Skip to main content

La Follette: The Promise Unfulfilled

June 2024
19min read

One day in July, 1904, Lincoln Steffens, the great muckraking reporter of McClure’s Magazine , appeared quietly in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on the trail of a big story. Steffens had won a well-deserved reputation as an exposer of what he called The Shame of the Cities; now lie was studying coirupt state politics, and the Wisconsin “machine” of Governor Robert M. La Follette was next on his list. He arrived in Milwaukee convinced that despite a lot of fancy talk about “reform,” La Follette was a “demagogue … a charlatan and a crook.”

Steffens’ first informant was a prominent banker. When asked for evidence of the Governor’s corruption, the banker could not contain himself. La Follette was a “crooked hypocrite” and a “socialist-anarchist”; he was ruining Wisconsin. But the banker was too angry lo present a reasoned indictment. Next Steffens turned to a local railroad lawyer. Though this man had better control of bis temper, bis detailed analysis of La Follette was studded with words like “fanatic,” “boss,” and “actor.”

Presently, Steffens moved on to Madison to confront the Governor directly. He was met at the Capitol by a man approaching fifty, short and stocky but so brimming with vitality and enthusiasm that he appeared taller than he actually was. He had a shock of brown hair sparingly decked with gray and a (hick bull neck. His lips were sensitive, his eyes calm, his forehead noble. His strong chin and square, muscular jaw reflected a person who habitually set his teeth hard in the face of opposition. Somehow he projected an image which combined kindliness with strength, immense energy with serenity “I spirit. The Governor literally ran to greet Steffens, assuming that any reformer would come as a friend. He insisted upon bringing him home to dinner, where Mrs. La Folletle and the children offered a warm welcome, also taking it for granted that Steffens was on their side. But the journalist, still unconvinced, did not respond to these advances. Instead he arranged to interview La Follette at length about his whole career.

His faith in the people and his battle for needed reforms made “Fighting Bob” Wisconsin’s idol. But in Washington his own peculiar limitations stunted his image and cost him the Presidency

Thus it was that Lincoln Steffens learned the story of one of the most remarkable personalities of modern times, a man who, finding the state of Wisconsin a satrapy controlled by a handful of lumber barons and hack politicians, changed it into a great laboratory for democratic reform, the home of the “Wisconsin Idea.” That he would also help to wreck the whole Republican party and deliver it for a long generation into the hands of its own tight wing neither Stellens nor La Follette himself could possibly have known in 1904.

It was a fascinating tale that the Governor related to Stellens. Born in a log cabin at Primrose, Wisconsin, in 1885, he was accustomed to farm life and in later years prided himself on his ability with scythe and plow. He had also developed a wide assortment of other skills; for example, he was a first-class carpenter and an expert barber. As his wife. Belle, explained, Bob seemed to pick up special skills “without anybody’s knowing when or how.” He also had a strong intellectual bent, and had worked his way through the University of Wisconsin. As a student, he did well; also, he was so remarkably successful in campus theatricals that he seriously considered making the stage his career. But his primary ambition was to be a “statesman,” and after graduation he went on to law school and then entered politics.

From the start he was a rebel. In 1880, after being admitted to the bar, he declared himself a candidate for the Republican nomination for district attorney in his home county. The local party boss, Postmaster E. W. Keyes, had other plans. He took La Follette aside and in a firm but kindly way told him that another man had already been decided upon for the job. The young lawyer had neither money nor influence, but the fighter in him was instantly roused. “I intend to go on with this canvass,” he told Keyes, “and I intend to be elected district attorney. …” He intensified his campaign at once. “I traveled by day and by night,” he later recalled. “I stayed at farm-houses, I interviewed every voter in the county whom I could reach.” These tactics paid off. The boss coidd not control his own convention, and La Follette was nominated. In the election, although the angry Keyes supported a Democrat, La Follette carried the district.

This victory established the pattern of his career. Always within the framework of the Republican party (he became a warm admirer of William McKinley), he made his way independently and against the opposition of the Wisconsin Republican machine. Diligent campaigning at the grass roots and a reputation for honesty, courage, and faithful service to his constituents enabled him repeatedly to defy the local powers. He exposed the chairman of the party’s state committee, who had been robbed while dead drunk in a Madison hotel room and had later sought to hush the case up. When various politicos tried to have minor legal cases quashed for influential friends, he refused to go along. Later, when U.S. Senator Philetus Sawyer, the powerful lumber king, offered him a “retainer” in a case where Sawyer stood to lose over $150,000, La Follette indignantly announced that the Senator had tried to bribe him.

La Follette was elected to Congress in 1884, after another battle with the Republican machine. In Washington he was a model legislator, attending sessions faithfully, caring for the needs of his constituents, and diligently seeking to master the complications of public issues upon which he felt himself inadequately informed. When he was placed on the unimportant Committee on Indian Affairs, for example, he swallowed his disappointment, bought a small library of secondhand books on Indians, and soon became an expert on the subject. One is reminded of the youthful Bryan (for a time his colleague in the House) laboring to master tariff and monetary problems.


Although by no means a radical at this period, La Follette made a name lor himself as an uncompromising foe of “pork-barrel” legislation and of business interests like lumber companies and railroads seeking fat land grants and other special favors from Congress. But after three terms he was defeated in the Democratic tidal wave of 1890 and forced to resume his law practice back home.

He then began a ten-year struggle to gain control of the Wisconsin Republican party. He spoke everywhere in the state and wrote countless letters—1,200 in a single campaign on behalf of his friend Nils P. Haugen. He conducted a “county fair crusade” to win the support of the rural people. Frustrated by the bosses in his efforts to win the gubernatorial nomination, he made the direct primary one of his chief demands, attracting national attention with a brilliant oration on “The Menace of the Political Machine,” at the University of Chicago in 1897. Finally, in 1900, he could no longer be denied. He won the nomination for governor and was easily elected.

Still, for a time, the bosses managed to frustrate his program of reform. A primary bill was smothered in the state senate, and a scheme of his 10 increase railroad taxes failed in the lower house. Re-elected in 1902, La Follette was able to force through the primary hill (subject to popular ratification at the next election) and to obtain sonic revision of the railroad tax structure. His broad plan for a powerful railroad commission was defeated, however, despite a tremendous 181-page special message by the Governor explaining why the commission was needed. In 1904, sensing ihat their day would soon be over if La Follette were not stopped, the conservatives made a supreme effort to defeat his bid for a third term. It was at this critical point that Steffens came to Wisconsin.

Steffens was a cynic. Long experience had led him to believe that all politicians were interested primarily in power and position. “Reform” was the cry of the demagogue; Steffens personally preferred the forthright scoundrel to the hypocrite posing as a friend of “good government.” But his conversations with La Follette convinced him of the Governor’s honesty and good intentions. His story, published in the October McClure’s , no doubt contributed to La Follette’s re-election the following month, a victory that enabled the Governor eventually to carry out his entire program. But Steffens’ help was really of minor importance: by 1904, years of struggle had made “Fighting Bob” a master politician and a brilliant public leader in his own right.

Under La Follette Wisconsin became, in the words of Russel B. Nye, “the proving ground” of twentieth-century Progressivism. “The Wisconsin Idea” became famous. Actually the “Idea” was more a practical program than a theory, but whether as theory or as example, it had a remarkable impact on other slates and in time on the federal government. It made the political machinery more directly responsive to the popular will. Besides the direct primary law, Wisconsin by 1914 had a corrupt practices act and laws restricting lobbying and excessive campaign expenditures. Furthermore, much was done in the way of social legislation: purefood, child-labor, and workingmen’s-compensation laws were passed, and the educational system was greatly improved. New regulatory commissions were set up to protect the public against economic exploitation by “the interests.” Finally, the tax structure was overhauled, and the burden of paying for these reforms distributed more equitably. A tax commission, headed by the able Nils Haugen, was established, and slate income anil inheritance taxes were added to the heavier levies on corporations. Small wonder that the party bosses—and even many unbossed conservative Republicans—did not go along quietly.

Not all of these programs originated in Wisconsin; indeed, some of the basic Progressive ideas, such as the initiative and referendum, were not enacted there. What really made “the Wisconsin Idea” so influential was the comprehensiveness and practicality of the program and the effective way it was administered. For this La Follette deserves most of the credit, even though much of what was done came after he left the governorship for service in the U.S. Senate.

It was in this great forum that Robert Marion La Follette was to make his mark upon America; there he would serve, through one of the country’s most exciting periods, until his death. To understand this later career, in prospect so promising, in the end a promise unfulfilled, it is necessary to examine the formidable strengths—and important weaknesses—he brought with him on his return to Washington.

To begin with, he was an exceptionally fine public speaker. While only a small child he was in demand at picnics and other rural social gatherings where formal recitations were in order; at college he won an interstate oratorical contest. As a political speaker, his only fault was longwindedness: he could go on for hours at a stretch, and usually did. His performances, often staged beneath a blazing summer sun, drew heavily on his stamina; he reported upon occasion becoming so giddy from the heal that he almost lost the thread of his argument, and he suffered so from blistered feet that he finally bought himself some cool white canvas shoes. His wife, worried by the strain of such ordeals, gave him an alarm watch and made him promise to set it for two hours after he began speaking. Yet he seldom allowed the tinkling alarm to stop him. “I talked too long & beg your forgiveness,” he wrote her after a speech in San Francisco. “My audience held on till 12 o’clock and would not let me stop!” He might talk endlessly, but always to a purpose; his speeches were solid with statistics, concrete illustrations, vivid arguments. A famous photograph (top, page 77) catches his spirit. “Fighting Bob” stands ramrod straight upon a simple farm wagon, a fistful of papers in one hand, the other extended toward the open sky in a defiant gesture. He is militant, determined, a crusader, a doughty champion, a tribune, a standard bearer.

And if he spoke too long, his audiences were seldom bored. “After Bob began,” his wife once wrote, “it seemed to me no one moved until he had finished.” And an observer who heard him at the 1897 Winnebago County Fair said: “The speech made a profound and lasting impression on me. … I was a Democrat and always before that lime I had gone away from a Republican meeting more a Democrat than ever. But here was a man who spoke to me as a citizen, not as a partisan.”

Another important La Follette asset was his superb political skill. While in the House of Representatives he had had a form printed with blank spaces for recording the names of “active Republicans” and “fairminded Democrats.” These he sent to key supporters all over Wisconsin, and thus built up a large mailing list of influential voters whom he kept supplied with copies of his speeches and other political matter. And no congressman was more assiduous in attending to the needs of his constituents or in squiring visitors around Washington.

La Follette had in fact developed a mastery of every technique for influencing public opinion. In each campaign he conceniraied on no more than one or two issues, hammering at them relentlessly, riveting the attention of the voters upon them. He could take advantage of defeat, occasionally even deliberately cultivating it in order to develop a campaign issue. As governor, in 1903 he had pushed a bill establishing a powerful commission to regulate Wisconsin’s railroads. When, as he had expected, the legislature rejected this bill, he look the question to the people in lhe 1904 campaign.

And he was capable of dramatizing a controversial question. In 1898 he had caused a furor by announcing that a railroad had allowed Governor Edward Schofield to ship a cow halfway across the state without cost. It was a trivial mailer, and Schofield’s action was perfectly legal, but it pointed up La Follette’s crusade against special favors to public officials. “Schofield’s cow became famous,” La Follette recalled in his Autobiography , “her picture appeared in the newspapers, and she came to be known in every home in the state.” The next year a law outlawing such favors was passed.

But the greatest source of the new senator’s strength lay in his intimate understanding of the desires, needs, and prejudices of the Wisconsin farmers. Like Bryan, he was a product of the agricultural unrest that had engulfed the Middle West after the Civil War. He was convinced that “big business” was an evil force in society, exploiting the farmer at every turn. At eighteen he had been profoundly impressed by a local orator who denounced “vast corporate combinations” and “the accumulation of individual wealth … greater than it ever has been since the downfall of the Roman Empire.” He took up this cry himself, and half a century later he was still tilting at big corporations like U.S. Steel and “wealth [that] will not and cannot be made to bear its full share of taxation.” Throughout his political life he would assail Wall Street, lobbyists, and the other standard spectres that haunted the rural imagination. Late in his Senate career he would denounce the Four-Power Pact of the Washington Arms Conference as a conspiracy of international bankers bent on protecting their investments. One may smile at his obvious prejudice, but his pronouncements were taken as gospel by many in Wisconsin and throughout the Middle West.

This rapport with the ordinary citizens of his region developed in La Follette an abiding faith in democracy, a belief that the average man could judge rightly on public issues. Of course this faith was characteristic of nearly all Progressives—men as dissimilar as Bryan, Wilson, and George Perkins shared it—but La Follette possessed it completely and acted upon it consistently. “Bob was always conscious of this native power of the plain people to grasp thought,” his wife has recorded. “It never occurred to him to speak ‘down’ to his audiences or to consider any theme beyond their reach.” Or, one might add, to wonder whether popular majorities could not be wrong, whether in installing prohibition or electing a Huey Long.

He was an energetic campaigner. To take only one example: in the 1900 gubernatorial contest he covered 6,433 rniles in three weeks, making 61 speeches to a total of some 200,000 people. He believed that if he could reach the voters they would see that he was right and sweep him to victory. His espousal of the direct primary reflected his wish to take nominations out of the hands of the politicians and give them to the people.

Genuine though it was, La Toilette’s faith in the intelligence and good sense of farmers was neither mystical nor unrealistic. He knew that government was a complicated science and a delicate art; its effective administration called for special skills and technical knowledge that the average man did not possess. The easy Jacksonian confidence that any ordinary citizen could handle most government positions—the belief that led Bryan to pack the State Department with “deserving Democrats”—did not enchant “Fighting Bob.” Instead he employed many experts, drawing especially upon the faculty of the University of Wisconsin, where, after 1903, his classmate Charles R. Van Hise was president. “The University exists for the state,” La Follette said. Soon he was drafting economists and political scientists as advisers and civil servants.

This reliance on experts and intellectuals marked La Follette as something more than a rural spellbinder. So did his emphasis on regulatory commissions to control railroads, other public utilities, and insurance companies. Here again, his faith in the people was tempered with realism: the personnel of such commissions were to be appointed rather than elected, for the best railroad commissioner, La Follette knew, might not be a good campaigner.

All these qualities had helped La Follette rise to power in Wisconsin, and his success in his home state not only took him to the Senate chamber, but made him the idol of early twentieth-century reformers. Still, success tended to obscure certain rather unfortunate aspects of his personality, certain disturbing elements in his thinking. He spoke frequently (and he was sincere enough) about his principles, but in the last analysis he cared more for ends than for means. He was too much the zealot, considering himself an infallible judge of right and wrong. This conviction served him effectively in battle, but in the long run it led many people to mistrust his judgment and resent his power.

As governor, for example, he made effective—even ruthless—use of patronage. He demanded absolute obedience from his henchmen, and rewarded their faithfulness with appointments to public office. The Wisconsin game wardens became notorious for their political activities. Instead of tracking down poachers, one editor complained, they devoted their energies to “strolling around … hunting for men who will vote for La Follette.” Furthermore, if his speeches were effective and filled with facts, they were also often oversimplified and sometimes distorted the information he was presenting to the electorate. In his powerful attacks on the “interests,” he never tried to understand the motives, methods, or accomplishments of the “villains” he assaulted. His was the hard-handed farmer’s unreasoning suspicion of men who won wealth by manipulating symbols.

When La Follette talked of trusting “the people,” he had, as we have seen, important if unspoken reservations. His dislike of the big cities with their teeming millions scarcely differed from that of his rural constituents. In this and other ways, without realizing what he was doing, he sometimes undermined the very precepts of democracy he was sworn to defend. He could even, upon occasion, be as much the representative of a special-interest group as any other politician. As a congressman, for example, he had assailed the meat packers as one of the evil interests; but he argued for a federal tax on oleomargarine that benefited only the dairy interests so powerful in Wisconsin.

Like many crusaders, La Follette tended to discount the possibility that others could disagree with him and still be sincere. He was wont to override even friendly critics; like Woodrow Wilson (whom he resembled in many ways) he left a trail of shattered friendships wherever he went. “I can no more compromise … than I could by wishing it add twenty years to my life,” he once said. He took everything too seriously; he was too intent and too intense.

It is very revealing that he was prone to imagine all sorts of plots and conspiracies against him. In the governor’s mansion in Wisconsin he often claimed to hear mysterious knocks on the door, and the doorbell sometimes rang in an inexplicable manner. Although a careful watch was kept, no one was ever caught thus harassing him. In later life he actually claimed that someone had tried to kill him by poisoning a glass of milk he was drinking while filibustering in Congress against a banking bill. “Bob ran constant risk of violence,” his adoring wife firmly believed. But no actual attack was ever made on him. Considering his reputation for integrity and courage, it is remarkable how many people supposedly tried to bribe or threaten him. Could his enemies really have been so foolish? In his controversy with Philetus Sawyer, for example, Sawyer hotly denied that he had tried to buy La Follette’s support by offering him a retainer. Probably La Follette’s ingrained suspicions sometimes made him interpret in the worst possible light the efforts of practical politicians to reach agreement.

These, then, were the strengths and weaknesses, the great-hearted instincts and the narrowing limitations, which Senator La Follette brought with him to Washington. At home, where a solid majority shared his prejudices, he had been able to bend the Republican organization to his will. In the United States Senate conditions were very different, and he was less successful—but no less determined. In 1906, when he took his seat, the sands of the national arena were comparatively smooth. Theodore Roosevelt, midway in his second term, had instituted changes the significance of which people were only beginning to understand. By reviving the Sherman Antitrust Act and by moving toward stricter regulation of railroads, the protection of natural resources, a pure-food-and-drug act, and other reforms, Roosevelt had encouraged Republican liberals. At the same time he had roused conservatives to the defense of the old order typified by McKinley and Mark Hanna. Soon controversial questions like the protective tariff and the control of monopoly were to divide the liberals themselves into warring factions. Both La Follette and George Perkins, for example, considered themselves Republicans and Progressives, yet La Follette was for breaking up the trusts and lowering the tariff, while Perkins—who would be one of T. R.’s major backers in the Bull Moose revolt of 1912—wanted to keep the tariff high and regulate, rather than dismember, the trusts.

In this explosive situation, La Follette was determined (as always) to remain a Republican. But he was also (again as always) unwilling to grant quarter to fellow Republicans whose views he disliked. He would no more deal with Senator Nelson Aldrich and other G.O.P. conservatives in Washington than with Boss Keyes or Philetus Sawyer back in Wisconsin. As a result, no man had more to do with the disruption of the party than he.

In the Senate he was a maverick from the start. Tradition dictated that new senators should not take part in debates during their first year. La Follette refused to conform; on April 19, 1906, a month after taking his seat, he rose to speak on an important railroad bill. Many senators indignantly left the floor. La Follette took no notice until he had finished the first part of his speech. Then he turned coolly to the presiding officer and said: I cannot be wholly indifferent to the fact that Senators by their absence at this time indicate their want of interest in what I have to say upon this subject. The public is interested. Unless this important question is rightly settled seats now temporarily vacant may be permanently vacated by those who have the right to occupy them at this time.

It was no idle threat. As soon as Congress adjourned, La Follette took to the stump. In state after state he described how his bills had been sidetracked in the Senate. Everywhere he “read the roll calls” to show how local senators had voted on these proposals.

Actions like these were hardly calculated to endear the freshman to the Senate as a whole. Nevertheless, by 1909 La Follette was the leader of a small group of liberal senators who were beginning to call themselves Progressives. He also organized a magazine, La Follette’s Weekly , in which he regularly flayed the conservatives of both parties. In the Senate he led the fight against the Republican-sponsored Payne-Aldrich tariff, and broke with Taft when the President supported it. He even accused Taft of trying to ruin him politically. He organized a National Progressive Republican League—the accent fell on the word “Progressive”—which endorsed a comprehensive reform program, including national primaries and the direct election of senators.

No one can doubt La Follette’s sincerity as a reformer, but at least part of his militancy was the result of ambition. He wanted to be President and had set his sights on 1912. Taft stood in his way, and to win the Republican nomination (a third-party nomination would have had little practical value) La Follette had to make a final break with him. But the ideological split thus fostered affected others as well as himself. Theodore Roosevelt, the most distinctive political personality of the era, was also a Progressive. No liberal movement in the Republican party could succeed without his support. Yet what would his place in such a movement be?

La Follette considered Roosevelt a lukewarm reformer at best. In 1907 he had written: “[Roosevelt] will always say a lot of good things and half do a good many things—But it all ends rather disappointingly.” He later wrote that T. R. disliked “the plodding investigation necessary to a solution of great economic questions,” although he confessed that the former President was superb at “arousing the public conscience.” When Roosevelt refused to join La Follette’s League, the Senator was probably more pleased than disappointed. In any case, the League proceeded to make its main business the nomination of La Follette for the Presidency.

In the battle between Taft and La Follette, Roosevelt hoped to remain neutral. He saw little chance for either to win the election, and hoped to reassert command of the party after the expected defeat. But events soon threw him into the anti-Taft camp.

As soon as Roosevelt swung over to the Progressives, many of La Follette’s most enthusiastic supporters prepared to switch their allegiance to the attractive exPresident, for he seemed far more popular in the nation at large. Fear of being abandoned had much to do with La Follette’s unfortunate performance in a speech before a group of magazine publishers on February 2, 1912. Tired, ill, worried, and frustrated, he lost control of himself and delivered an intemperate, confused, and repetitious harangue that caused even friendly observers to question his mental and emotional stability. Although a short rest completely restored him, many of his former backers seized the opportunity to flock to Roosevelt.


La Follette reacted characteristically: he refused to quit the race. After the Republicans had nominated Taft, and Roosevelt had organized what La Follette called the “Roosevelt-Perkins-Steel-Trust-Party,” he would support neither group. Nor would he come out for the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson, at least not officially. He gave Wilson indirect aid in the columns of La Follette’s Weekly but himself cast a blank ballot in November.

During the Wilson administration La Follette was still nominally a Republican, but he pursued no fixed course. He was the only member of his party to vote for the new low Democratic tariff, and later he supported the administration’s Railway Labor Act. But the Federal Reserve Act, which he might have been expected to embrace, he opposed on the ground that it gave bankers too much control over the currency. His greatest contribution in this period was the La Follette Seamen’s Act—designed to protect the rights of merchant sailors and increase the safety of passengers at sea—which he pushed through Congress after a long fight in 1915.

He broke with Wilson over the question of American entry into the First World War. Europe’s troubles were none of our own, he said; the war was the work of international bankers and profiteers. Thereafter, terrible abuse was his lot; even the faculty of his beloved alma mater turned almost unanimously against him, and an effort was made to expel him from the Senate.

But La Follette would not change his course. He opposed conscription, objected to the Espionage Act, attacked profiteering even where it did not exist. After the defeat of the Central Powers, La Follette was conspicuous in the Senate fight against the League of Nations. But he also fought consistently against all efforts to restrict civil liberties, and he urged that war costs be met by taxation rather than by borrowing.

The reaction against Wilsonian internationalism that followed the war restored La Follette’s popularity. In 1922 he was re-elected to the Senate by a huge majority. But he was no more at home in the Republican party in the twenties than he had been in the time of Taft. He could not stomach Harding and Coolidge, who seemed too obviously allied to the “interests.” In 1920 he had refused to head a Farmer-Labor party, but by 1922 he was willing to consider running independently for the Presidency in order to “drive special privilege out of the control of the government.” In 1924, with Burton K. Wheeler as his running mate, he polled nearly five million votes, although he carried only Wisconsin. Though nearly seventy, he was undaunted, and ready to continue the battle. “We have just begun to fight,” he said. But a few months later, on June 18, 1925, he suffered a heart attack and died.

La Follette was certainly more “progressive” than most of the well-known politicians of his era. He fought for labor as well as for depressed fanners and businessmen, supported basic civil liberties as well as narrow political reforms. His lifelong dedication to public service and the principles of democracy entitles him to a high place in the liberal pantheon.

But his grave personal weaknesses limited his effectiveness. Despite his really remarkable talents and many virtues, there were, as we have seen, important flaws in his personality. He was headstrong, ruthless, suspicious, sometimes intellectually confused if not dishonest; and these qualities, perhaps even more than the consistent opposition of the “interests,” were responsible for his repeated failure to achieve the Presidency. And if, as age came upon him, he never developed Bryan’s bland, ignorant self-assurance, he remained, like most zealots, annoyingly certain that God and justice were always on his side.

Yet withal, Robert La Follette was indeed the beau idéal of the reformer, and hence liberals are conscious of an element of sadness, even of resentment, as they contemplate his career. For they expect more of their leaders than of ordinary men, so that their “human” failings, more tolerable in lesser men, prove preternaturally disillusioning. In the first decades of the century, Progressive leaders asked much of the voters, who, responding, flocked by the millions to the standard of Reform. But Bryan ended by insulting their intelligence, Perkins by refusing to let them help run their own party, La Follette by insisting that his was the one way to Heaven. Theodore Roosevelt spent his last years assailing pacifists and internationalists instead of fighting for the Square Deal. Even Woodrow Wilson, the greatest idealist of them all, sacrificed principle to expediency at Versailles and then arrogantly dug in his heels and refused to compromise at all when it came to seeking Senate approval of the League of Nations. The Progressive movement collapsed suddenly, but little wonder: its failure, essentially, was the failure of its leaders to measure up to their own ideals.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.