Shortly after America's entry into World War I, members of the Nonpartisan League, an organization of farmers that promoted cooperatives and an alliance with labor against the power of large corporations, gathered in St. Paul, Minnesota. On September 20, 1917, Wisconsin Senator Robert M. La Follette (R) delivered a keynote address to the convention that included a call for increased taxation of the wealthy, a fervent attack on corporations, and a stinging denunciation of America's participation in World War I. Delegates' cheers repeatedly interrupted the emotion-charged oration, and upon La Follette's return to Wisconsin, enthusiastic supporters continued to praise him for his outspoken remarks.
Statement of the Case
Not all Americans considered the senator's performance appropriate during a national crisis of world war, and the pro-war press raised a public furor over the speech. On September 29, 1917, the Senate received a petition from the Minnesota Commission of Public Safety, formally taking exception to La Follette's St. Paul address and asking the Senate to expel the popular Wisconsin progressive. The commission charged that La Follette was "a teacher of disloyalty and sedition, giving aid and comfort to our enemies."
The Senate was keenly aware that La Follette's critics included not only some of the nation's most powerful entrepreneurs but also President Woodrow Wilson, who made no secret of his hatred for the popular senator. It therefore decided to refer the matter to the Committee on Privileges and Elections.
Response of the Senate
In early October committee chairman Atlee Pomerene (D-OH) sent La Follette a copy of the speech, asking whether it was a correct copy. In a forceful reply, La Follette asserted that the transcript Pomerene had sent him was grossly inaccurate, and he demanded to know whether the committee considered any of the statements he had made to be false. Noting that he had delivered the address extemporaneously, La Follette enclosed a transcript prepared by the official reporter of the Nonpartisan League, which he declared to be correct, although it did not include all of the questions from the audience.
Also in early October, La Follette delivered a dramatic speech on the Senate floor on the subject of "Free Speech in Wartime." In it he cited many authorities in his own defense and in support of "the right of the people to discuss the war in all its phases and the right and the duty of the people's representatives in Congress to declare the purposes and objects of the war." His remarks were well received by those opposed to the wartime suppression of free speech, although bitterly denounced by the press and pro-war senators. Following the same theme in a brief prepared for the committee, La Follette's legal counsel reviewed several previous wars that had been opposed by members of Congress whose patriotism was unquestioned, including Abraham Lincoln, Henry Clay, and Daniel Webster. The brief also noted that, eight months after the speech to the Nonpartisan League, no one had yet questioned the accuracy of any statement made in it. The brief asserted firmly: "Whether. . . right or wrong in opposing the declaration of war . . is immaterial. He had a right to his views, and he had a right to express them."
The committee's investigation dragged on for fourteen months. It became evident that a hostile press had in fact distorted the content of the speech. Although La Follette had delivered a blistering attack on corporate economic interests, for example, a press report that the senator had defended the sinking of the Lusitania was not substantiated, and the Associated Press submitted a statement to the committee apologizing for inaccuracies in the story it distributed.
Time worked in La Follette's favor, for the conclusion of the war helped to defuse the issue, and in the 1918 election the Republicans narrowly gained control of the Senate. On January 16, 1919, in the final session of the outgoing Democratic-controlled Congress, the committee majority, unable to find witnesses who would testify against La Follette and anxious to end the matter, recommended dismissing all charges, because the speech "does not justify any action by the Senate." Committee chairman Pomerene, however, who continued to represent the bitter interests of President Wilson, offered a brief minority report acknowledging that so far only scant evidence had been found against La Follette. Nonetheless, Pomerene urged the Senate to pursue the investigation on the basis that the senator had made an inflammatory speech opposing the war while the nation struggled under a military emergency.
The Senate, however, was ready to be rid of the issue, La Follette's friends objecting to the investigation on principle, while his opponents feared that further prosecution would only add to his astounding popularity. All took a dim view of a policy that might lead a Senate majority to censure expressions of opinion made by the minority outside the Senate and not in the exercise of legislative duty. These considerations combined to make the Senate unwilling to pursue a subject whose importance had dwindled to little more than a personal vendetta by President Woodrow Wilson. On January 16, after only a brief debate, the Senate voted 50 to 21 to dismiss all charges against Robert La Follette.
Three years later, the Senate awarded La Follette $5,000 for his legal expenses in the case. La Follette, a champion of the rights of the people—who received 16 percent of the popular vote when he ran for president on the Progressive party ticket in 1924—died in Washington in 1925. As a funeral train carried the senator to his home in Wisconsin, thousands of Americans lined the rails to pay homage to a public servant who had worked tirelessly on their behalf.
Source: U.S. Senate Historical Office, United States Senate Election, Expulsion and Censure Cases: 1793-1990 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1995), pp. 299-301.