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Recollections of a Long Life 1829 - 1915
Chapter XX

It was not long before I came to the realization that in my campaign for the Senate I was confronted by many perplexing difficulties. If the odds were against anyone, they were against me. Other candidates had the advantage of having been long in the field and had accomplished much in the way of perfecting an organization and canvassing the state. I, on the contrary, had done nothing, and the men with whom I had been associated and whom I had aided in the past were against me. If the fight was to be made, it was to be made by me alone.

Obviously I could no longer expect the support of the Half-breed faction, which had been absorbed by the La Follette machine. The indifference which the so-called progressive leaders had hitherto displayed crystallized into open opposition. On the other hand, some of my opponents had been in the field for months and had made a definite and systematic plea for the support of some of the classes of voters upon whom I depended for success.

It was necessary for me to start from the very beginning, form an organization of some kind and make up for the time that had been lost to overcome the handicap obtained by those who had been in the field before me. W. D. Connor, who had been chairman of the Republican state central committee for four years, controlled the machinery of the Republican organization and was in possession of the voting lists and names of the leaders in every county. My efforts to secure these and his good will were to no purpose.

The time was short. and I set out to build up the machinery of campaigning with the least possible delay. E. A. Edmunds, of Appleton, I placed in charge of the organization work. J. A. Van Cleve, of Marinette, and J. H. Puelicher, of the Marshall and IlsIey Bank of Milwaukee, took charge of the expenditures. We were all more or less at sea in the matter of the details of the work and had to obtain information as best we could without considering the cost.

Letters were written to every postmaster and county clerk with requests for poll lists and the names of voters. Sometimes they were obtained; many times they were not. Wherever possible, men were employed to bring together and take charge of a local organization through which the questions at issue could be put, before the electorate. Campaign literature was distributed in more or less haphazard fashion because of the difficulties confronting us, and campaign paraphernalia was sent out in great quantities. In Milwaukee alone I had constantly employed more than a score of clerks and stenographers who did nothing but attend to this work arid the correspondence. The expenses for postage exceeded twelve thousand dollars. Probably there was no campaign that had ever been carried on in a more wasteful or extravagant manner considered from a business point of view; but there was no time for checking up, no opportunity to ascertain whether the money were being expended to the best advantage, or, possibly, whether in some cases it were being expended at all. Time was too valuable for us to attempt to retrace our steps or to ascertain in what respect the methods we were employing were defective.

It would have been to my advantage to go into every county in the state, but even this was impossible because of the very pressing business affairs which engaged my attention at this time. For twenty of the sixty days I was out of the state. During the last five days preceding the primary election I was able to visit only seven out of the seventy-one counties. Neither were some of my opponents very scrupulous in the methods they used to fight me. The report was assiduously spread that I was seventy- nine years of age and that I could not remember my own name without serious reflection. It is true that I was seventy-nine years of age. As most men at this time of life have retired from both business and politics, if they have been so fortunate as to live that long, it was quite natural that many people should have half believed that there was basis for the charge that I was too feeble to perform public service. To those that knew me or had seen me the absurdity of the charge was obvious. I was then and am still actively in charge of my business affairs and employ approximately four thousand men. Shortness of memory has been the least of my failings. I recall vividly, as this record of events will probably, show, incidents that occurred three-quarters of a century ago; and my capacity for keeping in mind dates and places has astonished my friends.

That my seventy-nine years did not weigh heavily upon me must have been observed by those who saw me; for everywhere I stopped in the seven counties I visited, the majority I polled was appreciably larger than elsewhere. When the final test came I won by a plurality of 10,000 votes, carried thirty-nine out of seventy-one counties and was second in twenty. Had I been able to visit all of the counties I could, I am convinced, have brought the plurality up to between sixty and seventy-five thousand.

It seemed that the gravest of my difficulties were over, but I soon realized that they had just begun. Despite the primary law, which had been one of the conspicuous reforms the La Follette wing of the party had demanded and to the enactment of which I had contributed much, my election was by no means assured. When it came to carrying out the purposes of the measure the legislature cast it lightly aside and I was made to pay the penalty on grounds that were afterward proven to be fictitious.

The legislature met and the La Follette members of the Senate declared against me. With them four Democrats and one Socialist joined forces, giving them a majority in the upper house. The Assembly was in my favor. On January 26, the two houses met separately. The Senate I carried by one vote and the Assembly by an ample majority. Even after this I was not to be permitted to receive my commission without a prolonged struggle. The next day the two houses held a joint session, and all that was necessary under the law was the reading of the journals and the formal announcement of my election. This was prevented by the Lieutenant-Governor, John Strange, a La Follette supporter, who refused to put the question.

In the meantime my own supporters grew lax in their efforts and when the joint session convened each day thereafter I fell short of the number of votes necessary to elect. Sometimes, however, I missed by a very narrow margin. On one occasion I lacked but one vote. C. E. Estabrook, of Milwaukee, a member of the Assembly, who professed to be my friend, voted for Edmnunds, my campaign manager. Had he voted for me the contest would have been closed. As it was the struggle went on until March 4, when I was finally elected by a majority of three votes.

The La Follette Republicans, however, left no stone unturned to encompass my defeat. Meanwhile a joint committee of the legislature was appointed to investigate the primary election, the Senate members of which were Messrs. Marsh and Morris - two La Follette Republicans and Husting, a Democrat from Dodge County, who has since been elected to the United States Senate, all of whom were opposed to me. Five members were appointed by the Assembly.

The proceedings of that investigation have become a part of public record. To repeat the history of the long and dreary undertaking would be superfluous here. Every check that I paid out - representing in the aggregate $107,000 was submitted for examination. Every item of expense was accounted for so far as the brief time at our disposal during the campaign permitted. The experience was a costly and disagreeable one for me. My secretary and many other persons were summoned as witnesses and told in detail what had been done. My bank accounts and books were scrutinized as evidence. Everything that could possibly afford information was laid bare. As a result of the inquiry my added expenses were in excess of $20,000.

The whole proceeding, which was instituted in large part by J. J. Blame, one of the most radical La Follette followers, to whom I had given $1,000 some years before, was summed up by the investigating committee in its majority report as follows:

Political, partisan, or other charges may always be preferred in the legislature against any man nominated, and used as an excuse to defeat the will of the people as expressed at the primary. Personal, factional, and political reasons were responsible in most instances for the attempt to repudiate the primary during the last session of the legislature. Almost every subterfuge and excuse imaginable was resorted to by some Republicans even to the extent of caucusing with Democrats and Social Democrats, to defeat the Republican party nominee. Members were coerced to absent themselves from the sessions day after day to prevent a quorum being present. Members were flattered and cajoled by complimentary votes to defeat an election. Caucuses were held when the purpose of the law was to avoid caucusing. Specific charges were preferred to supply an excuse for defeating the people's expressed wish, and yet a subsequent investigation of these charges showed that Senator Blame who preferred them never pretended to have enough evidence to convict any candidate in the primary and only preferred them "to set this thing in motion," according to his own testimony. This investigation was urged by many for factional and political purposes only, and to defeat the Republican party nominee. The large expenditure of money by Republican candidates was known to the electorate at the time of the primary nomination as well as it was known to the members of the legislature later.

Here I might moralize at some length, if I were so minded, upon the rectitude of political maneuvering. The expenditure of money seems to be a relative thing, the moral turpitude depending upon not how but for what it is spent. For all of the money I devoted to the upbuilding and promotion of the Half-breed faction, the election of La Follette as Governor, and the smashing of the old inner ring of the Republican party, in direct campaign contributions and donations to candidates and for the establishment of a newspaper to give voice to the cause, the great cause of which, I had been told, I was "the source of unfailing power," I was commended in terms so flattering that I hesitate to set them down here. For spending one-fifth of that amount upon my own election under the most adverse circumstances and in the face of the most bitter and unscrupulous opposition, I was condemned out of hand. The practice that was justified in the one case was condemned as most reprehensible in the other. The primary election put forward as one of the cardinal principles of progressive reform was tossed aside without even the good grace of an explanation.

The expenditures of some of the other candidates were by no means small and time was when an outlay for a senatorial campaign far greater than mine had not evoked denunciation. More than once during this period I was reminded of the election of John L. Mitchel, whom I knew very well, in whose behalf, I have heard it said on good authority, $250,000 was expended. General Bragg, the defeated candidate, also my friend, observed that he had been shot with a gold bullet. None the less Mitchel escaped indictment for political manslaughter.

The men who took the most conspicuous part in the fight against me in Wisconsin were the political associates of La Follette. The whole trend of affairs indicated that the opposition was well organized, and certainly it was most persistent. Senator Sanborn, of Ashland, a La Follette Republican, met me iii the Pfister Hotel in Mulwaukee shortly after the primary election and said, as he shook hands with me, that I had won fairly and that he would support me. Subsequently in an interview he made the same statement. When he entered the legislature, however, the existence of a primary law and his apparent convictions availed nothing. Whether he changed his mind or acted in accordance with orders from higher up, he voted against me. This and other incidents indicated how persevering the opposition was.

Vindication in the state legislature did not bring my troubles to an end. My opponents in the state Senate, failing in their first move, clung tenaciously to their purpose and carried the fight up to the United States Senate, where a small group of progressive Republicans, at that time more or less cohesive, took the initiative in an investigation. Here the controversy bore a slightly different aspect. The over campaign expenditures was on. The so-called progressive ideas were expanding and my election served as a convenient peg upon which to hang declarations of political probity for the delectation of the voters to whom the progressive appeal was addressed. Here again no specific charges were brought forward; the violation of no law was alleged. Had it not been for the bite and cry raised over the progressive propaganda, I am convinced that the Senate would never have taken the trouble to make the investigation.

But the time was for me unpropitious. The whole story was gone over a second time. Witnesses were summoned again; every detail of the campaign was scrutinized by the Senate investigating committee. Two large volumes of testimony attest the energy of the investigators. When the inquiry was concluded a report was brought in upholding the validity of my election. After a period of protracted debate covering a wide range of subjects, not a few of which had little to do with the law or morals of campaign expenditures, the report was adopted by the Senate. Fortunately there were men of conviction in that body and my vindication I owe to them.

At last the fight was over and I was secure in my position. But the bitter experience had cost me many an illusion - perhaps the greatest loss I had sustained - and shook my faith in human kind.

For almost seventy years I had dealt with all sorts and conditions of men. I had blazed trails with them through the forest, spread my blanket beside theirs on the snow, logged with them in the winter camps, and shared with them the (hangers of log driving and sailing vessels on the lakes. Thousands I have taught the way of lumbering. In my employ I have had and now have grandfather, father, and son working together. I have also known men of large affairs - merchants, railroad builders, manufacturers, capitalists - to whose energy and foresight the developed country is a monument. None of these has suffered loss through me.

It remained for me in these later days to discover how quickly, in the come and go of politics, convictions can he discarded, principles abandoned, and obligations overlooked, and how readily the gauge of political progress veers to the currents of political animosity and ambition.

To sum up, I had laid the plans and given the impetus which resulted in the organization of the Half-breed faction, to which was due the sanely progressive legislation enacted in Wisconsin. I had contributed to the campaign funds of La Follette and many of his lieutenants, most of whom, I believe, would never have held political office if left to their own resources. In the aggregate I had expended approximately $500,000. For this I had been assured that without me the history of this achievement would have been a blank page.

The moral of this narrative I leave for others to draw. From a large view it affords, I think, food for reflection, particularly as to the value of the primary. In setting out to correct abuses by this method, is it not possible that we have opened the way for other abuses? By the limitation of campaign expenditures for legitimate purposes, arousing popular interest in problems of government and putting before the electorate the political issues involved in an election, has not the political system been modified to the advantage of the party or faction in control of the machinery of government and of party organization, giving them an advantage almost impossible to overcome? Do the people really take sufficient interest, in primaries to make them gauges of the actual trend of popular thought? These are perplexing questions and I shall not attempt to answer them, but I believe that in time they will demand a reply.

My work in the political field is done. Upon the expiration of my last term in the Senate it was with relief that I announced that I would no longer seek public office, although even then many had urged me to keep on. I was quite willing to leave that to younger men who rightly aspire to political place.

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