Fighting Bob La Follette: The Righteous Reformer

Fighting Bob La Follette: The Righteous Reformer

Fighting Bob La Follette: The Righteous Reformer

Fighting Bob La Follette: The Righteous Reformer


Robert "Fighting Bob" La Follette (1855-1925) was one of the most significant leaders of American progressivism. Nancy Unger integrates previously unknown details from La Follette's personal life with important events from his storied political career, revealing a complex man who was a compelling mixture of failure and accomplishment, tragedy and triumph.

Serving as U. S. representative from 1885 to 1891, governor of Wisconsin from 1901 to 1906, and senator from Wisconsin from 1906 to his death in 1925, La Follette earned the nickname "Fighting Bob" through his uncompromising efforts to reform both politics and society, especially by championing the rights of the poor, workers, women, and minorities.

Based on La Follette family letters, diaries, and other papers, this biography covers the personal events that shaped the public man. In particular, Unger explores La Follette's relationship with his remarkable wife, feminist Belle Case La Follette, and with his sons, both of whom succeeded him in politics. The La Follette who emerges from this retelling is an imperfect yet appealing man who deserves to be remembered as one of the United States' most devoted and effective politicians.


Which has had the stronger hold upon the state and national legislation during the last twenty years,” Governor Robert Marion La Follette asked the Wisconsin legislature in 1904, “the corporations or the people?” As congressman, governor, and senator, La Follette dedicated his life to returning power to the people. His efforts to establish his famed Wisconsin Idea nationwide brought about a truer democracy. Upon La Follette's death in 1925, U.S. representative James Sinclair (R-North Dakota) noted that “for half a century the fight has waged between the forces of special privilege and corrupt wealth on the one hand and the masses of the people on the other.” Against the corrupt forces, he added, “Robert Marion La Follette waged unrelenting war.” Counted among the victories in that war to which La Follette contributed are the direct election of senators; public disclosure of campaign contributions and expenditures; initiatives and referendums; and more equitable taxation. He worked to limit the power and wealth of big business and served American consumers by helping to create the Department of Labor, the Tariff Commission, and the Federal Trade Commission and by aiding in the enlargement of the powers of the Interstate Commerce Commission. He helped to legislate physical valuation of railroad property; rate classification; exemption of labor organizations from antitrust laws; regulation of telephone and telegraph rates and services; higher wages, lower hours, and better conditions for American laborers, most notably seamen and railroad workers; women's suffrage; the building and operation of the Alaskan railroad; and the investigation that revealed the Teapot Dome scandal. He also labored for civil rights of the racially and economically oppressed. Due to the intensity of his efforts, noted an astute observer, “he well deserved the affectionately bestowed, though not always affectionately used, title of 'Fighting Bob.' “^

In 1915, a political reporter compared La Follette with the “long despised agitators” who “hewed through a hardened public conscience” the trail for Abraham Lincoln's ascendancy: “Without the agitators we might never have had a Lincoln; and it is for men like La Follette to prepare the ground on which less fiery though not less patriotic followers can put the social order of the future upon a firm foundation.” Upon La Follette's death, Senator William E. Borah (R-Idaho) noted, “agitation has its place and an indispensable place in the life of free government, and if a man is devoted to his country, as I believe La Follette always to have been, his service is often the . . .

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