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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
La Follette Seaman's Act of 1915
were several progressive changes that President Wilson did support,
including the La Follette Seaman’s 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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Election of 1924
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.
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.
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),
Sculptor: Jo Davidson, 1928
and analyses of La Follette and the Progressive movement include:
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).
P. Thelen, The Early Life of Robert M. La Follette, 1855-1884
P. Thelen, Robert M. La Follette and the Insurgent
Spirit (Boston: Little, Brown, 1976, reissued 1985).
S. Maxwell, La Follette and the Rise of the Progressives
in Wisconsin (1956, reprinted 1973).
Greenbaum, Robert Marion La Follette (1975).
J. Maney, "Young Bob" La Follette (1978).
Bernard A. The La Follettes of Wisconsin: Love and Politics
in Progressive America. (Madison: University of Wisconsin
owned by the State Historical Society of Wisconsin Visual Archives:
Sources: ENCYCLOPÆDIA BRITANNICA. Seaman's Act information: EASTLAND