Robert M. La Follette Sr.

On this date in 1855, Robert Marion “Fighting Bob” La Follette Sr. was born in a log cabin in Primrose Township, Dane County, Wisconsin. From humble roots, he rose to political prominence as Wisconsin governor, senator and presidential candidate. A 1982 survey of historians ranked him among the “ten greatest senators in the nation’s history.”

Nicknamed “Fighting Bob” for his fierce independence, La Follette put principle before party and backed progressive causes and reforms such as women’s suffrage, a minimum wage, workers’ compensation and child labor laws. His wife, Belle Case La Follette, was a leader in the feminist movement and influenced her husband’s ideas and programs. His friend, Emma Goldman, called him “the finest, most inconsistent anarchist” of his time for his willingness to take on the established order.

La Follette earned a law degree, served as Dane County district attorney and was elected to three terms in the U.S. House as a Republican before losing to a Democrat in 1890. Elected governor in 1900, he enacted a progressive agenda in cooperation with the state university system, sometimes referred to as the Wisconsin Idea, that ran counter to the interests of the Republican “Stalwarts.” His message about the danger of “vast corporate combinations” got him national attention. In 1906 he was appointed by the state Senate to the U.S. Senate (senators weren’t directly elected until 1914).

La Follette began to be recognized as head of the national party’s progressive wing and in 1909 he started La Follette’s Weekly, still being published in Madison (as of this writing in 2019) as The Progressive. He strongly opposed U.S. entry into World War I, a position which lost him allies in academia. In some quarters he was reviled as “the most-hated man in America” for his positions on peace and civil rights.

Reelected to the Senate in 1922, he ran for president on the Progressive Party ticket in 1924 and got almost 5 million votes in a race won by Calvin Coolidge. “America is not made, it is in the making,” La Follette once said. “Mere passive citizenship is not enough. Men must be aggressive for what is right if government is to be saved from those who are aggressive for what is wrong.” He died of cardiovascular disease complicated by pneumona and bronchitis four days after his 70th birthday in Washington, D.C. (D. 1925)

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