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Recollections of a Long Life 1829 - 1915
Chapter XIX


AT the outset of my service in the Senate the progress of political events was smooth enough. One of the first men to congratulate me upon my election was Assemblyman Warner who, Senator La Follette had said, was opposed to me in 1905. On the day after the election Senator La Follette himself telegraphed his congratulations and a week or two later he wrote to me in the friendliest possible vein, saying, among other things: "My dear Senator: It is good to write that down and to know that nothing can ever change it. At last after a quarter of a century justice has been done. I wanted to visit with you and talk it all out, but it will keep and we shall go over it together many times."

It began to appear that, despite the misunderstandings that had arisen and the mistakes that had been made, the prospect was clearing and I was willing to look forward rather than backward.

But it was not long before I became aware that the purposes of La Follette and of the La Follette organization were not my purposes. This became apparent when the problems of patronage, the first to arise, came up for solution. For the convenience of both of us I desired to come to some sort of understanding regarding offices. This could best be accomplished, it seemed to me at the time, by the exchange of districts, La Follette being more familiar with conditions in the Western district, which had been allotted to me, than I was. This or any other definite arrangement he seemed to be reluctant to make. "I think it will be a nice thing," he said, ''for us both to join in making appointments, because I have no doubt we can agree. Of course Spooner and I could not do that."

Of this I was not so certain as he seemed to be. I objected mainly on the ground that it would be impossible for me to ascertain what his wishes might be in a particular case when he was away on the Chautauqua circuit, to which he gave much attention during this period, or for him to find out what I might desire.

Nevertheless, choosing what I considered to be the wiser course, I deferred to his judgment in certain instances when appointments were to be made in my own district, with what effect the following two incidents will show. Not long after my election I was asked by the Post-Office Department to make a recommendation for the appointment of a postmaster at Highland. I communicated with Senator La Follette, who suggested that I write to Dwight Parker, cashier of a bank at Fennimore, Grant County, and also J. J. Blame, of Boscobel. Parker named a man whom I recommended and he was appointed. Senator La Follette then told me I had made a. mistake.

"You told me that Parker was all right," I said. "How in thunder could I tell"' Thereupon lie shifted to Parker the blame for the error, as he considered it.

About the same time the term of the postmaster at Boscobel had expired. I wrote to J. J. Blaine, asking whom the people wanted for the office, a. Half-breed having been mentioned for the place. After about a month Blaine replied that no decision had been reached with respect to the appointment. In response to another letter from me he said that the postmaster then in office was not much of a politician but a good fellow, and that the majority of Republicans in the town would approve of his reappointment, although no mistake would be made if the Half-breed who had been mentioned were recommended. He himself, he said, did not wish to take part in the affair because he was to run for the legislature. He was subsequently elected and what he has done is a matter of public record. After these two episodes I chose to make my own appointments.

Long before this Senator La Follette's political horizon had broadened. The success of the half-breed faction of the party in Wisconsin, which came to be more mellifluously designated "progressive Republicanism" elsewhere, was complete within that restricted field and he had been industriously sowing the seed of the 'great Cause" elsewhere in the Middle West from the Chautauqua platform. In 1905 he visited twelve states in the Middle West and reported that "It is encouraging to find how deep an impress our work in Wisconsin has made upon all this section of the country and how ready people seem to take hold for organization. I try every place I go to start organization."

In his travels, he added, he was surprised to find how many people knew the Free Press and its work. "It stands out before the country almost alone as the fearless, able, incorruptible advocate of the kind of government Lincoln proclaimed on the field of Gettysburg." The growing deficit was not disconcerting. "It cannot fail," he said. ''If such a paper with its high purpose and conspicuous ability cannot succeed as a business enterprise, I then God help our poor country."

For my part in this enterprise I was paid a tribute in terms so glowing that I hesitate to repeat them here. "Then there is another side and a better and nobler side to this Free Press proposition," he added. "Mr. Stephenson cannot overlook it, and it is going to stand out as one of the greatest and most enduring things in his remarkable life. It is this: the Free Press is a part of the history of the reform movement which began in Wisconsin and has become the dominant idea in the great decade upon which we are now entered as a nation. The Free Press stands to-day as the only distinct representative of that idea among the newspapers of the country.

"Mr. Stephenson made this paper possible. The paper made the fight for reform in Wisconsin a potential fact in the nation. It is the best supporter of the President who has taken up the issue. Mr. Stephenson has amassed an immense fortune. It is a great thing to have acquired a great fortune honestly in these days. But he is a multi-millionaire by sheer force of his business ability and sagacily.

Others prominent in the world of finance (whose names I forbear to mention) Senator La Follette went on to say, "have secured their fortunes in violation of plain criminal statutes. Isaac Stephenson will be long remembered for his great business ability. But man cannot live by bread alone. Man's best fame cannot rest on wealth alone. In the last four years he has founded and maintained at great cost a great newspaper which is doing a noble work for the emancipation of government from graft, which is bringing government back to the people, which day by day is saying to the big corporations of Wisconsin: 'Conduct your business in obedience to the law and keep your corrupting hands off legislation.'

"To do this thing and make make this paper a moral and political force in the restoration of government to the citizen is to wield a greater power and render a greater service to his state and country than falls to the lot of many men. The establishing and maintaining of the Free Press is Mr. Stephenson's best monument. It is an act of patriotism. His family and his friends and the history of his time will cherish it as the really greatest work of a great life."

The Senate, also, offered La Follette a wider field of activity. "You say the fight is getting to be a big one there," he wrote before my election to that body. "It is big enough here. And when I have to struggle against all the Stalwarts in the departments, in Congress, the United States Senate,— an atmosphere that is generally charged with poison,— you can realize that it is a good hard proposition for a fellow to go up against single-handed and alone. If you were on the ground here with me, I should feel very confident; but you know I will keep up the fight until the clock stops, anyway."

With this larger movement, despite these flattering allusions, I was not sympathetic. In Wisconsin the old railroad-corporation crowd, the inner ring which controlled party affairs to the exclusion of all others, had been fairly routed and some good laws were placed on the statute books. There the task ended for me. I did not choose to purify the politics of other states. Senator La Follette, however, had larger political aspirations.

During the holiday season of 1907, when I was in Marinette, A. H. Dahl and H. L. Ekern, two of La Follette's friends, came to see me. The purpose of their visit was to raise money for a campaign in the interest of Senator La Follette as a presidential candidate. Both professed to be enthusiastic over the prospects of his success. Ekern counted upon him to carry Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, the Dakotas, New Jersey, most of California,— nearly all the western states. I was of another mind. On January 4, however, I gave them one thousand dollars. At the same time, Dahl asked me to give Lenroot $2,000, saying that he was in need of money to defray the expenses of his Campaign. I was under no obligation to Lenroot and did not feel called upon in any way to come to his aid and said so.

The enthusiasm of the La Follette admirers, measured by their requests for financial assistance to carry on his preconvention campaign, was almost boundless. In .January, 1908, some of them proposed that that I contribute $230,000 to defray the expenses of this political venture. During the same month Ekern came to Washington and asked me to subscribe a very large sum. La Follette's nomination, he thought, would be a foregone conclusion if the money were forthcoming to make the fight. For several hours we discussed the plan at the hotel in Washington at which I was living at the time, and he urged me to supply the necessary funds. As he talked he gradually scaled down the amount sought until it reached twenty-five thousand dollars.

The reduction did not bring his ideas any more into harmony with mine. There was no reason why I should shoulder the burden of attempting to nominate La Follette as the exponent of the progressive cause and I was not disposed to do it. Moreover, I was firmly convinced that the chance of his being nominated under any circumstances, however strong and general the reaction against the old school of politics might have become, was, fund or no fund, extremely remote. The humming of the presidential bee had been too seductive to his admirers. How correct I was in this judgment may be gathered from the fact that he received twenty-five out of the twenty-six votes cast by the Wisconsin delegation at the national Republican convention and no more.

The results of these negotiations, which were fruitless, may or may not have been reflected in the events that immediately followed. I give them simply as the background of events which more directly concerned me. From them I draw no conclusions nor make any deductions.

In 1908 I was elected one of the four delegates at large from Wisconsin to the national convention, a responsibility which I did not seek and would rather have avoided. It was my intention at this time to hold no more political offices. I had had more than my share and it was of more immediate importance to me to remain at home and give my attention to my business.

Nevertheless I went, and my experiences began to indicate the change in drift of sentiment among the leaders of the La Follette group. Ekern had written to me in Washington, saying that he had made a contract with the Stratford Hotel Company for quarters for the state delegation and asked me to guarantee the payment of $2,700. This was contrary, to the practice I had observed in my business affairs for more than forty years, during which time I endorsed but one note and that only for the reason that the holder did not wish to be paid for a. year. I did not care to make an exception to this rule and so informed Ekern, but I agreed to pay one thousand dollars toward defraying the expenses of the delegation. A week or two later he informed me that he had secured quarters at the Grand Pacific and I sent the $1,000. I secured accommodations at the Palmer House, where I had stopped for twenty- eight years while in Chicago.

Curiously enough, as it seemed to me at the time, I was never able to penetrate to the inner recesses of the rooms at the Grand Pacific. It was not generally known at the time, I believe, that La Follette was in Chicago; but I learned later that he and Representative Cooper had been closeted together for two or three days, drafting a platform in which the principles of progressivism from his point of view were embodied. I went to the hotel several times during the progress of the convention, but failed to see either Mr. Cooper or Senator La Follette. Whenever I sought the former I was given evasive replies and told that it would be difficult for me to find the rooms. At the same time the platform committee of the convention brought in its report, which was unanimous, Representative Cooper presented the La Follette platform, which excited little attention, as it was regarded very much as a one-man affair.

The state delegation formally assembled at the Grand Pacific Hotel on Monday, the day before the opening of the convention, and an effort was made to elect me chairman. Refusing the honor, I insisted that some regard be shown for the German element of the state, which had not had its proportion of offices, and proposed that Col. William C. Brumnder, of Milwaukee, whom I scarcely knew, be chosen. He said that the distinction belonged to me, but I persuaded him to accept it and made the motion to that end, which was carried.

When the convention met I voted for La Follette, as did three other members of the delegation, under our instructions; fourteen voted for Sheldon, of Nebraska. I doubt whether any of the fourteen knew anything about Sheldon, but the strategy of the situation apparently demanded this action. How futile these efforts were, if they were in the interest of La Follette, is obvious in the light, of what actually happened. Knox had Pennsylvania, Cannon had Illinois and Fairbanks had Indiana; but when the time came for voting, the overwhelming sentiment of the convention had become plainly manifest and everybody went for Taft.

With this choice I was well pleased. As Governor of the Philippines, and as Secretary of War, Mr. Taft had shown his capacity for handling large affairs successfully. The troublesome problem of the Philippines, complicated by the friar lands question, he had solved admirably. He accomplished the novel task of establishing a colonial government in the islands and set thereby an example for the nations of the world. The part he played in the construction of the Panama Canal was no less important. When the undertaking appeared to be on the verge of collapse because of the desertion of the civil engineers and the opposition of the railroads, he brought order out of the chaos by the appointment of Colonel Goethals and making military authority paramount. Since his term as President, I see no reason for changing my opinion of him. Unscrupulous opposition within the ranks of his own party and the chaos of general political upturning made achievement all but impossible; and to these conditions, rather than to any lack of capacity on his part, was his defeat due. Under normal conditions, and with a united party behind him, I have no doubt that his record of accomplishment as President would be no less noteworthy than his record as Secretary of War.

With the convention out of the way—to return to my own fortunes,— interest in Wisconsin centered upon the senatorial situation. For a long time, as I have said, I had no intention of entering the field. Many persons had urged me to run and I had received communications from various parts of the state with promises of support if I would become a candidate. In March or April, 1908, I had told Senator La Follette that many of my friends were trying to induce me to make the race again. His only response was the rather curt question: "Are they?" By this time I had begun to understand some of the intricacies of politics.

The situation in Wisconsin was somewhat complex. Senator Hatton had announced his candidacy for the full term as far back as May 17, 1907, when I was elected to serve for the unexpired term of Senator Spooner. S. A. Cook, of Neenah, another candidate, had been hard at work canvassing the state for a year or more. Four days after the Republican national convention the papers carried the announcement of McGovern's candidacy. It was assumed by persons who knew something of the situation that McGovern was the La Follette candidate, although most of the political leaders were of the opinion that Hatton was the stronger of the two. On the surface it appeared that some of the La Follette people were for Hatton, but the results of the election belied this supposition. Hatton carried his own county, Waupaca, Superior, La Crosse, and the little county of Rusk, four in all, although he made an aggressive campaign. Cook, who was in the good graces of the old soldiers and the dairymen, visited every town in the state and ran second.

Upon my return from the Chicago convention I stopped at Milwaukee in response to telephone messages concerning business matters and while there met McGovern in the Free Press office. We talked over the situation and I made the prediction that he could not win.

Even at this time and for ten days after the convention I had not arrived at the conclusion that I would become a candidate. But I kept my own counsel and said nothing, even to the members of my family. I was free to act as I chose. The candidates for Spooner's seat during the preceding year not having accepted the proposal I had made to withdraw if I were elected without opposition, there was no promise standing in the way of my making another attempt.

The wisdom of such a course, however, was still to be determined. About two weeks after the convention, when I was in Milwaukee again, I met several of my close friends and in the course of a discussion of the political situation said that I had been thinking of announcing my candidacy for the Senate. There were considerations for and against it which I shall not dibate upon here. Some of my friends seemed to lean toward the latter view, but the discussion did not seem to clarify the situation. After a half-hour no conclusion had been reached and I brought the talk to an end by saying, "I am a candidate." A short statement to that effect was given to the press and I went back to Marinette on the evening train.


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