Cover photo by National Photo Company.
June 14th was the 161st anniversary of the birth of Robert M. (“Fighting Bob”) La Follette, founder of our magazine. It has been 91 years since his death in 1925, but the spirit of Fighting Bob lives on today in the struggles for open and accountable government here in Wisconsin and around the nation. In Madison, Wisconsin, the annual Fighting Bob Fest will take place this year on September 17th.
Sixty-one years ago, in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of LaFollette's birth, Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren, came to Madison to deliver an address in his honor. Warren had been appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court only a year and a half earlier, but had already ruled on the historic Brown v Board of Education that led to the desegregation of public education.
Warren had only known La Follette in his final years, but had a great respect for his principled stands for democracy and peace. In his address, delivered on the steps of the Wisconsin State Capitol, Warren noted: “ [It took]Bob LaFollette, one of the last of our log cabin statesmen, to turn the searchlight upon our social problems and to grind out with mortar and pestle the answer to them. “
In his speech, reprinted in the August 1955 issue of The Progressive, Justice Warren went on to note: “he suffered the same treatment that courageous men of vision in all ages have suffered. He was called a radical, a disrupter, a socialist, a subverter . . .”
Quoting La Follette himself, Warren intoned,
"The supreme issue, involving all others, is the encroachment of the powerful few upon the rights of the many."
Today, we reproduce that historic speech:
THERE are times in the life of every public servant when the feeling of frustration becomes almost overwhelming. It is at such times that we come to know and appreciate the indomitable spirit of souls like that of Bob LaFollette. It was in that way I came to know him, although I assumed my first public office almost at the precise time of his death 30 years ago.
Some historian has referred to our state governments as 48 laboratories for the development of our institutions. I believe that to be true. The older states, of course, built the foundation for our system, but it remained for Bob LaFollette, one of the last of our log cabin statesmen, to turn the searchlight upon our social problems and to grind out with mortar and pestle the answer to them. And he suffered the same treatment that courageous men of vision in all ages have suffered. He was called a radical, a disrupter, a socialist, a subverter, and perhaps the only reason he was not called a Communist was because that term had not then been popularized as a term of opprobrium. But he was a lifelong Republican, steeped in the tradition of that party which was born in this state the year after his birth. He believed in the party system.
But he believed in parties and his party in particular as a party of the people — farmers, workmen, small businessmen; not as an oligarchy of dominant interests.
He believed in private property: "Property, whether the modest home of the artisan or farmer, or the great fortune of the masters of finance, if it be honorably acquired and lawfully used, is a contribution to the stability of government, as well as to material progress."
He believed in the private ownership of utilities, but he believed in regulating them for the public good:
"The owners of railroads and the holders of railroad securities must be protected in all of their rights. They must not be wronged in any way. They are entitled to such remuneration as will enable them to maintain their roads in perfect condition, pay the best of wages to employees, meet all other expenses incident to operation, and in addition thereto enough more to make a reasonable profit upon every dollar invested in the business. To preserve all these rights, they are entitled to the strongest protection which the law can afford."
He believed implicitly in our system of government and the system of free enterprise but he believed it belonged to the people, that it should not be shackled, and that every hindrance should be removed from it in order to enable it to progress so that it might produce a better life for every man and woman and their children. This is the way he stated the issue: "The supreme issue, involving all others, is the encroachment of the powerful few upon the rights of the many."
These are the undergirding principles of the Wisconsin idea of which he was the father. These were the motive power in his laboratory of human problems.
How detestable those experiments of his were to some people of his day. How commonplace they are now. How much a part of American life they are. These are some of them:
• The direct primary giving control over government to the people instead of to bossism.
• The corrupt practices act preventing the pollution of the election process.
• The establishment of a comprehensive civil service to destroy the spoils system.
• The registration of lobbyists act—not to prevent them from functioning but to bring them out in the open, because, as he said: "Evil and corruption thrive best in the dark."
• The equalization of taxation between the individual citizen and the powerful corporate interest. "Equal and just taxation," he said, "is a fundamental principle of republican government."
• An inheritance tax and a graduated income tax based on the ability to pay.
• The regulation of utilities to prevent indirect and unjust taxation from burdening the people.
• The right of working men to join unions and bargain for their rights. He was determined there should be no submerged class of industrial workers.
• The health and safety of the people through pure food laws and compensation for industrial accidents.
• The development of the University and a sound system of general education.
These were the ingredients of the Wisconsin Idea. It is for these things Bob LaFollette was called a "dangerous radical." Was it a radical program? Is it radical today? While it has found acceptance in the hearts and minds of most Americans, I am sure there are those who still believe it is radical, and are nostalgic for the so-called "good old days." There are still among us those who would call it socialism; those who refuse to make any distinction between socialism and social progress; those whom Lincoln described as being unable to distinguish a horse chestnut from a chestnut horse. There will be such in every generation. That is why under our system every generation must fight for the kind of society and economy it desires to have, and the standards of the government it is to live under.
If the Wisconsin Idea was radical it was so only in the sense that freedom itself is radical. And it was so considered when the founding fathers brought our nation into existence. It was radical only if the idea of government "of the people, by the people, for the people. . ." is radical. But also it must be remembered that the party of Bob LaFollette— the Republican Party — was considered radical when it was founded. Think of it. It proposed to prevent the spread of slavery; to open up the great public lands of this western country to settlement by families, and to give the average man a greater stake in society and in his government. That was radicalism when Bob was born.
Bob's difficulty came from the fact that he took the principles and platforms of his party at face value. He believed it was a party of the people and he determined to make it serve that purpose. But he realized that these things could not be done overnight. He wanted it done through reform. He wanted it all to come by peaceful means. He was not in a hurry to push the nation into reform for which it was not prepared. On the contrary, he said:
"Everything worthwhile takes time, and the years teach us all patience."
Again he was squarely in the American tradition, with its reliance on the idealism and innate reasonableness of men. He had an oldfashioned faith in the sovereign power of reason in human affairs. But preeminently, Bob LaFollette was a dissenter—a dissenter in the finest sense of the word. He did not dissent through mere obstinacy. He dissented in righteous indignation when he thought the objectives of our government were being subverted. He satisfied what is said to be the acid test of dissent, namely the ability to get itselfaccepted finally as the truth.
In this respect no statesman in our history has succeeded better. I have often wondered if he as a boy heard of the advice given by Disraeli to a young politician. When asked what he could best do to serve the public well, Disraeli replied: "Associate yourself with a just, but unpopular, cause." Often his voice sounded as one in the wilderness because the most successful and most respectable in the nation were carried away with the doctrine of laissez faire. They believed that our new industrial society, if not interfered with by government, would lead to Utopia for them. Bob LaFollette reminded them that merely an abundance of materials did not represent true progress; that progress implied the progressive enlightenment of the people, the humanization of our institutions, and the free application of intelligence in the evolution of society. He reminded them that in their enthusiasm for material gains they were breaking with the ideals of an earlier day. It was often a thankless task. But it needed to be said, and he said it.
How important it is that we keep alive this type of dissent in America! It is as important now as it was then. We must test all of our public actions by dissent. The majority does not always discover the right answer until it is so tested.
The term "Fighting Bob" to the uninformed might connote a man in uniform, a general or perhaps an admiral. Particularly would that have been true in days gone by when the history of nations was written in terms of their wars, their most glorious achievements in terms of battles won and their heroes in terms of conquerors of other people. Not so with Bob LaFollette. He was a man of peace; not a pacifist but a fighter for peace. He fought for peace with the same steadfastness of purpose that he fought for other things. He was not cowed by the majority view. He was satisfied to live with his own conscience. Yes, he was scathed for it, but he died with the respect of everyone.
Recently I participated in the unveiling of a statue of a former Chief Justice in the rotunda of our national Capitol. There were the images—two from each state—of the most beloved men and women of American history. I noticed that the vast majority of them were civilians rather than military men—statesmen, social workers, philanthropists, scientists, and humanitarians of various description. They were citizens of peace. In the forefront of these was the statue of Fighting Bob LaFollette, most beloved son of Wisconsin. Instantly my thoughts flew back to the turbulent days of his career, and then it occurred to me how understanding Americans are on sober second thought, how willing they are to make amends for harsh appraisals made in times of crisis; and how the objects of their lasting affection are those who tried to make life more rewarding for everyone. I could not help noticing how stalwart Bob LaFollette appeared in that company.