Fighting Bob and Wisconsin – Happy Birthday to a Movement

Robert M. LaFollette (Fighting Bob) was born on this day in 1855. One hundred and fifty-seven years after his birth, the movement he founded is re-emerging from a long dormancy under strikingly similar circumstances. As Progressives, Democrats, Socialists, Liberals, or whatever you consider yourself in this struggle against the corporatic takeover of democracy; it is incumbent upon us to learn from Fighting Bob’s experiences and history – as it is now repeating itself. A century ago, Robert M. LaFollette showed us the way, and it has since been lost. On his birthday, an homage to Fighting Bob…in the hope that his ideas will again lead us and the progressive movement forward.

LaFollette emerged from a rural Wisconsin farming life into politics during the great capitalist industrialization period of the mid-to-late 1800’s. The powerful Robber Barons, monopoly/trust conglomerates, and political machines deregulated industry and banks; creating unprecedented wealth and prosperity for themselves – at the expense of all others. In 1893 a severe depression began as a bankers’ panic, causing one-fifth of all Wisconsin banks to fail in that one year. The bank failures cascaded into merchants, farmers, manufacturers, and full-scale depression set in by Summer.

By Winter of 1894, more than one-third of Wisconsinites were unemployed, and those remaining employed faced severe wage cuts by employers. Meanwhile, the “gilded age” continued with lavish parties, expensive yachts, homes, cars, and clothes for the extremely wealthy. From a Milwaukee Sentinel editorial of the time:

“The ostentation of the rich is a leading source of such discontent as we have among us. Men are rightly feeling that a social order like the present, with its enormous wealth side by side with appalling poverty, cannot be the final form of human society.”

Into this economic situation, Robert M. LaFollette emerged from serving as Dane County District Attorney, to Congress, to being elected Governor of Wisconsin in 1900. His term as U.S. Senator from 1906-1925 continued his championing of progressive values at the federal level. He has been named one of the most influential members in the history of the Senate. In addition to the biographical link above, The State Historical Society has a wealth of biographical and archived information.

LaFollette campaigned and was elected in spite of the Republican machine, money, and power against him. His methods were true grassroots; touring the state, meeting face-to-face, and creating a bond of trust with the people – who then carried that faith and trust to their friends and neighbors. It was a grueling, year-round venture – and caused him to fall ill several times along the way. But LaFollette knew the importance of the struggle – evident from a speech given in 1912 in Philadelphia:

“The great issue before the American people today is the control of their own government. In the midst of political struggle, it is not easy to see the historical relations of the present Progressive movement. But it represents a conflict as old as the history of man – the fight to maintain human liberty, the rights of all the people.

A mighty power has been builded up in this country in recent years, so strong, yet so insidious and far-reaching in its influence, that men are gravely inquiring whether its iron grip on government and business can ever be broken.

Again and again it has proved strong enough to nominate the candidates of both political parties. It rules in the organization of Legislative bodies, state and national, and of the committees which frame legislation. 

Its influence is felt in cabinets and in the policies of administrations, and is clearly seen in the selection of judges upon the Bench.

In finance its power is unlimited. In large affairs it gives or withholds credit, and from time-to-time contracts or inflates the volume of money required for the transaction of the business of the country, regardless of anything but its own profit.

It has acquired vast areas of the public domain, and is rapidly monopolizing the natural resources. And this THING has grown up in a country where, under the Constitution and the law, the citizen is sovereign!”

LaFollette’s reforms as Governor included the first workers’ compensation system, railroad rate reform, direct legislation, municipal home rule, open government, the minimum wage, non-partisan elections, the open primary system, direct election of U.S. Senators, women’s suffrage, and progressive taxation. He created an atmosphere of close cooperation between the state government and the University of Wisconsin in the development of progressive policy, which became known as the Wisconsin Idea. The goals of his policy included the recall, referendum, direct primary, and initiative. All of these were aimed at giving citizens a more direct role in government. The Wisconsin Idea promoted the idea of grounding legislation on thorough research and expert involvement. To implement this program, La Follette began working with University of Wisconsin–Madison faculty. This made Wisconsin a “laboratory for democracy” and “the most important state for the development of progressive legislation”. As governor, La Follette signed legislation that created the Wisconsin Legislative Reference Library (now Bureau) to ensure that a research agency would be available for the development of legislation.

The progressive fiscal reforms had remarkable impact on the state, and in his autobiography, LaFollette wrote in 1911 of the facts “to show that Wisconsin, instead of being retarded by progressive legislation, is advancing more rapidly than the country as a whole.” 

1. 1904 recodification for examination of state banks – Zero state bank failures from 1904-1911 (of 573 banks). $27 million in capital, surplus, and undivided profits. 

2. 1903-1911 saw an increase in bank capital of 72%; by contrast, US banks saw increase of only 48%.

3. 1900-1910 saw clearing-house exchanges in Milwaukee increase 117.5% – a greater increase than in Chicago, and above the US increase of 106%.

4. 1900-1909 saw total liabilities for business failures in Wisconsin drop by 5.3%. In the US, the failure liabilities increased by 33%. 

Said LaFollette of these policy successes : These are a few of the conclusive proofs that progressive legislation in Wisconsin has not been destructive, as its enemies have predicted. Instead of driving capital out of the state it has attracted capital more than other states. It has made investments safe for all, instead of speculative for a few. “

While the times have changed, and the world grown smaller, the circumstances and need for progressive legislation and values to battle the corporate takeover of democracy are the same. The success of this movements’ rebirth and sustainability – necessary for future generations – is in all of our hands. Real, grassroots education, messaging, campaigning, strategy and momentum will be required year round at a sustained level from now on. The model and history of “Fighting Bob” is there for us to follow – if we are Winter Soldiers, even after defeat in the recall,  in the heat of Summer.



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