Progressive Presidential Campaigns, Part 2

David B Morris
9 min readFeb 25, 2024

Robert La Follette and How His Career and Campaign for the 1912 Republican Nomination Showed Signs of The Worst Aspects of Progressive Virtues

He was a brilliant progressive. He was an impossible human being.

During the battle between Taft and Theodore Roosevelt for the Republican nomination a principled but arrogant Senator from Wisconsin hoped to serve as a compromise candidate and take over the roots of the progressive movement.

His name was Robert M. La Follette and he had already been the proud leader of the Progressive movement for more than a quarter of a century and would carry the banner long after most members of his party — and the country — abandoned the cause.

La Follette was born on June 14th 1855, the son of a pioneer couple in the new state of Wisconsin. His father Josiah as well as most of the La Follette family were members of the barely hatched Republican Party and full-fledged abolitionists. Josiah died before his son was a year old and he was essentially raised by his mother Mary.

The state of Wisconsin was quickly beginning to grow and Wisconsin quickly became one of the most Republican states in the country. His new stepfather, a prominent merchant, lost money in the business of and took his wrath out on his stepson. Though his mother took his stepfather’s name of Saxton, La Follette refused too.

He eventually studied at the University of Wisconsin, at the time the eleventh state to found a public university. During his tenure he would meet Belle Case, his future wife, who would become critical to his political life in a way that few political wives had been to that point. At the time the University President was John Bascom whose progressive principles became a guiding force for La Follette the rest of his life. Bascom promoted organized labor, the distribution of wealth, women’s suffrage and social and economic justice.

From an early age he became known as a gifted orator and in an era where oratory was as essential to politics as policy Robert La Follette was practically without peer. He was such a gifted speaker that he considered a career in the theater before moving to law. He became an attorney and in December of 1880 won his first elected office, District Attorney of Dane County. He made an aborted run for Congress two years later, but because of ill-health had to withdraw.

La Follette spent his entire political life plagued by illnesses, many of the common, some related to his gallbladder. Throughout his career he would work until exhaustion from the illnesses overcame him, then frequently rest for extended periods.

Two years later La Follette was elected to Congress for the first time, representing Dane County. From the start of his Congressional career he advocated fully for the rights of African-Americans, taking up the bar by previous Republicans such as Thaddeus Stevens and Benjamin Butler. He also advocated for women suffrage, an issue that the newly settled Western states were beginning to consider seriously. He also spoke avidly for the rights of indigenous people and began to put his principles into action. In 1890, he was one of the votes for the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. But even then he had a reputation as a trouble maker. Not long after Benjamin Harrison was elected to the Presidency, he wrote a long letter protesting the tariff which Cleveland had campaigned against. La Follette’s self-righteousness was one of many factors which would cost him a better chance at winning the Presidency later on.

He lost reelection in 1890, but one year later after an incident that involved bribery, he determined that he would fight against corruption in every form. In the 1890s, he began to take on the cause of the direct primary, then considered a blow against the party machines that controlled every aspect of the government across the country. He declined a position in William McKinley’s administration to fight for his ambitions in Wisconsin. In November of 1900 those ambitions were realized when he became the first Wisconsin-born governor.

La Follette’s ambition — known as ‘The Wisconsin Idea’ — was the most progressive any governor had tried for their state to that point. It called for the restriction of lobbying and campaign activities, the improvement of public education, the regulation of food, child labor, and workman’s compensation, and the curbing of monopolies. An ambitious agenda, it showed some of La Follette’s far more unattractive side as he got the reputation as being a browbeater and a messiah complexes, refusing to accept responsible for the enemies he made, calling it betrayal. As a result the majority of his reforms would not be adapted in Wisconsin until after his tenure as governor.

The ascension of Theodore Roosevelt to the White House after McKinley’s assassination gave La Follette and his fellow Progressives hope that his agenda would soon receive nationwide interest. In 1906 he was named to the Senate and returned to Washington where he would reside for the rest of his political career.

Almost from the moment he arrived, La Follette would clash with Roosevelt, a pattern that would last with every subsequent President. It had not helped that while La Follette had been governor, he had refused multiple meetings with the President and found most of his policy — while revolutionary to the Old Guard — tepid reforms and called him an insincere grandstander. In this we see what would become a constant problem of the progressive never satisfied with the White House no matter what the circumstances, though at the time it was more built on professional rivalry. Roosevelt believed that leadership came from preserving order between the old guard and the radicals like La Follette. When La Follette presented a bill and spent two hours defending to TR, the President pointed out that it would never get through Congress. La Follette told him that passage of the bill was not his first consideration. “But I want to do something,:” TR said. The clash between idealism and pragmatism has been something that the extremists have never been able to reconcile, and it was certainly true in the case of La Follette. The idea of half a loaf, the whole purpose behind democracy and government, was something that La Follette refused to accept.

In 1908 with TR announcing he would not seek a third term, La Follette began a campaign to win the Republican nomination. However, he refused to delegate any responsibility for it, choosing to fight for it in the Senate by attacking multiple bills. At one point he engaged in a record setting filibuster that lasted more than nineteen hours against a bill that was an emergency currency reform. When the bill passed anyway, he refused to acknowledge defeat. His campaign was a disaster as he received only 25 votes at the Convention (all but one from Wisconsin).

Halfway through Taft’s term, the number of elected Progressives were beginning to grow, particularly in the Senate. The movement he had been advocating for was growing nationwide and he was becoming one of the biggest voices for Progressives in elected office. But even then some were beginning to think La Follette was taking on a messiah like complex. Hiram Johnson, a California progressive who would run with TR in 1912 on the Bull Moose Ticket summed it up: “There were those with us who thought the pain of the world was in their special keeping and that we did not with sufficient rapidity apply the remedies that should eliminate this pain. There were others who believed they bore the weight of the world on their shoulders and after 1910 in their omniscience desired to direct the exact political course we should steer.

La Follette spent much of 1911 trying to convince TR to join the National Progressive Reform League, a League that despite having many noble principles (including the direct primary, direct election of Senators and amendments for the initiative and the recall) was also meant to keep Taft from winning the Republican nomination. La Follette constantly cancelled meetings with TR out of envy of Roosevelt and his reluctance to share the limelight with anyone. The two men were too much alike to ever get along, but because Roosevelt had a nationwide popularity that La Follette could never match, he refused to compromise.

La Follette declared his candidacy in July of 1911 and for many months it was thought he had a real chance. However, he could not avoid the specter of TR who had not yet declared but for whom many considered La Follette a stalking horse. Then in January of 1912, at a dinner for the Philadelphia Publishers, La Follette gave a speech that almost certainly killed any chance of winning the nomination.

He was already nervous about it, and his anxiety was not helped by his young daughter’s impending surgery. Before he began the speech (after giving a pleasing reference to Woodrow Wilson who was in attendance) he took out his speech and told everyone he was going to read it for two reasons. The second was the most harmful: he was constantly upset at being misquoted by the press. It was a tactless and insulting remark to the newspaper heads that were there, and he instantly lost any respect from his audience.

Observers described the speech of La Follette, normally a master orator as tedious, inappropriate and extreme. He used his platform to attack the newspapers whose heads were in attendance, and he repeated himself multiple times . At a certain moment, his hostile audience began to put him and chant for him to ‘get out’. Ill from exhaustion, La Follette left the stage and vomited. He then got on a train back to DC to make sure he could observe his daughter’s surgery. The reception in the papers in the aftermath was worse, with many thinking that he was drunk or even insane.

La Follette’s campaign was crippled and was enough to convince many wavering moderates to go to Roosevelt. Despite that La Follette insisted on continuing his campaign for the nomination, hoping that the existence of the Presidential primary which twelve states had adopted might be enough to help him.

He won the North Dakota primary (the first one) with nearly 58 percent of the vote to TR’s 39 percent. In Wisconsin, he swamped Taft by a margin of nearly three to one. He also campaigned well in Illinois and Oregon. But many of his fellow progressives were unimpressed. When La Follette arrived in California — where his decision to keep his name on the ballot had already cost him influential supporters — he ran a bitter campaign against Johnson and George Norris, fellow Progressives who thought there was a better chance winning with a united party.

In the space of a few months La Follette had sacrificed the general but less devoted approval of the powerful many for the passionate, even fanatical support of the devoted few. This appeal, sadly, has become the driving force of so many primary campaigns run by the extremists of members of both parties. He continued his behavior at the Republican National Convention. With only 36 delegates, he refused to ally with the Roosevelt forces at the convention. When the convention was over, he insisted to the press that neither Taft nor Roosevelt had honestly won enough delegates. Even after Roosevelt left to form the Bull Moose party, La Follette refused to endorse him or Taft, essentially sitting the campaign out.

La Follette’s unwillingness to bend was as much a factor in the breakdown of the Progressive coalition in the GOP as TR’s decision to form his own party. His decision not only cost him a leading role in the Progressive movement that followed but any chance he might have ever had in the future of becoming President. Had he been willing to merely sit out the battle between Taft and TR, he very likely could have been the Republican nominee for President in 1916. He might have been able to help his own ambitions had he been willing to reconcile with Roosevelt in the aftermath. But he refused to acknowledge the limited support of his agenda, was unwilling to compromise or delegate authority and his dedication to principles whatever the cost would lead to his political undoing.

That said La Follette’s ambitions for the Presidency were not done nor was the Progressive campaign over. In the next article in this series, I will deal with the remainder of La Follette’s career in Washington, and the circumstances that led to his own third party run in 1924.

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David B Morris

After years of laboring for love in my blog on TV, I have decided to expand my horizons by blogging about my great love to a new and hopefully wider field.