The History of Robert M. La Follette
By Jessica Rieder
It’s common knowledge that our school was named after a real person, Robert M. La Follette, but it’s not necessarily as clear as to why he was chosen to be memorialized by our school. La Follette was a born-and-raised Wisconsin politician who created great change in the political parties. His achievements were considered particularly important, which is why he holds one of two state statues from Wisconsin that sit in the National Capitol.
La Follette was born on a farm in Primrose, Wisconsin on June 15, 1855. He was the youngest of five children, and his father died less than a year after he was born. That left his mom to take care of all five children, and she eventually remarried to a wealthy, older merchant named John Saxton when La Follette was seven. Saxton, being seventy years old at the time of the marriage, died ten years later. HIs mother and oldest sister then proceeded to move to Madison. In 1875, La Follette began his college career at UW-Madison, and in 1879 he graduated as a Badger. His time at UW-Madison was very impactful for him. He gained strong influence from the university president, switched to vegetarianism, and the met his future wife. His soon-to-be wife named Belle Case ended up having great influence not only on La Follette’s ideology but also the feminist and women’s suffrage movements.
La Follette started his political career in 1880, when he was admitted to the state bar association and won the election for district attorney for Dane County, Wisconsin. He was taken under the wing of George E. Bryant, a wealthy Republican businessman and Madison landowner. Four years later, in 1884, he won the election for the United States House of Representatives, and became the youngest member of the 49th United States Congress. At age 35, he lost his seat in what was called the 1890 Democratic landslide. He then returned to Madison to begin a private law practice, but that didn’t stick. In 1891 he was said to have had a political epiphany when offered a bribe, and exposed it publicly, leading to the building of his own coalition. In 1894, La Follette’s coalition had zeroed in on the Wisconsin Governor’s office. First, the coalition suggested Nils P. Haugen as their candidate, but he was defeated. Two years later in 1896, La Follette ran and lost to Edward Scofield. In 1898 he ran again, receiving defeat at the hands of Scofield again. Then, in the 1900 election, the third time proved to be the charm and La Follette won the election for Governor, with just under sixty percent of the vote. While in office, he had a reform agenda focused on implementing primary elections and reform of the state’s tax system. He was re-elected in 1902 and 1904, promising in his 1904 campaign that he wouldn’t resign as governor. Later, in December 1905, La Follette resigned as governor to accept a seat in the Senate he had been arranging throughout his 1904 campaign. He started off very strong as a progressive leader in the Senate, and by 1908 had his eyes on the presidency. He tried to gain the Republican vote for many years, and then in 1924 finally ran as a third party nominee. He lost and died a year later in Washington D.C. due to cardiovascular disease.
As Lancers, we should know the history behind our school and community. “If we don’t know about who we were named after, then we can’t take pride in it,” Paige Craig (12) said. “We’re better than East and West because they’re just named after directions.” By knowing what sets us apart from other schools, we can set ourselves apart in excellence. Be proud, Lancers, and learn about your Lancer history!