Happy Birthday ‘Fighting Bob’ La Follette

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Governor Bob La Follette was a brilliant orator, reformer and father of the Progressive Movement. June 14th we celebrate his birthday.

Over 150 years ago La Follette was born, the son of pioneers. He became a visionary who wrestled democracy from the hands of the robber barons. He passed reforms rooting out corruption and bribery. The changes he inspired gave Wisconsin its reputation for clean government and Progressive politics.

In the late nineteenth century Wisconsin was at a crossroads. Division, swift change and inequalities in wealth marked the society of that time.

The state was moving from an agrarian to an industrial society. People celebrated the prosperity brought by a growing economy. But there was uneasiness, writes La Follette biographer Nancy Unger, about the “equitable distribution of power and wealth.”

It was the power of money in politics that motivated La Follette’s political career. But the seeds were sown in his early life.

At age 18, La Follette was moved by the words of Justice Edward G. Ryan who posed the question, “which shall rule-wealth or man; which shall lead-money or intellect; who shall fill public stations-educated and patriotic freemen, or the feudal serfs of corporate capital?”

This theme became a hallmark of many great speeches by the man who became known as ‘Fighting Bob’.

I think La Follette would admit his beloved wife, Belle was critical to his success. She was the first woman graduate of the UW Madison Law School. She was active in women’s rights, civil rights, and international affairs.

Belle wrote, “If women had a larger voice in counseling the nation, there would be no war slogans, no dreams of empire which could lead to the great sacrifice of life, which woman alone knows the real value.”

Belle was a constant partner in La Follette’s work. In addition to caring for their children and home during his long absences, Belle helped with writing and editing speeches.

Sometimes the struggles seemed insurmountable. Three times La Follette or his candidate lost the race for governor. But Bob was able to translate every defeat into a victory. His passionate speeches and tireless campaigning won much support. Interestingly he found farmers more receptive to his message because they had time during the winter to read and reflect on his message of the corruption of money in politics.

During La Follette’s time, the parties decided who would be nominated as candidates for elected office. This led to many ‘behind closed doors’ decisions.

La Follette believed voters should decide who would run in a primary because they would likely choose the best candidate; not the one blessed by moneyed interests. La Follette took his campaign directly to the people. Over and over again he climbed on top of a hay wagon and preached to the local people.

Never daunted by defeat La Follette said, “defeat will not turn me back but drive me on to higher resolve…The men who win final victories are those who are stimulated to better fighting by defeat…if anyone should be forced to leave the Republican party it should be the corrupt leaders…we will never abandon the fight until we have made the government truly representative of the people”.

Challenging the railroad, timber and other industrialists of his own party, La Follette finally was named the Republican nominee for governor in 1900.

When he was elected governor, he faced a state in “considerable turmoil” writes his biographer Unger, “Eighty percent of the population owned 10% of the wealth, with 1% of the population owning half of the state’s prosperity.”

Years later his ideas were translated into law. La Follette’s vision brought Wisconsin a fairer tax code, regulations on lobbying and money in campaigns, and laws limiting corrupt officials and others abusing power. He created the ‘Wisconsin Idea’ – the cooperation of government, the university and the private sector.

La Follette’s brilliant speaking ability moved people to action. His perseverance - after repeated defeat - helped propel him to eventual success.

I feel kinship with La Follette and his work. Maybe it’s his perseverance in the face of adversity; his tireless campaigning; all those speeches on top of the hay wagon. We can certainly use his vision of democracy belonging to the people for the benefit of the people.