Robert “Fighting Bob” Marion La Follette was probably the leading progressive politician of the Progressive Era. After serving in the U.S. House of Representatives for six years and as governor of Wisconsin for five years, he was elected to the U.S. Senate from January 2, 1906 until his death in June 1925. During that time, he vied for the Republican Presidential nomination four times and ran for President as the candidate of the Progressive Party in 1924. He never came close to victory.
La Follette grew up in a relatively comfortable and prosperous environment. His father died when La Follette was an infant, leaving his mother a widow for the second time. She married again to a seventy year old man, John Saxton, who moved the family from their farm to his store. A deeply religious man, Saxton raised La Follette and his brother and sisters in a strict religious environment. La Follette was turned away from religion by his stepfather when Saxton told La Follette that his father had gone to hell when he died because he was not a religious person.
Education was not considered as important as religion, and the local schools did not prepare La Follette well for advanced education. After remedial education at a local academy, La Follette enter the University of Wisconsin at the age of twenty, and graduated five years later. It was at the University of Wisconsin that La Follette’s political character was formed. One important factor was a speech by Wisconsin Chief Justice Edward G. Ryan that called the “accumulation of wealth the handmaiden of disaster” for all civilizations. La Follette had a life-long distrust and contempt of capitalists throughout his career.
La Follette did not have the money for a college education, and solved the problem by purchasing a newspaper, the University Press, with borrowed money. He soon made the paper, and himself, financially successful. He also made a name for himself in debating circles with his stirring oratory. In May 1879, he won the Interstate Oratorical Contest in Iowa City. This was a highly publicized and closely followed competition, and his victory gained him considerable attention.
In 1880, La Follette passed his bar exam and set up a private law practice in the state capital. That June, he ran for district attorney. Although not supported by the Republican Party bosses, he nevertheless won the nomination after a vigorous campaign. He won the general election after another energetic campaign. He soon gained a reputation as an able advocate in the courtroom, and was the only Republican in his county to win in the next election, (with the slim margin of ninety-three votes).
In 1894, again without the support of the party bosses, La Follette ran for the Congress. He won, but again by a slim margin, (491 votes). He was re-elected to the House of Representatives in 1886 and 1888. In the House, La Follette served on the powerful Ways and Means Committee and was chairman of the Committee on Expenditures in the Department of Agriculture. His greatest accomplishment was his work on the McKinley Tariff of 1890, which raised protective tariff rates to all-time high levels. The result of this tariff was high inflation that hurt economy, especially the workers and common men La Follette worked so hard to protect. In 1890, La Follette was one of the many Republicans defeated for re-election as a result. He returned to his law practice, but stayed active in local politics.
In the fall of 1891, La Follette accused the powerful Senator Philetus Sawyer of trying to bribe him. Sawyer was involved in case before a judge who happened to be La Follette’s brother-in-law, and La Follette declared that Sawyer had offered him a bribe to influence the case. Sawyer claimed the money was a retainer for legal services and nothing more. La Follette’s brother-in-law removed himself from the case, and the matter died down. But the matter did not endear La Follette to party leaders.
La Follette got back into the party’s good graces by working in the 1892 campaign as a circuit speaker on behalf of Republican candidates. In 1894, he worked for the nomination of a reformer for governor, but the party leaders defeated this effort. La Follette tried to gain the gubernatorial nomination for himself in 1896 and 1898, but lost both times.
La Follette and his reform-minded progressive Republicans worked for direct primaries to select candidates, a graduated tax with the wealthy paying a larger share, and regulation of large corporations, especially railroads. In 1900, La Follette ran for the nomination again and won. La Follette faced a surprisingly weak Democratic opponent in the general election and won the governorship. As governor, La Follette put into action his “Wisconsin Idea” which included primaries and higher taxes for the wealthy. He was re-elected twice, each time with large majorities.
Half-way through his third term, with his progressives solidly in control of the state, La Follette felt it safe to move on and had himself elected by the legislature to the U.S. Senate. (Senators were elected by the legislatures until the 17th Amendment to the Constitution gave that power directly to the voters.) La Follette took his seat in the U.S. Senate in January 1906, and never left it.
While serving in the House, La Follette had been a mainstream Republican, if a member of the liberal wing. In the Senate, he was an independent progressive who fought with Republicans as much as Democrats. He continued his fight for control of railroad rates and for a graduated income tax. He also fought to protect the Indians and their lands. He quickly became a leader of the progressive movement nationally.
With all the national attention he was receiving, it was not hard for La Follette to put together a campaign for the White House. He was a contender for the Republican nomination in 1908, 1912, 1916 and 1920. His best chance came in 1912. To help prepare for the campaign for the nomination, La Follette even started his own newspaper, the La Follette Weekly. In it, he wrote articles about progressive politics and politicians, but mainly the paper supported his presidential campaign.