Eastland Memorial Society


Robert M. La Follette (1855-1925)
Robert Marion La Follette was born June 14, 1855 in Primrose, Dane County, Wisconsin. As a boy growing up in moderately prosperous rural areas, as a student at the University of Wisconsin (1875-79), as a county district attorney (1880-84) and congressman from southwestern Wisconsin, La Follette developed the personality and style that made him a popular leader. He combined an unusually outgoing personality, which made it natural for him to absorb the ideas and prejudices of his constituents, with an extraordinary flair for zealous oratory. As an eloquent spokesman for popular causes, La Follette exalted his constituents' wishes--even when those wishes ran counter to the desires of party leaders. His principal concerns in his three terms as congressman were economical government and protection for his district's farmers. He married his college sweetheart, Belle Case, on Dec. 31, 1881, after his first year as district attorney.
He was elected U.S. congressman for Wisconsin in 1884, serving three terms (1885-1891). After being defeated for reelection to Congress in the Democratic landslide of 1890, La Follette returned to Madison to practice law and develop the political organization that within 10 years would elect him governor and allow him to dominate Wisconsin politics until his death.

Governor of Wisconsin
His reputation as an enemy of political bosses began in 1891 when he announced that the state Republican boss, Sen. Philetus Sawyer, had offered him a bribe. For the next six years La Follette built a competing Republican faction on the support of other party members (Scandinavians, dairy farmers, young men, disgruntled politicians) with grievances against the dominant "stalwart" faction. His oratorical talents, combined with his natural charm, organizational skill, and driving ambition to become governor, made him the leader of his new group of Republicans.

In 1897 La Follette began to advocate programs that local-level progressives had popularized during the legislative session a few months earlier. Following their lead, he demanded tax reform, corporation regulation, and political democracy. In particular, he promoted steeper railroad taxes and a direct primary. Elected governor on this platform in 1900, he was reelected in 1902 and 1904. As Wisconsin's governor La Follette developed new political techniques, which he later took to the U.S. Senate. The first, which received national attention as the "Wisconsin Idea," was the use of professors from the University of Wisconsin--57 at one point--to draft bills and administer the state regulatory apparatus created by the new laws. The second innovation was his public reading of the "roll call" in districts in which legislators had opposed his reform proposals. With these new methods he secured the passage of several progressive laws. Believing that the railroads were the principal subverters of the political process, he persuaded the legislature to tax them on the basis of their property (1903) and to regulate them by commission (1905). The legislature enacted the direct primary in 1903 and state civil-service reform in 1905. His appointees to the Tax Commission, given new power by the legislature, equalized tax assessments. Wisconsin's leadership in these areas gave La Follette his reputation as a pioneering progressive.

La Follette's progressive cause was promoted with the help of Lincoln Steffens, who was a noted correspondent of McClure's Magazine, known for articles exposing corrupt political practices with academic impartiality during the early twentieth century. It was Steffens' review of the controversy surrounding the 1904 Republican convention that was a veritable bomb in the camp of the Stalwarts, and helped La Follette's election in 1906.

U.S. Senator
Resigning as governor in 1906, he was elected to the Senate at a time when that institution was widely believed to be a refuge for millionaires. La Follette acquired instant fame as a new type of senator, one who was not controlled by "the interests," and in his first three years there La Follette achieved the passage of laws aimed against the freight rates, labour policies, and financing practices of the railroads.

These laws reflected an emerging ideology that dominated La Follette's Senate activities thereafter. Politics, he believed, was a never-ending struggle between "the people," all men and women in their common roles as consumers and taxpayers, and the "selfish interests" for control of government; law-given privileges allowed "selfish interests" to dominate all facets of American life. He supported labour legislation because unions were battling the same enemies that menaced consumers and because consumers benefited directly from improvements in working conditions. Beginning in 1908, with elaborate documentation during debate on the Aldrich-Vreeland Currency Act, La Follette argued that the nation's entire economy was dominated by fewer than 100 men who were, in turn, controlled by the J.P. Morgan and Standard Oil investment banking groups. Thereafter, he shifted his concern from the power of railroads to the power of their "owners," namely the large banks.

In 1909 La Follette founded La Follette's Weekly, later a monthly, and much later called The Progressive. The high point of his national popularity came in 1909-11 when he emerged as the leader of newly elected and newly converted progressives in Congress. Having led Republican opposition to the tariff, conservation, and railroad policies of President William Howard Taft, La Follette was widely promoted for the presidency in 1912. Most progressives backed La Follette because their first choice, Theodore Roosevelt, had refused to run; later, when Roosevelt entered the race early in 1912, they deserted La Follette. The bitterness of La Follette's attacks on Roosevelt cost him his reputation as a leader and left him an independent figure in the Senate. Although he had backed Woodrow Wilson in 1912 for the presidency, he was disgusted that the new president ignored the ideas of progressive Republicans and shaped most legislation in the Democratic caucus. While applauding the social justice laws, he believed that most of Wilson's regulatory acts--particularly the Federal Reserve Board--constituted government sponsorship of big business.

Despite an impressive showing in 1912, the Bull Moose party failed to establish itself as a viable third party. Still active on the state level, Progressives did not put forward a presidential candidate again until La Follette's run in 1924.

The La Follette Seaman's Act of 1915
There were several progressive changes that President Wilson did support, including the La Follette Seamans Act of 1915. This legislation was designed to regulate safety, living conditions and food standards onboard, as well as reducing the power of captains, clarifying the legal status of seamen and providing regular payments for officers and crew. This would be applicable to all merchant vessels of the United States of over 100 gross tons (GT), with the exception of river vessels. The Seaman's Act gained popular support from the 'Boats for All' movement in the wake of the sinking of the Titanic and the Senate investigation that followed. The contents and intent of the Seaman's Act was crafted by the International Seafarer's Union president, Andrew Furuseth.

Andrew Furuseth, Robert M. La Follette and Lincoln Steffens, c. 1915The International Seamen's Union (ISU), was founded in 1892 as a federation of seamen's unions on the four coasts of the United States, including the Great Lakes. Andrew Furuseth was elected president of the ISU in 1908 and from that time on was the respected voice of all American seamen, not only in the halls of Congress but in the press and to the hundreds of groups to whom he spoke on behalf of the "sailor's cause." Over the years, several pieces of legislation were passed by Congress on behalf of seamen, but it was the Seamen's Bill of 1915 that crowned all such efforts for the sailor and has rightly been called "the Magna Carta of the American seaman." The bill was sponsored for Furuseth and the ISU by Sen. Robert M. LaFollette of Wisconsin and was actively supported by Secretary of Labor William B. Wilson and a number of other congressmen. Furuseth labored for it passionately and untiringly day and night. During the hearings, the Detriot & Cleveland Navigation Company's president, A.A. Schantz, testified that the addition of more life-saving equipment to the shallow draft Great Lakes vessels would create dangerous, top-heavy conditions and unnecessary passenger risk. But still, after a two-year battle in Congress, the bill was signed by President Wilson on March 4, 1915.

La Follette introduced and carried through the bill against bitter odds, believing that this, one of his most famous achievements, would increase the safety of passengers while also improving the working conditions for sailors once the law went into effect in November 1915. The St. Joseph & Chicago Steamship Company, owners of the Eastland, decided to outfit their ship with six additional life rafts and 3 additional lifeboats in June 1915 while the ship was in for other repairs. Since the law was not yet in effect, the Eastland was granted a license to carry 2,500 passengers, even though the Seaman's Act would have restricted the Eastland to about 1,200 passengers. The Eastland disaster on July 24, 1915 caused the death of 844 due to capsizing, and stressed the importance of a competent, technically skilled Steamship Inspection Service. But the fate of the American shipping industry was already sealed.

By the early 1920s, the shipping market was in a very poor state. Surplus tonnage, and low freight rates were driving some American companies out of business and leaving American flagged ships to be sold at very low prices just to repay some of the debts against them. It was argued that under such circumstances, the American laws covering quality and supply of ships (Jones Act of 1920) and conditions of employment of seafarers (La Follette Seaman's Act of 1915) put the US fleet at a 'competitive disadvantage' and owners began looking at ways of reducing their costs. Many re-registered their fleets under the Panamanian flag. With the number of licensed passengers limited by the number of life-saving devices, Great Lakes steamship companies saw a dramatic drop in the number of passengers. Ships could not support their operating costs, while the automobile became an attractive alternative to the general public. It was the end of an era.

The International Seaman's Union history was continually plagued by internal strife, a perennially weak financial situation, and the not-always-successful effort to speak for its various autonomous parts, which could not always agree on common objectives. The Seaman's Act of 1915 was the pinnacle of the ISU's achievements. During the strike-ridden years of the Great Depression and the worldwide economic slump of the 1930s, the ISU no longer functioned with unity. Many members broke off from the ISU and founded the Seafarers International Union, which stills exists today.

His Anti-War Stand
Foreign affairs catapulted La Follette back into a leadership position in 1917, this time of the anti-war movement. Since 1910 he had argued that U.S. interventions in the problems of foreign governments were intended to protect the investments of U.S. corporations and to smash revolutions. Now he believed that the United States entered World War I in 1917 because U.S. businessmen needed protection for their investments and because Wilson had become isolated from public opinion. Confident that the majority opposed U.S. involvement, La Follette led the campaign for a popular referendum on war in 1916-17. He led the 1917 Senate filibuster against arming U.S. merchant ships and voted against the war declaration. Once war was declared, he opposed the draft, defended the civil liberties of the war's opponents, and insisted that wealthy individuals and corporations pay the costs of a war that mainly benefited them. Pro-war groups demanded his expulsion from the Senate for treason, but a Senate investigating committee exonerated him. As a martyr to the war hysteria, La Follette once again became a popular hero to millions of Americans.

Believing that the war had given large corporations nearly complete control over the federal government, La Follette concentrated on exposing the most flagrant corruption of the postwar years. His most significant contribution was his major role in publicizing the oil scandals of President Warren Harding's administration.

Presidential Election of 1924
As labour and farm groups despaired of the conservatism of Democrats and Republicans alike in the 1920s, La Follette was frequently mentioned as a presidential candidate for a third party. Declining the pleas of the Farmer-Labor convention that he run in 1920, La Follette accepted the Progressive Party's nomination in 1924. His 1924 candidacy was supported by several farm groups, by organized labour (particularly the railroad brotherhoods, La Follette's oldest friends in the labour movement), by many old progressives, by the Socialist Party, and by the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain. In the end La Follette carried only the state of Wisconsin, although he placed second in 11 states and polled about 5,000,000 votes, or one-sixth of the national total. He died in office on June 18th, 1925 in Washington D.C., and is interred in Forest Hill Cemetery in Madison, Wisconsin.

Senate's 'Famous Five'

In 1955 the Senate decided to honor five of its most significant former members by commissioning their portraits for permanent display in the Reception Room outside the Senate chamber. To select these notable members, the Senate established a committee consisting of four senior senators and one freshman. Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson appointed the freshman, John F. Kennedy, to be the committee's chairman even though Kennedy had served in the Senate only two years. Kennedy seemed to be an ideal choice because his popular book, Profiles in Courage, which would soon win a Pulitzer Prize, skillfully examined the careers of eight former outstanding senators.

The Kennedy committee spent nearly two years surveying the nation's leading historians and political scientists and easily selected the famous nineteenth-century "great triumvirate" of Henry Clay (KY), Daniel Webster (MA), and John C. Calhoun (SC). The committee had far greater trouble choosing the final two. The historians they polled favored George Norris, a Nebraska Republican, but he was still far too controversial to satisfy everyone on the committee. After much deliberation, the committee agreed to Robert La Follette Sr. (WI) and Robert Taft (OH), both Republicans.

La Follette's Statue in Statuary Hall
Statuary Hall
Sculptor: Jo Davidson, 1928

Further Reading
Biographies and analyses of La Follette and the Progressive movement include:

Belle Case La Follette and Fola La Follette, Robert M. La Follette, June 14, 1855-June 18, 1925, 2 vol. (New York: Macmillan, 1953, re-issued 1971).
David P. Thelen, The Early Life of Robert M. La Follette, 1855-1884 (1966).
David P. Thelen, Robert M. La Follette and the Insurgent Spirit (Boston: Little, Brown, 1976, reissued 1985).
Robert S. Maxwell, La Follette and the Rise of the Progressives in Wisconsin (1956, reprinted 1973).
Fred Greenbaum, Robert Marion La Follette (1975).
Patrick J. Maney, "Young Bob" La Follette (1978).
Weisberger, Bernard A. The La Follettes of Wisconsin: Love and Politics in Progressive America. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994).

*Copy owned by the State Historical Society of Wisconsin Visual Archives: Album 25.74.

Site Map