Happy Birthday, Robert La Follette

MADISON, WI (June 14, 2018) — Robert La Follette, one of the most fiery and influential American politicians of the 20th century, was born on June 14, 1855, in a log cabin just outside New Glarus. He grew up in Argyle and later came to Madison as a struggling UW student well known for his campus pranks.

La Follette, the eventual architect of the Progressive movement, was also known for devising exploits that included putting a farm animal on the balcony of University Hall, stealing grapes from the experimental farm, and taking croquet sets from Ladies’ Hall. His academic performance was shaky. In fact, John Bascom, the university’s president, cast the deciding vote to allow him to receive his degree.

He excelled, however, at oratory. His abilities won him the Interstate Oratorical Contest. Those skills eventually became central to his political success as a reformer railing against machine politics, corruption, and the influence of monopolies and big business.

After gaining a UW law degree in a matter of months, he became Dane County district attorney and was elected to Congress at age 29.

After three terms, he returned to private practice and ran for governor three times before being elected in 1900. During that campaign, he gave 208 speeches in 61 counties, drawing large crowds. La Follette won and served until 1906, advocating for the nation’s first worker’s compensation system, progressive taxation, railroad rate reform, the open primary system, and the Wisconsin Idea.

From there, he went to the U.S. Senate, where he was known, even as a freshman, for evangelizing for Progressive causes and gained the nickname “Fighting Bob.” His vote against a declaration of war in 1917 made him unpopular in the run-up to World War I. “In times of peace, the war party insists on making preparation for war. As soon as prepared for, it insists on making war,” La Follette said.

In 1924 he formed the Progressive Party and ran for president. Although Calvin Coolidge won the White House, La Follette received nearly five million votes. Months later, he died in Washington at age 70.

In 1955, the Senate, which he called “the old rotten Senate,” hung his portrait in its reception room to honor him as one of the five most outstanding senators in U.S. history.

La Follette is featured in the Wisconsin Alumni Association’s Alumni Park, in its Alumni Way Leadership panel. The park, opened on October 6, 2017, is located between Memorial Union and the Red Gym on the UW–Madison campus. It is open year-round. For more information on the park, exhibits, and featured alumni, please visit alumnipark.com.

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Contact: Tod Pritchard, tod.pritchard@supportuw.org, 608-609-5217, @WisAlumni