Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Robert M. La Follette, Sr.

Robert Marion La Follette, Sr. (June 14, 1855 - June 18, 1925) was a United States politician who served as a member of the House of Representatives, Governor and Senator from Wisconsin and who ran for President of the United States as the Progressive Party candidate in the 1924 elections. He is best remembered for his support for direct election of United States Senators and opposition to big business.

A florid orator given to periodic bouts of "nerves," he made enemies over the years for his opposition to the United States' entry into World War I and his defense of freedom of speech during wartime. Theodore Roosevelt called him a skunk who should be hung when he opposed the arming of American merchant ships; one of his colleagues in the Senate said he was "a better German than the head of the German parliament" when he opposed the Wilson Administration's request for a declaration of war in 1917.

La Follette was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1884, where he served until 1890. His opposition to "pork barrel" projects and his support for a protective tariff helped secure his appointment to the Ways and Means Committee, where he helped draft the Tariff Act of 1890. The Act, however, was so unpopular that he lost his seat in the 1890 election.

La Follette returned to Wisconsin, where he served as a judge. In 1891, he refused a bribe offered by a powerful Wisconsin Republican. When the incident became public, La Follette became a pariah within his Party. He returned to office as Governor in 1900, after two unsuccessful attempts, by campaigning for direct election of nominees in party primaries.

From 1901 until 1906, he served as Governor of Wisconsin. While Governor, he championed numerous progressive reforms, including the first workers' compensation system, railroad rate reform, direct election of Senators and progressive taxation. These ideas became known as the Wisconsin Idea. He was a strong advocate of cooperation between the state government and the University of Wisconsin.

He spent the remainder of his life, from 1906 until his death in 1925, serving in the United States Senate. While in the Senate he strongly opposed United States involvement in World War I, while supporting many of President Wilson's domestic reforms. He opposed the prosecution of Eugene V. Debs and other opponents of the war and played a key role in initiating the investigation of the Teapot Dome Scandal during the Harding Administration.

In 1912 he ran for the Republican Party nomination for President of the United States, but lost to William Howard Taft, due largely to many Progressives supporting Theodore Roosevelt's third-party candidacy. He backed Wilson over Taft and Roosevelt in that year's election.

In 1924 LaFollette again ran for President of the United States this time as a Progressive, but came in third after incumbent President Calvin Coolidge and Democratic candidate John W. Davis. LaFollette died several months later; his son, Robert La Follette, Jr, succeeded him as Senator. Another son, Philip La Follette, was later Governor of Wisconsin--the only Governor elected by the Progressive Party.

In 1909, La Follette and his wife, Belle Case LaFollette, founded the publication La Follette's Weekly. It was renamed The Progressive in 1929 and is still published, now as a monthly magazine.