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Robert La Follette: A Featured Biography

Robert M. La Follette by Robert Chester La Follette

When asked to name the five most illustrious senators in history, a Senate committee led by John F. Kennedy included in that elite group Progressive Republican Robert La Follette of Wisconsin (1855-1925). Independent and impassioned, La Follette championed such progressive reform measures as regulation of railroads, direct election of senators, and worker protection, while opposing American entry into World War I and condemning wartime restrictions on free speech. He initiated the investigation into the Teapot Dome scandal of the early 1920s and ran for president on the Progressive party ticket in 1924. In choosing La Follette as one of the "Famous Five" in 1957, the Kennedy committee described him as a "ceaseless battler for the underprivileged" and a "courageous independent" who never wavered from his progressive reform goals.  


Choosing Desks

The Senate Chamber, Washington.

At the start of each Congress, the Senate Chamber desks are reapportioned between the two sides of the chamber based on the number of senators from the two political parties. Historically the desks were assigned on a first-come, first-served basis. When a seat became available, the first senator to speak for it won the right to it. Today, at the beginning of each Congress, senators are given the option to change their seats, based on seniority. Three desks that are not assigned in this manner are the Daniel Webster Desk, Jefferson Davis Desk, and the Henry Clay Desk. The assignment of these desks is governed by Senate resolutions.

Maiden Speeches

Photo of Robert La Follette

In 1953 newly elected senator Barry Goldwater received this advice from veteran senator Carl Hayden: “Always vote with your party and keep your mouth shut for at least four years.” In those days, new senators were expected to wait a substantial period of time—perhaps years—before giving their first major address in the Senate. This waiting period was considered to be a sign of humility and a willingness to learn from senior members. Well into the 20th century, most freshman senators followed this tradition. One rebel who bucked the system was Wisconsin’s Robert La Follette. Fightin’ Bob’s maiden speech, delivered a mere three months into his first term, was a filibuster that lasted eight hours and filled 148 pages of the Congressional Record.


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Classic Speeches

March 11, 1850