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Membership Meeting
State Sen. Melissa Agard
Mon., May 24, 6:30 PM
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The Early Years

Robert M La Follette Sr. is widely regarded as the man that made Wisconsin the progressive state it is today. During his life, he would be elected to the US House of Representatives, as Governor of Wisconsin and a US Senator. He would also run for President of the United States on 3 separate occasions. A lifelong Republican, he would later be known as a champion of progressive causes and would be opposed by conservatives in both political parties.

Robert Marion La Follette was born in Primrose township in Dane County on June 14, 1855. The son of farmers (Josiah La Follette and Mary Ferguson LaFollette), he would spend much of his early life working on the family farm before enrolling in the University of Wisconsin Law School. While at the University of Wisconsin, he met Miss Belle Case, a feminist whom he would later marry. He graduated from the UW in 1879 and his new wife would soon become the first woman to graduate from the UW Law School.

Entering Politics

Politics and championing the causes of political reform and the working man came naturally to Bob LaFollette. In 1880 he challenged an established candidate and was elected District Attorney of Dane County. In 1884 he became the youngest member of the United States House Of Representatives and was appointed to the powerful Committee on Ways and Means where he worked with President McKinley to establish the McKinley Tariff Act. Partly because of his support of President McKinley, he was defeated for re-election in 1890 after having served 3 terms. During his three terms as a Congressman, he established a reputation for independence and frequently clashed with party leaders. For his fights against the political powers, corruption and for reforms, he earned the nickname "Fighting Bob". After his defeat in Congress, Bob La Follette established a law firm that would become known statewide, an accomplishment that would eventually lead to his election as Governor.

Governor La Follette

In 1900, Robert M La Follette Sr was elected Governor of Wisconsin with the largest plurality ever given to a candidate and for the next 50 years, Wisconsin politics would not be divided between Democrats and Republicans, but instead between pro-La Follette and anti-La Follette factions. During his tenure Bob La Follette would push through a broad reform agenda known as the Wisconsin Idea which included election reforms, business regulation and conservation measures.

Among the many reform measures instituted were direct primary elections and campaign spending limits for candidates making Wisconsin the first state in the nation to adopt the primary system for state office.

Additionally, new laws taxed railroads and corporations on the value of their property (equalized tax assessment), a railroad commission was established to regulate rates, funding for education was increased, new civil-service laws were enacted and new commissions were formed for Railroad Regulation, the Environment and Civil Service. Most legislation was drafted by social scientists and economists, a key feature of the Wisconsin Idea.

In 1905 he enacted a graduated income tax in Wisconsin (where lower wage earners pay a lesser rate). Bob La Follette won election as Governor in 1902 and 1904 and served as Governor until 1906 when he was elected to the US Senate.

The US Senate and Progressive Roots

In 1906, US Senators were still chosen by their respective state legislatures (1) and Bob La Follette was elected by the Wisconsin Legislature to represent Wisconsin in the US Senate. He would be elected to 3 terms in the US Senate.

Bob La Follettes believed his role was to "protect the people from the selfish interests" and because of this belief he fought the same powers in Washington that he had fought as Governor. In a Senate closely divided between Republicans and Democrats, La Follette and other pro-reform members often held the balance of power. As a Senator, he supported the growth of Unions and saw them as a balance on the power of corporations.

In 1909 he founded "The Progressive" magazine to champion women's suffrage (right to vote), racial equality and other progressive causes. The magazine is still in publication today and can be found online at

In both 1908 and 1912 he ran for Republican nomination for President, twice losing. After his defeat in 1912 he supported Democrat Woodrow Wilson for President and worked to approve Wilson's social justice agenda. However, with the onset of World War 1 in 1914, he opposed Wilson's support for the Allies and later in 1917 voted against the declaration of war and also opposed passage of the Espionage Act. After continuing criticism of the war, he was accused of treason and the Senate attempted to expel him. His status of a popular anti-war figure, saved him.

In 1924 he once again ran for President, this time as an Independent Progressive (Progressive Party) gaining 17% of the popular vote and carrying Wisconsin's electoral votes.

The Legacy

Robert Marion La Follette Sr, died in Washington D.C. on June 18, 1925 and was buried in Madison, WI. His son Robert La Follette Jr filled out his fathers term and won election 3 more times as Senator where he became an authority on tax legislation, supported both labor unions and civil rights, won passage of the nations first unemployment compensation act and championed the rights of both workers and farmers.

Robert M La Follette Sr. is regarded as the founder of the Progressive Movement and during his life was a leading voice for political reform both in Wisconsin and across the nation. His rise to power coincided with the anger farmers felt toward the rich in the Eastern US who controlled the money and credit and eventually would be supported by small business owners, professionals, intellectuals and the working class whose rights he championed.

Unwilling to compromise on his principle, "Fighting Bob" was revered by his supporters and hated by his opponents and was constantly opposed by Conservatives in his own party. During his public life in Wisconsin, he elevated Wisconsin to be a model for how other states would write their laws and his influence has been felt ever since with other Wisconsin politicians such as Senator Bob La Follette Jr, Senator William Proxmire and Senator Russ Feingold and Senator Herb Kohl all championing progressive causes with fierce independence.


  1. In 1914, the US Constitution was amended to include the direct election of Senators.


  • Webster's American Biographies
  • Encyclopedia of American Biography.
  • State Historical Society of Wisconsin
  • Ernest N. Warner, Madison Past and Present
  • Spartacus USA History



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