A century ago, before Tea Parties, Super PACs, and Fox News, a small band of Republican insurgents launched a daring political revolt against the party establishment. Their tactics would be familiar to modern conservatives—sensational filibusters, populist rhetoric, and grassroots campaigns—but their politics were poles apart. Led by “Fighting Bob” La Follette of Wisconsin, the original Republican insurgents pioneered the progressive movement that revolutionized American politics and redefined the role of the federal government.
In a timely history of the birth of progressivism, political journalist Michael Wolraich explores the spectacular power struggle that shattered the Republican Party and split the country between the ideological factions that now define modern politics: progressive and conservative. This excerpt from Unreasonable Men: Theodore Roosevelt and the Republican Rebels Who Created Progressive Politics describes the fateful insurgency that started a war we're still fighting today.
Oh, pshaw! It seems to be coming about that this country is divided into two parts—the republic of the United States and Wisconsin.
—“Uncle Joe” Cannon, Speaker of the House of Representatives
MADISON, WISCONSIN, MAY 18, 1904
Even without the barbed wire, the old brick gymnasium looked like a fortress. A fat red turret squatted at each corner of the building; six slender ones overlooked the parapets and gables. The huge wooden doors that sealed the entrances were tall enough for giants and studded with nails. Standing at the edge of a broad blue lake, the “Red Gym” seemed sturdy enough to protect the University of Wisconsin from Vikings, sea monsters, and other menaces.
Politicians were another matter. They stormed the gymnasium by land one sunny spring day in 1904. Lightly armored in straw skimmer hats and convention badges, the “Stalwarts” advanced toward the citadel, hoping to overwhelm the enemy by force of numbers. Curious housewives stepped out in their aprons to watch them march down the road, four abreast waving two large American flags.
The “Half-Breed” defenders were ready for them. Two parallel fences tipped with barbed wire formed a narrow corridor into the gymnasium. A phalanx of large men guarded the entrance—football players, blacksmiths, cops, and Evan “the Strangler” Lewis, a world champion wrestler. When the Stalwart vanguard reached the perimeter, their ranks broke in confusion. Only those with proper credentials to the Wisconsin Republican convention were allowed to enter the building. Many would be invaders carried counterfeit badges; a missing stroke in the signature gave them away. They shouted and scuffled as the Half-Breed gatekeepers shoved them aside.
The Stalwart delegates with legitimate badges filed through the passage and took their seats on the gym floor. They were outnumbered now, but the Half-Breeds took no chances. More musclemen moved into position around suspected Stalwart rabble-rousers and made sure that they didn’t leave their seats. Governor Robert Marion La Follette had ordered a peaceful convention—no riots, no stampedes.
Another wire fence separated the delegates from a mass of roaring spectators crammed shoulder-to-shoulder on the far side of the gym. Intrepid university students perched on the ceiling girders and roared out a football cheer:
Cheer! Boys, cheer! La Follette’s got the ball!
U-rah-ah! Oh, won’t they take a fall?
For when we hit their line they’ll have no line at all!
There’ll be a hot time in Wisconsin tonight, my baby!
The man they celebrated was no football star. Five-foot-five and nearly 50 years old with a slight paunch, his only helmet was a thick reddish-brown pompadour that sprouted mushroom-like from his scalp. “Fighting Bob” La Follette was the governor of Wisconsin, champion of the Half-Breeds faction, and, in the eyes of his Stalwart enemies, a dangerous radical.
Wisconsin’s governors were expected to defer to the state’s powerful party bosses and wealthy industrialists, but Governor La Follette was not like the others. Instead of relying on Republican bosses to nominate him at state conventions, he wanted the voters to select candidates in primary elections. Instead of granting favors to the railroad and lumber industries, he endeavored to tax their profits, regulate their activities, and prevent their lobbyists from meddling in politics.
Such radical ideas did not sit well with the bosses of the Republican machine. Wisconsin was booming. As America’'s industrial expansion devoured the state’s abundant natural resources, some of its citizens had grown rich. Closely connected to the political establishment, they feared any disruption to the economic juggernaut or the Gilded Age political order that had governed Wisconsin for decades. During La Follette’s first four years in office, Republican bosses succeeded in blocking his legislative initiatives, but he was popular, and his power was growing. In 1904, on the verge of obliteration, the old guard threatened an unbridled fight to prevent his nomination for a third two-year term.
The split in the Wisconsin Republican Party was different from any that had preceded it, and the press struggled to label the warring 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 schism 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—even though the Democratic bosses detested them as much as the Republican bosses did.
The decisive battle unfolded in the Red Gym on May 18, 1904. La Follette’s Half-Breeds held a narrow lead in the delegate count. The Stalwarts hoped to swarm the convention and force a challenge to the delegate roll. If that failed, they could disrupt the proceedings by threat of force. But La Follette’s football players thwarted both schemes. In vote after vote, the delegates rejected the Stalwarts’ parliamentary challenges. By the time the sunrays streaming through the windows began to fade, it was clear that the Half-Breeds had won. La Follette would be nominated for a third term.
At 5:45 p.m., one of the Stalwart captains jumped from his chair and shouted, “I ask the privilege of announcing that all anti-third-term delegates in this convention are requested to meet in caucus at the Fuller Opera House at 8 o’clock tonight!” A crowd of Stalwarts followed him as he stormed out of the chamber.
THE NEXT DAY, FRONT-PAGE HEADLINES FROM New York City to the Arizona Territory announced the sensational news: “BOLT IN WISCONSIN.” The Stalwarts had bolted the Red Gym and were holding a shadow convention to nominate their own candidates at the opera house. The story was hot. Newspapers reveled in the feud and speculated feverishly about its effect on President Theodore Roosevelt’s election chances. But none of them recognized its significance.
The schism in Wisconsin was the first crack in the Republican Party's hegemony. Over the next eight years, the rupture would fissure across every state and territory in the Union. By the time the earth stopped shaking, the old political order would lie shattered on the ground. New battle lines would divide the voters. New rules and institutions would govern their lives. New visions would inspire them. The greatest period of political change in American history was about to begin.
WASHINGTON, DC, MAY 30, 1904
From Theodore Roosevelt’s point of view, Governor La Follette was a nuisance. Roosevelt’s eyes were fixed on the next election, six months away. Winning was not just a political goal; it was a point of honor. His accession to the White House had been a fluke, an accidental consequence of President McKinley’s assassination. He wanted to prove that he could win the presidency in his own right.
The schism in Madison threatened this prize. His friend Nicholas Murray Butler, president of Columbia University, advised him that the Wisconsin situation was dangerous. If one of the factions bolted the national Republican ticket, he might lose the state’s 13 electoral votes. Butler blamed La Follette for the turmoil, adding, “He is more or less of a fanatic and cannot be conciliated by any ordinary methods.”
Roosevelt concurred. “I absolutely agree with you that the Wisconsin situation is very, very ugly,” he replied. “I am at my wits’ end how to keep out of it. In my judgment you read La Follette exactly right…” He did not oppose Wisconsin's political reforms. To the contrary, he had established a reputation for taking on corrupt political bosses and powerful corporations. But he neither liked nor trusted Governor La Follette, whom he regarded as unbalanced and dangerous to the Republican Party.
For Roosevelt, balance was paramount. In any controversy, he invariably positioned himself between the poles. If he gave a speech criticizing rich “plutocrats,” he qualified it by censuring the “mob” as well. When he attacked “bosses” and “political machines,” he made sure to denounce “demagogues” and “fanatics” in the next sentence. Born into old New York money, he disdained the populist agitation that was sweeping the West. “I have a horror of hysterics or sentimentality,” he explained. “All I want to do is cautiously to feel my way to see if we cannot make the general conditions of life a little easier, a little better.”
In addition to his temperamental aversion to populism, Roosevelt also had a practical reason to be cautious. He knew the Republican-controlled Congress would never agree to radical changes. To pass legislation, he had to compromise with congressional leaders. “The reformers complain because I will not go to the absurdity of refusing to deal with machine senators,” he protested to journalist Ray Stannard Baker, “but I must work with the material that the states send me.”
Even Roosevelt’s celebrated trust-busting exemplified his pragmatism. In the late 1800s, a rash of corporate mergers had concentrated the nation’s thriving industries into giant holding companies known as trusts. Like many Americans, Roosevelt worried about the trusts’ political influence and anticompetitive practices. Taking advantage of an antitrust law from 1890, he shocked the business community by suing the Northern Securities Company, the largest railroad corporation in the world. The pioneering lawsuit established his reputation as a legendary trust-buster, but after breaking up Northern Securities, he eased off his assault. Employing the threat of litigation as a “big stick,” he worked quietly with corporate executives to reform rather than to dissolve other large conglomerates.
His interactions with congressional leaders were similarly accommodating. In return for a free hand to conduct foreign diplomacy, he refrained from challenging Congress’s purview over domestic legislation. His first term was not without legislative accomplishments, including the establishment of the Department of Commerce and Labor, but he achieved them by cooperating with recalcitrant Republican leaders, and the legislation’s impact was modest. For the most part, he left Congress to plod along as it had for years, complacently passing small-bore appropriations and other minor legislation while substantive reform bills strangled silently in committee.
Among the Republican legislators, Roosevelt held a particularly high regard for John Coit Spooner, the Wisconsin senator who led the Stalwart faction. Spooner’s wire-rim pince-nez and thick mat of hair gave him the appearance of an absented-minded professor, but Roosevelt knew him to be one of the sharpest minds and most powerful politicians in Washington. He was indebted to him for helping to pass the Panama Canal treaty and other diplomatic initiatives. “What a trump Spooner is,” he wrote. “He has done so much for me.”
One week after Wisconsin’s Republican convention, Spooner visited the White House to ask a favor of his own. The Stalwarts had elected him to represent them at the Republican National Convention in Chicago. La Follette’s Half-Breeds had selected their own representatives. There could only be one Wisconsin delegation, so the Republican National Committee would have to choose between the two factions. Spooner urged Roosevelt to stay out of the contest, arguing that presidential dignity required him to remain above the fray. Roosevelt, who was anxious to avoid entanglement in the affair, agreed.
A few days later, a Half-Breed delegation arrived in Washington, begging for his assistance. They pointed out that the Republican National Committee was biased against them. The committee chairman, Postmaster General Henry C. Payne, was a Wisconsin Stalwart, and the other members were on his side. Without presidential intervention, the committee would certainly authenticate the Stalwart delegation. But Roosevelt declined to interfere. Echoing Spooner’s argument, he insisted that the president should not involve himself in state politics.
His hands clean, he hoped that the matter would soon be put to rest. Years later, he would come to see the conflict in another light. By then, he would be a different man. And America would be a different country.
From Unreasonable Men by Michael Wolraich. Copyright © 2014 by the author and reprinted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan, a division of St. Martin's Press, LLC.
Though Theodore Roosevelt is remembered for his muscular presidency and progressive leadership, Unreasonable Men by Michael Wolraich emphasizes the critical role played by his erstwhile ally, Bob La Follette, who led the vanguard of the Republican insurgency. After vanquishing the Wisconsin Stalwarts during his third term as governor, La Follette ran for Senate and took his progressive crusade to Washington, D.C. Wolraich chronicles his turbulent relationship with Roosevelt as the two Republican reformers clashed over strategy and dueled for control of the emerging progressive movement. Their bitter fight for the presidential nomination in 1912 ultimately doomed the progressive faction of the Republican Party, ceding the ground to Woodrow Wilson and the Democrats.
Michael Wolraich is a writer based in New York. He is the author of Blowing Smoke, and his writing has appeared at CNN, The Atlantic, Reuters, Talking Points Memo, and Pando Daily.