Robert M. La Follette Sr.

American progressive politician from Wisconsin (1855–1925)

Robert Marion "Fighting Bob" La Follette Sr. (June 14, 1855 - June 18, 1925) was an American Republican (and later a Progressive) politician. He served as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, was the Governor of Wisconsin, and was a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin from 1906 to 1925. He ran for President of the United States as the nominee of his own Progressive Party in 1924, carrying Wisconsin and winning 17% of the national popular vote.

Robert M. La Follette Sr.


  • The basic principle of this government is the will of the people. A system was devised by its founders which seemed to insure the means of ascertaining that will and of enacting it into legislation and supporting it through the administration of the law. This was to be accomplished by electing men to make, and men to execute the laws, who, would represent in the laws so made and executed the will of the people. This was the establishment of a representative government, where every man had equal voice, equal rights, and equal responsibilities. Have we such a government today? Or is this country fast coming to be dominated by forces that threaten the true principle of representative government?
    • “The Danger Threatening Representative Government” Speech (1897) [1]
  • Since the birth of the Republic, indeed almost within the last generation, a new and powerful factor has taken its place in our business, financial and political world and is there exercising a tremendous influence. The existence of the corporation, as we have it with us today, was never dreamed of by the fathers…The corporation of today has invaded every department of business, and it’s powerful but invisible hand is felt in almost all activities of life. The effect of this change upon the American people is radical and rapid. The individual is fast disappearing as a business factor and in his stead is this new device, the modern corporation.
    • “The Danger Threatening Representative Government” Speech (1897) [2]
  • Publicity, discussion, and agitation are necessary to accomplish any work of lasting benefit.
    • Spoken in Evansville, IN (July 7, 1906), As quoted in Unreasonable Men: Theodore Roosevelt and the Republican Rebels Who Created Progressive Politics, Michael Wolraich (2014)
  • In the course of every attempt to establish or develop free government a struggle between Special Privilege and Equal Rights is inevitable...our great industrial organizations [are] in control of politics, government and national resources. They manage conventions, make platforms, dictate legislation. They rule through the very men elected to represent the people...the battle is just on.It is young yet. It will be the longest and hardest ever fought for Democracy. In other lands, the people have lost. Here we shall win. It is a glorious privilege to live in this time, and have a free hand in this fight for government by the people.
    • "Editorial", January 9, 1909, La Follette's Weekly Magazine. Quoted in Matthew Rothschild, Democracy In Print : The Best of The Progressive Magazine, 1909-2009. Madison : University of Wisconsin Press, 2009.
  • There is another plane of thought into which some have entered. It holds up a vision of a society redeemed by true democracy. It believes in a time when monopoly shall be no more, and labor and capital, no longer at war, shall cooperate to the wiping out of involuntary and undeserved poverty in an era of industrial equality and social peace.
    • "The Basis of the Struggle", July 31, 1909, La Follette's Weekly Magazine. Quoted in Matthew Rothschild, Democracy In Print : The Best of The Progressive Magazine, 1909-2009. Madison : University of Wisconsin Press, 2009.
  • Mr. President, I had supposed until recently that it was the duty of senators and representatives in Congress to vote and act according to their convictions on all public matters that came before them for consideration and decision. Quite another doctrine has recently been promulgated by certain newspapers, which unfortunately seems to have found considerable support elsewhere, and that is the doctrine of “standing back of the President” without inquiring whether the President is right or wrong.
    For myself, I have never subscribed to that doctrine and never shall. I shall support the President in the measures he proposes when I believe them to be right. I shall oppose measures proposed by the President when I believe them to be wrong.
    • Speech before Congress (April 4, 1917), Congressional Record—Senate, April 4, 1917, 224–225.
  • Wealth has never yet sacrificed itself on the altar of patriotism.
    • "La Follette Fights for Higher War Tax", New York Times [3] (August 22, 1917)
  • The mobbing of harmless, helpless Negroes in the capital of this country is the nation's everlasting shame. The responsibility for starting the riots, which ruled Washington for days, rests upon disorderly lawless whites. Peaceable, unoffending colored men and boys were beaten up and murdered by brutes who boast of our white civilization.
  • Mere passive citizenship is not enough. Men must be aggressive for what is right if government is to be saved from those who are aggressive for what is wrong.
    • "The Perils of Passive Citizenship", Speech in Washington, D.C. [4] (August 11, 1924)

Free Speech in Wartime (October 6, 1917)


Speech before the U.S. Senate (October 6, 1917)

  • I think all men recognize that in time of war the citizen must surrender some rights for the common good which he is entitled to enjoy in time of peace. But, sir, the right to control their own government according to constitutional forms is not one of the rights that the citizens of this country are called upon to surrender in time of war.
  • Rather in time of war the citizen must be more alert to the preservation of his right to control his government. He must be most watchful of the encroachment of the military upon the civil power. He must beware of those precedents in support of arbitrary action by administrative officials, which excused on the plea of necessity in wartime, become the fixed rule when the necessity has passed and normal conditions have been restored.
  • More than all, the citizen and his representative in Congress in time of war must maintain his right of free speech. More than in times of peace it is necessary that the channels for free public discussion of governmental policies shall be open and unclogged.
  • 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 no answer to say that when the war is over the citizen may once more resume his rights and feel some security in his liberty and his person. As I have already tried to point out, now is precisely the time when the country needs the counsel of all its citizens. In time of war even more than in time of peace, whether citizens happen to agree with the ruling administration or not, these precious fundamental personal rights-free speech, free press, and right of assemblage so explicitly and emphatically guaranteed by the Constitution should be maintained inviolable.
  • The universal conviction of those who yet believe in the rights of the people is that the first step toward the prevention of war and the establishment of peace, permanent peace, is to give the people who must bear the brunt of war's awful burden more to say about it.

"Fooling the People as a Fine Art", La Follette's Magazine (April 1918)

  • The setting up of a new, invisible and all powerful government in this country, within the last twenty years, in open violation of fundamental and statutory law, could not have been accomplished under the steady fire of a free and independent press.
  • Where public opinion is free and uncontrolled, wealth has a wholesome respect for the law.
  • Except for the subserviency of most of the metropolitan newspapers, the great corporate interests would never have ventured upon the impudent, lawless consolidation of business, for the suppression of competition, the control of production, markets and prices.
    Except for this monstrous crime, 65 per cent of all the wealth of this country would not now be centralized in the hands of 2 per cent of the people.
  • To control the American market is to own America.
  • When the Morgan and Rockefeller interests harmonized to consummate the great wrong, they well understood that they could not achieve their purpose against a hostile press. Hence they "took over" the newspapers.
    This does not necessarily mean the ownership of all newspapers. The perfection of the modern combination is little less than a Fine Art. Here again control is better than outright ownership. And control can be achieved through that community of interests, that interdependence of investment and credits which ties the publisher up to the banks, the advertisers, and special interests.
  • It has been well said that: "An enslaved press is doubly fatal; it not only takes away the true light; for in that case we might stand still, but it sets up a false light that decoys us to our destruction."
  • To befool and mislead the people, to falsify public opinion, is to pervert and destroy a republican form of government.
  • Free government is government by public opinion. Upon the soundness and integrity of public opinion depends the destiny of our democracy.
  • The supreme issue, involving all others, is the encroachment of the powerful few upon the rights of the many.

Quotes about La Follette

  • Robert M. La Follette, Sr., of Wisconsin, a ceaseless battler for the underprivileged in an age of special privilege, a courageous independent in an era of conformity, who fought memorably against tremendous odds and stifling inertia for the social and economic reforms which ultimately proved essential to American progress in the twentieth century.
    • John F. Kennedy, quoted in Edward Boykin The Wit and Wisdom of Congress. Funk & Wagnalls, 1961; also quoted in Robert S. Maxwell, La Follette, Prentice Hall, 1969.
  • Amid the rolling hills of Primrose Township in south central Wisconsin still stands the farmstead of Robert "Fighting Bob" La Follette, the most radical of America's turn-of-the-century progressives. As Wisconsin's governor and senator, and one of the most successful third-party presidential candidates in history, La Follette preached a militant gospel of opposition to corporate monopoly and the corrupting influence of special-interest money on American politics, along with unblinking support for the freedom struggles of women and minorities at home and dispossessed peoples abroad.
  • LaFollette had long been the subject of vitriolic newspaper attacks because of his stand against the big corporations and the system of which they were a part.
  • I believed that he represented the honest Americanism which flowed from the pioneers. He was for the farmers, whether Swedes, German, Swiss, Irish, or what; and for the industrial workers, native and foreign-born alike. His record was replete with activity in the interests of both. As District Attorney, as Representative in Congress, and as Governor, he had served intelligently and conscientiously. Speaking at county fairs, chautauquas, and other gatherings all over the state, he showed up the rottenness in his own party, exposed appalling inequalities in the Wisconsin taxing system, and the vital importance of public supervision of railroad rates. And now he won re-election as he had won all previous contests for public office. All the mud-slinging had failed to stop him.
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