Chapter V of Part One of Political Reform in Wisconsin (1910) by Emanuel L. Philipp (see Introduction and Contents)
Early in the Spring of 1900 the belief became general that Mr. La Follette would make another trial to win the nomination for governor at the hands of the republican party. That he always had intended to be a candidate there can be no reasonable doubt, but no public declaration of that intention was made until May 16, at which time a mild, conciliatory announcement addressed to the republican voters of Wisconsin was printed in The Milwaukee Sentinel, then owned and managed by men who were his strong partisans. In that announcement the primary election movement was not specifically mentioned, but reference was made to the fact that he had, with others, labored for years "to secure the recognition of certain principles as just, equitable, and republican." As he referred to taxation reforms, presumably as an interpretation of the statement quoted, and as no further hint was given of his purpose to push his primary ideas to a revolutionary issue, little, if any, thought was given to the subject, the announcement being regarded as the formal utterance of a candidate who desired to make the best possible impression without saying anything that would give offense or occasion for alarm.
The announcement opened the campaign in earnest, as five other candidates were then in the field. They were: State Senators DeWayne Stebbins, John M. Whitehead, A. M. Jones, the Hon. Ira B. Bradford and Gen. Earl M. Rogers.
On May 31, as a means of heading off a rumor that he would, if elected governor, use the position to attempt the defeat of U. S. Senator John C. Spooner for re-election, Mr. La Follette came out in a public statement, also printed in The Sentinel, which pledged his absolute neutrality in the selection of a successor to Senator Spooner. He stated in so many words that he would do nothing to interfere with Senator Spooner’s re-election, but that he would confine himself entirely to the duties of his office with the hope of earning and securing a renomination at the expiration of his first term. He intimated that his purposes were peaceful and that he hoped for harmony hereafter.
The closing sentence of this statement was a significant one, in that it shows to what extent he wished it to be understood the change of heart professed by him had affected his attitude toward the other leaders of the party in the state. During the campaign of 1898 an attack had been made upon Gov. Scofield by means of a pamphlet "published by direction of the republican club of Milwaukee county," that was unique in the history of Wisconsin politics. It was so bitter in tone, so malicious in character, so utterly unjust and heartlessly cruel that it raised up friends for Gov. Scofield on every hand. The republican club of Milwaukee county was a La Follette organization and the members were in constant communication with the Madison branch of that republican faction.
In his explanation of May 31, he referred to the pamphlet in the following language:
In this connection, it may be as well to say something with reference to my candidacy of two years ago. My reasons for being a candidate at that the were justified and emphasized by the convention in its platform. It has been largely the faithful observance of the pledges then given which entitles Gov. Scofield’s administration, at this the, to public approval, in which I heartily join. Some phases of that campaign not within my control I should have been glad to have seen omitted. For them I should not be held responsible any more than my opponents in this campaign should be blamed for the personal attacks now being made upon myself.Historical accuracy demands that the false impression conveyed in the last sentence of the paragraph quoted should be challenged. Mr. La Follette was not slandered, maligned or abused in that campaign by any opponent. His republicanism was questioned, that was all.
Among the first conventions called in the state were the two held in the Waukesha assembly districts, the home of State Senator A. M. Jones, a candidate for the nomination against Mr. La Follette. It was in this county that the decisive battle was fought and won by the friends of the Madison man. Mr. La Follette had a perfect organization in Waukesha and Milwaukee counties and Mr. Jones was weakened by the loss of the anti-La Follette support that had served in the past to keep that gentleman in check. The Waukesha campaign was in the main conducted from Milwaukee; the plans were laid in Milwaukee and a large part of the money required to meet expenses was furnished by the Milwaukee friends. Mr. Jones was defeated in both districts and on June 30, the day the first district convention was held, he withdrew from the race. On July 2 The Sentinel printed the following explanation of the situation at that time:
For two weeks past the air has been full of talk of a combined opposition to the La Follette movement, but it is now freely admitted that this is only talk; that there is no such movement. Mr. Payne, who expects to devote his whole time to the national campaign, is evidently not going to interfere in the preliminary contest for the nomination in Wisconsin or any other state. As a national committeeman and one of the managers of the presidential campaign he will have to be in touch with the various state republican campaigns, including that in Wisconsin, and he can not therefore interfere, although it is no secret that he would prefer some other candidate than Mr. La Follette. There is no sign that either Senator Spooner or Senator Quarles is trying to organize any movement for or against any candidate for governor, and friends of both of them have said they have no such intention. Under the circumstances the possibility of any such movement, if it was ever contemplated by any one, may be said to have passed.Mr. Bradford retired from the race on July 3; on July 6 Mr. Whitehead withdrew; July 14 Gen. Rogers sent in his announcement of withdrawal; Senator Stebbins held on until July 24, when he, too, stepped out of the race, leaving the track to Mr. La Follette, who at this the had an overwhelming majority of the delegates elected and more than half the counties of the state had held their conventions. And stiil Mr. La Follette held his peace with respect to the primary election idea.
In the latter part of July, however, when his nomination was assured beyond peradventure, Mr. La Follette sent for some of his Milwaukee friends for a conference at Madison. He handed them a copy of his Ann Arbor address on primary elections and asked them to look it over. He explained that he had given the subject deep study, that he understood it thoroughly and wanted a plank in the forthcoming republican platform committing the party irrevocably to the enactment of a primary law. For the purpose of arousing public sentiment he desired that a large number of pamphlets be printed and distributed and asked that the necessary money be contributed to his campaign fund to make this possible. His Ann Arbor speech contained a severe arraignment of railroad officers which was evidently directed against the presidents of the leading lines in this state. Mr. La Follette was told that it would be unfair and an evidence of bad faith to print and circulate at such a time, after months of silence during which he had received the support of the railroad companies through their officers, an address in which those same men and corporations were held up to public scorn as types of everything that is mercenary, dishonest and corrupt. He was also reminded that he had given his personal pledge to the railroad officials that he would cease his unjust attacks upon them in return for their support in the campaign then on, and that he should abide by his promise. He was also reminded that a primary law was no part of the harmony program that he had himself promoted and that if he desired to force a primary plank into the republican platform he should have so stated when he announced himself as a candidate. He acknowledged the force of the argument so far as his reference to railroads was concerned and agreed that the intemperate language contained in the address as it was originally written should be stricken out, but insisted that the pamphlet be printed in revised form and circulated, which was done.
As further evidence of his peaceful frame of mind, Mr. La Follette prepared and printed with the address an introduction in which the astonishing statement was made that primary elections were needed to guard against waves of popular indignation that were likely to injuriously affect legislation. He proposed the primary as a safeguard against aroused public prejudice. Here is his own language on the subject.
For many years, through the press and from the platform, I have earnestly endeavored to fix public thought upon this most important subject, because it is the foundation of representative government. The entire superstructure rests upon the nomination of candidates for office. Under the caucus and convention system a wave of popular interest or indignation may sweep over a state, occasioned by some special or peculiar wrong, and a much aroused public senthent take charge of the nomination of candidates for the time being. But wrongs righted in this way are liable to carry legislation to the extreme, work positive harm to important interests, discredit reform and cause reaction, resulting in disappointment and loss of public interest. Relaxation of public interest invites fresh encroachments upon the rights of the people, and, ultimately, recurring and spasmodic efforts to remedy evils.The address with the introduction was first printed in The State, Mr. La Follette’s personal organ, during the week ending July 28, and the introduction in The Sentinel on July 28, 1900, all these publications being made after the opposition to Mr. La Follette had collapsed and all the candidates opposed to him, withdrawn.
The platform pledge inserted by the convention at the request of Mr. La Follette was all that he asked. It called for the abolition of all caucuses and conventions and the nomination of all candidates by a direct vote. Its language was unequivocal and definite, as follows:
The great reformation effected in our general elections through the Australian ballot inspires us with confidence to apply the same method in making nominations so that every voter may exercise his sovereign right of choice by direct vote without the intervenion or interference of any political agency. We therefore demand (recommend) that caucuses and conventions for the nomination of candidates for office be abolished by legislative enactment, and that all candidates for state, legislative, congressional and county officers be nominated by a primary election upon the same day by direct vote under the Australian ballot.