La Follette: The Promise Unfulfilled


As soon as Roosevelt swung over to the Progressives, many of La Follette’s most enthusiastic supporters prepared to switch their allegiance to the attractive exPresident, for he seemed far more popular in the nation at large. Fear of being abandoned had much to do with La Follette’s unfortunate performance in a speech before a group of magazine publishers on February 2, 1912. Tired, ill, worried, and frustrated, he lost control of himself and delivered an intemperate, confused, and repetitious harangue that caused even friendly observers to question his mental and emotional stability. Although a short rest completely restored him, many of his former backers seized the opportunity to flock to Roosevelt.

La Follette reacted characteristically: he refused to quit the race. After the Republicans had nominated Taft, and Roosevelt had organized what La Follette called the “Roosevelt-Perkins-Steel-Trust-Party,” he would support neither group. Nor would he come out for the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson, at least not officially. He gave Wilson indirect aid in the columns of La Follette’s Weekly but himself cast a blank ballot in November.

During the Wilson administration La Follette was still nominally a Republican, but he pursued no fixed course. He was the only member of his party to vote for the new low Democratic tariff, and later he supported the administration’s Railway Labor Act. But the Federal Reserve Act, which he might have been expected to embrace, he opposed on the ground that it gave bankers too much control over the currency. His greatest contribution in this period was the La Follette Seamen’s Act—designed to protect the rights of merchant sailors and increase the safety of passengers at sea—which he pushed through Congress after a long fight in 1915.

He broke with Wilson over the question of American entry into the First World War. Europe’s troubles were none of our own, he said; the war was the work of international bankers and profiteers. Thereafter, terrible abuse was his lot; even the faculty of his beloved alma mater turned almost unanimously against him, and an effort was made to expel him from the Senate.

But La Follette would not change his course. He opposed conscription, objected to the Espionage Act, attacked profiteering even where it did not exist. After the defeat of the Central Powers, La Follette was conspicuous in the Senate fight against the League of Nations. But he also fought consistently against all efforts to restrict civil liberties, and he urged that war costs be met by taxation rather than by borrowing.

The reaction against Wilsonian internationalism that followed the war restored La Follette’s popularity. In 1922 he was re-elected to the Senate by a huge majority. But he was no more at home in the Republican party in the twenties than he had been in the time of Taft. He could not stomach Harding and Coolidge, who seemed too obviously allied to the “interests.” In 1920 he had refused to head a Farmer-Labor party, but by 1922 he was willing to consider running independently for the Presidency in order to “drive special privilege out of the control of the government.” In 1924, with Burton K. Wheeler as his running mate, he polled nearly five million votes, although he carried only Wisconsin. Though nearly seventy, he was undaunted, and ready to continue the battle. “We have just begun to fight,” he said. But a few months later, on June 18, 1925, he suffered a heart attack and died.

La Follette was certainly more “progressive” than most of the well-known politicians of his era. He fought for labor as well as for depressed fanners and businessmen, supported basic civil liberties as well as narrow political reforms. His lifelong dedication to public service and the principles of democracy entitles him to a high place in the liberal pantheon.

But his grave personal weaknesses limited his effectiveness. Despite his really remarkable talents and many virtues, there were, as we have seen, important flaws in his personality. He was headstrong, ruthless, suspicious, sometimes intellectually confused if not dishonest; and these qualities, perhaps even more than the consistent opposition of the “interests,” were responsible for his repeated failure to achieve the Presidency. And if, as age came upon him, he never developed Bryan’s bland, ignorant self-assurance, he remained, like most zealots, annoyingly certain that God and justice were always on his side.