Skip to main content

Time Machine

March 2023
1min read

Willful Men

The Republican senator from Wisconsin, Robert La Follette, had been shocked by the President’s Armed Ship bill request. He saw in it a transfer of war powers in violation of the Constitution, and he marshaled his forces to oppose the bill, which opened for debate on Friday, March 2. By that time he had signed up ten like-minded senators to filibuster.

For two days and nights the Senate argued over war, neutrality, and parliamentary procedure. On Sunday the morning’s New York Times called the filibuster “an evil endeavor, in which no loyal American would have engaged.” Against this, La Follette placed the opinion of his heavily German constituents, whose telegrams were running 4 to 1 against passage. At 5:00 A.M. Sunday he got an anonymous tip on pink Senate memo paper that said he would be passed over when he himself tried to speak and a vote would then be pushed through. He instructed an aide and his son, Robert, Jr., to lay in stacks of resource materials to read aloud in the event he got himself recognized by the chair.

La Follette was, in fact, passed over in favor of several long-winded colleagues—the object of a senatorial game of “keep away.” The President’s supporters were filibustering the filibuster. When he protested loudly, La Follette caused a near-riot among the Democrats.

The session had been scheduled to run out at noon on March 5, when Woodrow Wilson would take his second oath of office, and it did so with the vote successfully forestalled by La Follette and his little band. Wilson began his new term temporarily without the power to arm merchant ships, the victim of “a little group of willful men,” as he said that day. The filibuster was a setback for him, but it nearly ruined La Follette politically. “Germany has been patient with us,” he was soon quoted all over America as having said. As the war spirit set in, he survived a subsequent call for expulsion by his fellow senators and was censured by the Wisconsin state legislature. When war was finally declared, early in April, he fell in behind the President.

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this 72-year tradition of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.


Stories published from "February/March 1992"

Authored by: John McDonough

Seventy-five years ago this month, a not especially good band cut a record that transformed our culture

Authored by: The Editors

For seventy-five years a procession of timeless jazz moments has been captured on disk. Here are some of the very best.

Authored by: Nathan Ward

The Telegraph

Authored by: Nathan Ward

Willful Men

Authored by: Nathan Ward

Fifty Years Ago Separate and Unequal

Authored by: Nathan Ward

Adam’s Fall

Authored by: Fredric Smoler

The fiercest struggle going on in education is about who owns the past. Militant multi-culturalists say that traditional history teaching has brushed out minority ethnic identities. Their opponents say that radical multiculturalism leads toward national fragmentation.

Authored by: John Lukacs

The Cold War was an anomaly: more often than not the world’s two greatest states have lived together in uneasy amity. And what now?

Authored by: Harrison E. Salisbury

The Russians claim they want to be more like us— but do they have any idea who we are?

Featured Articles

Rarely has the full story been told about how a famed botanist, a pioneering female journalist, and First Lady Helen Taft battled reluctant bureaucrats to bring Japanese cherry trees to Washington. 

The world’s most prominent actress risked her career by standing up to one of Hollywood’s mega-studios, proving that behind the beauty was also a very savvy businesswoman. 

Often thought to have been a weak president, Carter was strong-willed in doing what he thought was right, regardless of expediency or the political fallout.

Why have thousands of U.S. banks failed over the years? The answers are in our history and politics.

In his Second Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln embodied leading in a time of polarization, political disagreement, and differing understandings of reality.