Follette commenced his legal career as a Dane County District Attorney in 1880. He served in the position for two terms before being elected as the United States House of Representative which he served for three terms.
In 1890 elections, Democrats landslide victory led Follette to lose his Republican seat. Following the defeat, he returned to Madison and began his career in law. It was during this time that his reputation as a reformer developed.
Year 1891 was a turnaround year for Follette. A bribe offered to him by a Senator Philetus Sawyer, a state Republican leader, led him to declare war against Republican Party. He swore to fight against powerful businessmen and corrupt politicians.
To counter the vices of venality, Follette built an independent organization within the party that stressed on voter control. His created Republican faction, known as Insurgents, was basically against the stalwart faction of the party.
Follette’s Insurgent group slowly gained much prominence and by 1894 fought for leadership control from the Republican Party. His tax reform policies, demand for corporate regulation and political democracy, direct voter control and consumer rights gained him much limelight. He became noted for his natural charm, organizational capabilities and oratory skills.
In 1900, Follette was elected as the Governor of Wisconsin. He won re-elections in 1902 and 1904, thus serving in the position until 1906. As the Governor of Wisconsin, Follette came up with a number of progressive reforms such as first workers' compensation system, railroad rate reform, direct legislation, municipal home rule, open government, minimum wage, non-partisan elections, direct election of U.S. Senators and so on.
His most important contribution was developing new political techniques, the first of which was the Wisconsin Idea. Through the technique, he commissioned leading political science professors from the University of Wisconsin to draft bills and administer state agencies.
Follette’s second greatly popular political technique “Roll Call” i.e., he travelled through Wisconsin and read the votes of Stalwart Republicans to the people in an effort to elect Progressives. It was basically aimed at making citizens aware of how their representatives were voting on key issues.
Follette’s Wisconsin Idea and Roll Call led to the passage of several progressive reforms that were earlier thwarted by the state legislature. His reputation grew as a pioneering progressive.
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In 1906, Follette resigned as the Governor of Wisconsin. Same year, he was elected as the US Senator. In the new position, he campaigned for child labour laws, social security, women’s suffrage and progressive reforms. He rose to fame as a senator ‘not controlled by special interests’.
During the initial years as a senator, Follette helped the passage of several laws including freight rates, labour policies and financing practices of the railroads. He realized that the entire economy of the nation was predominantly controlled by a few stalwarts. With time, Follette shifted his focus from railroads to bankers
In 1909, together with his wife, Follette founded the La Follette’s Weekly Magazine, which later became a monthly. The periodical was later named The Progressive. It campaigned for progressive causes. In the same year, Follette was appointed as the leader of newly elected and newly converted progressives in Congress.
In 1912, Follette campaigned and tried to get Republican Party’s ticket for the U.S Presidential elections but ultimately lost the party ticket to William Howard Taft.
Follette raised his voice against America’s involvement in World War I. He believed that the war would ruin American reputation and that the country should withdraw from taking any side. He led the 1917 Senate filibuster against arming U.S. merchant ships and voted against the war declaration. It was for his anti-war claims that he was adjudged pro-German.
Despite his obstinate opposition, America entered the World War. During the war, Follette defended the civil liberties and insisted that wealthy corporates should pay for the war as he believed that the warfare was only profitable for the big business corporations.
Post World War I, Follette directed his energy towards exposing corruption of large corporations. He believed that the war had given big business houses and corporates a large control over the federal government. To fight the same, he exposed several scandals. In 1922, he was re-elected to the Senate.
In the 1924 presidential elections, Follette accepted nomination on the Progressive ticket. His candidature was supported by farm groups and labour organizations. Socialist Party too supported his presidential run. Follette, however, lost the presidential seat to Calvin Coolidge.
Personal Life & Legacy
Follette first met Belle Case, his future wife, at the University of Wisconsin. The two tied the nuptials on December 31, 1881, at her family home in Baraboo, Wisconsin. The couple was blessed with four children.
Follette breathed his last on June 18, 1925 due to cardiovascular disease. As the time of his death, was the United States Senator from Wisconsin. He was buried in the Forest Hill Cemetery.
Follette’s legacy was carried over by his two sons, Robert Jr. and Philip who entered politics as Progressives. While Philip played a prominent role in Wisconsin politics as governor, Robert, Jr. succeeded senior Follette’s seat in the US Senate. Robert was re-elected thrice, serving in the position until 1947.
Posthumously, several portraits, busts, statues and paintings that adorn various sites of America memorialize his contributions in American politics as a Governor of Wisconsin, US Senator and leader of the Progressive Party.
His house in Maple Buff has been honoured as a National Historic Landmark. Madison, Wisconsin has a school that bears his name. Additionally, one of America's top schools for public affairs, located at the University of Wisconsin-Madison bears his name.
He is one of five outstanding senators memorialized by portraits in the Senate reception room in US Capitol.