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ND and LaFollette


“Let no man think we can deny civil liberty to others and retain it for ourselves. When zealous agents of the Government arrest suspected ‘radicals’ without warrant, hold them without prompt trial, deny them access to counsel and admission of bail...we have shorn the Bill of Rights of its sanctity...” Those were the words of Republican Senator Robert La Follette, who was endorsed for President by North Dakota Republicans in 1916, almost 90 years ago.

It was the Wisconsin senator’s second endorsement by the state. La Follette was also chosen in 1912, when ND Republicans held the very first presidential primary ever held in the United States. The low vote getter in that contest was Republican President William Howard Taft, with only 1,876 votes, compared to La Follette’s 34,123 votes. Teddy Roosevelt came in second, trailing La Follette by more than 10,000 votes.

In History of North Dakota, Elwyn Robinson writes, “North Dakota had long been struggling against boss-controlled government and the exploitive practices of the railroads, the money-lenders, and the grain trade. After 1900 the fight became both more intense and more successful. Reformers with education, urban professions, and well-to-do backgrounds...were admirers of Robert M. La Follette, the progressive leader in Wisconsin, and also of Theodore Roosevelt and William Jennings Bryan, leaders for reform on the national scene... For a time,” Robinson writes, “everyone in North Dakota was a progressive...”

La Follette was a zealous reformer with close ties to the Non-Partisan League in North Dakota. Fraud, greed, and bribery were rampant in both big business and politics at that time, as evidenced in the primaries held across the country that year. Everywhere, Roosevelt was the clear choice, but the president’s supporters manipulated the system to favor Taft. Roosevelt tried running as a third party candidate, the Republican Party was split, and Woodrow Wilson won the election.

According to Robinson, almost everyone in North Dakota favored neutrality when World War I broke out soon after. They believed those who favored war did so only because they stood to make a lot of money. When the declaration of war came up for a vote in 1917, La Follette and ND’s Senator Gronna were among those who voted no.

La Follette talked about what happened next during a speech he gave in the Senate Chamber. “Mr. President,” he said, “I rise to a question of personal privilege... Six members of the Senate and 50 members of the House voted against the declaration of war.

Immediately there was let loose upon those Senators and Representatives a flood of invectives and abuse from newspapers and individuals who had been clamoring for war, unequaled, I believe, in the history of civilized society... Since the declaration of war the triumphant war press has (gone) to the extreme limit of charging them with treason against their country.”

As an example, La Follette read a newspaper story about a Federal judge in Texas, saying: “...after calling by name Senators Stone of Missouri, Hardwick of Georgia, Vardaman of Mississippi, Gronna of North Dakota, Gore of Oklahoma, and La Follette of Wisconsin, (Judge Burns told members of a grand jury): ‘If I had a wish, I would wish that you men had jurisdiction to return bills of indictment against these men. They ought to be tried promptly and fairly, and I believe this court could administer the law fairly; but I have a conviction, as strong as life, that this country should stand them up against an adobe wall tomorrow and give them what they deserve. If any man deserves death, it is a traitor. I wish that I could pay for the ammunition. I would like to attend the execution, and if I were in the firing squad I would not want to be the marksman who had the blank shell.’”

Written by Merry Helm

Sources: Elwyn B. Robinson, History of North Dakota, 1966; Robert M. La Follette: Free Speech in Wartime (Abridged), delivered October 6, 1917, Washington, DC (posted as: Online Speech Bank – Top 100 American Speeches)