San José State University
Department of Economics
Thayer Watkins
Silicon Valley
& Tornado Alley

Robert M. La Follette, Sr.

Robert M. La Follette was a charismatic politician who created major innovations in public policy. He was the recognized leader of the Progressive Moment.

He was born in rural Wisconsin in 1855. When he completed his legal training at the University of Wisconsin in 1879 he immediately went into the public sector. In 1880 he became the county attorney in a county of southwestern Wisconsin. He ran for Congress in 1888 and was elected but failed to be reelected in 1890.

He returned to his home district and practiced law. But he never left politics. He began developing a personal political organization within the Republican Party. He initiated a crusade against political bosses. He even went so far as to publically report that the head of his party, the Republican Party, tried to bribe him. La Follette began organizing an alternate Republican Party which eventually became the Progressive Party.

La Follette was great public speaker. The combination of a extroverted personality, great administrative and organizational ability and ambition made him a natural candidate for governor. Robert La Follette was quite simply a great human being. He started his campaign for the 1900 governorship election in 1897.

He campaigned on issues, such as

La Follette was elected in 1900 and re-elected in 1902 and 1904. He was responsible for many innovations. One that he was most famous for was utilizing the faculty of the University of Wisconsin to propose and draft legislation. Professor John R. Commons was a notable consultant in public policy for La Follette. La Follette called upon the university faculty to serve on the regulatory commissions that were created.

During his governorships he persuaded the legislature to pass legislation to:

La Follette did not serve out the term as governor that he was elected to in 1906. Instead, before the end of the year he resigned his governorship and campaigned for the U.S. Senate. He won a six year term in 1906. He continued to be reelected to the Senate until his death in 1925.

As Wisconsin governor La Follette gave special attention to the regulation of the railroads because his constituents, the farmers, were particularly vulnerable to the actions and rates of the railroads. In the Senate La Follette moved beyond his focus on the railroads to consumer and labor legislation. He had been concerned with these as a governor but had less success in these fields. La Follette became the acknowledged leader of the Progressives in Congress and throughout the country.

He was promoted by politicians to be the presidential candidate for the Progress Party in the 1912 election. But at a late stage Theodore Roosevelt accepted the nomination. La Follette, feeling like a jilted groom, was bitter and expressed his bitterness publically. This cost him support and respect.

Over time La Follette became more and more anti-business. When the Senate debated the entry of the United States into World War I La Follette campaigned against it and later when it passed he campaigned against the measures such as the draft which were required to support the U.S. entry into the war.

La Follette was widely criticized for his anti-war stance.

In 1924 La Follette was the presidential candidate for the Progressive Pary. La Follette took about one sixth of the vote total. He died in 1925. His family tried to perpetuate the Progressive Movement, but it eventually faded. His son, Robert M. La Follette, Jr., had a notable political career so the careers of the father and son must be distinguished.

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