Times to provide La Follette another voice.


For his anti-war position La Follette gained notoriety on the cover of Life, December 13, 1917.

    After the war La Follette continued to object to the administration's foreign policy and stepped up his appeal for domestic progressive legislation. He favored farm loan programs, women's suffrage, tax policies to redistribute income, and any measure that he thought would dilute the negative effects of corporate control over workers and consumers.
    With war memories receding, supporters sought him as a third party candidate for president again in 1920. He finally declined to run, he said, because labor and farm groups, his most prominent supporters, could not agree on a platform. In 1922 a strong coalition of laborers and farmers returned him to the Senate to the dismay of Republican regulars and President Harding.


Financed by bonds, La Follette's 1924 presidential campaign continued to stress the need for citizen involvement in politics.

Progressive With a Capital "P"

The Conference for Progressive Political Action-a coalition of labor groups, socialists, and farmers-convinced La Follette to run for president in 1924 as an independent Progressive. With Democratic Senator Burton Wheeler from Montana as his running mate, La Follette once again tried for the presidency.


To small gatherings or large crowds, La Follette campaigned with unbounded energy. His 1924 attempt at the presidency was no exception.

    Throughout the campaign La Follette and his promoters criticized both the Republican and the Democratic candidates for their conservatism, lamented the failure of the nation's economic system to meet the fundamental needs of citizens, and lambasted the Supreme Court for its reactionary interpretations of law. Although his campaign seemed so strong for awhile that some people thought the election might have to be decided in the House of Representatives, he ultimately carried only Wisconsin. Fearing that the choice was "Coolidge or Chaos," the majority of voters chose incumbent Calvin Coolidge.
    Less than a year later, in June 1925, at the age of 70, La Follette died of a heart attack. Revered by Wisconsinites and friends across the nation for being "the voice of humanism. in politics," he was eulogized for his philosophies, achievements, and most of all, his impeccable integrity. The Wisconsin legislature commissioned his sculpture to grace Statuary Hall in the nation's capitol. Two generations later "the dear old rotten Senate," as La Follette had called it, hung his portrait in the Senate lounge to honor him as one of the five most outstanding senators in the nation's history.

Another Generation of La Follettes

Bob Jr. and Phil Enter Politics

The senior La Follette gone, it was up to his sons to try to complete the work begun by their father. As father of fourFola, Bob Jr., Phil, and Mary-he imbued as deep a respect for progressivism in his offspring as he had in his peers. Politics was always at the center of La Follette
family life and the children were often present and always interested when discussions took place at the governor's residence in Madison. When La Follette was governor, Bob and Phil frequently sat with their mother in the legislature's galleries to watch the proceedings or listen to their father's addresses. When the family was separated during the campaigns or for other reasons, the elder La Follette faithfully corresponded with his children, often with each one individually.
    In Washington the children spent many hours listening to discussions both in the Senate gallery and in their home. La Follette's expectations for his children were many, including the desire for them to continue the work that he knew he would leave unfinished. Upon his death, it was Bob to whom the torch was passed, largely because it was he who had reached the age of 30 and was eligible to run for his father's seat in the Senate. Even though it was Phil who acquired his father's temperament-outgoing nature, love of oratory, spontaneity
it was Bob, who as secretary to his father, had acquired the knowledge and level of understanding necessary to fulfill the requirements of the office. Intending to enter some other profession eventually, he nonetheless wanted to fulfill his father's expectations by dutifully running for the seat. He easily won the nomination and the special election held in September 1925 becoming the youngest U. S. senator since Henry Clay. He held the seat for 20 years.


Following La Follettes death, La Follette's Magazine carried this cartoon from the Central Press Association.

    The stock market crash and economic and social upheaval of the late 1920s led to disaffection with conservative Republican policies that had held sway throughout the decade. In 1930 Phil La Follette decided to challenge the Stalwart Republican incumbent, Walter Kohler, and run for governor. Using the same campaign style as his father thirty years earlier, he lamented the power of the monopolies, the accumulation of great wealth while wages plummeted, and decried "Hooverism." He visited nearly every county in the state and drew record crowds. A majority of the voters agreed that Kohler should be retired from office, so they turned to another La Follette. He was just 33 years old.
    Shy of a progressive majority in the legislature during his first administration, La Follette proposed many more measures than lawmakers were willing to enact. Disturbed by the effects of the depression, La Follette continually argued that government must reorganize and act decisively to relieve the distress. Regulation by itself was not working, he said, and although he always was opposed to outright government relief, he felt that state government needed to take an active role in solving the problems at hand. Like his father, he was anxious and willing to break new paths if the legislature would only follow.


According to Chicago Tribune cartoonist John McCutcheon, La Follette's sons had public support for continuing their father's efforts.

    Although it was not implemented until the federal program went into effect a few years later, unemployment compensation law was first enacted in Wisconsin. The bill provided for industries to contribute to emergency relief funds, a measure that had the support of farm, labor, and business groups. Labor groups felt that some of the cost of unemployment should be borne by industry; farmers, as employers of small numbers of workers, were exempt; and industry leaders felt the law would have a stabilizing effect in an unstable economy. The bill had a full measure of support.
    Without a majority of progressives in the legislature, however, most of the ideas promoted during La Follette's first administration met with resistance. One of his proposals called for replacement of the Railroad Commission with a Public Service Commission so that government could regulate the utilities in addition to the railroads. He also asked for increased government control over banks-to limit the number of failures-as well as over chain stores, and for expanded public works programs. One program he envisioned was a plan for reforesting sections in the northern part of the state by using unemployed young men. Many of the proposals would become law under Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, but for the Wisconsin legislature in the early 1930s, most were ideas whose time had not yet come.


The signing of Wisconsin's pioneer unemployment compensation law in 1932 exemplified the Wisconsin Idea. Shown left to right are: Henry Ohl, Jr., president of the Wisconsin State Federation of Labor, economists Elizabeth Brandeis, Paul A. Raushenbush, and John R. Commons, Gov. Philip F. La Follette, Lt. Gov. Henry A. Huber, Rep. Harold Groves, and Rep. Robert Nixon.

A New Political Party

As the depression deepened, La Follette became dissatisfied with his inability to help relieve the distress. Voters also were unhappy, and in 1932 turned the Republicans, including Phil, out of office. With Franklin Roosevelt in the White House, the La Follettes hoped that somehow the economic situation would improve. They all had come to realize that the problem needed the attention of the national government and Roosevelt was a new-style Democrat with whom the La Follette brothers were initially impressed. Roosevelt also respected the La Follettes and was cordial to them, a fact that endeared neither the Republicans to the La Follettes nor the conservative Wisconsin Democrats to Roosevelt.
    As the 1934 election approached in Wisconsin, progressives became increasingly reluctant to work within either of the major political parties. The Republican Party was the party of the Stalwarts, and the Democratic Party, with Albert Schmedeman as governor, was considered reactionary. Led by labor supporters and ex-congressman Tom Amlie, a coalition of labor groups, farmers, socialists, and other progressives met to form the Farmer Labor Progressive League. They made clear their desire to start a third party. When a convention was called at Fond du Lac in May, the La Follette brothers, remembering their father's unsuccessful bid for the presidency as a third party candidate, somewhat reluctantly joined forces with the coalition to help launch Wisconsin's Progressive Party. The party's founders preferred
that it he called the Farmer-Labor Party but the La Follettes' preference for a more inclusive name prevailed.
    The eyes of the nation were on Wisconsin during the midterm three-party contest of 1934. Bob Jr. ran again for the Senate-as a Progressive-and Phil ran for governor. Both won and Wisconsin's fledgling third party gained nationwide attention. In spite of a personal victory, though, Phil was once again disappointed not to have a majority in the legislature. As in 1930, non-Progressives united to defeat nearly every proposal he introduced. In the 1936 campaign, copying another tactic used by his father, La Follette capitalized on the lack of legislative cooperation by "reading the roll" of his opponents before their constituents in their home districts. The strategy had worked for his father and it also worked for him. La Follette was again victorious and this time carried along enough Progressives to garner majorities in both houses of the legislature.


The La Follette brothers listen to the 1934 election returns. Bob Jr.'s (left) reelection on the new party label was confirmed early in the evening and Phil's gubernatorial election was assured by the following day. Telegrams of congratulations were collected in bushel baskets.

    Not only were Progressives in Wisconsin pleased with the election results, so was Franklin Roosevelt. With the help of Wisconsin's Progressives, he also won another term and another chance to redeem the economy.
    Still, the La Follettes and Roosevelt had an uneasy relationship in the ensuing years. Agreeing on the need for an active government role in addressing the economic dilemmas of the day, they disagreed on both timing and tactics. Like his father, Phil was not content to play a passive role, especially since many of the ideas being circulated in Washington had come from Wisconsin. He pushed Roosevelt for relief funds and for discretion in their use, but Roosevelt was always reluctant to allow the governor the level of control that he wanted.

A Progressive Majority

The banner year for progressive legislation in Wisconsin was 1937. Promoted as a bill not so much to appease labor as to encourage communication between business management and unions, the Wisconsin Labor Relations Act, also called the "little Wagner Act," was the second such act to be passed by a state. It required the establishment of a state labor relations board to engage in management/labor mediation. La Follette responded to business leaders' criticism of the bill by saying that there were "few, if any disputes which fair and reasonable men cannot adjust if they will only sit down around the table and work out their difficulties."
At least as controversial was the proposal to establish and fund the Wisconsin Development Authority, a public power agency conceived by La Follette and others as a "little TVA." Feared by conservatives as needless competition for the private power companies, all means of defeating it were attempted. Detractors left the legislative chambers to lounge in nearby bars and hotels so that a quorum would not be present, but Progressives lured them back by threatening to take even more drastic action later. The bill passed, but because of action by Republicans in the following administration, the idea was never fully implemented.


Bob Jr. speaks at a Progressive Party rally in Mauston in the mid-1930s.

    The special session called by the governor in October 1937 was the forum for the most hotly debated legislation of Wisconsin's progressive era. Rescinding all the rules, including dispensing with hearings, arbitrarily cutting off debate, and occasionally even calling for a vote without the reading of the bill, La Follette's lieutenants arduously pushed through an assortment of bills. The governor clearly felt that the ends justified the means - that by dispensing with democratic methods on a small scale in the legislature he was saving the larger democracy from failure.
    Among the bills passed were those creating the Wisconsin Agricultural Authority to assist farmers and promote farm products, and a Department of Commerce to promote friendly relations within the state's business community and between government and business. The Governmental Reorganization Act also passed during the special session, as did laws to tax chain stores, extend mortgage foreclosure moratoria and assist cities in dealing with federal housing programs. The tendency for a La Follette to lead fearlessly against loud opposition had evidenced itself once again. Wisconsin became a model for progressive legislation, but the process by which the bills were sent through the legislature caused factions to develop within the Progressive Party, created unbridled animosity between Progressives and other lawmakers, and led to citizen disillusionment with their political leaders.


Called a "circumcised swastika," the symbol invented to promote the National Progressive Party was one of the factors that contributed to its failure.

    In 1938 Phil launched the ill-fated National Progressive Party. Increasingly critical of Roosevelt's policies, he apparently felt that only in a new party with a national scope could the ideas embodied in progressivism take shape. Aside from poor timing-too soon after the 1937 special session-he also made the mistake of choosing a symbol for the party that too closely resembled a swastika. Even though he stressed the need for moderation in order to satisfy all factions of the party, too many observers were tired of what they considered his overweening aggressiveness even if they did agree with him in principle.
    Phil lost the gubernatorial election in 1938, and the Republicans regained control of the legislature in what seemed to be a national conservative resurgence. The National Progressive Party had failed dismally. Not only were the voters displeased with Governor La Follette, but the Progressives were increasingly disaffected with Roosevelt-over both domestic and foreign policy.
    In Washington, Bob La Follette found fault with Roosevelt's interest in European affairs just as his father had before him, and promoted legislation to require that the cost of war preparations be borne by military industries, not by taxpayers generally. His view did not predominate in the nation's capital.
    After Pearl Harbor, in spite of his objections to war in general and American involvement in particular, Phil enlisted and served under General Douglas MacArthur in the South Pacific. Bob remained in the Senate arguing for antimonopoly legislation, taxpayer relief, and improved labor laws.

Back to the Two-Party System

By the mid-1940s, the Progressive Party had been irreversibly torn by factionalism between farmers and laborers over domestic issues and between those who favored and those who opposed the war or postwar foreign policies. At a meeting of about 400 Progressives in Portage in March 1946, Bob announced his decision to rejoin the Republican Party-the party of Lincoln and his father, the senior La Follette. The Democratic Party in Wisconsin was still too conservative and too weak, Bob felt, so the Republicans seemed. his only hope. Some Progressives followed Bob into the Republican Party, and others turned to the Democrats, a split that partly explained his loss to Joseph McCarthy in the Republican primary that year. With the departure of the La Follettes from politics, Wisconsin entered another political era.


Bob Jr.'s re-entry into Wisconsin's Republican Party divided the ranks.  Some followed him while others became Democrats.

    Like their father, the younger La Follettes were at times both revered and scorned for always being on the cutting edge of state and national politics. Admired nonetheless by both critics and supporters for their courage and their impeccable integrity, they left Wisconsin with a tradition of clean government and a respect for progressivism. The many ideas and laws that they and their father promoted and achieved-the direct primary, civil service reform, protection of civil liberties, university/state government cooperation, and numerous others-provided a valuable base upon which public officials could build for generations to come.

The Robert M. La Follette Institute of Public Affairs

The Wisconsin Idea

Progressivism embodies the philosophy that government can and must seek innovative solutions to problems and that decisionmaking must involve citizens from outside government as well as from within. Such beliefs have been a dominant theme in Wisconsin's history.
    Numerous progressive ideas have become part of Wisconsin's heritage, but one of the most important legacies left from the La Follette era is the Wisconsin Idea, a principle promoted at the turn of the century by La Follette, university president Charles Van Hise, and legislative librarian Charles McCarthy. Practiced for nearly a century now, the Wisconsin Idea encourages cooperation between government officials and university scholars in order to solve current problems and anticipate future agendas.
    The La Follette Institute of Public Affairs had long been envisioned by publicminded faculty members and academically oriented public servants. Professor Clara Penniman, the first director of the university's Center for the Study of Public Policy and Administration, suggested
in 1971 that the center be named after the senior La Follette. In 1984, one hundred years after La Follette was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Wisconsin's Third District, the La Follette Institute was established at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Its founding director, Dennis Dresang, oversaw the building of a multidisciplinary and multifaceted program of instruction, research, and outreach; succeeding directors have expanded and fostered that mission.
    The primary mission of the Institute-educating new generations of students to become skilled administrators and policy analysts, particularly in the public sector-has broadened since the institute's inception. Two Master of Arts degrees are now offered, one with an emphasis on public management, the other on policy analysis. Some students choose to fulfill the requirements of both degrees in their two years here. The program's flexibility and the encouragement students receive to follow a curriculum that allows development of a specialty are primary attractions.
    The institute's faculty members conduct research on a wide range of public policy issues and regularly share their findings with policymakers. Demands for La Follette training seminars at all levels of government are at an all-time high and the institute's staff regularly organize conferences and seminars to satisfy the information needs of public officials.
To those unfamiliar with the tradition, the Wisconsin Idea may at times seem unworkable since the mission of the university and the problems faced by state government appear vastly different. Government workers are often accused of spending too much time "killing the nearest snake" while university professors are perceived as hermits in an ivory tower. Such attitudes can be a barrier to cooperation.
    The mission of the La Follette Institute is to overcome the threat of such barriers and to encourage the cooperation of university scholars and government practitioners in the progressive tradition of the institute's namesake. Through its master's degree program, its applied research endeavors, and its outreach efforts, the institute serves as a strategic link between government and the university community. La Follette's legacy continues.


Selected Bibliography

Bogue, Allan G. and Robert Taylor. The University of Wisconsin. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1975.

Curti, Merle, and Vernon Carstensen. The University of Wisconsin: A History, 1848-1925. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1949.

Evjue, William T. A Fighting Editor. Madison, Wisconsin: Wells Printing Company, 1968.

La Follette, Belle Case and Fola La Follette. Robert M. La Follette. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1953.

La Follette, Robert M. La Follette's Autobiography: A Personal Narrative of Political Experiences. Madison, Wisconsin: Robert M. La Follette Company, 1913; (reprint, Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1968.)

Maney, Patrick J. "Young Bob" La Follette: A Biography of Robert M. La Follette, Jr., 1895-1953. Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 1978.

Miller, John E. Governor Philip F. La Follette, The Wisconsin Progressives, and The New Deal. Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 1982.

Nesbit, Robert. Wisconsin: A History. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1973.

Thelen, David P. Robert M. La Follette and the Insurgent Spirit. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1976.

Weisberger, Bernard A. The La Follettes of Wisconsin: Love and Politics in Progressive America. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994.

Yount, Donald, ed. Adventure in Politics: The Memoirs of Philip La Follette. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970.

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