Library of Congress


The Library of Congress > Teachers > Classroom Materials > Presentations and Activities > Timeline
Timeline Home Page
Progressive Era to New Era
Cities During the Progressive Era
Progressive Reforms Affected Cities in Many Ways

Robert La Follette (1855-1925) was a Republican politician who held a variety of public offices, from county district attorney, to Wisconsin Governor, to national representative and Senator. His autobiography traces that public life. He championed most reforms associated with the progressive movement--regulation of business interests (especially the railroads) and utilities; election reforms; taxation reform; and public management of public resources by highly qualified, nonpartisan public servants. In the excerpt from his autobiography below, La Follette indicates some of the reforms he tried to accomplish. What were these reforms? What difference would such reforms have made for city dwellers?

View the Table of Contents of La Follette's autobiography, from which this excerpt was drawn, from Pioneering the Upper Midwest, ca. 1820-1910. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.

When we began our fight on the bosses they resorted to their usual methods of influencing the labor leaders. The railroads and the big shippers also tried actively to vote their employees against me, but after we had begun to be successful, after the wage-earners had begun to see what our movement meant, we got more and more of their support. . . . The talk was something like this: "It is to our interest and therefore to yours that this man La Follette be defeated for nomination. Your bread and butter depends on your standing by the railroads at the caucuses." . . .

As soon as I became governor we began pressing for new labor legislation which should place Wisconsin on a level with the most progressive state or nation; and it can be truthfully said, since the passage last year of a law creating an Industrial Commission, that Wisconsin now easily leads the states of the union in its body of labor legislation. Child labor has been reduced and the children kept in the schools. Excessive hours for women workers have been abolished. The doctrine of comparative negligence has been adopted for railways, and the long hours of trainmen have been done away with. The most carefully drawn of all workmen's compensation laws has been adopted, and the employers of the state have organized, under a new insurance law, an employer's mutual insurance association, similar to those which in Germany have greatly reduced accidents and compensated the workmen. Many other laws have been added and old ones strengthened, and finally our new Industrial Commission, modeled after the Railroad Commission, has been placed in charge of all the labor laws, with full power to enforce the laws and protect the life, health, safety and welfare of employees. This commission has employed one of the leading experts of the United States to cooperate with employers in devising ways and means of safety and sanitation. . . .

How has it been possible that both the people of Wisconsin and the investors in public utilities have been so greatly benefited by this regulation? Simply because the regulation is scientific . The Railroad Commission has found out through its engineers, accountants, and statisticians what it actually costs to build and operate the road and utilities. Watered stock and balloon bonds get no consideration. On the other hand, since the commission knows the costs, it knows exactly the point below which rates cannot be reduced. It even raises rates when they are below the cost, including reasonable profit.

The people are benefited because they are not now paying profits on inflated capital. The investors are benefited because the commission has all the facts needed to prevent a reduction of rates below a fair profit on their true value. So honestly, capably, and scientifically has the work of our commission been done that the railroads and other utility corporations have accepted their reductions without any contest at all. . . .

In other ways our progressive legislation has materially benefited all the people of the state. For example, beginning in 1903, I secured in every water-power franchise the insertion of a provision that the rates charged should be regulated by arbitration. Since that time the water powers of the state serving as public utilities have been placed under the control of the Railroad Commission, and a great corporation, supervised by the Railroad Commission, with its profits limited to 6 per cent. on actual cost, has been created and has improved the headwaters of the Wisconsin River in order to secure a steady flow through the year. Several enormous power dams have been constructed, and through these means the state has gone far toward utilizing its 1,000,000 available horsepower, while protecting the state against water-power monopoly.

Wisconsin began in 1905 to build up a state forest reserve on the headwaters of its principal rivers. It now ranks next to New York and Pennsylvania in its areas of forests belonging to the state, and has adopted a permanent policy of adding annually to the reserve. . . .

The public service of the state has been democratized by a civil service law opening it to men and women on an equal footing independent of everything excepting qualification and fitness for office. I think the passing of this law was the only case of the kind where the employees then holding office were not blanketed into the service, but were required to take the regular competitive examinations in order to retain their jobs. The law has worked to the great advantage of the service and to the general improvement of political standards. There is no longer any political pull in Wisconsin. . . .

. . . If it can be shown that Wisconsin is a happier and better state to live in, that its institutions are more democratic, that the opportunities of all its people are more equal, that social justice more nearly prevails, that human life is safer and sweeter--then I shall rest content in the feeling that the Progressive movement has been successful. And I believe all these things can really be shown, and that there is no reason now why the movement should not expand until it covers the entire nation. While much has been accomplished, there is still a world of problems yet to be solved; we have just begun; there is hard fighting, and a chance for the highest patriotism, still ahead of us. The fundamental problem as to which shall rule, men or property, is still unsettled; it will require the highest qualities of heroism, the profoundest devotion to duty in this and in the coming generation, to reconstruct our institutions to meet the requirements of a new age. May such brave and true leaders develop that the people will not be led astray. . . .
top of page

View the Table of Contents of LaFollette's Autobiography, from which this excerpt was drawn, from Pioneering the Upper Midwest, ca. 1820-1910. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.