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  < Back to Table Of Contents  < Back to Topic: You Can Enjoy Politics

article number 366
article date 08-05-2014
copyright 2014 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Quite a Political Character, Wisconsin’s Robert LaFollette, Late 1800’s – Early 1900’s
by Mark Sullivan
   

From the 1930 book, Our Times, The United States 1900 – 1925. Volume III Pre-War America.

The actions of men who exercised their ambitions and talents in the building and managing of railroads created opportunity for other men, who exercised other ambitions and other talents in the world of politics.

Thus there arose, especially in the Midwest, certain political leaders violently antagonistic to the railroads, whose anti-railroad agitation, spreading east and west and south, infected most of the country. One among these stood out, not necessarily because of his greater wisdom, more because of certain personal qualities.

Robert M. LaFollette by birth had the temperament of a dramatic tragedian. By the circumstances of his youth he acquired a sense of resentment against cosmos that made him a crusader. Because of the conditions of his time and place, he took the railroads as the object of his crusading zeal. His anti-railroad bias came early.

“As a boy on the farm,” he wrote, I heard and felt this [anti-railroad] movement . . . swirling about me; and I felt the indignation which it expressed in such a way that I suppose I have never fully lost the effect of that early impression.”

The French in LaFollette’s blood that made him instinctively dramatic might have been contented by his winning of intercollegiate contests with his orations on “Iago” and by his early lecturing on “Hamlet,” as sufficient satisfaction to the urge for self-expression that was strong in him.

But if we were to carry the symbolism about inherited characteristics farther, we might say that the French in him, happening to be Huguenot, caused him to have a high susceptibility to infection from “causes,” an almost over-ready disposition to dissent from whatever was accepted and orthodox, economically or politically, and an almost perverse bent toward visualizing himself in the role of martyr.

With this emotional and moral equipment, he found his medium for functioning ready and present in the political and economic practices of the railroads.

LaFollette was born June 14, 1855, on a farm near Primrose, Wis., in a two-room log cabin. In his later life he had a drawing made of his cabin birthplace, which he used in his campaign literature when running for office, satisfying thus a political instinct which led him to capitalize early poverty, and expressing a personal quality that caused him to take an almost morbidly luxurious pleasure in the endurance of hardship, in the recollection of it, and in the public parading of it.

   
Drawing made Senator Robert Lafollette’s cabin birthplace.

At the University of Wisconsin, as a “scrub,” an outsider, a non-fraternity man, he endured experiences of a sort that most boys quickly forgive and ultimately forget, but which in LaFollette’s case left memories that, forty years later, flowed acidly out of his pen as he wrote his autobiography, causing him to recall and record his “overmastering sense of anger and wrong and injustice.”

For his early education he paid the price of hard sacrifice and gained — as those do who survive — the reward of a stiffened will-power. The inconspicuousness of his stature, mocking his passion for distinction, he overcame somewhat by adopting the “pompadour” style of arranging his hair, which he retained until he died.*

* When Bob LaFollette with defiant glare
Leaps forth to smite the foemen of his land,
Five feet he soars into the zenith and
Six inches farther soars his fretful hair.
Of his fierce clay there was not much to spare
When stingy nature framed him
A capsule statesman with a whirlwind’s way.
—From a sonnet by George Fitch.

When he came to the Senate, acting on the advice of a friend, he abandoned the “slouchiness” of attire that had been one of his studied arts for appealing to a rural constituency, and thereafter, until the end of his days, was the most carefully dressed man in whatever forums he functioned in.*

* Albert J. Beveridge, Senator from Indiana, told me that when LaFollette came to the Senate, Beveridge, already a Senator for six years and having a concern at once for the Senate’s dignity and LaFollette’s fortunes, went privately to the latter and addressed to him Chesterfieldian advice, beginning, “Robert, you are now Senator of the United States; dress the part.”

A dog-eared copy of Henry George’s “Progress and Poverty,” loaned to LaFollette by a philosophical blacksmith neighbor, stimulated the youth’s grim zest for combat against injustice. At the University of Wisconsin he got the grounding in economics and government that later enabled him to make vivid to farmer audiences the intricacies of the effects of railroad rates on their own fortunes.

No public man of his day equalled him in the energy with which he dug into economic data or in the skill with which he made statistics support and confirm his theories.

A chance reading of one of Robert Ingersoll’s speeches, followed by going to hear every lecture of that great rebel against orthodoxy that he could get to, and the reading of every word Ingersoll published, “entranced” LaFollette, left him with “tears streaming down my face” and inspired him to perfect his own arts of emotional oratory and to emulate Ingersoll’s dogma of protest.*

* Robert Ingersoll was familiar to the America of that generation in two roles, as an unbeliever who aggressively attacked all churches, and as a political orator whose ornateness satisfied the taste of the 1870’s and 1880’s. In the latter role, he gave currency to a famous characterization of James G. Blame:
“Our country, crowned with the vast and marvellous achievements of its first century, asks for a man worthy of the past, and prophetic of her future; asks for a man who has the audacity of genius; asks for a man who is the grandest combination of heart, conscience, and brain beneath her flag — such a man is James G. Blame. . . Like an armed warrior, like a plumed knight, James G. Blame marched down the halls of the American Congress and threw his shining lance full and fair against the brazen foreheads of the defamers of his country and the maligners of his honor.”

   
Senator Robert M. LaFollette of Wisconsin. From a photograph by G. V. Buck, Washington.

By the time LaFollette could vote he had a rare equipment for insurgent leadership. Immediately after leaving college he ran for District Attorney of Dane County;
- resented the implication of inferiority when farmers asked him “Ain’t you over-young?”;
- resented more the insult of the local boss, outpost of the railroad political machine, who told him, “You are fooling away your time”;
- was elected by 93 votes;
- suffered a breakdown at the end of each term of court, and when “too weak to walk I had myself rolled in a blanket and driven to the courthouse.”

In 1884, he won the Republican nomination and then the election to Congress, against the opposition and conniving of the local party boss. In 1886, he won again, and in 1888 yet again, but in 1890 suffered a defeat that engendered in him a “bitter emotion,” and caused him — with curious misunderstanding of his own nature — to decide to give up his political career and be content with a private lawyer’s life of dull briefing and courthouse wrangling.

Fate hurriedly sent an agent in the shape of a reigning head of the State’s railroad political machine who, according to LaFollette’s subsequent story, tried to bribe him to influence his brother-in-law, a judge, in the matter of a decision.

It was a queer blind-spot in an experienced political boss which would let him imagine that LaFollette would prefer a few hundred dollars to the luxury of the impassioned indignation with which LaFollette spurned the bribe, denounced the briber, made the story public, and used the episode as the spring-board for a spectacular re-entry into politics.

By about 1895 LaFollette was set in the intellectual, moral, and emotional mould that determined his role in national politics. In whatever stand he took on any issue, he was always dramatic and heroic, ever the crusader against wrong, eternally the champion of the under-dog (whom he dramatized as wholly virtuous and always right).

He visualized himself, and insisted that his followers regard him, as the faithful servant of the people, the chosen of fate to lead moral causes—most of the moral causes of the time and place being embraced in one, opposition to the railroads.

Three times he ran for Governor, making the issues mainly regulation of the railroads, heavier taxation upon them, abolition of the passes with which they kept their political power — and a proposal for a novel “direct primary,” which should supplant the convention system and thereby render impotent the political bosses.

In LaFollette’s second campaign for Governor he had the advantage of an episode that made vivid one of his issues. The local agent of the United States Express Company at Madison, the State capital, infected with resentment against railroad practices to a point where he forgot his obligation to keep his employer’s secrets, revealed that LaFollette’s opponent, the sitting Governor, Edward Scofield, in the course of a lavish gubernatorial indulgence in passes and franks, had shipped from his home in Oconto, on express frank No. 2169:

2 boxes, 2 barrels; January 7, 1897.
3 barrels, 1 box; January 8, 1897.
2 boxes, 200 pounds; January 9, 1897.
2 barrels, 2 boxes, 1000 pounds; January 11, 1897.
And, finally,
1 cow (crated); January 13, 1897.

It was not against the law, and most decidedly it was not contrary to the accepted usage of politicians — but it was against, so to speak, the average man’s equilibrium of sedateness, and gave rise to that powerful weapon of politics, ridicule.

“Scofield’s cow” became famous, the best-known animal of any species from Kenosha to Menomonie. Her likeness, beaming ruminatively from the first pages of newspapers, outdid in vote-getting effectiveness LaFollette’s own grim countenance upon his campaign banners; but, unfortunately, her political potency, the greatest ever achieved by any bovine, was sterilized, so LaFollette alleged, by his opponents’ distribution of $8,300 among the delegates to the convention on the night before the balloting on candidates.

   
Robert LaFollette campaigns from a wagon.

Her memory lingered, however. Two years later, in 1900, when LaFollette, with a pertinacity that was part of his unyielding grimness, again sought the governorship, he was elected by the largest majority in Wisconsin history.

As Governor, LaFollette, after years of denunciation of the boss system, was himself the boss of Wisconsin. He was a boss of a new and utterly different type, who worked always in the interest of the common man as he saw it, who discarded the sordid methods of the older type — and yet a boss, autocratic, imperious, peremptory, practising toward his apostles a dictatorial insistence upon obedience such as no boss of the older type would ever have dared attempt.

Whoever opposed him, whoever disagreed with him, became, “ipso facto,” one with Lucifer. Whoever, having once been with him, thereafter failed to give 100 per cent allegiance to every one of LaFollette’s courses, by that fact became guilty certainly of sedition and presumably of corruption, and was exiled and pursued with a ruthlessness even greater than LaFollette practised against his avowed enemies.

He was all grimness. It is doubtful if LaFollette, in his mature life, ever threw back his head and laughed, heartily. The streak in him that made the wearing of a hair shirt a pleasure, that made of martyrdom a luxury, he expressed by reciting often, as his favorite poem:

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods there be
For my unconquered soul.*

* This is as LaFollette recited it and as he printed it in his autobiography. Actually, the last two lines of Henley’s verse read:
I thank whatever gods may be,
For my unconquerable soul.

LaFollette’s governorship was one long controversy. He harried a legislature that was at first reluctant and tricky into enacting heavier taxation upon the railroads,36 an inheritance tax, a graduated income tax, a direct primary law, a railroad regulation bill that “provided for a commission with power not only to fix rates but to control service and to make a complete physical valuation of all the railroad property in the State; it was more sweeping than any legislation enacted by any State up to that time.”

* While LaFollette, in his campaign attacks upon the railroads, was bitter, the legislation which he fathered while Governor of Wisconsin was comparatively temperate. At that time LaFollette realized, and guided himself by the realization, that fair dealing with the railroads was necessary for the prosperity of the State.

(* continued) His extreme radicalism with respect to the railroads came after he was in the Senate, and was caused, in the judgment of the writer, supported by the judgment of some of LaFollette’s intimates, by the relation he adopted toward Roosevelt.

(* continued) LaFollette hated Roosevelt, primarily because Roosevelt took the leadership of an issue that LaFollette had made. LaFollette would follow no leader, must at all times be the leader himself. It was not difficult for LaFollette to make himself believe that he must go farther than Roosevelt, must repudiate Roosevelt’s leadership, must even decry Roosevelt’s leadership as too conservative, to the end that LaFollette himself might be the leader of the Progressive cause.

(* continued) But for Roosevelt, LaFollette, perhaps, would not have been more radical in the Senate than he was in Wisconsin, which is the same as to say that but for Roosevelt, LaFollette might have had some chance to become President.

   
Political cartoon portrays “Railroad Senators” who take free passes, presumably in exchange for not regulating railroads. Both Teddy Roosevelt and Robert LaFollette were populist in that they wanted to end favoritism for railroad friends and higher rates for parties such as farmers.

But much more than by his official acts as Governor, and in a territory that extended far beyond the boundaries of Wisconsin, LaFollette by his campaigns, by the paper “The State” that he and his friends conducted, and by literally thousands of campaign speeches, as well as lyceum and Chautauqua lectures that he delivered up and down the country — LaFollette, with the aid of other leaders, gave to the old Granger anti-railroad movement a momentum that by 1906 had reached the proportions and the characteristics of what politicians call — at once a vivid description and an acknowledgment of readiness to run for shelter — a prairie-fire.

As one brand flung off by the now nation-wide conflagration, LaFollette himself was elected to the United States Senate, where he took his seat on January 4, 1906. In the Senate the Republican “stand-patters” who were then in control, bestowed on the young David, with a humor not entirely discreet, the chairmanship of the “Committee to Investigate the Condition of the Potomac River Front (Select),” which in all its history “had never had a bill referred to it, and had never held a meeting.”

His committee-room, so he dourly told his constituents through his weekly periodical and in a chapter of his autobiography (which, with his love of dramatizing himself as a martyr, he called “Alone in the Senate” ), “was reached by going down into the sub-cellar of the Capitol, along a dark winding passage lighted by dim skylights which leaked badly, to a room carved out of the terrace on the west side of the Capitol.”

Actually, LaFollette’s committee-room was more desirable than those assigned to other new Senators.*

* LaFollette arrived in the Senate January 4, 1906, about a month after the session began. Another Senator, who had arrived at the opening early in the preceding December, read LaFollette’s description of his committee-room here quoted, and wrote (to the author of this history):
“No! LaFollette had an outside room fronting the west and overlooking the grass and tree covered grounds. For this better room, LaFollette was indebted to his colleague, Senator Spooner, who detested LaFollette but held this room for him although it was coveted by new Senators already sworn in, who had been given rooms in the basement of the Capitol, or over at the Senate Annex, the Senate office-building not then being in existence.”

   
The Senator from Wisconsin.

LaFollette’s arrival in the Senate coincided, almost to the exact day, with the introduction of the (Hepburn) railroad rate bill in the House, and with Roosevelt’s determination to drive that bill through Congress. LaFollette was too new in the Senate, and also too mordantly radical, to have much hand in shaping that legislation.

Indeed, his incapacity to co-operate with other men, his suspicion against all men whose notions did not coincide identically with his, made LaFollette a handicap rather than a help to Roosevelt — the time came when LaFollette deliberately embarrassed Roosevelt.

But the prairie-fire of anti-railroad feeling that LaFollette had been building in the Midwest over a period of ten years, was one of the causes of the public demand for rate regulation that Roosevelt took up. It was also one of the principal agencies that Roosevelt had to aid him in the fight.

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