By Sen. Robert LaFollette
Review by David T. Jones
Robert LaFollette is a vaguely remembered but much-praised figure from university-level American History courses. Characterized as one of the front-rank spear carriers for “liberal” causes throughout the early years of the 20th century, LaFollette was predictably a supporter of every “progressive” good government cause on the sociopolitical horizon of the dayâ€”from women’s rights to minimum wage to direct election of senators. Starting politics as an anti-establishment Republican, he was elected to Congress and then became Wisconsin governor before entering the senate in 1906 essentially as a progressive party of one.
An impassioned opponent of U.S. entry into World War I, LaFollette delivered a three-hour speech to the Senate on October 6, 1917, following the earlier vote to declare war which he and five other senators opposed.
After denouncing those attacking him, LaFollette laid down his baseline: “Neither the clamor of the mob nor the voice of power will ever turn me by the breadth of a hair from the course I mark out for myself.” Nor did it.
LaFollette devoted much of his speech to citing other noteworthy dissenters championing free speech while opposing a war when it was being prosecuted. He noted Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, Charles Sumner, and Lincoln’s opposition to the Mexican War. He enlisted a variety of British opponents to government war policy, e.g., Charles Fox and Edmund Burke concerning the American Revolution and assorted critics of British action in the Boer War. He then claimed “To-day and for weeks past honest and law-abiding citizens of this country are being terrorized and outraged in their rights by those sworn to uphold the laws and protect the rights of the people”â€”as if the United States were effectively a proto-police state.
The point LaFollette stressed (when not quoting other distinguished dissenters) was that citizens and their congressional representatives have a right and need to speak out concerning the prosecution and objectives of a war. In particular, he stressed the power of Congress to control funding and hence the objectives of any war in which we engage. Although he recognized “that in time of war the citizen must surrender some rights for the common good which he is entitled to enjoy in time of peace,” such surrender is far from the absolute control he claimed authorities were seeking. And, consequently, they must be vigorously resistedâ€”as LaFollette did.
These were not politically correct times and language was brutally direct without circumlocution. LaFollette was denounced for treason not by those writing their missives in crayon from correctional institutions, but by the most prominent politicians of the day. Former president Theodore Roosevelt called him “a skunk who ought to be hanged,” and President Wilson described him as part of “A little group of willful men, representing no opinion but their own…”
Following the war, LaFollette successfully fought against U.S. participation in the League of Nations. In modern politics, one could project him endorsing Edward Snowden’s and Army Private Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning’s releases of classified information.