Spirit of Righteous Reformer Lives

We need to honor the spirit of progressive politics in America and study its successes wherever we find them. In the Midwest of a hundred or so years ago, Republican Robert La Follette of Wisconsin (1855-1925) was a prototype of that spirit, a man who worked himself to exhaustion to help enact direct primary elections, equalization of taxes, control of high railroad rated, and curtailment of the power of the trusts.

For more than 25 years La Follette dominated politics in the Badger state and served in the US House and Senate as well. He was District Attorney of Dane County, where Madison is, then US. Congressman, the governor of Wisconsin, and US senator.

He founded the Progressive Party and ran as its presidential candidate in 1924. He opposed our entry into the First World War.

Nancy C. Unger, historian at Santa Clara University, has written a biography, Fighting Bob La Follette: The Righteous Reformer [Univ. of North Carolina Press, Box 2288, Chapel Hill, NC, 27515, 2000, $39.95). La Follette was part of a large midwestern political movement growing out of earlier populism and farmers' alliance groups. She says the ranks of these newer progressives after the turn of the century were likely to be filled with competent young Republican lawyers as well as farmers from small towns and rural areas.

Unger's conclusion agrees with that of historian Russel B. Nye in his book Midwestern Progressive Politics, that "Fighting Bob LaFollette as he came to be called, was just a little too righteous and personally inflexible to become a true and lasting progressive presence on the national scene, but he still was important in the general movement."

By coincidence just as I was finishing reading this book, here came the Progressive magazine and a negative review of Unger's book by its editor, Matthew Rothschild. He takes up on all counts for the founder of his magazine, still based in Madison.

I thought it might be a good idea to discuss some of the legacy that La Follette left in Wisconsin. At age 19 I left Oklahoma on an out-of-state scholarship to attend the University of Wisconsin, and what I learned there influenced my thinking in a very positive way.

I realized immediately that this big school was very different from Oklahoma A&M, where I spent my freshman year. A girl in the house where I lived asked me, "And are you pretty unconventional?"

I don't remember my answer, but inwardly I felt bad and crushed, because I knew I was not "unconventional." Now when I left there three years later, well, maybe I had changed. I would certainly answer "yes" to that question today.

The University of Wisconsin was "a liberal school," a place where 3.2% beer was served in the Student Union, where a majestic statue of Lincoln sat in front of the imposing Bascom Hall which faced the state capital a mile to the east.

But here is the philosophy which I learned which gave me a different slant on education, on politics, on almost everything. On the building itself was a plaque that read something like this: "Whatever the limitations that may trammel inquiry elsewhere, let it be known that at the great state University of Wisconsin we are dedicated to that fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the Truth can be found." I may not have remembered the exact wording, but that's the gist of it, and I was impressed.

I understood that the state of Wisconsin even way back when it became a state in 1848 was committed to an excellent goal, and I knew it came through the years to be enhanced by people like the La Follettes. Professors on the campus still talked about the Wisconsin Idea, not originated by, but expanded by Bob LaFollette, a program invigorated by him when he became governor in 1900.

As Professor Unger explains it, the Wisconsin Idea was much more than a complete overhaul of the state tax system, voting procedures, and ousting of corrupt state officials. At its height from 1900 to 1914 it was a successful blending of reform and advance efforts by the state government, the private sector, and the university under President Charles R. Van Hise. An earlier college president, John Bascom, for whom the hall is named, had a dream that the university and the state government could work together for the good of all Wisconsin citizens in a program of education and outreach.

Bob La Follette was lucky in that as he implemented the program across the state, he had the help and advice of UW professors like economist Richard Ely and famous historian, Frederick Jackson Turner.

Unger describes in detail La Follette's personal life, his illnesses, his marriage to Belle Case, their financial problems, their four children and how they followed, or failed to follow, in their father's footsteps. She does seem to blame the family's rigidity on helping to cause the unhappiness of their son, Bobbie, and his eventual suicide.

Wisconsin journalist John Nichols, whom we know from the pages of The Progressive Populist, has a positive assessment of this unique man. Nichols writes in the Madison Capital Times that La Follette was "the most courageous political leader this nation has ever produced."

Contact Alvena Bieri, 2023 W. 11th Ave, Stillwater OK 74074 or email

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