Robert Marion La Follette was born in Primrose, Wisconsin, the son of a prominent farmer and political activist. La Follette graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1879 and received a law degree the following year. He served as district attorney for Dane County, Wisconsin for four years before being elected to Congress in 1884. During his three terms in the House of Representatives, La Follette was generally counted as a dependable Republican. He played an important role in drafting the McKinley Tariff in 1890, but that measure was unpopular with his constituency and he lost his bid for a fourth term.
La Follette set up a law practice in Madison and began broadening his political contacts. He emerged during the early 1890s as the focal point of reform Republicanism in Wisconsin. He ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1896 and 1898, but in 1900 was elected to the first of three terms. As governor, La Follette battled an entrenched Republican establishment and gradually managed to establish an outstanding reform record. Progressive legislation included measures to increase control over the railroads, modifications to the tax system, limitations on lobbying activities and the institution of conservation programs. He also prevailed upon the legislature to enact state civil service reform and direct primaries. La Follette advanced what came to be known as the â€śWisconsin Idea,â€� calling upon university professors and other outside experts to help tailor reform legislation and staff the resulting regulatory agencies. In this way he hoped to free state government from the influence of self-serving politicians and special interest groups.
In 1906, La Follette resigned the governorship to accept a Senate seat, where he would remain for the remainder of his life. From the beginning, he presented a stark contrast to the establishment types who represented the other states. His basic aim was to protect the common man from the special interests. In that vein, he attempted to strengthen national railroad regulation law, befriend organized labor and fight against the Payne-Aldrich Tariff. He gained great national exposure for filibustering against the Aldrich-Vreeland bill, arguing that changes in national banking policies would only benefit the bankers.
In 1911, La Follette was the acknowledged Congressional leader of the progressive wing of the Republican Party and his presidential aspirations were apparent. He was confident that he could mount a formidable challenge against William Howard Taft in 1912. However, Theodore Roosevelt, who had earlier rejected the notion of reentering the political area, changed his mind. Groups and individuals who had been supporting La Follette left in droves for the Rough Riderâ€™s camp. La Folletteâ€™s bitter condemnation of Roosevelt angered many progressives and forced the senator into an independent role.
La Follette supported Woodrow Wilson in 1912 and backed some of his early legislative proposals, but later became disenchanted with the president. La Follette nevertheless achieved some legislative success, working on behalf of ratification of the 17th Amendment and gaining passage of the Seamenâ€™s Act of 1915.
La Follette had expressed isolationist views well before the outbreak of World War I. He reasoned that international conflicts almost always stemmed from efforts to extend or protect overseas business interests, and that the common man was forced to offer his blood and treasure to accomplish the aims of the wealthy. The issue of isolationism brought La Follette back into the center of national attention. While American participation was being debated, he pushed for a national referendum and when the Congressional vote came, La Follette voted against the declaration of war.
La Follette was widely denounced for his vote. Eventually, he made a speech to the Senate in which he discussed his views on dissent in time of war:
Six Members of the Senate and 50 Members of the House voted against the declaration of war. Immediately there was let loose upon those Senators and Representatives a flood of invective and abuse from newspapers and individuals who had been clamoring for war, unequaled, I believe, in the history of civilized society.
Prior to the declaration of war every man who had ventured to oppose our entrance into it had been condemned as a coward or worse, and even the President had by no means been immune from these attacks.
Since the declaration of war the triumphant war press has pursued those Senators and Representations who voted against war with malicious falsehood and recklessly libelous attacks, going to the extreme limit of charging them with treason against their country.
This campaign of libel and character assassination directed against the Members of Congress who opposed our entrance into the war has been continued down to the present hour, and I have upon my desk newspaper clippings, some of them libels upon me alone, some directed as well against other Senators who voted in opposition to the declaration of war.
He later opposed the draft and floated schemes for heavily taxing large businesses to cover the cost of the conflict. His political opponents thought he should be charged with treason. At the conclusion of the war, La Follette opposed the League of Nations and the Permanent Court of International Justice.
Much of his postwar life was spent pursuing the links between large corporations and American foreign policy. He was the driving force behind the discovery of the Harding oil scandal and campaigned for public ownership of the railroads and utilities.
In 1924 La Follette received the presidential nomination of the Progressive Party and garnered support from many farm and labor organizations. Despite polling nearly five million votes, he was handily beaten by both major candidates. The rigors of the campaign trail took a heavy toll on La Folletteâ€™s health and he died in June 1925.