The Original Tea Partiers: How GOP Insurgents Invented Progressivism

Wisconsin Senator Robert La Follette and his supporters pioneered long-shot primary challenges, strong ideology, and populist rhetoric a century ago.

If “Fighting Bob” were alive today, he’d be howling in the Capitol. A hundred years before the Tea Parties, Senator Bob La Follette of Wisconsin was the original Republican insurgent. In the early 1900s, he led a grassroots revolt against the GOP establishment and pioneered the ferocious tactics that the Tea Parties use today—long-shot primary challenges, sensational filibusters, uncompromising ideology, and populist rhetoric. But there was a crucial difference between La Follette and today’s right-wing insurgents: “Fighting Bob” was a founding father of the progressive movement.

A century ago, the country struggled with challenges similar to our own—economic inequality, financial instability, low wages, and environmental devastation. The two major political parties, both corrupt and dominated by corporations, crushed reformers’ efforts to remedy the nation’s problems. Even President Theodore Roosevelt was powerless to push serious reform bills through Congress.

Unlike Roosevelt, La Follette did not believe that reform was possible under the prevailing political order. He insisted that the system must become more democratic and the parties be made accountable to the people. His political insurgency began as a forlorn and hopeless campaign, scorned by the party establishment, mocked by the press, and dismissed by Roosevelt. A decade later, it brought the once-dominant Republican Party to its knees and initiated the greatest period of political change in American history.

* * *

Madison, Wisconsin, June 28, 1904

The governor’s residence was a stolid block of pitted yellow limestone seated on a grassy bluff with its back to one of Madison’s lakes. Lincoln Steffens, the world-famous reporter from McClure’s Magazine, stepped onto the front porch with some hesitation. He wasn’t sure that it had been a good idea to accept Governor Robert La Follette’s dinner invitation. Too much familiarity with his subject might undermine his objectivity. He resolved to maintain a clinical distance during the visit.

The February 1908 McClure's Magazine

Steffens was a new kind of journalist. Most newspapers of the era openly affiliated with one party or the other. Many reveled in scandal and sensationalism like modern-day tabloids. By contrast, Steffens and his colleagues at McClure’s delivered serious, thorough investigations of the country’s leading politicians and corporations. Ida Tarbell exposed the monopolistic abuses of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company. Ray Stannard Baker took on J. Pierpont Morgan’s United States Steel Corporation. Steffens focused on the politicians. The charming and debonair journalist with a devilish goatee had a way of ferreting out the sordid schemes that greased the gears of government. Over the course of his career, he had exposed dirty cops, corrupt officials, robber barons, swindlers, bribers, boodlers, and card cheats.

As he penetrated the underbelly of American politics, his ideas began to evolve. He came to see the petty bribes and minor frauds as fragments of a much larger mosaic. A system, he called it, and later, The System. Crooked cops and venal officials were small cogs in The System. Much more dangerous were the party bosses, unofficial powerbrokers who oversaw the vast apparatus that delivered votes each election day. Some bosses were elected officials. Others held seemingly innocuous administrative posts and conducted party business behind the scenes.

Yet for all their power, the bosses were themselves beholden to others—the businessmen who financed their political operations. Campaigns cost money, more and more these days. Neither the spellbinders who went from town to town speechifying nor the ward-heelers who used less savory methods in the cities worked for free. Businessmen were willing to provide the capital—for a price. Such exchanges were entirely legal. The businessmen made lawful campaign donations; the politicians passed laws that benefitted their patrons. There was no crime to prosecute. Without new legislation, The System was impervious.

Steffens had been cautiously optimistic when his friend Theodore Roosevelt became president. They’d met in 1895 when Roosevelt became a New York City police commissioner. Steffens recalled how the hotshot blue-blood politician had invaded NYPD headquarters on his first day. “Where are our offices?” Roosevelt had shouted, “Where is the board room? What do we do first?” He wanted to know everything—the good cops, the bad cops, and how it all worked. Steffens became one of his trusted advisers on police corruption. Roosevelt used to lean out the window of his second-story office and summon him with a cowboy yell that he’d learned in the Dakota Territory, “Hi yi yi!”

Steffens liked Roosevelt, and they became friends, but he never quite trusted him to fulfill his promises. Too many of Roosevelt’s initiatives fell short of what was needed. As he got to know him better, Steffens could see that Roosevelt’s mind was committed to reform but not his hips, and it was those hips that made the decisions. Whether he was charging up a hill under enemy fire or running for governor, Roosevelt always seemed to act before he had even made up his mind to act. “You don’t think with your brains, do you?” Steffens asked him once. Those brains wanted reform, Steffens reckoned, but the hips hung back closer to the old guard. The hips were happiest right in the middle with one foot in each camp.

“You’re a practical man,” Steffens teased him.

Roosevelt took it as a compliment. “I am, you know,” he replied, “I’m a practical man.” He repeated it several times, and it became a watchword for him in the years to come.

But Steffens thought he was a little too practical. Roosevelt denounced the patronage system—which rewarded political supporters with government jobs—but took advantage of it at election time. He criticized the conservative congressional leaders but allowed them to water down his legislative initiatives. He railed against the monopolistic trusts but quietly negotiated deals with them. As president, Roosevelt had drawn the public’s attentions to corporate abuses and enacted some modest reforms, but he did not fundamentally threaten The System.

So Steffens continued his investigations. He started with city governments, devoting an article each to St. Louis, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Chicago. Then he moved on to the states. It was a railroad executive, of all people, who gave him the idea of going to Wisconsin. During his investigation of Illinois, Steffens had interviewed the man about his connections with state politicians. The executive explained that railroad owners only meddled in politics as a precaution. They had to protect their interests from radical populists “like that we are suffering from in Wisconsin.”

“Wisconsin? La Follette?” Steffens asked.

“Yes, that blankety-blank-blank demagogue, Bob La Follette,” the man answered. “Why don’t you ever show up such fellows as La Follette ... ?” he asked, “Why always jump on us?”

Steffens thought he had a point. After exposing the party bosses and the businessmen, it seemed only fair to take on a populist rabble-rouser. He pegged La Follette for a typical politician, that is to say, a charlatan and a crook. The railroad man offered to put him in touch with some colleagues who would give him some dirt on the governor. A few weeks later, Steffens slipped up to Milwaukee to interview them.

“He’s a fanatic,” charged a corporate attorney, “and the way that man goes around spreading discontent is a menace to law, property, business, and all American institutions. If we don’t stop him here he will go out and agitate all over the United States. We’re getting him now; you’ll get him next. That man must be blocked.”

“Yes,” added an indignant banker, “La Follette will spread socialism all over the world.”

Steffens listened as they presented their case against the governor, enumerating a long list of outrages that he had committed against the state. They seemed to regard his crimes as self-evident, but what they accused him of doing didn’t seem so offensive to Steffens. In fact, he found the governor’s ideas rather admirable. For his article, he would need something more sordid. What about corruption, he asked the two men, what about dishonesty?

“Oh, no, no,” replied the attorney, “You are getting off wrong. La Follette isn’t dishonest. On the contrary, the man is dangerous precisely because he is so sincere.”

That wouldn’t do. Steffens needed evidence of improprieties. These men offered him nothing but indignation. He spent the next two days interviewing other friends of the railroad executive, but none of them gave him anything more substantial. He was beginning to think that La Follette was not such a charlatan after all.

At the end of June, Steffens went to Madison to meet the “little giant” himself. He spotted him right way: La Follette’s stocky physique and enormous pompadour were unmistakable. “[A] powerful man,” he thought, “short but solid, swift and willful in motion.” One of the governor’s aides saw Steffens and whispered in his boss’s ear. La Follette came over at a run and greeted him with an eager handshake. He had read Steffens’s work, he said, and was delighted to meet him. Would he like to come for dinner at the governor’s residence?

Lincoln Steffens (AP)

Later that evening, Steffens arrived on the doorstep of the old yellow house. His attempt to maintain emotional distance didn’t go very well. Belle La Follette, the governor’s wife, welcomed him like a shining hero come to rescue her husband from a terrible siege. Her enthusiasm was more than he could bear. Years later, he would ruefully recall, “I stood it for a while, then I repelled Mrs. La Follette with a rebuke that was rude and ridiculous, so offensive indeed that I find that I cannot confess it even now.”

Having insulted his hostess and sunk the house into an awkward silence, he tried to make amends. Soon the warmth of the La Follette family began to work through his skin. For all Bob’s reputation as a rabble-rouser, he was humorous and self-deprecating in person while Belle was charming and intelligent. Steffens could not help but admire their struggle against the establishment—The System. He arranged to meet the governor again for an extended interview at the St. Louis world’s fair. In the meantime, he returned to Chicago to finish his article on corruption in the state of Illinois.

St. Louis, July 4, 1904

The Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904 was larger than any world fair in previous history, a 1,200-acre “ivory city” of chalky plaster palaces laced by 75 miles of roads and walkways. Nearly 20 million people came to St. Louis to see the world in miniature. For 25 cents each, they could visit Paris, Dublin, Tokyo, Cairo, ancient Rome, and “Mysterious Asia.” For another quarter, they could ogle “queer people from all over the globe” at the Anthropology Exhibit. They marveled at new inventions—x-ray machines, dishwashers, and electric potato mashers—and snacked on curious concoctions—cold tea with ice, a buttery spread made from peanuts, and ice cream cradled in wafers that had been curled into cones.

The 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis (Wikimedia)

Steffens had not come to see strange peoples or marvelous inventions. He had an appointment with a governor. When he arrived at La Follette’s room, he found his subject well prepared. La Follette had stacked the table with books, documents, bills, and newspapers—evidence of the path he had cut through the world. Steffens listened and took notes while La Follette recounted the story of his political career.

* * *

He was not a "dangerous radical" in the beginning, just a young and ambitious district attorney in Madison. When a congressional seat opened up in his district in 1884, he resolved to win it. He was popular and thought he had a good shot, but there was a problem: It wasn’t his turn. According to the unwritten rules of Gilded Age politics, aspiring politicians had to serve their party bosses and wait to be anointed for political office. The local bosses had arranged to nominate someone else for the seat. When La Follette broke the rules by initiating his own campaign, he received a stern reprimand from Philip. Spooner, a Republican powerbroker

“What’s this I hear about you being a candidate for Congress?” La Follette recalled Spooner telling him. “Don’t you know nobody can go to Congress without our approval? You’re a fool.”

But Spooner was about to discover what many other politicians would learn in the years to come: Bob La Follette would not be bullied. There was some kind of coil in him that launched him headfirst at any authority who barred his way, forcefully and repeatedly. Many ambitious young men in his position would have followed orders and worked their way up the chain, absorbing the cynical ethos of machine politics along the way. A few idealists might have gone the other way, rejecting both major parties in favor of radical third parties like the Socialists or the Populists. But La Follette simply charged straight ahead. “[H]is strongest trait is a delight in overcoming obstacles,” recalled a former classmate, “if two ways to the same end were open to him, one without and the other with opposition, he would deliberately choose the road with opposition."

With the assistance of a disaffected Republican elder and a small army of college activists, La Follette won the nomination in spite of Spooner and the bosses. Then he won the general election. In 1885, the 29-year-old congressman went to Washington.

His first few years in Congress were heady ones. Republican leaders overlooked his electoral insubordination, and the press celebrated the youngest member of Congress. He developed a reputation as an eloquent orator and an up-and-coming Republican star. During his third term, he befriended another young luminary, Theodore Roosevelt, who was serving in President Benjamin Harrison’s Civil Service Commission. At a New Year’s Party, the exuberant Roosevelt spilled coffee over Belle La Follette’s dress. Mortified, he sent her flowers the next day.

As time went on, La Follette began to suffer doubts about his party. He clashed with Senator Philetus Sawyer. When Sawyer pressed him to do favors for the lumber and railroad industries, La Follette's stubborn streak returned. He was not yet a passionate crusader, but he took immense pride in his own virtue. Rebelliousness fused with self-righteousness, an explosive combination. He angrily rejected Sawyer's demands.

“La Follette is a damned fool,” one of Sawyer's associates was heard to say after one confrontation. “If he thinks he can buck a railroad with 5,000 miles of continuous line, he’ll find he’s mistaken. We’ll take care of him when the time comes.”

But it was neither the railroads nor the Republican machine that ended La Follette’s congressional career. In 1890, the Democrats swept the Wisconsin elections in a rare victory, and he found himself back at his law practice in Madison.

His political hiatus did not last long. One day in the autumn of 1891, Sawyer invited La Follette to a private meeting at a Milwaukee hotel. An embezzlement case brewing in the courts had snared some of Sawyer’s associates and threatened to entangle the senator himself. La Follette’s brother-in-law was the presiding judge in the case. Sawyer pulled out a roll of bills.

Later, after the story became public, Sawyer insisted that he had only meant to retain La Follette’s legal services for $50, but La Follette believed otherwise. His public allegations of bribery against the powerful GOP boss nearly wrecked his law practice as he lost clients and friends. Threatening letters warned him against trying to revive his political career. But adversity once again brought "Fighting Bob" to life, and that stubborn coil launched him into his next crusade.

This time he set a more ambitious course. Sawyer’s final attempt to manipulate him crystalized the doubts that had troubled him in Washington. Sawyer was not the problem, he realized. The whole system was rotten. Wisconsin’s government did not represent the people; it represented the party bosses and the powerful industries they served. “So out of this awful ordeal came understanding,” he recalled, “and out of understanding came resolution. I determined that the power of this corrupt influence, which was undermining and destroying every semblance of representative government in Wisconsin, should be broken.”

Once again, he charged straight ahead by challenging the Republican leadership rather than mounting a third-party campaign. To succeed, he had to recruit enough Republican delegates to outvote the old guard at the biennial state conventions. If they achieved a majority, they could select the Republican nominees for governor and senate. They could also cripple the party machine by destroying the patronage network that the bosses used to deliver jobs to their supporters.

With few financial resources, La Follette began barnstorming the state, using his celebrated eloquence to attract reform-minded supporters. His condemnation of machine politics resonated with Wisconsin’s disaffected citizens, who were fed up with political corruption and corporate arrogance. The party schism was different from any that had preceded it, and the press struggled to label the factions. It did not occur to people to call the two sides progressive and conservative. Americans did not yet associate these words with politics. Instead, journalists reached back to an earlier Republican split from the days of Ulysses S. Grant. They called the Republican bosses and their supporters “Stalwarts” because of their fealty to tradition. They called La Follette and his allies “Half-Breeds” as in half-Republican.

In 1896, La Follette arrived at the Republican state convention with enough pledged delegates to win the gubernatorial nomination. As if to prove his point about corruption, Stalwart opponents bribed some of his delegates into switching sides, depriving him of victory. In 1898, it happened again. Defiant and undeterred, La Follette prophesied that “temporary defeat often results in a more decided and lasting victory than one which is too easily achieved.”

"Stalwart" WIsconsin Senator Philetus Sawyer (Wikimedia)

In March of 1900, Philetus Sawyer died at the age of 83, and the Stalwart embankment finally cracked. At the convention in August, the Half-Breeds overcame the old guard, and the Republican Party nominated Bob La Follette for governor. In November, Wisconsin voters elected him by a landslide.

Yet the struggle continued. Over the next four years, La Follette battled the remnants of the Stalwart loyalists, who retained sufficient strength to frustrate his legislative initiatives. He might have passed more legislation by compromising with them, but he refused to dilute his proposals. There was that stubbornness again but also strategy. La Follette took a long view of political change. In contrast to Roosevelt's pragmatic approach, he believed that temporary defeat was preferable to compromised legislation, which would sate public demand for reform without making genuine progress. “In legislation no bread is often better than half a loaf,” he argued. “Half a loaf, as a rule, dulls the appetite, and destroys the keenness of interest in attaining the full loaf.” Legislative defeat, on the other hand, served a useful political purpose. He would use the defeat of a popular bill to bludgeon his opponents in the next election, and he would keep assailing them with it until they yielded or lost their seats.

La Follette did achieve one partial victory in his second term. He was a passionate advocate of direct primaries. Under the old system, party members selected local delegates at informal caucuses. In practice, most of these delegates were loyal to party bosses—or at least receptive to the bosses’ encouragement. Bribery in the form of cash or jobs was common. A primary system would allow voters to choose party nominees without mediation by faithless delegates.

The Stalwarts, anxious to preserve the elite power of the establishment, fought La Follette’s popular initiative. “I think a primary election law as he wants it would destroy the party machinery,” warned Senator Join Coit Spooner, Philip Spooner's brother, “and would build up a lot of personal machines, would make every man a self-seeker, would degrade politics by turning candidacies into bitter personal wrangles and quarrels, etc.” The Spooner brothers' in the Wisconsin Senate succeeded in blocking La Follette’s bill, but their majority was narrow, and the popular pressure was intense. Under duress, they agreed to put the question to the voters in a referendum in the upcoming election.

The stakes were high. Knowing that 1904 might be their last chance, the Stalwarts mounted an aggressive campaign to defeat La Follette and his primary bill once and for all. When they failed to take control of the state Republican convention, they nominated their own candidate for governor. The Democratic bosses fielded a candidate as well, creating a tight three-man race.

* * *

Over the course of a week, cloistered in St. Louis, Steffens recorded La Follette’s story with fascination and growing admiration. Perhaps too much admiration. La Follette may have been principled and sincere, but he tended to embellish. Steffens was thorough, though, and he returned to Wisconsin to corroborate the story. The Stalwarts, who still thought he intended to expose the governor, cooperated with his investigation. “Mr. Steffens’ evident purpose always has been to speak the truth on all occasion,” praised the Stalwart-owned Milwaukee Sentinel. “This is the kind of an investigation that Wisconsin needs at this time . . . “

But Steffens had a new quarry. He was now determined to expose the antidemocratic methods of the governor’s enemies. In Bob La Follette, he had finally found his champion: a political leader with the steadfast principles and strength of purpose to wage an open and relentless war against The System itself.

This post is adapted from Unreasonable Men: Theodore Roosevelt and the Republican Rebels Who Created Progressive Politics.