La Follette: The Promise Unfulfilled

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These, then, were the strengths and weaknesses, the great-hearted instincts and the narrowing limitations, which Senator La Follette brought with him to Washington. At home, where a solid majority shared his prejudices, he had been able to bend the Republican organization to his will. In the United States Senate conditions were very different, and he was less successful—but no less determined. In 1906, when he took his seat, the sands of the national arena were comparatively smooth. Theodore Roosevelt, midway in his second term, had instituted changes the significance of which people were only beginning to understand. By reviving the Sherman Antitrust Act and by moving toward stricter regulation of railroads, the protection of natural resources, a pure-food-and-drug act, and other reforms, Roosevelt had encouraged Republican liberals. At the same time he had roused conservatives to the defense of the old order typified by McKinley and Mark Hanna. Soon controversial questions like the protective tariff and the control of monopoly were to divide the liberals themselves into warring factions. Both La Follette and George Perkins, for example, considered themselves Republicans and Progressives, yet La Follette was for breaking up the trusts and lowering the tariff, while Perkins—who would be one of T. R.’s major backers in the Bull Moose revolt of 1912—wanted to keep the tariff high and regulate, rather than dismember, the trusts.

In this explosive situation, La Follette was determined (as always) to remain a Republican. But he was also (again as always) unwilling to grant quarter to fellow Republicans whose views he disliked. He would no more deal with Senator Nelson Aldrich and other G.O.P. conservatives in Washington than with Boss Keyes or Philetus Sawyer back in Wisconsin. As a result, no man had more to do with the disruption of the party than he.

In the Senate he was a maverick from the start. Tradition dictated that new senators should not take part in debates during their first year. La Follette refused to conform; on April 19, 1906, a month after taking his seat, he rose to speak on an important railroad bill. Many senators indignantly left the floor. La Follette took no notice until he had finished the first part of his speech. Then he turned coolly to the presiding officer and said: I cannot be wholly indifferent to the fact that Senators by their absence at this time indicate their want of interest in what I have to say upon this subject. The public is interested. Unless this important question is rightly settled seats now temporarily vacant may be permanently vacated by those who have the right to occupy them at this time.

It was no idle threat. As soon as Congress adjourned, La Follette took to the stump. In state after state he described how his bills had been sidetracked in the Senate. Everywhere he “read the roll calls” to show how local senators had voted on these proposals.

Actions like these were hardly calculated to endear the freshman to the Senate as a whole. Nevertheless, by 1909 La Follette was the leader of a small group of liberal senators who were beginning to call themselves Progressives. He also organized a magazine, La Follette’s Weekly , in which he regularly flayed the conservatives of both parties. In the Senate he led the fight against the Republican-sponsored Payne-Aldrich tariff, and broke with Taft when the President supported it. He even accused Taft of trying to ruin him politically. He organized a National Progressive Republican League—the accent fell on the word “Progressive”—which endorsed a comprehensive reform program, including national primaries and the direct election of senators.

No one can doubt La Follette’s sincerity as a reformer, but at least part of his militancy was the result of ambition. He wanted to be President and had set his sights on 1912. Taft stood in his way, and to win the Republican nomination (a third-party nomination would have had little practical value) La Follette had to make a final break with him. But the ideological split thus fostered affected others as well as himself. Theodore Roosevelt, the most distinctive political personality of the era, was also a Progressive. No liberal movement in the Republican party could succeed without his support. Yet what would his place in such a movement be?

La Follette considered Roosevelt a lukewarm reformer at best. In 1907 he had written: “[Roosevelt] will always say a lot of good things and half do a good many things—But it all ends rather disappointingly.” He later wrote that T. R. disliked “the plodding investigation necessary to a solution of great economic questions,” although he confessed that the former President was superb at “arousing the public conscience.” When Roosevelt refused to join La Follette’s League, the Senator was probably more pleased than disappointed. In any case, the League proceeded to make its main business the nomination of La Follette for the Presidency.

In the battle between Taft and La Follette, Roosevelt hoped to remain neutral. He saw little chance for either to win the election, and hoped to reassert command of the party after the expected defeat. But events soon threw him into the anti-Taft camp.