Robert M. LaFollette

Robert M. LaFollette
Robert M. LaFollette

"Fighting Bob" LaFollette earned his sobriquet as the progressive political leader of Wisconsin, where he was elected governor and later represented his state in the U.S. Senate. A Republican, he attacked corporate privilege and worked to expand voting and consumer rights.

Born in Primrose, Wisconsin, to a farming family, LaFollette earned a law degree at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and served as district attorney of Dane County before winning three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. Always controversial within his own party, he lost his House seat in 1890. He ran twice for governor before winning the first of his two year terms in 1900.

Governor LaFollette supported "insurgents" and reformers who struggled to wrest leadership from corporate-influenced interests. By his final term he had successfully legislated an ambitious reform program called the "Wisconsin Idea."

A key target was the railroads, blamed by a desperate farming constituency for unfair rates and predatory business practices. New corporate taxes enabled Wisconsin to pay its bills, including enhanced spending on public education.

Under LaFollette, Wisconsin became the first state to replace a restrictive political caucus system with direct primary elections. The state set up a civil service system and limited lobbying activities, curtailing the power and influence of both corporations and political bosses.

Elected by Wisconsin lawmakers to the U.S. Senate in 1905, LaFollette took his fiery reformism to the national stage. He opposed the Payne-Aldrich tariff as a protectionist measure that helped wealthy eastern interests at the expense of farmers and other small producers. He fought for direct election of senators. He regularly sided with organized labor.

By 1911 LaFollette was determined to make a run for the presidency against his party's incumbent, William Howard Taft. To his dismay, the ever-popular Theodore Roosevelt reentered politics to run under the "Bull Moose" banner, forcing a resentful LaFollette out.

As a midwesterner, LaFollette tended toward isolationism and also represented a large German-American constituency. When war broke out in Europe, LaFollette was among those who feared that big business and wealthy speculators would gain riches while the common man fought in World War I. He was widely criticized for voting against President Woodrow Wilson's declaration of war in April 1917.

After the war, with the progressive movement fading, LaFollette worked to expose the Teapot Dome oil reserves scandal of the Warren Harding administration. In 1924, LaFollette finally ran for president as a progressive. He won almost 17 percent of the popular vote and his home state's 13 electoral votes in a three-way race, but the campaign left him exhausted. LaFollette died in 1925 in Washington, D.C., and is buried in Madison.