Robert M. La Follette and the Insurgent Spirit

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Univ of Wisconsin Press, 1985 - Biography & Autobiography - 211 pages
Robert M. La Follette and the Insurgent Spirit is a closely argued, lively, and readable biography of the central figure in the American Progressive movement. Wisconsin's "Fighting Bob" La Follette embodied the heart of Progressive sentiment and principle. He was a powerful force in shaping national political events between the eras of Populism and the New Deal
 

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The purpose of David Thelen's book appears to be to acquaint the student with the impact which Robert La Follette had on American politics during the first quarter of the twentieth century and to give some idea of the political system in which he was forced to operate, heavily influenced as it was, by the powerful railway and shipping companies.
David Thelen tells us that Robert La Follette was born in Wisconsin in 1855 and that his father died when he was only a few months old. La Follette was brought up on a Wisconsin farm, which he took over and ran when he was only fifteen. His family was not wealthy and he financed his own university education by running a student newspaper. He soon became known for his oratory skill and sense of drama. In order to marry, La Follette became a practicing lawyer in 1880. In 1884 he ran for congress and established himself in the national political field in 1885.
It seems that Robert La Follette began the Progressive movement, which challenged the right of the wealthy and privileged to power, during the 1880s. It became a formal party, the National Progressive Republican League, under his leadership in 1912. La Follette was elected Governor of Wisconsin in 1900. His idea, Thelen explains, was to find out what the people wanted, and give it to them.
La Follette was successful in many campaigns, amongst them a 1907 bill to reduce railway workers' hours and a 1910 bill for extra lifeboats on ships, to safeguard the passengers and crew, following the Titanic disaster. He also promoted a bill for free speech in 1918.
David Thelen's presentation of La Follette's life and legal and political career is enlivened by the use of anecdote and quotation, such as the furious remark by a defeated lawyer, and the impassioned description of La Follette as a defense lawyer which was reported in the Wisconsin State Journal in 1900.
We are shown a picture of a fearless and fiery man, who also had a sensitive personality, cared about the people and remained true to his beliefs, despite illness and adversity, and who never wavered. He was not afraid to stand alone, when others dared not support him and seems to have been a politician with such an abundance of that rare quality, genuine sincerity, that even his opponents admired him.
However unpolitically minded a reader may be, it is not possible to read this book without learning something about the political nature of Robert La Follette's life, for Thelen effectively shows us that politics was La Follette’s life. Also that people believed in La Follette, because he made things happen for them. When he died of a heart attack in 1925, it was not without reason that David K. Niles of Boston called Robert La Follette "our greatest American".
David Thelen's book is closely packed with information about this vibrant man and succeeds in its objective. He writes on a level which is easily understood, and with an exceptional clarity.
Lucilla Maclaren Spillane
 

Contents

The Making of an Insurgent 18911900
16
The Insurgent as Administrator 19011905
32
Presidential Politics and the Tragedy
79
Insurgency in a Modernizing World
101
Insurgency in a Revolutionary World
125
Insurgency in a PressureGroup Society
155
Presidential Politics and the Death
179
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About the author (1985)

David P. Thelen is distinguished professor emeritus at Indiana University. His many books include Becoming Citizens in the Age of Television and The New Citizenship: Origins of Progressivism in Wisconsin, 1885 1900.

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