La Follette, Robert Marion

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

La Follette, Robert Marion

Robert Marion La Follette (ləfŏl´Ĭt), 1855–1925, American political leader, U.S. Senator from Wisconsin (1906–25), b. Primrose, Wis.

Early Career

Admitted (1880) to the Wisconsin bar, he practiced in Madison, Wis., and was district attorney (1880–84) of Dane co. As U.S. Representative (1885–91), he generally followed the traditionally conservative policies of the Republican party. After a political conflict that led to his break with the state Republican leaders, La Follette began to formulate a detailed reform program and, appealing directly to the people, to build a broad constituency. He unsuccessfully sought the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 1896 and 1898 and finally won it in 1900. As governor of Wisconsin (1901–6) he secured a direct primary law, tax reform legislation, railroad rate control, and other measures that became collectively known as the Wisconsin Idea.

U.S. Senator

In 1906 La Follette entered the U.S. Senate and served until his death. At odds with the conservative leadership of President Taft, La Follette helped found (1911) the National Progressive Republican League; its aim was to wrest the Republican presidential nomination from Taft in 1912 and secure it for La Follette. When Theodore Roosevelt announced his candidacy for the nomination, however, many of La Follette's supporters switched to Roosevelt, who eventually ran on the Progressive party ticket.

In the Senate, La Follette generally supported the reform measures of President Wilson's administration, championing federal railroad regulation, sponsoring (1915) the act that elevated and regulated conditions of maritime employment, and advocating (1913) passage of the Seventeenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. He broke with the Wilson administration, however, when he resisted the increasing tendency to side with the Allies; he led the resistance to arming merchant ships and voted against the U.S. declaration of war. He afterward supported war legislation, but made every effort to place the financial burden on the rich. From 1919 to 1925 he was one of the most powerful men in the Senate. He opposed the League of Nations and the Permanent Court of International Justice (the World Court) and fought the U.S. postwar deflation policy. In 1924 he ran for President on the Progressive ticket and polled 5 million votes. The strain of the campaign sapped his strength, and he died the following summer.

Other Family Members

Robert La Follete's wife, Belle Case La Follette, 1859–1931, b. Juneau co., Wis., obtained a law degree, worked for woman suffrage, engaged in journalism, and ably advised her husband throughout his life. Their older son, Robert Marion La Follette, Jr., 1895–1953, b. Madison, Wis., assisted (1919–25) his father as secretary, then succeeded him in the U.S. Senate and served there until 1947, when he was defeated in the Wisconsin primaries. "Young Bob," as he was known, also championed tax reform and backed New Deal legislation until the passage of the 1938 naval expansion bill. Another son, Philip Fox La Follette, 1897–1965, b. Madison, Wis., served (1931–33, 1935–39) as governor of Wisconsin.

Bibliography

See the elder Robert La Follette's autobiography (1913, new ed. 1960); E. N. Doan, The La Follettes and the Wisconsin Idea (1947); R. S. Maxwell, La Follette and the Rise of the Progressives in Wisconsin (1956) and, ed., La Follette (1969); D. Young, ed., Adventures in Politics: The Memoirs of Philip La Follette (1970); N. C. Unger, Fighting Bob La Follette: The Righteous Reformer (2000).

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