Tuesday, March 25, 2008

ROBERT M. LaFOLLETTE (1855-1925)

LaFollette, a.k.a. “Fighting Bob”, an austere man with an earnest, determined face, a mane of white hair, and a compact powerful body, was first on the scene. Elected to the U. S. Senate in 1905 as a Republican from Wisconsin, he had already established in that state as Governor a regime of cutting-edge progressivism. His progressivism, however, did not endear him to his Republican colleagues. As political scientist Frederic A. Ogg has noted, “he found himself obliged to play a lone hand until, in the course of a few years, he drew round himself a group of eight or ten colleagues willing to be known as ‘progressives’.” Among these was Norris, as soon as he was elected to the Senate.

Promoting Popular Participation

In January 1911, LaFollette and a group of Senators and Representatives of progressive bent, meeting in his home in Washington, associated themselves in a National Progressive Republican League and adopted a Declaration of Principles drafted by him for “the promotion of popular government and progressive legislation.” To open up the electoral and legislative processes to greater popular participation, the League advocated:
  1. The election of United States Senators by direct vote of the people.
  2. Direct primaries for the nomination of elective officials.
  3. The direct election of delegates to national conventions with opportunity for the voter to express choices for President and Vice-President.
  4. Amendments to state constitutions providing for the Initiative, Referendum and Recall.
  5. A thoroughgoing corrupt practices act.

The influence of these objectives on American political life at both the national and state levels has been enormous over the years; whether for good or ill is still the subject of debate. We now vote directly for our U.S. senators without a thought that until 1913 and the ratification of the 17th Amendment it was the state legislators who elected them. Recently, California and the nation witnessed the recall of a sitting governor and his replacement by a political neophyte, Arnold Schwartzenegger.

Opposing World War I

When war broke out in Europe in August 1914, surprising and shocking most Americans, the mood of the country was that it was no affair of ours. The Wilson administration declared our neutrality and, indeed, actively sought to bring the warring nations to a peace conference. But the British blockade of the Central Powers and Germany’s retaliations with submarine warfare against shipping heading for Britain and France created diplomatic difficulties for the United States with both sides, but mostly with Germany as the war went on. Public sentiment toward the belligerents, which had been divided in the early years – substantial German and Irish populations here did not favor the Allied Powers – began to swing to those powers as the toll of the U-boat sinking of vessels sailing under the stars-and-stripes began to mount, as did the numbers of Americans drowned in sinkings under diverse flags.

From the start, LaFollette and a small group of Senators, including Norris, viewed the war as a struggle between colonial empires in which the United States had no stake, except, perhaps, as the war went on, the huge loans which our bankers were making to the Allied Powers. They clung to these views even as the mood of the country was swinging angrily against the Central Powers, particularly after Germany in January 1917 announced that it was resuming unrestricted submarine warfare against all ships, enemy or neutral, in a broad zone around the Allied countries.

When President Wilson, in 1917, asked Congress to pass a bill for the arming of our merchant ships against the U-boat menace, LaFollette and Norris mounted a filibuster against it as too provocative a measure. The insurgents talked it to death as the Congress reached its mandated end on March 4th. For this act of defiance, Wilson branded them “a little group of willful men”. The sinkings went on, however, and on April 6th, the new Congress, responding to Wilson’s message, declared war on Germany. The “little group of willful men” voted Nay, risking ostracism from their colleagues, vilification in the press and by the public, and loss of their seats. In the event, LaFollette’s constituents re-elected him in 1923.

Tariffs and Trade

LaFollette served during a period when business and industry were powerfully influencing legislation and were particularly hostile to the progressive programs that LaFollette espoused. In consequence, much of his effort in the Senate was expressed in opposition to administration bills. In the administration of William Howard Taft, with Republicans in control of Congress, he fought stubbornly, somewhat inconsistently, and unsuccessfully, first, against the Payne-Aldrich tariff bill as protective (Taft had called a special session to lower rates!), raising rates to benefit big business, and later, against a reciprocal trade agreement with Canada, because he believed that each would unfairly hurt Midwestern farmers. Proclaimed LaFollette, the Canadian treaty “singles out the farmer and forces free trade upon him, but it confers even greater benefits upon a few of the great combinations sheltered behind the Payne-Aldrich tariff.”

He was conspicuously, and successfully, in support of laws curing the excesses of the railroads and banks, ameliorating the burdens borne by labor. He was instrumental in creating the Department of Labor, the Federal Trade Commission and the Farm Loan Administration. An important bill in aid of legislators that he sponsored was the establishment of a legislative reference division of the Library of Congress.

Lifting the Teapot Lid

In 1923 LaFollette introduced the resolution that led to the Senate investigation and exposure of the Teapot Dome scandal, the conviction of a Secretary of the Interior for accepting bribes, and ultimately to the dismissal of an Attorney General. The investigation disclosed that Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall had persuaded President Harding to transfer from the Naval Department to his Department naval oil reserves in Teapot Dome, Wyoming, and Elk Hills, California, which Fall had then leased secretly to oilmen Harry F. Sinclair and Edward L. Doheny. The investigation disclosed that Sinclair and Doheny had each made a six digit loan to Fall, and that Sinclair had given him a herd of cattle for his ranch. President Coolidge, who had assumed office on Harding’s death, then demanded the resignation of Harry Daugherty, the Attorney General, for having failed to prosecute the miscreants.

For his role in Congress, and particularly in the breaking of the Teapot Dome scandal, LaFollette became a significant character in Gore Vidal’s 1991 novel Hollywood, which, despite its somewhat misleading title, is quite as much about Washington politics of the early 20th century as about the fledgling movie industry.

Progressive Party Campaign

LaFollette so chafed under the domination of the Republican Party during the Harding-Coolidge years that he bolted the Party in 1924 and ran for President on a Progressive Party ticket on a platform that anticipated several measures later to be enacted in FDR’s New Deal. He chose Burton Wheeler, a Democrat, as his running mate. The ticket received over 4,800,000 votes, 16.5% of the popular vote, but won only Wisconsin’s 13 electoral votes. For this heresy, the Republicans banished him from their caucus, depriving him of any significant committee assignments.


Exhausted, burned out, and ill, “Fighting Bob” died on June 18, 1925, bringing to an end a 40-year career dedicated to public service. When his portrait was unveiled in the Senate lounge in 1957 (along with those of Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, Daniel Webster, and Robert A. Taft), then Senator John F. Kennedy described him as “a ceaseless battler for the underprivileged in an age of special privilege, a courageous independent in an age of conformity, who fought memorably against tremendous odds and stifling inertia for the social and economic reforms which ultimately proved essential to American progress in the 20th Century.”

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