La Follette, Robert M. (1855–1925)

Author:Leonard W. Levy

Page 1557

Robert Marion La Follette was one of the few giants in the history of the United States SENATE, ranking with HENRY CLAY and DANIEL WEBSTER. Born in a Wisconsin log cabin, he was graduated from his state's university in Madison, began his legal practice there, and spent three undistinguished terms (1885?1891) in Congress. During the farmer-labor unrest of the 1890s, La Follette grew considerably more liberal, and in 1901 he entered the governor's mansion with a reform program later called the "Wisconsin idea." It became the basis of the Progressive movement. La Follette, always a Republican, advocated the direct PRIMARY ELECTION as a method of nominating candidates, MINIMUM WAGE AND MAXIMUM HOURS laws, trade unionism, the popular REFERENDUM, strict regulation of the rates and services of railroads and public utilities by government commissions of experts, and radical tax reforms. His success as governor led to his election in 1905 as a United States senator.

During his twenty-year career as a senator he rivaled THEODORE ROOSEVELT and WOODROW WILSON as an influence for political liberalism. The leader of the Senate's Republican insurgents, he exerted special efforts on behalf of increasing the powers of the Interstate Commerce Commission, energetic enforcement of ANTITRUST LAW, a federal income tax law, direct election of senators, and women's suffrage. After the Supreme Court decided STANDARD OIL COMPANY V. UNITED STATES (1911), La Follette denounced the RULE OF REASON and judicial usurpation of the legislative function. Unlike most Republicans he supported the appointment to the Supreme Court of LOUIS D. BRANDEIS; the two men were close friends, thought alike on most matters of political economy, and had collaborated in framing many reform measures. They differed on foreign policy. La Follette opposed American entry into WORLD WAR I and the League of Nations. Although unpopular for a while during the war, because of pro-German and pacifist sympathies, La Follette emerged from the war as the undisputed leader of American liberalism.

He excoriated illiberal decisions of the Supreme Court. When the Court held unconstitutional congressional measures against child labor and construed antitrust laws to cover trade union activities, La Follette began a national campaign to curb the Court. Because he opposed JUDICIAL REVIEW over Congress, he proposed a constitutional amendment that would have authorized Congress to...

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