Fighting Son: A Biography of Philip F. La Follette

Fighting Son: A Biography of Philip F. La Follette
Fighting Son: A Biography of Philip F. La Follette
Paperback: $22.95
360 pp, illustrated, photographs, maps
ISBN: 9780870203534

Published by Wisconsin Historical Society Press

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Price: $22.95
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By Jonathan Kasparek

Growing up in the shadow of a major political figure like "Fighting Bob" La Follette made for a politically charged childhood - and laid the groundwork for Phil and his older brother, "Young Bob," to make their own marks on the progressive political scene in the 1920s, '30s, and '40s. Like his father, Phil was firey, confrontational, and unwavering, and his efforts led to the passage of the country's first unemployment compensation act, aid programs for workers and farmers, and the reorganization of state government. His controversial effort to form an alternative course of action to Roosevelt's New Deal was at once his greatest contribution to federal politics and his greatest failure. Phil's is a history of continuing progressivism, of innovative solutions to social problems, and of loyalty to a political ethos that goes far beyond love of country.

Jonathan Kasparek has published several articles on the history of Wisconsin and is the coauthor of "Voices and Votes: How Democracy Works in Wisconsin" and "Wisconsin History Highlights: Delving into the Past," both published by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press. He has served as a researcher and editor for the Wisconsin Historical Society, the Max Kade Institute and the Wisconsin State Capitol historic structure report project. A Madison native, Jonathan received his doctorate and master's degrees in U.S. history from the University of Wisconsin. He currently teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Waukesha.

Interview with Jonathan Kasparek

Wisconsin Historical Society Press: How did you become interested in the La Follette family in general and in Phil particularly?

I started studying the La Follette family when researching a paper on isolationism for a diplomatic history seminar. I became intrigued by Phil and Bob Jr. arguing against American involvement in World War Two between 1939 and 1941. It seemed so strange that two liberal reformers would be so opposed to Franklin Roosevelt's foreign policy, but it began to make sense when they wrote about their father, Robert M. "Fighting Bob" La Follette, Sr. He had opposed World War One in 1917 because he believed that Americans were being led into a war to protect the selfish interests of European nations like Great Britain and France and because he believed that war would jeopardize Woodrow Wilson's reformist domestic agenda and possibly even democracy itself. Twenty years later, Phil and Bob were convinced that their father had been right and that the war had curtailed civil liberties, cut short the progressive movement, and contributed to the Great Depression. Phil had traveled in Europe and despised the Nazis, but he was terrified that if the United States spent billions of dollars on another foreign war the nation would be never recover economically or politically.

WHS Press: Why is Phil a significant historical figure? Why should we read about him?

Phil is important for several reasons. He was governor for six years in the 1930s, and during his time in office, he made Wisconsin an innovator in dealing with the economic crisis of the Great Depression. Unemployment Compensation, for example, was enacted first in Wisconsin, and later adopted by other states.

He also reshaped Wisconsin politics. Fighting Bob led the "progressive" faction of the Republican party until his death in 1925. After that, Phil and Bob Jr. kept the faction organized as best they could. In 1934, after many former Progressives started to drift to the Roosevelt-led Democratic party, Phil organized the Wisconsin Progressive party to bring liberals together into one party. The Progressive party dominated state politics until 1939 and remained competitive into the early 1940s.

Phil was also a national figure in that he was often critical of the New Deal and believed that Roosevelt misunderstood the fundamental nature of the depression and its solution. The Agricultural Adjustment Act, for example, with its policy of setting limits on crop production, made no sense to Phil when there were people starving. He believed that problem was not over-production, but distribution. The nation was more productive and had more resources than any other nation in history, and the issue was how that wealth could be spread more equitably and how to maintain economic growth. He was an academic at heart and presented one of the most thoughtful liberal critiques of the New Deal. Roosevelt never trusted him!

WHS PressHow is Phil relevant/important today?

Phil remains a compelling figure today because he was so driven to improve society. His parents burdened him and his siblings with an obligation of public service, and Phil took his role as reformer very seriously. Especially in his first term, he really inspired people to believe that if we thought carefully about problems of unemployment and recession, we could come up with solutions. And he made people want to come up with solutions.

I think many people will find Phil relevant today. The ability he showed in his first term to convince voters and politicians that major changes had to be made — and could be made — was really remarkable. The major complaint about politicians today is that they offer sound bites instead of ideas and pander to whatever groups of voters will get them reelected. Phil and the Progressives were different in that they carefully crafted proposals to address specific problems and then went out and convinced voters that they were right. Phil believed that educating the voters was the most important task a politician had: people had to understand the problems facing society and the solutions the Progressives offered.

WHS PressPhil became a very controversial figure in the 1930s — did your opinion of him change as you researched this book?

Most of the controversies in his third terms come from a quirk in his personality. He was convinced that he knew what the people wanted or needed and that those who opposed his policies did so for the selfish interests of big business. As a result, he believed he could act in ways that looked dictatorial — reorganizing the state government, engineering the dismissal of University of Wisconsin President Glenn Frank, ramming legislation through the legislature — but would ultimately be vindicated by popular opinion and make the political system more democratic and more responsive. His father had taken very controversial stands in the past and was always vindicated. Phil believed — incorrectly — that the people had a similar faith in him. They did not. In 1938 Phil believed he was acting as a tribune, but his opponents compared him Mussolini and Hitler. As a result, the national Progressive Party he tried to start failed and he lost his bid for reelection.

My opinion? Phil never lost his deep-rooted faith in democracy, but he badly misjudged how much the voters were willing to trust him.

WHS Press: What exactly is Progressive politics, and how does Phil fit in?

The Progressive movement was a diverse collection of reform efforts that develop in the late 19th century and peaked in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Self-labeled "progressives" pursued many different reform goals and did not always agree among themselves. Some promoted prohibition, others did not; many supported woman's suffrage early on, others very reluctantly; few said anything about race. What seems to have given these people a sense of belonging to a movement was a shared sense that the emergence of an industrial economy was at odds with the idea of democracy. Too much wealth and economic power was concentrated in too few hands, and money seemed to be corrupting politics. The La Follettes — Phil thought about this the most thoroughly — believed that reform was necessary to make traditional American rhetoric about liberty and freedom and opportunity real again in the face of unprecedented economic change.

For Phil, the Progressive Era did not end in 1917. It was a struggle that continued. The Great Depression was the latest manifestation of the conflict between those who believed in maintaining democracy and economic opportunity and those who pursued their selfish profit. I think this is a very similar idea that many liberals espouse today.

WHS PressDuring the Depression, Phil came up with an alternate plan to Roosevelt's New Deal. Can you talk a bit about this?

The Roosevelt administration tried to stabilize the economy through the National Recovery Administration (NRA) and the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA). Both these programs regulated production, wages, and prices, but Phil believed that Roosevelt and his advisors misunderstood the problems. They viewed it as a problem of overproduction, which drove down prices and brought about unemployment; their efforts focused on maintaining wage levels for workers and crop prices for farmers. Phil believed this was at best a temporary solution. The fundamental problem was one that progressives had talked about for decades: wealth was being concentrated in too few hands, leaving working people and farmers struggling with low wages and low prices. The solution was for the state to invest in the economy through "useful" public works — forestation, transportation infrastructure, public power — that would have helped working people in the short run and spur economic growth in the long run. The biggest part of his plan was the Wisconsin Development Authority, which he proposed in 1935. It would have been funded by a massive federal loan and would have pumped millions of dollars into the state economy by funding construction and agricultural production. But because a key part of the program was the creation of a new circulating currency — a kind of scrip — that would have been used to pay workers, for purchases, and to pay taxes, some thought it too risky. The plan failed in the state senate, and when Phil tried again in 1937, the federal government was cutting spending rather than increasing it. Phil had lost his chance, and he remained bitter about it for a long time.

2006 Midwest Independent Publishers Association Midwest Book Awards
First Place in the Political Science Category


Jim Hightower, best-selling author, nationally syndicated columnist, and radio commentator

"La Follette is not merely a piece of Wisconsin history — he's a model of what's needed in American politics today. He didn't glibly love his country, he fought to implement the values of our country, to bring the great egalitarian idea of America into being in the life of each person. This was his progressive mission, and it must be ours today."

The Honorable Lee Sherman Dreyfus, former Wisconsin governor

" ... breathes flesh and blood in the life and times of our state's 27th and 29th governor. ... Anyone interested in the La Follette-Progressive movement in Wisconsin's history must read this book."

The Honorable Patrick J. Lucey, former Wisconsin governor

"[R]eaders who are serious students of the conditions, issues, and political relationships among Wisconsin's movers and shakers during the 1930s should consider this book a must."

Nancy Unger, author of "Fighting Bob La Follette: The Righteous Reformer"

"[T]his lively and nuanced political biography ... will attract attention far beyond Wisconsin as it explores the strengths and limits of the progressive tradition and the value of innovative leadership. The questions it raises about the most effective ways to combat economic and social injustice offer valuable insight into our own time as well as the past."

Dave Zweifel, editor, "The Capital Times"

"'Fighting Son' ... will rank with the most important of books on Wisconsin political history." 

This book feature by Dennis Shook appeared on OnMilwaukee.com on October 30, 2006: 

Fighting Son deserves a fighting chance 

Phil La Follete was one of the state's most prominent politicians and even a national figure, yet few people remember him today outside of Wisconsin. 

And there aren't all that many who conjure up the name of Phil when they consider the La Follete legacy. 

In his book, "Fighting Son," Jonathan Kasparek recounts and analyzes the times and challenges of all of the La Folletes, but focuses his research on Phil, the son of "Fighting Bob" and brother of Robert M. La Follete, Jr., even if the latter inherited more his father's legacy as he took his place as a U.S. Senator. 

Phil La Follette was used to living in the shadows of other men, not just only his father and brother, but Franklin D. Roosevelt as well. 

Phil La Follette's efforts to bring what was then known more distinctly as a "progressive" view point onto the national stage were dwarfed by FDR's own New Deal initiatives. And following Fighting Bob's World War I anti-war example, Phil staked out the anti-war ground during WWII, opening himself up for considerable criticism. 

In a recent interview, Kasparek, an historian who now teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Waukesha, said he wanted to more deeply explore Phil La Follette's life than had been done in other books. 

He certainly accomplishes that. Initially written as a doctoral dissertation and later expanded and honed, the book deeply details the young La Follette's life from cradle to political gave. 

Such treatment is both a benefit and a curse. While it is written in order to be used as a source and guide for historians and could be a supplementary text in a college history course, it may be too rich in detail for most readers seeking a more casual and airy read. 

There is the usual employment of letters between family members that are primary sources for the work, along with newspaper and magazine accounts. These are the methods that many highly-read historians often use to try to flesh out characters from history and give them a voice. David McCullough uses it well and Nancy Unger, in her recent book on the older La Follete, also employs that technique successfully. 

But in fairness to Kasparek, it is not an easy task to make readers believe they can still hear voices in the present tense that have been silent for many decade. Kasparek explained he wanted to explore Phil La Follette's distinguished career as a district attorney and governor. 

"I was really interested in getting a more complete picture of his life," Kasparek said of Phil La Follette. "I found out that his childhood was the key to understanding him, growing up where politics was what they did ... a nine to five job their entire life." 

La Follette served as governor of the state from 1931 to 1933 and 1935 to 1939, elected from the Progressive Party of Wisconsin founded by his father. 

He lost in an unprecedented bid for a third term in 1938 but then tried to extend his party across the country, as the National Progressive Party of America, believing that FDR would not seek a third four-year term as president. 

But Roosevelt successfully sought reelection and essentially trumped La Follette's plans. Meanwhile, the anti-war La Follette nevertheless joined the U.S. Army, serving on the staff of another man with Wisconsin ties, Gen. Douglas MacArthur. 

When the fighting stopped for Phil, he returned to Wisconsin but eschewed politics for business. 

Kasparek was also fascinated by the young La Follette's dedication to the Progressive ideals of his father and willingness to try to adopt "those ideas of the 1890s and make them fit into the Great depression of the 1930s, with a very different set of circumstances." 

The author said he was struck by how patriotic people were in those days yet how that patriotism not only tolerated dissent from government philosophies and programs, but even encouraged and embraced diverse opinions. 

"Phil La Follette said you can be both patriotic and be critical," said Kasparek. "But since the 1950s, criticism of government has come to be perceived as unpatriotic. Liberals today have to come to grips with that. That is really what Phil wanted to impress on people. He wanted to encourage young people to get into public life with that spirit." 

Kasparek also sees another lesson for young politicians and government leaders that surfaces in his book. 

"Phil La Follette said Progressives are people who adopted a certain approach," he said. "They would identify a problem, do thorough research, and then figure out how to address that in a democratic fashion." 

They did not shoot from the hip as so many politicians from both sides of the spectrum do today. 

Kasparek acknowledges his book requires the focus of the reader to get through its 261 pages. And the inevitable problem with any such effort must be its inability to take us back to the sights and sounds of those days, when the La Follettes traveled the country speaking to large gatherings of people who had no TV, and often no motion pictures or even radio. 

Their oratory and righteous fury could pack a chautauqua-style tent event to capacity for many hours. 

While it might be hard to believe that could happen in the 21st century, the book makes for an interesting trip to the times when Wisconsin was the crucible for new political thought and optimistic that its leaders could transform those concepts into a national program.

This book feature by William R. Wineke appeared in the "Wisconsin State Journal" on November 2, 2006: 

Philip LaFollette, 'Fighting Son' 

The LaFollette name is, of course, legendary in Wisconsin. But being the son of "Fighting Bob" was a mixed blessing for Philip LaFollette, who, like his father, served as the state's governor and was active in trying to restore the Progressive Party. 

But, as Jonathan Kasparek notes in "Fighting Son: A Biography of Philip F. LaFollette" (Wisconsin Historical Society Press: $22.95), it was his brother, Robert, who Fighting Bob felt should be the family politician. 

When the elder LaFollette died, Kasparek says, it might have seemed logical that Philip, his father's agent, would take up the role. 

"But his continual role as Wisconsin agent for the LaFollettes after Old Bob's death didn't mean Phil would inherit his father's mantle. Taking up after his father meant going against the elder LaFollette's deepest wishes. LaFollette had long en visioned a political career for his oldest son, expecting Robert to run for governor in his own lifetime and increasingly delegating to him important tasks such as managing his re-election campaign in 1922 and shepherding a tax bill through the state legislature." 

And, as it turned out, the younger Robert did take his father's place in the Senate - but Philip went on to win three terms as Wisconsin's governor and, much to the dismay of the Roosevelt administration, went on to try to build the Progressive Party as a major third party force, an action which pretty much destroyed his political career. 

Nevertheless, Philip LaFollette remains one of the great driving forces of Wisconsin politics and Kasparek's biography will be essential reading for anyone interested in how this state became the national leader it promised to be for most of the 20th century.

The following book review by John J. Schulze Jr. appeared in the May 2007 issue of "Wisconsin Lawyer" magazine: 

First, a note of explanation: I mean no disrespect when in this review I refer to this book's subjects by their first names, as it is the most expedient way to differentiate one La Follette from another. 

"Fighting Son: A Biography of Philip F. La Follette" is well worth the read for three reasons. First, the book provides an excellent insight into the political environment of early 20th century Wisconsin centered on its most influential player - Philip F. La Follette. Second, it describes the competition among urban socialists, progressive Republicans, and the farm-labor coalition to serve as the preeminent organized liberal party, and how the then-insignificant Democratic Party rose to prominence and took the mantel behind the leadership of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Third, it reaffirmed my impression that the book's literal father figure - "Fighting Bob" La Follette - was the insufferable windbag I always supposed him to be. 

Author Jonathan Kasparek does not waste time or words in accomplishing what every good history author should do - integrate several fascinating stories into one congruent tale about the life and times of the subject, here Philip La Follette. Kasparek details Fighting Bob's youngest son's political journey, from Phil's term as Dane County District Attorney cracking down on organized crime in the Greenbush area of Madison, to his three terms as Wisconsin governor and father of the national Progressive Party, and finally his later years as a supporter of General Douglas MacArthur's presidential bid. Phil's rise and fall took place in the forefront of the political battles of the day: the battle between wet and dry politicians; rural progressives' bias against the property tax versus urban legislators' opposition to the income tax; the evils of chain banks; and oleomargarine bans. All this, against the national backdrop of two world wars and the great depression. 

Throughout his political career, Phil's two fundamental beliefs always were present. First, government can "do good," and second, any problem can be solved with the right kind of government intervention. While better minds than mine can debate whether good government is an oxymoron, Kasparek consistently shows that Phil's decision making was driven by idealism, not by a desire to consolidate power or reward campaign contributors. 

The book is painstakingly researched and referenced, the author having obviously spent much time at the Wisconsin Historical Society mining speeches and letters, and conducting interviews. 

Potential readers should be warned - this is not a tawdry behind-the-curtains' peek at the "real" La Follettes. Yes, the book describes the strained relationships between Phil and his father and between Phil and his brother Robert La Follette Jr. However, Kasparek's intent is not to expose, but rather to chronicle the life and times of Wisconsin's first family of politics, with the emphasis on Phil. 

In doing so, Kasparek proves the old saw that history repeats itself. Phil's attempt to form a national Progressive Party that was not a cult of personality mirrored the fate suffered by Ross Perot's Reform Party. While Phil was unsuccessful in his attempt to get federal waivers so he could combat the great depression with a system based on work rather than government handouts, more than 50 years later Gov. Tommy Thompson's attempt was successful and resulted in his welfare reform initiative. Ironically, both Phil and Tommy's proposals were called "Wisconsin Works."

This feature by Dave Zweifel appeared in "The Capital Times" on September 22, 2006: 

'Fighting Son' a must-read on state's political history 

Robert M. "Fighting Bob" La Follette and his oldest son, "Young Bob," typically get the credit for Wisconsin's proud Progressive political tradition. 

Between them, after all, they represented Wisconsin in the U.S. Senate for more than 40 years and played pivotal roles during some of the nation's most contentious and trying times. 

Getting short shrift in many of the histories written about the famed Wisconsin political family is Fighting Bob and Belle La Follette's younger son, Phil. But, as UW-Waukesha historian Jonathan Kasparek tells us in his new book, "Fighting Son," Phil La Follette may have actually played as big a part in nurturing the Progressive movement and shaping the state's politics as his famous father and was certainly as big, if not bigger, a player as his older brother. 

Phil La Follette never went to Washington, but he did serve as Wisconsin's governor, first, like his dad, as a member of the progressive wing of the Republican Party from 1931 to 1933. He served a second term from 1935 to 1939, this time as a member of the newly formed Progressive Party. Indeed, it was Phil's tireless work for his father in the 1920s that spread the state's progressive message far beyond its borders and for a while propelled the Progressives into one of the most successful third parties in U.S. history. 

But, there were numerous ups and downs in Phil La Follette's political career and Kasparek does an excellent job of putting them into perspective in this 260-page book. He has done his research carefully and the result is a highly readable history that covers new ground and adds to the understanding of this complicated, but spirited time in Wisconsin's colorful history. 

He documents the influence that the harsh criticism and censure of his father during Fighting Bob's lonely fight against America's joining World War I had on his life. Despite being burned in effigy on the UW campus and being unceremoniously expelled from places like the Madison Club, the senior La Follette didn't back down and proclaimed before sometimes hostile audiences that he would do it all over again if it came to that. Phil La Follette was struck by the old man's guts and, according to Kasparek, that led to Phil's own strong principled politics throughout his career. 

Kasparek's text is replete with quotes and references from The Capital Times and its fiery founder, William T. Evjue, who was a longtime La Follette confidante and major force on the state political scene. 

Madison readers will be particularly entertained by a chapter in the book that details Phil La Follette's first elected job as district attorney of Dane County (a job he won in 1924 at the age of 27 - the same year that his father lost his third-party bid to be president of the United States). It was during Phil's tenure as D.A. that the now famed Madison "Greenbush" became infamous. Bootlegging was rampant, murders were routine and the citizenry was in an uproar that law enforcement needed to crack down. 

Kasparek describes how La Follette actually applied progressive principles to the operation of his office and succeeded in bringing the crime-ridden neighborhood under control. 

There are instances where students of the La Follette era might disagree with Kasparek's conclusions, but this is a book that needs to be read by anyone who wants to understand why Wisconsin's politics and its government were unique during the first half of the 20th century. 

It will also cause readers to wonder what happened in the years since.