On September 20, 1917 the auditorium in St. Paul, Minnesota was teeming with ten thousand farmers and workers, attempting to form a strong alliance against the power of large corporations. The Nonpartisan League, as they were called, was dedicated to freeing themselves from economic exploitation by grain, railroad and banking interests, through socialistic reforms. The Nonpartisan League faced tremendous opposition from conservative forces, which felt threatened by its success. “These forces pursued a campaign of vilification, persecution and terror designed to brand the organization disloyal, seditious and pro-German” at a time when the country demanded loyalty, as it sent its husbands and sons abroad to fight World War I.
The controversial, reform-minded group at the Nonpartisan League convention eagerly awaited their keynote speaker, Robert M. La Follette Sr., a progressive Republican Senator from the neighboring state of Wisconsin. Upon his arrival, an enthusiastic five-minute standing ovation erupted. In his speech he called for increased taxation of the wealthy, he attacked corporate power and he addressed financing of the war. Encouraged by the crowd, he abandoned his prepared speech halfway through and spoke extemporaneously, denouncing the United States’ involvement in World War I and defending his right to free speech in wartime. His impromptu statements launched La Follette into the center of an intense public controversy after an Associated Press report misquoted him as saying, “I was not in favor of beginning this war. We had no grievance.”
Gripped by hysteria and rigid patriotism, the American public had little tolerance for criticism of the war or reform movements, thus the backlash against La Follette was swift. The Minnesota Commission of Public Safety petitioned the Senate to expel Lafollette, charging him with being “a teacher of disloyalty and sedition, giving aid and comfort to our enemies” and a fourteen-month Senate investigation ensued. Minnesota Governor Joseph Burnquist considered arresting La Follette under the Espionage Act. Lafollette’s own state legislature in Wisconsin condemned him for treason.
All but two of the 423 faculty of the University of Wisconsin signed a petition denouncing him, a punishment that wounded him more than any other, and his picture was removed from many university buildings. He was accused of being a coward and a traitor and he was portrayed in a Life Magazine political cartoon as pro-German, with the Kaiser pinning an iron cross on him. A judge in Houston wanted La Follette shot by a firing squad and his family was repeatedly harassed and shunned. La Follette’s critics included some of the nation’s most powerful men, including former President Theodore Roosevelt and current President Woodrow Wilson, who made no secret of their disdain for the embattled senator.
Fighting Bob La Follette, however, did not back down. No stranger to controversy, La Follette had been one of only six senators who voted against U.S. entry into World War I, maintaining that it was a war to bring more money and power to the corporations he had fought so hard against, at the expense of young lives. He argued ferociously against the June 15, 1917 Espionage Act that would give the government the right to censor newspapers, magazines and books, and send civilians to jail for criticizing the war. As the Senate’s Privileges and Elections Subcommittee prepared for public hearings on the Senator’s possible expulsion, La Follette’s suffering perhaps peaked, as he took to the floor of the Senate on October 6, 1917, for three grueling hours.
John F. Kennedy wrote that “in whatever area in life one may meet the challenges of courage, whatever may be the sacrifices he faces each man must look into his own soul.” Robert M. La Follette met the challenges of courage unfalteringly, utilizing his superb oratory skills, in his October address to the Senate entitled “Free Speech And The Right Of Congress To Declare The Objects Of The War”. He sought not only to defend himself and his own right of free speech, but to plead the cause of all “honest and law-abiding citizens of this country terrorized and outraged in their rights by those sworn to uphold the laws and protect the rights of the people.” He cited many impressive historical authorities, including Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln and Daniel Webster, to prove “that Congress has the right and the duty to declare the objects of the war and the people have the right and the obligation to discuss it .”
La Follette’s speech has been widely regarded as one of the most powerful arguments for free speech rights in wartime. While the speech was not immediately effective in restoring La Follette’s reputation, over time he was exonerated. On January 16, 1919, the Senate dismissed the pending expulsion resolutions and later paid La Follette’s legal expenses. He remained in the Senate, campaigning against the Treaty of Versailles and the U.S. membership in the League of Nations, among other causes, until he died on June 18, 1925.
Forty years later, Robert M. La Follette Sr. was named one of the five most outstanding members of the Senate. His courage in fighting for free speech during wartime and his skill in articulating which powers belong to Congress, remain critically important issues in post 911 America, as we strive to balance our civil liberties with our security and order.