Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Campaign That Followed

Chapter XII of Part One of Political Reform in Wisconsin (1910) by Emanuel L. Philipp (see Introduction and Contents)

The campaign conducted by both factions during the fifteen months following the publication of the league statement was a lively one, but it is not one that can be pointed to with pride even by those who triumphed at the polls. Whatever experience the members of the league had gained in past campaigns was used for the purpose of perfecting a statewide organization. The term "perfecting" is employed in this instance from force of habit, but the literal definition of the word does not accurately describe the organization of the Wisconsin republican league. Still, it would have served the purpose had there not been another political organization in existence that year. Gov. La Follette had "perfected" his political machine and he gave a new meaning, a new interpretation to the word in Wisconsin. The league had members in every county; Gov. La Follette had workers in every voting precinct. The league started out to make a poll of the state; Gov. La Follette already had a most complete poll and mailing list when he was inaugurated and he had improved it from month to month. The league succeeded in securing a reasonably complete poll of eleven counties and a partial list of voters in about half of the remaining counties; Gov. La Follette not only had his list of republican voters in every precinct of the state, but he also had in his possession the names of thousands of Bryan democrats who were classed by him under the heading "fair minded," and regularly supplied with literature.

The contest was in fact between the executive and legislative departments of the state government. The question at issue was whether the executive should be permitted to dictate the form and substance of legislative enactments. Stripped of all superfluous and bewildering generalities as well as personalities, this was all there was to fight about. The governor had a reform program which it was his purpose to see established in Wisconsin and this program included the enactment of certain laws into which must be incorporated certain well defined provisions about which he had been talking for years. The legislature declined to accept the governor's program without modification. The executive insisted; the legislature stood firm upon its constitutional right to determine for itself what laws shall be enacted. The executive accused the legislature of the grave offense of repudiating a plank in the platform he had himself dictated; the legislature replied that the executive was attempting to usurp the functions of the legislative branch of the government.

But, while this issue was not lost sight of in the campaign, the great mass of the voters of the state were bewildered by the flood of argument and the tidal wave or personalities that attended upon the campaign as it progressed. It was specifically charged by the administration faction that the stalwarts represented "special interests" as opposed to a great reform movement; that "organized greed" was arrayed to defeat the purposes of a highly virtuous and wholly unselfish band of patriots whose sole aim was to serve the people intelligently and faithfully. It was even asserted that the contest was between "the people" on one side and "the machine" on the other.

As the split in the party had been caused by the primary election dispute--or, to be more exact, Gov. La Follette had used that issue as an excuse for perfecting a personal organization--the primary election proposition was naturally one of the most important matters discussed in the campaign. Isaac Stephenson, one of Gov. La Follette's backers, now junior United States senator, had generously joined with other enthusiastic members of the administration faction and supphed enough money to establish the Free Press. The columns of that paper were used to defend the governor's policies, while The Sentinel was employed to defend the Wisconin Republican league. But neither paper devoted all of its time to the defensive side of the campaign. Both took the offensive on occasions. It may be exp1ained here that the word "offensive" is used in this connection in the fullest acceptation of the term.

In carrying out the work of the league, of which W. H. Bissell had been made chairman and Col. Dan B. Starkey secretary, a large amount of literature was prepared and distributed. The country press was appealed to and many of the local papers throughout the state accepted and printed articles prepared by the secretary of the league and his assistants. Letters were written by voluntary contributors and printed in The Sentinel and other papers; thousands of circulars were prepared and distributed through the mails. As the campaign warmed up discussions were common on the streets and in public places generally in which the primary election plan was not the least interesting subject of debate.

At the same time the campaign of the administration faction was going forward apace and the same methods were used as were employed by the league. Wherever a country newspaper could be induced to aid the "cause" it was employed and praised for its disinterested service to the governor and his reform campaign. The Free Press matched The Sentinel column for column, editorial for editorial, and letter for letter. In point of fact, a careful examination of the files will show that The Sentinel fell behind in the race if the total amount of space devoted to factional politics--for state politics had given place to factional politics for the time being--were measured.

The arguments for and against the primary election law proposed by Gov. La Follette can not be reproduced here at length, nor is it necessary to attempt to do so. The points urged by the friends and opponents of the measure are all that is necessary for the student of this time to weigh the comparative, merits of the two sides to the controversy. One of the peculiar features of the campaign, however, should be mentioned. The administration faction insisted that their bill, proposing as it did an entirely new system of making nominations, must not be classed as an experiment. It must be accepted as sound in principle and any doubt as to its success in practical operation was sternly forbidden. Gov. La Follette himself gave expression to this view in his message vetoing the Hagemeister bill when he said: "The general purpose of the measure, the plain meaning of its provisions, THE CERTAIN EFFECT OF THE LAW IN OPERATION, the necessary and reasonable expense, each and all furnished theme for persistent falsification and malicious assault."

A careful reading of the literature of the period, consisting of editorials, news reports, letters from private citizens to the press, and pamphlets and circulars that have been preserved in private collections, disclosed the following specific points urged by the two parties to the controversy in explanation of their support of or opposition to the proposed law:


1. The republican platform of 1900 distinctly and unequivocally demanded that all caucuses and conventions should be abolished and all candidates for office should be nominated by a direct vote.

2. "For many years the evils of the caucus and convention system have multiplied and baffled all attempts at legislative control or correction." The delegate elected at caucuses to represent the voter "too frequently has his own interests at heart ... and serves his own purposes."

3. The right to vote for candidates of the party includes the right to select those candidates. The member of a party has a right to participate in the making of the party ballot.

4. The convention system of making nominations offered an opportunity which was se1zed upon by "men possessed of the talent of combination, manipulation, and political management," and the political machine was thus established in power.

5. The officials nominated by the machine became the servants of the machine and surrendered their judgments to its will.

6. Even at best, were the conventions to be entirely free from machine rule, they are not deliberative bodies and their work is usually done under conditions where "noisy enthusiasm outweighs the strongest argument."

7. The people "know enough to nominate their own candidates for office without the aid or dictation of bosses, caucuses and convention manipulators, and political machines."

8. "The people now elect their officers by use of the Australian ballot. In the primary election they would nominate their candidates for office by use of the same Australian ballot."

9. "When candidates are chosen by a direct vote, a coterie of Milwaukee professional politicians can no longer hold the state in the hollow of their hands and dictate nominations to the people."

10. The primary election question has been before the people of the state a sufficient time to enable them to understand it and it was "overwhelmingly approved by the voters because they were everywhere ready for it."

11. Direct nominations under a primary election means direct responsibility to the people.

l2. "Nothing is expensive that gives good government. Nothing so expensive as poor government. One set of inefficient or dishonest officials will waste more than many primary elections will cost."

13. The primary election bill was defeated by "a systematic campaign of misrepresentation. The general purpose of the measure, the plain meaning of its provisions, the certain effect of the law in operation, the necessary and reasonable expense, each and all furnished theme for persistent falsification and malicious assault."


1. The administration primary bill would have disorganized parties and built up personal machines.

2. In the form presented to the legislature it was unconstitutional. (This objection was urged by Senator Whitehead, but the test never has been made in the courts).

3. The development of personal machines would lead to the lavish use of money in campaigns and corruption would follow as a necessary and natural consequence.

4. It would make office seeking a profession in which experience would be of great advantage to the candidate.

5. The necessity of circulating petitions would furnish additional occupation and open a new avenue of profit to the political mercenaries.

6. The poor man would be restrained by his poverty and the modest man by his modesty from becoming candidates for nominations, even though they be well equipped to perform the duties of office.

7. Public servants would be in danger of being dragged, willingly or unwillingly, into the ruck of political activity, as they would constitute a ready made machine that could be used with almost irresistable effect in a primary campaign and the temptation to use them would be more than the average state administration could resist.

8. The system would give to the cities an undue influence in making up the party ticket because the primaries would occur at a the when the farmers would be busy and not disposed to attend. By failing to attend the primaries the farmers would lose all voice in the selection of candidates.

9. The organization of party committees for service at the primaries would furnish another machine, with ramifications in every voting precinct, and the possession of a list of these committeemen would inure to the advantage of the candidate favored by the state committee chairman. While under the old system party committeemen were expected to aid in the election of the party ticket only, in the primary election campaign and at the primary election itself the same officers would have no party interest to serve, the interests of the individual candidates for nominations being paramount.

10. The holding of primary elections would entail a large ex1ense upon the taxpayers without any corresponding benefit.

11. If all conventions were abolished no means would be provided for the members of the party to make its platforms, that duty--and privilege--devolving on the candidates whose aim would be to get elected without regard to the principles in which the members of the party believed.

12. The voters would be required to select candidates from a list of names of men of whom, in many cases, they would have but slight knowledge, and some of whom they would not know even by reputation, and upon whose qualifications and fitness for office they could not, in the nature of things, pass intelligent judgment.

13. That party conventions, county, district and state, were the forums in which questions of policy were debated and decided, and as such they had an educative value.

14. A nomination at a primary would almost invariably be a minority nomination and would not, therefore, represent the will of a majority of the party.

15. Under the system proposed there was no way of restraining the members of one party from participating in the primaries, and aiding in the nominations of the candidates, of another party, thereby defeating the will of the majority--or even a predominant minority--of the party whose primary is invaded.

16. That where democrats participate in the nomination of republican candidates and republicans in the nominations of democratic candidates, which invariably would occur when one party had a safe and sure majority in a district, state or city, parties could not be held responsible for the official acts of public officers.

17. That party organizations, and, at the same the, party responsibility, were subordinated by the primary election plan to the personal interests of ambitious men with sufficient money or with personal organizations large enough to promise success. The party would have no way of protecting itself from any man who might contend for one of its nominations at the primary, making use of members of other parties to swell his vote.

18. That the primary election system of nominating candidates was a departure from the principles of representative government and was, therefore, not a "progressive movement," but a backward step.

19. The American system of government by parties was the only one under which a great republic with nearly a hundred millions of people could be wisely and safely governed, as parties could be held responsible for the acts of their representatives. When administrations failed or public servants were delinquent or false to their trust, the party they represented could be punished at the polls, as frequently had been done In the past.

20. The proposed law was at best an experiment, and it would be unwise to abandon entirely the old system until a trial could be made to ascertain from actual experience to what extent the new plan could be made safe, convenient and workable.

21. That where experiments had been tried with the primary election system the results had not been so uniformly satisfactory as to justify an unqualified indorsement of the plan.

22. That Wisconsin had never been a "boss ridden" state, as charged, and that there was no crying need of a radical, revolutionary movement for the banishment of a purely imaginary evil.

23. That the list of distinguished citizens who had served the state in congress, in cabinet positions, and in executive, administrative, and legislative offices was a sufficient answer to the charge that "specal interests" ruled Wisconsin and that a sweeping reform was needed in the method of selecting candidates for office.
State Senator John M. Whitehead of Janesville became the stalwart candidate for the republican nomination for governor in opposition of Gov. La Follette. He did not seek the honor. On the contrary, for some weeks he resolutely refused to enter the race. He had already served one term in the state senate and had been re-elected in 1900. As a member of that body he had taken part in the movement that resulted in the establishment of the permanent state tax commission. The work in the senate was congenial to him. He was in thorough sympathy with the members of the tax commission in their desire to solve the vexing problems assigned to them and believed it was his duty to stay in the legislature where there was work to do in which he felt a lively interest and for which experience and study had qualified him.

But his fellow members of the league thought differently. They had been and were being represented as corruptionists, the political agents of "special interests," the corrupt tools and associates of corporations. They believed they could win the election and disprove the accusations by presenting as their candidate a man of tried and proved ability and integrity, one whose public and private character would bear the closest scrutiny; a man who could not be bought or intimidated; one who was not a politician in the ordinary acceptation of that term, and whose sole aim was to give his constituents the best service of which he was capable in return for the honor conferred on him; one who would not attempt to boss others and who could not be bossed. It was these considerations that induced the league membership to urge upon Senator Whitehead that he consent to become their candidate to contest the nomination with Gov. La Follette, and in the end they prevailed.

As an aid to the campaign of the league Senator Whitehead wrote a series of letters that were first printed in The Sentinel and then published in supplement form for use by the state press. In the opening series of these letters the primary election plan, as embodied in the admninstration measure defeated in 1901, was taken up and discussed at length. Like everything Senator Whitehead writes, the letters were entirely free from personalities. They were characterized by calm, judicial argument, and extended quotations from public records were made to establish the correctness of his statements and the soundness of his conclusions. As a matter of fact, the quotations were so long and the arguments so close and analytical that the letters did not make lively reading and, as a natural consequence, they did not have the effect they should have had.

In the heat of one of the most whirlwindy of all whirlwind campaigns, when he found himself being held up to public scorn in the administration newspapers and ridiculed by cartoon in campaign textbooks and elsewhere, when passions were at white heat and no man who took part in the campaign in any capacity, much less a candidate, could escape personal abuse, these letters and the public addresses later delivered by Senator Whitehead were anachronisms. But their wholesomeness was beyond dispute. So far as he was personally concerned, Senator Whitehead conducted a clean campaign, and history must do him justice for the honorable part he played. That the voters appreciate his worth when they have an opportunity to know him well and judge of him at first hand, and not through a distorted image portrayed by prejudice and passion, is shown by the fact that he is still in the state senate, having been elected for the fourth time by his constituents in 1908.