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Recollections of a Long Life 1829 - 1915
Chapter XVII


I NOW come to the latter-day phase of Wisconsin Politics: the organization of the half-breed faction within the Republican party and the election of Robert M. La Follette as Governor.

The philosophy of the movement which had its beginning in this enterprise has been dealt with by many exponents and interpreted in many lights. Its evolution from governmental reform to political dogma has provoked a variety of opinion, stirred commentators to a fever of activity, and led to prophecies of hope and despair. Of that controversy I shall have nothing to say. My only purpose here is to set down the part I played in the undertaking; and in so doing I shall confine myself to a plain statement of facts, leaving those who may read to draw their own conclusions.

Internal conditions in the Republican party in Wisconsin in 1898 and 1899 were far from a state of repose. There was obvious and growing dissatisfaction with the trend of its affairs. The railroads, public service corporations, and allied interests had come to exert a dominant influence over the legislative activities of both parties; and power had become so concentrated in the hands of a few leaders in the Republican party that they presumed to direct its destinies to suit their own purposes whether they ran counter to the desires of the rank and file of the electorate or not.

In 1866 and 1868, when I was a member of the Assembly, the railroads, then basking in the light of public favor and looked upon as the harbingers of great prosperity and industrial development, were, through their agents, much in evidence at Madison. The lobbyists had headquarters at the Vilas House, the most important hotel, and the effects of their activities upon the work of the legislature were obvious. By the distribution of passes and granting of favors here and there throughout the state, this system had been maintained for nearly forty years; and in time the railroads became so thoroughly entrenched that they regarded their position as impregnable.

During this constructive period I had been closely associated with railroad men. Many of them counted as my friends. But I thought at the outset and still think that if their influence had been curtailed it would have been better for themselves and better for the business of the state generally. The increase in traffic that would have followed the adoption of a more liberal policy would have more than compensated for any immediate losses they might have sustained; economies would have been achieved and popular confidence would have supplanted the distrust in which they came to be held. Nevertheless they did not elect to follow this course. Instead they throttled legislation which they considered, in this narrow light, inimical to them and dominated the legislature. The boast was made by one of their chief lobbyists that no bill had passed for sixteen years without their approval; and I believe he was right in this assertion.

But the halcyon days of railroad control were coming to an end. They were no longer the object of popular solicitude and encouragement during the closing days of the last century, and the demand that they pay their just proportion of taxation and submit to the control exercised over all other commercial and industrial institutions grew apace. Like many others I arrived at the conclusion that it would be well for the state to shake off their domination and the incubus of the "inner ring" of politicians which enabled it to maintain itself and for the legislature to exercise greater liberty of action to the end that there might be systematic regulation, not only of the railroads but of public service corporations generally.

To accomplish this, however, required the entire upsetting of the old alignment, a general political upheaval which would restore the power of initiative to the voters. This was no small problem. After weighing it carefully, however, in my own mind and taking measure of the difficulties that would be encountered, I decided on the course I would follow, keeping my own counsel and not consulting, for a time, anyone.

The result was the establishment of the so-called Half-breed faction as opposed to the Stalwart or regular faction in the Republican party. For several years Albert R. Hall, of Knapp, Dunn County, a Republican who had served in the legislature for several terms, with several others, had been making a futile fight against the influence of the railroads and the coterie which supported them. Robert M. La Follette joined their number, backed Nils P. Haugen for the governorship, and became a candidate for that office twice himself in opposition to the machine. These efforts to break the ring within which the power of the dominating corporations was centered were fruitless and little or no progress was made.

On December 12, 1899, I sent my secretary, Lewis S. Patrick, to Madison with instructions to see La Follette and to say to him that it was my suggestion that he again enter the field for the governorship the following year, 1900. His reply to Patrick was that his health was impaired, that he had no money to defray the expenses of a campaign and that the time was not propitious, that it was ten years too soon for a concerted effort.

In January, 1900, and again in February, I commissioned Henry Overbeck, Jr., a. member of the legislature from Sturgeon Bay, to go to La Follette and convey to him a similar message. On both visits he again said it was too soon, at least five years. Despite his apparent reluctance to make the attempt in the face of what had so far proved to be an impregnable opposition, I sent Overbeck to see him a third time in March with the same result.

I then enlisted the aid of De Wayne Stebbins, a member of the State Senate from Algoma, in my own district, who arranged a meeting with La Follette in Chicago during the latter part of April at the Sherman House. This, by the way, seemed to be La Follette's favorite method of avoiding publicity, the risk of which, in most instances, appeared to me to be so remote as to be scarcely discernible at all. Many of the political plans carried out in Wisconsin at this time were laid at conferences in Chicago hotel rooms, the conferees slipping in and out of the city singly and with the greatest possible secrecy as if the attention of the world were riveted on their movements, whereas the world, as a matter of fact, was quite indifferent to them. The meetings might have been held more conveniently at Madison and, so far as I could see, would probably have attracted as little notice.

La Follette was at the appointed place with Edward I. Kidd, the state bank examiner. Before Stebbins could complete what I had instructed him to say La Follette interrupted again, making the objection that the time was not ripe for his candidacy and that he was without funds to make the fight. Stebbins persisted, asking to be heard through before any objections were made and outlined the plan which I had devised. According to this La Follette was to announce his candidacy for the governorship. Stebbins was also to enter the field, but was to withdraw at the proper time after canvassing the northern part of the state. I knew that Henry C. Payne, the leader of the reactionary wing of the Republican party, would bring out a candidate but I was reasonably sure that, with the campaign I proposed, we could defeat him.

When Stebbins had mapped out the plan he handed La Follette $2,500 in currency which I had given him for that purpose. The reluctance which he had exhibited at previous meetings with Patrick and Overbeck vanished. Apparently overcome at the prospect, according to the detailed report of the conference made to me, and with tears running down his cheeks, he declared with confidence that he would be the next governor of Wisconsin.

How well the plan worked out is a matter of political record. Stebbins went on with his canvass in the northern part of the state, to carry on I gave him $2,500. La Follette confined his efforts to the other parts, as had been agreed upon. To defray the expenses of his campaign I gave $2,500 more, six weeks after the Chicago meeting. These contributions appeared to have fixed a standard. Thereafter when an outlay was needed to meet the difficulties with which the hall-breeds were confronted from time to time, requests were, in most cases, for this precise amount.

These manoeuvres mystified the machine politicians, who were, as yet, unaware of the nature of the opposition. The inner council, which had been accustomed to decide what course the party should follow, seemed to realize that they had lost control, but did not understand how it was brought about. In time the Payne candidate withdrew and the others dropped out, leaving the field entirely to La Follette and Stebbins. When this came to pass Stebbins also quit the race.This much having been accomplished, he came to me and offered to return half the money I had given him, the unexpended balance of the contribution I had made to enable him to carry on the campaign. The remainder had been used to defray his traveling expenses. In this, as in all other things, I found him to be a man of absolute integrity.

When the time for the state convention, which was held in Milwaukee, arrived, the Stalwarts had capitulated entirely and La Follette was nominated by a unanimous vote. As his campaign manager and chairman of the state central committee he chose General Bryant, whom he regarded, he said, as a godfather - an idealistic relationship the value of which was to realize later when, seeking counsel and aid, he clothed me with the attributes of fatherhood.

As a respite for La Follette, whose health was far from good at the time, from the strain of the preconvention campaign, I took about twenty persons, including him and Mrs. La Follette, for an extended excursion on my yacht. Starting at Marinette we went to the "Soo," Georgian Bay, and other other points on the upper lakes and were away for seven days. The campaign proper, the expenses of which I bore in large part, followed. La Follette was elected and with him a majority of the legislature favorable to our plans.

Having acquired control of the administration, the next problem was to retain it. This required continuous struggle and unfaltering vigilance. The chief handicap of the Half-breed faction was the lack of an organ, an important newspaper which might be used as the medium for conveying to the public its principles and its purposes and by which it might. defend itself against attacks, particularly those of the Milwaukee Sentinel, the oldest and most influential journal in the state at the time, which was decidedly hostile to the administration. In 1901 the suggestion was made to me that I purchase a controlling interest in the Sentinel, which could be obtained for $164,000. I offered to subscribe $50,000 to that end if the remaining $114,000 could be raised by the Half-breed supporters. This could not be done within the two weeks the option was in force and the control of the paper was finally purchased by Charles F. Pfister, one of the stockholders, who continued the policy hostile to the Half-breeds.

La Follette and his friends then set about to establish another newspaper. They obtained a lengthy list of subscribers, most of whom, it came to pass, never paid their subscriptions. Among others, Charles F. llsley, whom I had known for fifty years and in whom I had great confidence, agreed to take some stock; and it was pointed out to me that if I would contribute the requisite amount, about $37,000, the paper could be started.

These were no matter-of-fact negotiations. They were carried on in the stress and storm of political conflict and were illumined with roseate prospects of victory in a praiseworthy undertaking, the "great cause" which was to live long after my demise. I was commended for my open-handed generosity and worthy public spirit in promoting clean, just government in the commonwealth (the words are not mine), and pictured as one who had wronged no man but had suffered much criticism aimed to drive me out of politics.

At last I went into the publishing enterprise and the newspaper, called the Free Press, was established June 18, 1901. Mr. Ilsley, Mr. Upham, and a few others paid their subscriptions, but the greater number of the prospective stockholders withdrew, leaving me to bear the cost alone. I was not an officer in the company, but took notes for the indebtedness and, having had no experience in the conduct of a newspaper, I soon discovered that the undertaking was a costly one. The paper "that was hungered for by a great constituency" and was to plead the great cause "not of the citizen against the corporation, but of the citizen and the corporation each to stand equal before the law and each to bear a just burden of taxation," seemed to meet with the vicissitudes of a fickle appetite. The $37,000 I contributed to its maintenance the first year was increased by $87,000 the second year and the process continued with disconcerting persistency.

None the less the Half-breeds had their organ and in that we achieved the primary purpose of the establishment of the Free Press, which became an institution of some political consequence.

The attacks upon La Follette and our faction of the Republican party were carried on not only from within the state but from without. Our experiment and the success we had achieved had attracted the attention of corporation interests generally, and they contemplated with some dismay the spread of the propaganda to other states. In 1902 they originated a movement which came to be designated the Eleventh Story or Eleventh Floor, their offices and headquarters being on the eleventh floor of a building on the corner of Broadway and Wisconsin streets in Milwaukee. To carry on this work a number of eastern corporations, it was generally reported, contributed large sums of money for the purpose of crushing the movement before it could gain headway. It was said that they had secured, by a large outlay of funds, control of the editorial policy of more than two hundred small newspapers throughout the state. These ill-advised efforts were not only futile, but contributed much, I am convinced, to the success of the Half-breeds. The more energetically they attacked, the more determined became popular support of the movement. Had it not been for the resentment against the interference of the Eleventh Story and the activities of foreign corporations in the field of state politics, it is not improbable that the Half-breeds would have been defeated.

The old-line Republicans in 1902 asked me to become a candidate for the governorship, hoping through me, no doubt, to encompass the defeat of La Follette. Up to this time my attitude still puzzled them. In the conduct of my business I had met men at the head of large industrial and commercial institutions and railroad officials and was intimately associated with them for a half-century or more. Many of them were also friendly to me and remained so throughout this period of political upheaval. That I should have become apparently antagonistic toward them in a political way they were unable to understand. None the less, many were broad-minded enough to give me credit for sincerity of purpose and did not hold it against me that I should have aided the Half-breeds. But whether their offer was made as a piece of political strategy or in good faith, I rejected it and held to my course.

Proposals of the same kind were forthcoming from La Follette, who professed a very lively sense of gratitude for what I had done for him and the cause of "clean, just government." In 1902 I met him in Chicago, as I was in the habit of doing frequently at this time, to discuss our political plans. On this occasion he urged me to run for the United States Senate against Spooner. No particular effort, he said, would be required on my part. If I supplied him with funds to carry on the campaign, he explained, I might go to Europe, and during my absence he would bring about, my election. This proposal I rejected out of hand. I replied that I had no business in Europe and no intention of going there, but that I had business at home and would not consider the suggestion at all.

In the meantime the political pot bubbled energetically. The emissaries of La Follette found their way to Marinette, some of them coming to my office stealthily by an indirect way and delivering their messages with an impressive air of secrecy, although they could have walked the streets of the city at high noon without attracting any more attention than they did. Among these was Judge Zimmerman, formerly a law partner of La Foflette's, whom I have always regarded as an estimable gentleman, Walter Hauser, and Harvey Clark. Sometimes the emissaries departed with a "package of papers," the accepted designation for one of the $2,500 contributions, the advancement of the "great cause" so often seemed to require, leaving the city as stealthily as they had entered it.

About this time also, when La Follette came to Appleton and De Pere on a speech-making tour, I sent Mr. J. A. Van Cleve to the latter place with $1,000 in currency which he gave to La Follette at the conclusion of his address to defray the expenses of his campaigning.

What was accomplished in a legislative way during the first two years of Half-breed control of the state government was well set forth by Governor La Follette himself:

We have not accomplished everything hoped for. We have made great strides toward better government and secured much that is of the highest value. Not in a quarter of a century has a more important piece of legislation been enacted than the law which taxes railroad property in Wisconsin upon the same basis as other taxable property.

We could not secure primary election legislation to be immediately effective, but we have passed a bill which the people will, I trust, adopt in the general election of 1904. Should they do this, it will consummate the most far-reaching and valuable public measure for representative government enacted in Wisconsin since her admission into the Union.

We have passed many laws of special excellence besides, notwithstanding the obstruction encountered in the Senate. They will receive merited attention when the work of this session is reviewed in detail. A large number of bad bills have been beaten and vetoed, the evil in which the public will never fully know.

We have failed in one great piece of legislation, which is not dead, nor does it even sleep for a day. The work goes on and will not halt or stop till the transportation taxes are reduced and equalized in Wisconsin. But even in this we have made phenomenal progress and advanced farther in a. few months than any other state, or even the general government, in a decade.

All this history of political accomplishment, I was assured, "would have been a blank page" but for my aid and influence.

So far, so good. These specific reforms were of benefit to the state and were a part of the work we had set out to do. Looking backward, however, I am not now so certain that I would advocate a primary election law as I was then. It is the sort of legislation of which everything good can he said and which arouses popular interest; but experience has proved, I think, that it is not practicable. It increases the burden of political obligation unnecessarily. The people, as a rule, except under the stimulus of an extraordinary contest, will not go to the polls twice to fill the same office. July Fourth, the Christmas holidays, and general elections are the only occasions when they will give their attention to other things than their daily work. The primary vote is always but a small proportion of the total vote in either party. And I am not sure that this method of selecting candidates is the most effective. A convention of selected delegates can proceed with greater deliberation and more sense of responsibility than the people as a whole, who are often times swayed by meretricious influences or guided by sympathy which may or may not properly have place in the selection of public officers. By way of illustration, I might be expected to act with greater caution in selecting a foreman for one of my mills than the workmen themselves and with greater regard for the permanency of the institution. That, however, is a large question which has no place here.


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