La Follette: The Promise Unfulfilled


La Follette was elected to Congress in 1884, after another battle with the Republican machine. In Washington he was a model legislator, attending sessions faithfully, caring for the needs of his constituents, and diligently seeking to master the complications of public issues upon which he felt himself inadequately informed. When he was placed on the unimportant Committee on Indian Affairs, for example, he swallowed his disappointment, bought a small library of secondhand books on Indians, and soon became an expert on the subject. One is reminded of the youthful Bryan (for a time his colleague in the House) laboring to master tariff and monetary problems.

Although by no means a radical at this period, La Follette made a name lor himself as an uncompromising foe of “pork-barrel” legislation and of business interests like lumber companies and railroads seeking fat land grants and other special favors from Congress. But after three terms he was defeated in the Democratic tidal wave of 1890 and forced to resume his law practice back home.

He then began a ten-year struggle to gain control of the Wisconsin Republican party. He spoke everywhere in the state and wrote countless letters—1,200 in a single campaign on behalf of his friend Nils P. Haugen. He conducted a “county fair crusade” to win the support of the rural people. Frustrated by the bosses in his efforts to win the gubernatorial nomination, he made the direct primary one of his chief demands, attracting national attention with a brilliant oration on “The Menace of the Political Machine,” at the University of Chicago in 1897. Finally, in 1900, he could no longer be denied. He won the nomination for governor and was easily elected.

Still, for a time, the bosses managed to frustrate his program of reform. A primary bill was smothered in the state senate, and a scheme of his 10 increase railroad taxes failed in the lower house. Re-elected in 1902, La Follette was able to force through the primary hill (subject to popular ratification at the next election) and to obtain sonic revision of the railroad tax structure. His broad plan for a powerful railroad commission was defeated, however, despite a tremendous 181-page special message by the Governor explaining why the commission was needed. In 1904, sensing ihat their day would soon be over if La Follette were not stopped, the conservatives made a supreme effort to defeat his bid for a third term. It was at this critical point that Steffens came to Wisconsin.

Steffens was a cynic. Long experience had led him to believe that all politicians were interested primarily in power and position. “Reform” was the cry of the demagogue; Steffens personally preferred the forthright scoundrel to the hypocrite posing as a friend of “good government.” But his conversations with La Follette convinced him of the Governor’s honesty and good intentions. His story, published in the October McClure’s , no doubt contributed to La Follette’s re-election the following month, a victory that enabled the Governor eventually to carry out his entire program. But Steffens’ help was really of minor importance: by 1904, years of struggle had made “Fighting Bob” a master politician and a brilliant public leader in his own right.

Under La Follette Wisconsin became, in the words of Russel B. Nye, “the proving ground” of twentieth-century Progressivism. “The Wisconsin Idea” became famous. Actually the “Idea” was more a practical program than a theory, but whether as theory or as example, it had a remarkable impact on other slates and in time on the federal government. It made the political machinery more directly responsive to the popular will. Besides the direct primary law, Wisconsin by 1914 had a corrupt practices act and laws restricting lobbying and excessive campaign expenditures. Furthermore, much was done in the way of social legislation: purefood, child-labor, and workingmen’s-compensation laws were passed, and the educational system was greatly improved. New regulatory commissions were set up to protect the public against economic exploitation by “the interests.” Finally, the tax structure was overhauled, and the burden of paying for these reforms distributed more equitably. A tax commission, headed by the able Nils Haugen, was established, and slate income anil inheritance taxes were added to the heavier levies on corporations. Small wonder that the party bosses—and even many unbossed conservative Republicans—did not go along quietly.

Not all of these programs originated in Wisconsin; indeed, some of the basic Progressive ideas, such as the initiative and referendum, were not enacted there. What really made “the Wisconsin Idea” so influential was the comprehensiveness and practicality of the program and the effective way it was administered. For this La Follette deserves most of the credit, even though much of what was done came after he left the governorship for service in the U.S. Senate.

It was in this great forum that Robert Marion La Follette was to make his mark upon America; there he would serve, through one of the country’s most exciting periods, until his death. To understand this later career, in prospect so promising, in the end a promise unfulfilled, it is necessary to examine the formidable strengths—and important weaknesses—he brought with him on his return to Washington.