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Fighting Bob La Follette : the righteous reformer /
Nancy C. Unger.
Chapel Hill : University of North Carolina Press, c2000.
xiii, 393 p. : ill., map ; 24 cm.
080782545X (alk. paper)
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Chapel Hill : University of North Carolina Press, c2000.
080782545X (alk. paper)
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Includes bibliographical references and index.
A Look Inside
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Robert "Fighting Bob" La Follette (1855-1925), the Wisconsin governor and U.S. senator, was one of the most significant leaders of American progressivism. Nancy Unger integrates new details from La Follette's personal life with important events from his storied political career, revealing a complex man who was a compelling mixture of failure and accomplishment, tragedy and triumph.
First Chapter

Chapter One


For a man who would be strongly associated with the dawning of modern, industrialized, urbanized America, Robert La Follette was born in 1855 into an astonishingly different time. Although La Follette would come to witness firsthand the rise of the Soviet Union, in the year of his birth Alexander II became czar of Russia. The glories of antebellum America were celebrated that same year in Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass , an anonymously published new collection of poems including "Song of Myself." Precursors of the modern age, events that would more directly impact the life of Bob La Follette (and that he would impact in return) included the creation of America's first oil refinery, in Pittsburgh. The public's attention, however, was riveted on the brutal armed conflict over slavery in the newly formed Kansas territory, a series of incidents so violent they came to be known as "Bleeding Kansas." These dramatic incidents presaged the Civil War that would tear the nation apart and ultimately aid in the transformation of a predominantly rural, agricultural nation into an international industrial giant.

    Robert La Follette lived out the ancient Chinese blessing (or is it a curse?), "May you live in interesting times," beginning with his birth, on 14 June 1855, in the township of Primrose, Wisconsin, a state which only seven years before had graduated from territorial status. No real understanding of La Follette or his life's work can come without an appreciation of his diverse and complex home state. Not yet "America's Dairyland," as proclaimed by its current license plates, Wisconsin could nevertheless already boast a long and unique history. Although much of its geography (and almost all of its 8,500 lakes) was the result of glacial movements during the last Ice Age, roughly a quarter of the state's 35 million acres was protected from glaciers. The result is a unique variety of landscapes that, prior to the coming of French explorers, were home to an estimated 20,000 Native Americans, most notably the Menominee and the Winnebago. Following encroachment by white trappers, traders, and farmers and the climactic defeat at the Battle of Wisconsin Heights in 1832, the relocation of the territory's tribes west of the Mississippi River proceeded with relatively few disturbances. Wisconsin, bereft of much of its native population, was awash with succeeding waves of new immigrants. By midcentury, the entire country was on the move (with one American in four moving across state lines), and a disproportionate number of its migrants were moving to Wisconsin. Migratory patterns were rarely simple, and instead involved a series of moves, as farms and homesteads were established only to be abandoned in a restless search for greener pastures.

    Robert La Follette took great pride in his pioneer beginnings. Living in an era filled with big business and big corruption in big cities, he stressed his humble birth -- in a log cabin, no less -- as proof of his inherent sturdiness, plainness, and integrity. His heritage was solidly American in the romantic tradition, the trail of his ancestors into Wisconsin long and complex. His maternal great-grandfather, a Scottish farmhand named John Fergeson, settled in North Carolina after crop failures and political oppression forced him to leave northern Ireland. Joseph Le Follet, La Follette's paternal great-grandfather, was a prosperous silk manufacturer who migrated to the Isle of Jersey after the massacre of St. Bartholomew in the sixteenth century. Le Follet's first wife, whose name remains unknown, was a Catholic who had escaped a convent school in France and was secreted out of the country in the traveling carriage of an English couple, customers of Jean Le Follet, Joseph's father. Despite her parents' opposition, she and Le Follet married around 1765. The couple emigrated to a French Huguenot colony near Newark, New Jersey, wherein 1767 they produced one child, Isaac, before the young woman's death.

    Both Joseph Le Follet and John Fergeson fought against the British in the American Revolution. During the war the Le Follet family name underwent the transformation to its current spelling. (According to family legend, an ancestor named Usual was surnamed Le Follet, "the Reckless," near the end of the twelfth century because of personal bravery in the local provincial wars, and the name, as a family cognomen, was retained permanently.) "Le Follet" became "La Follette" following the arrival of Joseph's three brothers in America in 1776. The brothers were part of a French crew financed by the Marquis de La Fayette to bring supplies from his estate and help fight the British. All four brothers participated in the battles of Brandywine and Yorktown, and all but Joseph agreed to demonstrate their loyalty to La Fayette by changing the spelling of their name from the masculine to the feminine form. Joseph resisted this change, listing his first four children in the family Bible as "Le Follet," but eventually came to conform with his brothers, listing his five subsequent children as "La Follette." It is not known whether the brothers Americanized the pronunciation of their name when they altered the spelling, but their descendent, Robert La Follette, would "have none of the French pronunciation," insisting that the accent be placed on the penult [lah-FALL-it].

    John Fergeson returned to North Carolina after his Revolutionary War service. His son, also named John Fergeson, left in 1807 to farm in Indiana with his wife, Mary Green, a native of Maryland. There, on 22 November 1818, Robert La Follette's mother, Mary Fergeson, was born. Joseph La Follette moved from New Jersey to Virginia, but later he and his brothers traveled to Hardin County, Kentucky, where they settled permanently. Joseph's son Jesse, born in 1781, married there and fathered eleven children, including Josiah, Robert La Follette's father. Neighbors of the La Follettes included Thomas and Nancy Lincoln, parents of Abraham Lincoln. Thomas Lincoln and Joseph La Follette were appointed, among others, to appraise the estate of a deceased neighbor. In 1828, when Josiah was eleven, Jesse's family moved to a farm in Putnam County, Indiana, where Joseph's brother Usual had moved years before.

    In Putnam County, La Follette's parents, Josiah La Follette and Mary Fergeson, began their courtship and became engaged. They made a striking couple, for Josiah was a robust, swarthy man who stood about six feet tall, towering over his four-foot ten-inch fiancée, an attractive blue-eyed, light-haired woman with fair skin. At some point Mary's brother married one of Josiah's older sisters. Mary nevertheless broke off her engagement to Josiah following a "lovers' quarrel," and he returned to his boyhood home in Kentucky where he engaged in agricultural work. In 1840 Mary, then twenty-three, wed Alexander Buchanan, a farmer. Their daughter Ellen had not yet been born when Buchanan was killed at a barn raising. Mother and daughter remained on the farm. According to family legend, someone coming from Indiana brought a paper with a notice of a party attended by the widow Buchanan. This social note was communicated to Josiah La Follette, a fine carpenter, as he was working on a roof: "He came down off the house, took off his apron, hung it on the ladder and said, `I am going back to Indiana and marry the widow Buchanan.'" Return he did. Mary and Josiah married in 1845 and remained on the Buchanan farm until 1849, when Josiah's five unmarried brothers bought or preempted (gained right to purchase a public tract of land) 840 acres within an area three miles square in the township of Primrose, in southern Wisconsin, and sent favorable reports back to Indiana. Thus, Josiah and Mary, together with their two small sons William and Marion, and Mary's daughter Ellen Buchanan, came to settle, via two covered wagons and a covered buggy, in Wisconsin.

    The pioneer experience in Wisconsin has been popularized for modern audiences, especially children, by Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House in the Big Woods . Set in the sparsely populated, central eastern portion of Wisconsin territory, the Ingalls family bravely endured the elements and eked out a living trapping, fishing, and hunting amidst the Big Woods (Wisconsin's woodlands then covered roughly three-fifths of its northern area). Southern Wisconsin, new home of the La Follette family, offered a very different kind of pioneer experience. Although generally classed as rolling and fertile, the lands of southern Wisconsin offered a challenging range of soils, streams, thinly covered rocks, and elevations that made farming far less lucrative in some areas than in others. But natural lottery schemes such as these were nothing new to the La Follette clan, nor to most of their neighbors. More than two-thirds of Wisconsin's 1840 territorial population was under thirty, and these youthful seekers of a better life seemed resigned to early trials and setbacks.

    Despite the leadership of an American-born minority, Wisconsin during its territorial period was a vast mosaic of loosely associated ethnic communities. Irish immigrants began arriving in the 1830s. They were joined by many of their fellow citizens as the toll of the potato famine accelerated, beginning in 1845. Protestant Scotch-Irish, some of them of Huguenot origin, also came to Wisconsin, as did Cornish miners (drawn by its rich lead fields), but the prevailing nationalities in territorial Wisconsin were British, German, Irish, Norwegian, and Swiss. By 1845, a reported quarter-million acres of farmland had been sold to the Germans alone. Following statehood in 1852, official efforts were successfully made to attract other immigrant groups, including Armenians, Belgians, Bohemians, Danes, Finns, Greeks, Hungarians, Icelanders, Italians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Poles, Russians, and Swedes. These additional nationalities made more intricate the existing multi-ethnic mosaic. One of the tiniest minority groups in Wisconsin was composed of African Americans, totaling only l,171 by 1860, less than one-fifth of 1 percent of the state's population. While they were denied a number of rights and privileges, including the franchise, they were allowed to marry whites, own property, attend public schools, and serve on juries. This mosaic of ethnic and religious heritages produced a unique and complex political character, a character Robert La Follette would grow up with and understand perhaps better than any politician before or since.

    Due to his relatively late arrival in Dane County, a Norwegian stronghold since 1846, Josiah La Follette was forced to buy or preempt his 360 acres in three unadjoined lots. Josiah, like his brothers, was hardworking and quickly became a successful farmer. He owned and read a great number of books and, not content with mere financial success was also, like his brothers, politically active. The La Follettes were a well-educated clan as well. (The Indiana branch boasted seven lawyers, five physicians, and several ministers.) All were ardent abolitionists and members of the newly formed Republican party, an antislavery coalition of Northern Whigs, independent Democrats, and Free Soilers. Josiah added to his responsibilities in 1852 when, less than two years after his arrival in Primrose, he was elected town clerk, receiving all thirty-six votes cast. Tragedy struck Josiah and Mary that same year with the death of their three-year-old son, Marion, an event not uncommon in these pioneer times of crude conditions and frequent epidemics. The following year marked Josiah's reelection to office and the birth of a daughter, Josephine. In 1854, Josiah was elected assessor and on 14 June 1855 was presented with a son, Robert Marion La Follette, called Bob.

    At the time of Bob's birth, both parents were thirty-eight years old. Ellen Buchanan was fourteen, William was eight, and Josephine was two. Josiah had for ten years been married to the woman who had been the sole object of his desire and who had for so long eluded him. Although Mary La Follette later told Bob that his father had been an agnostic, a neighbor remembered the entire La Follette family attending services at the Free Baptist Church in Postville. Whatever Josiah La Follette's religious beliefs, his neighbors respected him, and he had advanced rapidly up the political ladder, having been recently elected town chairman. Financially prudent, he was said to have been an intelligent, determined man of integrity and strong will.

    Josiah La Follette's death, despite the ministrations of family physician William Fox, came in February 1856, brought on by a complication of pneumonia and diabetes. His dying words: "I am not afraid to die, but I don't like to be forgotten." Bob was only eight months old. Josiah's widow wanted her husband buried with Marion, the toddler who had died three years before. Marion's coffin was removed from a hillside on the farm, brought into the house and opened. Family legend has it that the child's face was perfectly preserved, only to fall to ashes. Father and son were then buried in a single grave, the son under the father, in the nearby Postville cemetery on Green's prairie. This dramatic story was to be recounted to Robert La Follette, who would attempt to reenact it nearly forty years later.

    Mary and the children were bequeathed one of the best farms in the county, and the surviving La Follette brothers provided what aid they could. One brother, William, undertook the building of the frame house planned by Josiah. Another brother, Harvey, carried out the balance of Josiah's unfinished term as town chairman. During the first three years of her second widowhood, Mary La Follette was uncertain about staying in Primrose. In 1858, she and Bob visited relatives in Indiana, where she might have resettled her family had a neighbor, Dean Eastman, not provided a solution to her problems. Eastman married Ellen Buchanan, bought some of the La Follette land, and agreed to run the farm for half the profits. Diligent and ambitious, by 1860 Eastman had made the La Follette farm the second most valuable in all of Primrose. This new sense of security allowed Mary to remain in Wisconsin to raise her family.

    Inaccurate accounts of Robert La Follette's early childhood abound. One sketch reports that at the death of his father, "the care of the whole family of several younger children fell upon Robert as the eldest son. For several years he supported the entire family." La Follette's own accounts are dramatic but vague. He begins his autobiography with his experiences in 1880, when he was already twenty-five years old, mentioning only that he had never known his father and that he had his mother and sister to support, contributing to the impression that he had taken sole responsibility for the family at an early age. In truth, the farm under Josiah La Follette had been more prosperous than most, and Dean Eastman compounded the profits by producing butter for sale. The extended family lived under one roof, and Eastman, an energetic and popular man, treated his young brother-in-law with affection. Although Bob's half sister Ellen was a living reminder of his mother's rejection of his father in favor of another man, young Bob displayed no resentment toward her. Despite the large difference in their ages and the physical distances that later separated them, the two corresponded infrequently but regularly throughout their lives and freely expressed care and concern for one another, their spouses, and their families. Neighbors, too, paid enough attention to Bob to remain vividly in his memory.

    Bob did not lack for male attention, but the people to whom he was closest throughout his childhood, indeed his lifetime, were women. "He was a tremendous favorite with ladies," a neighbor remembered of the youthful La Follette, "despite the fact that he was very mischievous.... They adored the handsome little bunch of energy that seemed all springs and fire." La Follette spoke openly of his dependence upon the women in his life: "My widowed mother was a woman of wise judgment, my sisters were my best friends and advisors, and in all the work of my public life my wife has been my constant companion." Bob doted on his sister Josephine, whom he called "Jo" or "Josie" and to whom he wrote in 1901: "From my very earliest recollections of childhood you were the other half.... Then as we grew older the companionship grew, if possible, closer. You knew all my hopes, ambitions, disappointments, and discouragements and shared them all. Without you and that dear spirit our sainted mother to encourage, to inspire with fortitude, to sacrifice and struggle for and with me I should have fallen far short and perhaps have failed all together in the work I am in some measure accomplishing as my part of life. Dear dear sister let us round out whatever there may be left to us in life in that close identification of feeling and interest and personality which makes all the past such a sweet and tender memory to us now."

    It was not always possible for the brother and sister to maintain such intimacy in adulthood, but they remained exceptionally close. Before his marriage to Belle Case, Bob expressed his joy that she and Jo had exchanged correspondence and resolved "they will love each other as sisters." In 1913, he wrote to Jo, "We shall always understand each other." Belle resembled Jo to the point that callers sometimes confused the two women. Jo's husband, Robert Siebecker, became Bob's law partner, and when the La Follettes' son Philip entered the University of Wisconsin, he lived his first year with "Uncle Robert" and "Aunt Josie." Bob wrote of his sister and brother-in-law, "No better man and woman ever lived in all this world. No one was better to their own parents, their own children, their own kin, their friends, their neighbors--and all whose lives they have touched in any way." Bob's lifelong dedication to Jo was reciprocated, for Robert Siebecker once confided in Phil that Jo's first love throughout her life was her own brother rather than himself. A letter from Jo to Bob reinforces that conviction: "Bob my dear brother I wonder if you know just how thoroughly my life and happiness is wrapped up in yours. We are more closely knit together I am sure than most brothers and sisters."

    Despite his attachment to Jo, Bob's strongest love during his childhood was for his mother. His memory of her was always "singularly fervent." He referred to his first seven years as "happy and normal" and told his wife that during those years "he worshiped his mother and never questioned the depth and warmth of her love. When she punished him he never resented it; his feeling was to throw his arms about her and beg forgiveness. She could not resist this sort of appeal. So long as she lived there was this perfect bond of mutual understanding between them."

    Bob remembered as a boy accompanying his mother on "all occasions," including church activities, neighborhood festivities, and visits. In 1903, a pair of mittens from a supporter evoked the memory "of a sainted mother as she wove the soft yarn of her spinning over her shining needles, for the protection and comfort of the loved ones at home. And there comes back again to me tonight the beautiful thoughts and precepts which she knitted into my life as good counsel ever kept pace with the work of her busy hands." Robert La Follette committed no mention of his mother's faults to print. They come instead through stories he would later tell his wife, Belle Case, and are augmented by Belle's own recollections of her mother-in-law. While her daughter-in-law called Mary a noble woman of great character and large soul to be emulated -- industrious, capable, generous, prudent, fastidious, a fine seamstress, excellent cook, nurturing gardener, and capable nurse -- she also commented on Mary's lack of schooling and poor grammar, her sarcasm, and the fact that she would "fret and scold" about little things. A neighbor recalled Mary La Follette as "an intelligent woman, not very demonstrative, particularly toward her children whom she ruled strongly by her quiet force of character." Some of Bob's earliest memories revolved around feelings of anxiety about his mother. He told his wife "he often pictured the sad journey his mother made on that cold, dreary day" of his father's funeral, for his mother "often recounted her suffering to her children."

    Like the great many of the children left bereft of a parent in the mid-nineteenth century, Bob was protective, possessive, and manipulative of his remaining parent. His mother, however, insisted that Bob worship his father's memory and emulate his life as much as possible. Above all, she stressed her late husband's integrity, his devotion to doing "right." At a very early age Bob was saddled with a great and unending responsibility: he must never do anything to dishonor his father's name. Family pride, said Bob, had been worked into his character by his mother. "It was the thing that she emphasized when she talked with me about my father."

    It was not unusual, then or now, for a parent, by stressing the deceased parent's most admirable characteristics, to encourage a child to create a positive vision of the absent parent. What is striking in the La Follettes' situation is the frequency and stridency of Mary's insistence. This was not the case of a mother simply wishing to ensure that a fatherless boy would harbor fond feelings toward an unknown father. Rather than supplying reassurance, Mary's urgings engendered anxiety. The impact of Mary La Follette's directive on her son cannot be overestimated. "The fact that he had no early memory, not even a picture of his father," wrote Belle La Follette after her husband's death, "was a source of much grief and heartache in his childhood, and of deep regret all his life." In order to emulate his father and to try to discover what behavior would have been pleasing to him, Bob went to extreme measures to satisfy his relentless desire for information about this idolized figure. Thoughts of his father, Bob later told his wife, were always part of his consciousness, even in his extreme youth, and his devotion to his memory was, in her words, "almost morbid." Bob spent his lifetime seeking the approval and acceptance of this phantom father, whom he had "thought of ... by day and dreamed of ... at night." At the age of twenty-four, Bob revealed in his diary the source of his impassioned search, both professionally and personally, for approval and his great desire to do and be "right": "[I]n my imagination I am standing beside my father's grave--Oh[,] my idolized father[,] lost to me before your image was stamped upon my child-mind--nothing left me but your name! What would I not give to have known the sound of your voice, to have received your approval when it was merited. How much pain & hardship & strife could have been spared to mother could you have kept at her side! How much unknown joy been added to our home had it been unbroken. How altered have been the whole course of my life had it not received this cruel stroke from the hard hand of fate!"

    In 1894, following his mother's death, Robert La Follette enacted this vision of standing at his father's grave. Bob and his brother William returned to the Green's Prairie cemetery at Postville to witness the disinterment of their father's remains in order to rebury them in Madison next to their mother's. When the grave digger discovered that the coffin had long since disintegrated, Bob, raised on the story of the perfect preservation of his dead brother's remains, carefully removed the remnants of his father's skeleton. In an interview twenty-six years later La Follette remembered, "Most of the principal bones of the skeleton were found and some of my father's hair." He carefully gathered the remains of both his father and his brother, wrapping them in paper before transporting them to Madison. According to family friend Dr. Cornelius Harper, who assisted at the reburial in Madison, Bob La Follette unwrapped the relics and laid them out on a piece of canvas on the ground. Although many bones were missing, the skull and teeth (in a "remarkable state of preservation"), thigh bones, and others were easily identifiable. "Bob studied the relics carefully," discussing them in great detail with Harper. "He asked me many questions," Harper recalled, "and looked at the remains from different angles and points of view. He seemed to be very intent on ... reproducing in imagination the form of his father as he must have looked in life." La Follette noted his father's prominent forehead, and the hands and feet, small like his own. The tuft of hair received special notice: "It was long, of a slightly auburn hue and streaked a little with gray but it appeared to be of a very luxurious growth and to have still retained its waviness." "Harper recalled that he "could ... see where Bob received his luxurious and wavy hair." Only after "an hour or two" of intense study did La Follette place the relics in a new coffin lined with cotton batting and close the lid for reburial.

    A number of traits that would mark the character of Robert La Follette throughout his life emerged from his relationship -- or, rather, his keenly felt lack of relationship -- with his father. La Follette's image of his father as a totally righteous man was never tarnished by the words or actions of the real man, human and, therefore, flawed. Righteous perfection is a mighty daunting aspiration, no matter how urgently one is entreated to achieve it, but Robert La Follette would come to take up this challenge with a vengeance. Even as a youth, he began laying the groundwork. His mother's insistence that he constantly seek his father's approval was, of course, impossible, so La Follette sensibly did the next best thing. Although generally more trusting of women, he formed strong bonds with older men who resembled his father physically or morally and constantly looked to others for reassurance, approval, disapproval, punishment, and reward.

    As a child, Bob La Follette was described as "irrepressible," "extroverted," "agile," "mischievous," and "social"; a short little boy with "a notable penchant for mischief." He was never handicapped by shyness and claimed to have made his first public speech between the ages of three and four at an entertainment at the local schoolhouse. So short he had to stand on the teacher's desk to be seen, he recited:

You'd not expect one of my age

To speak in public on the stage.

His proclivity for public speaking, fantasy, and drama lasted Bob a lifetime as he entertained friends, family, and public audiences with his oratory and acting abilities, skills especially appreciated in this pre-film, pre-television age.

    Bob's playmates were the children of various neighbors, most of whom had emigrated from Norway. Playing soldier was a popular pastime, for news of the impending Civil War had deeply impressed all of Primrose. However, the distance between neighbors often made it impossible for the children to get together, increasing the mutual dependency of Bob and Jo. Bob thrived on perpetual activity and yearned for appreciative audiences for his variety of antics. He started school at the age of four, probably the combined result of his own desire to be with Jo and with other children throughout the school day and of his mother's belief in the value of education. Although Mary La Follette declared in her petition to the court probating her late husband's estate that her income was "a very small remuneration indeed for the support and education of said three children," she nevertheless swore that whenever her finances forced her to sell some of the family land, she would use the income to finance the children's education.

    The excellent education Mary La Follette desired for her children was difficult to attain in antebellum Wisconsin, but not impossible. In 1859, the year Bob La Follette began his formal education, the minimum school year was only three months, to be expanded to five in 1866. Whenever possible, Mary La Follette sent her children to private school, but even in an overcrowded country public school, young Bob La Follette stood out. Little record exists of Bob's scholastic performance at the Primrose district school, but in 1896 he received a letter from his former teacher, Carrie Baker Davenport. She remembered him well and was quite emotional about her longings for the "good old days" of Primrose. She ended her reminiscences with this plea: "Now Robbie please you just get down from the heights to which you have climbed and give me a few moments just as you used to when you combed and fixed my hair just to your fancy. Oh, Robbie, do you remember? I shall never forget."

    This is the earliest recorded instance of Bob's penchant for hairdressing. He enjoyed taking an active role in the appearance of others, for physical appearance was always important to him. While florid physical descriptions of major characters in the biographies of the day were common, even those individuals who play relatively insignificant roles in La Follette's 1912 autobiography merit a fairly detailed portrait. He found tall, massive, dark-haired, dark-eyed men to be "fine types" and seldom failed to make note of a beard--all characteristics, he had been told, of his unseen father. (As a young man, Bob himself sported, at various times, a mustache and a full beard, but was clean shaven during his last thirty years). As an adult, Bob had a tendency to equate aspects of his late father's physical appearance with character and integrity: "My first impression of [Grover] Cleveland was extremely unfavorable. The contrast with [Chester] Arthur, who was a fine handsome figure, was very striking. Cleveland's coarse face, his heavy, inert body, his great shapeless hands, confirmed in my mind the attacks made upon him during the campaign."

    Bob's fair complexion, blue eyes (he called them "dark blue or gray"), and small stature marked his resemblance to his mother rather than his father. Even as a child he affected a pompadour to give the illusion of greater height, the hair style that was later to become his trademark. Bob was quite vain about his hair and his later diaries reveal two recipes for hair tonic. His vanity did not cease at the hairline. Bob's personal letters and interviews are peppered with references to his fine or "manly" appearance. Although in 1911 he did allow that "I ain't quite as good lookin' as I was [in 1894], but I know a lot more," he paid great attention to his clothing and personal appearance throughout his life. Called "the most fastidious dresser in the Senate," he was said to have strutted rather than walked. He carried on lengthy correspondences detailing his displeasure and exact requirements for alteration if he judged a photo-plate or engraving to be unflattering. A related absorbing interest that also lasted a lifetime was La Follette's preoccupation with physical strength, something his father was said to have possessed in great quantities. Many interviewers, particularly during his later years, mention the senator's urging them to feel the muscle in his arm. This preoccupation too can be traced to his childhood, for young Bob was a champion wrestler, a sport he greatly enjoyed from a very early age.

    Thus, by the time he was seven years old, certain key elements of Bob La Follette's personality were clearly in evidence. To ease some of his unique, potentially crippling childhood burdens, he had begun to establish certain relationships and behaviors, including special attention to physical appearance and, more significantly, a fledgling but fierce drive to live up to his mother's directive that he do "right" in order to merit approval. Despite the elements of tragedy in these years, they constituted a comparatively peaceful period in light of what was to immediately follow.

Copyright © 2000 The University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Library Journal on 2000-08-01:
Robert M. La Follette (1855-1925), Wisconsin governor and U.S. senator, was a giant among progressive-era (1880s-1920s) reformists. He and Belle Case La Follette, his wife, relentlessly championed the political and economic rights of workers, women, minorities, farmers, and the poor while assailing racial and sexual discrimination and industrialists' overwhelming influence in Congress. Unger (history, Santa Clara Univ.) mines voluminous collections of private papers and documents to reveal La Follette's dynamism, childhood, married life, recurring illnesses, and sense of righteous perfection and his progressive ideas (e.g., the direct election of senators), which are now part of American civic culture. Unger also explains how events like the Titanic disaster and the 1912 presidential election influenced La Follette's political plans. A worthwhile purchase for academic and public libraries, Unger's critical biography hints that today's America desperately needs democratic, grass roots- oriented politicians of high caliber like La Follette. Recommended for public and academic libraries.DCharles L. Lumpkins, Pennsylvania State Univ., State College (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Appeared in Choice on 2001-02-01:
Unger (Santa Clara Univ.) has produced an interesting and notably personal account of the life and times of Wisconsin's famed Progressive reformer. One questions whether another volume on La Follette is really necessary, since a number of fine accounts of "Fighting Bob's" political ascent are still readily available, as is his own autobiography. Unger, however, quickly reveals her book's worth, making use of personal papers and letters as well as published primary sources from the time. The chapters on his presidential bids in 1912 and 1924 are especially interesting, and good analyses of his hopes and motivations are provided. His opposition to US entry in WW I, for which he was publicly vilified and in which he later felt completely justified, is examined fairly and accurately. An interesting feature of Unger's work, missing from most accounts, is a tracing of the family pedigree through future generations, chronicling Robert Jr.'s, assumption of the elder La Follette's senate seat after the latter's death in 1925, son Phil's election as governor in 1930, and even the rise of later kin such as grandson Bronson La Follette, Wisconsin's attorney general. Upper-division undergraduates and above. S. K. Hauser; Marquette University
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 2000-08-11:
One of America's most important Progressive-era leaders, Robert Marion La Follette (1855-1925) was an uncompromising advocate for workers and the poorÄboth in Washington, D.C., as a senator and representative, and in Wisconsin, as governor. This new biography, by historian Unger (Santa Clara University) elegantly weaves together the story of La Follette's family life with his heralded career. The two strands of his life merge best through Unger's account of his marriage to Belle Case La Follette, whom Unger calls "[o]ne of the most... politically influential spouses in American history." Although that may overstate the case (Belle doesn't really appear to be in the same league as Eleanor Roosevelt or even Abigail Adams), her independent spirit did help shape her husband's career. Having refused for years to commit to marrying BobÄopting for the women's suffrage lecture circuit insteadÄshe was instrumental in getting her husband to think about women's rights. Unger's narrative is riveting even when she is considering political history straightforwardlyÄthat is, without the charms of family anecdotes. Under La Follette's governorship, she recounts, Wisconsin led the nation in Progressive reformÄthe state adopted the direct primary, passed an antilobby law, reformed civil service statutes, enacted land conservation regulations and reined in the railroads and utilities. A politician who put the well-being of the American people over petty party politics, La Follette, Unger argues, prefigured the New Deal era. This passionate, engaging and scholarly book may not alter the fact that Americans have largely forgotten about La Follette and his legacy, but it does a good job trying. Illus. (Sept.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review Quotes
An interesting and notably personal account of the life and times of Wisconsin's famed Progressive reformer.Choice
An interesting and notably personal account of the life and times of Wisconsin's famed Progressive reformer. Choice
Unger is a good storyteller, and her lively writing and strong sense of narrative move the book along at a brisk, enjoyable pace.Wisconsin Magazine of History
Unger is a good storyteller, and her lively writing and strong sense of narrative move the book along at a brisk, enjoyable pace. Wisconsin Magazine of History
Unger's biography gives us a survey of the public life and private struggles of this flawed giant.American Historical Review
Unger's biography gives us a survey of the public life and private struggles of this flawed giant. American Historical Review
Unger's narrative is riveting. . . . [A] passionate, engaging and scholarly study.Publishers Weekly
Unger's narrative is riveting. . . . [A] passionate, engaging and scholarly study. Publishers Weekly
Unger's voice remains subdued and objective throughout the book, but La Follette manages to leap from its pages.New York Times Book Review
Unger's voice remains subdued and objective throughout the book, but La Follette manages to leap from its pages. New York Times Book Review
This item was reviewed in:
Library Journal, August 2000
Publishers Weekly, August 2000
Booklist, October 2000
Choice, February 2001
To find out how to look for other reviews, please see our guides to finding book reviews in the Sciences or Social Sciences and Humanities.
Main Description
Robert "Fighting Bob" La Follette (1855-1925) was one of the most significant leaders of American progressivism. Nancy Unger integrates previously unknown details from La Follette's personal life with important events from his storied political career, revealing a complex man who was a compelling mixture of failure and accomplishment, tragedy and triumph.Serving as U.S. representative from 1885 to 1891, governor of Wisconsin from 1901 to 1906, and senator from Wisconsin from 1906 to his death in 1925, La Follette earned the nickname "Fighting Bob" through his uncompromising efforts to reform both politics and society, especially by championing the rights of the poor, workers, women, and minorities.Based on La Follette family letters, diaries, and other papers, this biography covers the personal events that shaped the public man. In particular, Unger explores La Follette's relationship with his remarkable wife, feminist Belle Case La Follette, and with his sons, both of whom succeeded him in politics. The La Follette who emerges from this retelling is an imperfect yet appealing man who deserves to be remembered as one of the United States' most devoted and effective politicians.
Main Description
Robert "Fighting Bob" La Follette (1855-1925) was one of the most significant leaders of American progressivism. Nancy Unger integrates previously unknown details from La Follette's personal life with important events from his storied political career, revealing a complex man who was a compelling mixture of failure and accomplishment, tragedy and triumph. Serving as U.S. representative from 1885 to 1891, governor of Wisconsin from 1901 to 1906, and senator from Wisconsin from 1906 to his death in 1925, La Follette earned the nickname "Fighting Bob" through his uncompromising efforts to reform both politics and society, especially by championing the rights of the poor, workers, women, and minorities. Based on La Follette family letters, diaries, and other papers, this biography covers the personal events that shaped the public man. In particular, Unger explores La Follette's relationship with his remarkable wife, feminist Belle Case La Follette, and with his sons, both of whom succeeded him in politics. The La Follette who emerges from this retelling is an imperfect yet appealing man who deserves to be remembered as one of the United States' most devoted and effective politicians.

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