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“Fighting Bob” and the History of U.S. Progressivism
How digitized access to Robert La Follette’s papers promotes insight into progressive politics, then and now
For researchers of U.S. political history or progressive politics – historical and contemporary – Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette is a pivotal figure. And chances are, if you are at all interested in these areas, you’ve heard of La Follette, even if you aren’t aware of it. He’s basically the father of political progressivism.
One of the legendary reformers of the Progressive Era (1890-1920s), La Follette dedicated his career to tackling the issues that have defined this period in American history (and the progressive movement that persists in our times), such as labor reform, environmental protections, gender and racial equality and equitable distribution of the nation’s wealth and power.
We’re celebrating “Fighting Bob’s” birthday (he was born June 14, 1855) with the upcoming launch of a new collection from History Vault which encompasses the La Follette Papers housed by the Wisconsin Historical Society (WHS). This partnership between ProQuest and the WHS means that La Follette’s original correspondence, speeches, writings and Republican party records will be digitally available to researchers around the world.
The new History Vault collection provides convenient digital access to these documents, opening numerous research pathways into the history of political progressivism in the U.S., and the ways this history continues to unfold in current events.
Let’s take a look how and why these primary source documents are a trove of important information and insight on the life and legacy of “Fighting Bob” and the American progressive movement.
Getting to know Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette
A Wisconsin native, La Follette launched his career in law and politics at the end of the 19th century. He went on to represent the state in both chambers of Congress (he is often referred to as one of the greatest Senators in U.S. history) and served as it’s governor. In 1924, he ran for president, a nominee of the Progressive Party, which he founded.
“Under his leadership, Wisconsin was the first state to enact many reforms that became centerpieces of the progressive agenda,” historian Nancy C. Unger, professor and chair of the history department at Santa Clara University, recently wrote in an essay for ProQuest highlighting La Follette’s career and the value of the La Follette Papers for researchers.
“But Fighting Bob’s righteous fervor was not without consequence, and he suffered politically as well as financially, physically, and emotionally from the enormous pressure he exerted on himself,” she added.
Dr. Unger is the author of Fighting Bob La Follette: The Righteous Reformer,1 a comprehensive and compelling examination of La Follette’s personal life integrated with highlights of his complex career. In researching her book, Dr. Unger critically relied on documents from the Wisconsin Historical Society, which at the time required using the records on microfilm and travel to Wisconsin to study in the original – an expensive and time-consuming undertaking.
“Now, I marvel at the convenience and ease of use of this digitized collection from History Vault,” Dr. Unger wrote. “To be able to conduct in an instant a search using specific terms, to download documents, and to do so from a laptop anywhere – this is modern research at its most convenient and efficient!”
Access to the La Follette Papers deepens insights for scholars who use Unger’s book for important background and context in their research on La Follette, enabling them to directly consult the primary source documents she references to conduct their own analysis and develop their own conclusions.
Examining the infamous “Incident in Philadelphia”
For example, Dr. Unger devotes an entire chapter of Fighting Bob to the “Incident in Philadelphia” which occurred in the contentious lead-up to the 1912 presidential election. As La Follette sought the Republican nomination, a rift in the party pitted conservatives and progressives against each other, with tensions also flaring within each of these factions.
In this heated environment, and while plagued with health and personal worries, “Fighting Bob” was set to appear at the prestigious Periodical Publishers Association banquet in Philadelphia in February of that year.
Spoiler alert: it did not go well.
According to Dr. Unger, La Follette arrived for the event at 11pm, prepared to the deliver the next-to-last speech of the night, following Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson. She wrote:
La Follette began his speech with a gracious reference to Wilson, then announced in a hostile tone that he was going to read his forty-five-minute speech for two reasons: first, because his family had requested he do so in order to curb his tendency to lose track of time, and second, because he was tired of being constantly misquoted by the press.
Such an announcement was not well received by the crowd of about 600 in attendance. Dr. Unger explained they “were appalled not only at La Follette’s grossly insulting insinuation but at the prospect of being read to for forty-five minutes at so late an hour with still another speaker on the roster.” Picking up on this energy from the audience fed into his aggression as La Follette “denounced newspapers for abusing the trust of the people” – a message that was not well-received by the newspaper and periodical editors to whom he was speaking.
La Follette’s notorious long-winded public breakdown in Philadelphia killed any chance he had for the presidential nomination that year, and haunted him for the rest of his career. His behavior at this event continues to perplex historians. Researchers can find abundant analysis on what happened that night in sources such as newspaper and journal articles in addition to Dr. Unger’s book.
But with access to the La Follette Papers in History Vault, researchers can also examine other La Follette’s speeches first-hand from the period 1879-1906 and study them in the context of other primary source documents, such as La Follette’s correspondence. This enables exploration into how the tone of his 1912 speech to the publishers differed from his usual style, or how the themes and mood of this speech might have been echoed in earlier letters or memos.
“For La Follette, feminism began at home…”
In her essay for ProQuest, Dr. Unger also mentions La Follette’s radical commitment to gender equality. “For La Follette, feminism began at home with his wife, Belle La Follette, activist for civil rights, world peace, and women’s suffrage,” Dr. Unger wrote. “Theirs was a remarkable partnership between two equals.”
The content in the new History Vault collection can provide a glimpse into this partnership when explored in conjunction with primary source documents from another database, the Women and Social Movements Library, which includes a digital project edited by Dr. Unger called “How Did Belle La Follette Oppose Racial Segregation in Washington, D.C., 1913-1914?”2 This collection encompasses articles penned by Belle for publications such as The Housekeeper as well as La Follette, the magazine launched by “Fighting Bob” in 1909 to promote and elaborate on his progressive agenda.
In her column “The Color Line,” which appeared in La Follette and is digitally available in this collection, Belle had a platform to speak up and rouse outrage against the racial segregation of federal government offices as implemented by President Wilson’s cabinet. With racial tensions rife during this time in Washington, Belle “denounced segregationists, arguing that their actions violated principles of democracy, and she praised African Americans for their positive contributions to society,” wrote Dr. Unger in an introductory essay to the collection.
Access to primary source documents in the Women and Social Movements Library and History Vault’s La Follette Papers opens insight into the unique, ahead-of-its-time marriage of “Fighting Bob” and Belle La Follette as a partnership of intellectual equals. This content invites investigation into ways that the ideas and concerns Belle expressed in her writing appeared in the speeches and correspondence of her husband. Additionally, researchers might ask in what ways did Belle use her voice to advocate for her husband’s agenda? And on what topics related to race did La Follette and his wife seem to disagree?
This would be fascinating to explore how a woman who had not yet gained the right to vote might have exerted political power in her writing – and through her husband’s position – in the early 20th century.
La Follette’s legacy in contemporary politics
As previously mentioned, La Follette founded his own publication, La Follette’s Weekly (later simply known as La Follette’s) as a platform to lay out his radical ideas on labor reform, environmental protections, gender and racial equality and equitable distribution of the nation’s wealth and power.
The magazine continues to be published out of Madison, Wisconsin, though its name was changed in 1929 to The Progressive. Digitized issues of The Progressive, dating back to 1988 up to the most recent copy, are available from ProQuest Central, where a quick search reveals that La Follette continues to be frequently referenced in relation to political events and progressive issues of recent years, including the last U.S. presidential election.
In April 2016, an article by John Nichols, “What is a Progressive?,”3 noted similarities in the politics of then-Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and the magazine’s founder. Sanders, Nichols wrote:
retains the old-school progressive faith of La Follette who warned more than a century ago that "the corporation of today has invaded every department of business, and its powerful but invisible hand is felt in almost all activities of life." Just as La Follette spoke of "the old fight" between a privileged few wielding crony capitalist power and the great many holding true to the American ideal that all men and women are created equal, Sanders takes the long view.
"Let's be honest and acknowledge what we are talking about," Sanders says. "We are talking about a rapid movement in this country toward a political system in which a handful of very wealthy people and special interests will determine who gets elected or who does not get elected. That is not what this country is supposed to be about."
From this perspective, myriad questions arise: In what ways does Sanders tone, style and point of view reflect those of La Follette? In exploring other articles about current events in The Progressive, how do contemporary issues in progressive politics compare to the ones faced by La Follette over a century ago?
How interesting it would be to study recent issues of The Progressive alongside the documents from the La Follette Papers and see what themes emerge, and how La Follette’s legacy continues to inform and inspire progressive ideals.
For further research:
Read Dr. Unger’s essay and see additional resources for research into the Progressive Era, including a video that explores La Follette’s impact in The Progressive Era. (cta and link to landing page)
The Progressive Era: Robert M. La Follette Papers – from History Vault!
Archival collections documenting the most important and widely studied topics in eighteenth- through twentieth-century American history. The La Follette Papers are just one of the major content sets in History Vault documenting the Progressive Era. In October 2018, documents on Progressive Era reform and regulation will be added to History Vault. Other History Vault collections documenting the Progressive Era include Immigration records from 1880-1930, Margaret Sanger Papers, National Woman’s Party Papers and other records on women’s rights, records on labor unions, and the NAACP Papers chronicling the civil rights organization that was launched in 1909 by Progressive reformers.
Women and Social Movements Library
Created through a collaboration with leading historians, this collection contains nearly 400,000 pages of primary source documents and more than 200 related scholarly essays interpreting these sources. The powerful online content allows students and researchers to interpret historical materials in ways not possible in print media. Serving all levels of historical research, the Library makes often inaccessible primary sources accessible within a monographic focus that uses interpretative frameworks to contribute to historical knowledge.
The most comprehensive, diverse, and relevant multidisciplinary research database available. It provides access to databases across all major subject areas, including business, health and medical, social sciences, arts and humanities, education, science and technology, and religion. The collection includes thousands of full-text scholarly journals, newspapers, magazines, dissertations, working papers, and market reports all together on a powerful, user-friendly platform.
Drake, R. (2013). The Education of an Anti-Imperialist: Robert La Follette and U. S. Expansion.
Kann, B. (2014). Belle and Bob La Follette: Partners in Politics.
Nichols, C. M., & Unger, N. C. (Eds.). (2017). A Companion to the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.
Unger, N. C. (2015). Belle la follette: Progressive Era Reformer.
Media Rich Communications (Producer). (2004). The Progressive Era [Video file]. Retrieved from American History in Video database.
1. Unger, N. C. (2000). Fighting Bob La Follette: The Righteous Reformer. Available from Ebook Central.
2. How Did Belle La Follette Oppose Racial Segregation in Washington, D.C., 1913-1914?, by Nancy C. Unger. (Binghamton, NY: State University of New York at Binghamton, 2004). How Did Belle La Follette Oppose Racial Segregation in Washington, D.C., 1913-1914? (n.d.). Available from Women and Social Movements Library.
3. Nichols, J. (2016, 04). What is a Progressive? The Progressive, 80, 6-7. Available from ProQuest Central.