Thursday, August 30, 2012

My Favorite Republicans, Part 3: Robert M. LaFollette, Sr.

This is the third and, for now, final part in my blog mini-series, "My Favorite Republicans." Click here for my prior post on Jeannette Rankin. Click here for Robert G. Ingersoll. Is that Republican National Convention over, yet?


These days, to see the name of that state conjures up an image of union-loathing Governor Scott "Sad Sack" Walker or Representative Paul "Lying Sack" Ryan. Those two Republicans have so sullied the current political image of Wisconsin that it's easy to forget another famous Republican from the Badger State who presented a wholly different vision of America. That Republican is, of course, Robert "Fighting Bob" LaFollette, Sr.

LaFollette's political career spanned over 40 years, from 1880 when he was first elected district attorney to 1924 when he unsuccessfully ran on the Progressive Party presidential ticket against Republican Calvin Coolidge. He was also a U.S. Representative, governor of Wisconsin, and a U.S. senator. (Incidentally, these 40 plus years overlapped with the life and work of both Ingersoll and Rankin.)

Key to La Follette's political vision was his staunch resistance to corporate influence in the political process. Early in his career, a Republican senator's attempt to bribe him motivated him to publicly speak out against the robber barons who sought control of the state. After being elected governor in 1900, he instituted a new wave of political reform. He ardently supported workers' rights, women's suffrage, a minimum wage, higher taxes on the wealthy railroads, and an end to the system of political patronage, among other progressive causes.

By 1906, his fighting spirit (perfectly symbolized by his wild, Beethoven-like hairstyle) won him the popularity to be elected to the U.S. Senate, where he remained until his death in 1925. While there, he championed the same progressive causes on a national scale that he fought for in Wisconsin. Most memorably, he opposed the U.S. entry into World War I and suffered accusations of disloyalty and treason for it.

While not a socialist, he emphatically supported trade unionism and vehemently opposed the criminal prosecution of Eugene V. Debs. Could you imagine any Republican senator today standing up for a socialist's free speech rights? Oh yeah, those amnesiacs actually think Obama is a socialist. But free speech was LaFollette's mission. I'll let his potent words speak for themselves. In this excerpt from his October 1917 speech in the Senate, he had to defend himself from charges of disloyalty for his anti-war activism (yes, activism):

Mr. President, our Government, above all others, is founded on the right of the people freely to discuss all matters pertaining to their Government, in war not less than in peace, for in this Government the people are the rulers in war no less than in peace. It is true, sir, that Members of the House of Representatives are elected for two years, the President for four years, and the Members of the Senate for six years, and during their temporary official terms these officers constitute what is called the Government. But back of them always is the controlling sovereign power of the people, and when the people can make their will known, the faithful officer will obey that will. Though the right of the people to express their will by ballot is suspended during the term of office of the elected official, nevertheless the duty of the official to obey the popular will continues throughout this entire term of office. How can that popular will express itself between elections except by meetings, by speeches, by publications, by petitions, and by addresses to the representatives of the people? Any man who seeks to set a limit upon those rights, whether in war or peace, aims a blow at the most vital part of our Government. And then as the time for election approaches and the official is called to account for his stewardship--not a day, not a week, not a month, before the election, but a year or more before it, if the people choose--they must have the right to the freest possible discussion of every question upon which their representative has acted, of the merits of every measure he has supported or opposed, of every vote he has cast and every speech that he has made. And before this great fundamental right every other must, if necessary, give way, for in no other manner can representative government be preserved. [Source]


The Wisconsin Historical Society has a good page with links to historical artifacts and primary sources. The U.S. Senate has a page about an official portrait of Fighting Bob, with a brief biographical essay. To see what work is carried on in Fighting Bob's spirit, you'll have to bypass the Republican Party entirely. Go to Russ Feingold's Progressives United instead.

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