Robert M. La Follette, Sr.
Free Speech in Wartime
October 6, 1917
Six months after the United States entered World War I, in the midst of the war fever then sweeping the country, Robert M. La Follette, Sr., of Wisconsin defended his right to speak out against the war in a forceful address to the Senate.
Robert La Follette, one of the five outstanding senators memorialized by portraits in the U.S. Capitol's Senate Reception Room, was acutely aware of the power of oratory. "It is the orator," he believed, "who . . . directs the destinies of states." Inspired by post-Civil War Republicans whose "ordinary political speeches . . . stirred the war memories of the old soldiers who were then everywhere dominant in the North," he displayed his own talents at an early age, entertaining local audiences in Primrose Township, Wisconsin, with poetry recitations and speeches he delivered while standing atop a grocery box. La Follette's eloquent and stirring oratory, replete with Shakespearean allusions and historical references, was a powerful instrument that he employed throughout a public career that began with his election as district attorney of Dane County, Wisconsin, in 1880.
La Follette served in the House of Representatives (1885-1891) and as governor of Wisconsin (1901-1906) before coming to the Senate in 1906. In the Senate, the Wisconsin Republican pursued a progressive agenda that included railroad rate reform, banking and currency reform, and tariff reduction, before the outbreak of war in Europe focused his attention on foreign affairs.
Convinced that the advocates of American intervention were motivated solely by the prospect of financial gain and that war profiteering had worked severe hardships for American consumers, La Follette resolutely opposed America's entry into World War I. He was instrumental in defeating the Armed Ship bill in March 1917 and voted against the declaration of war on April 4, 1917. He became increasingly unpopular as he objected to a number of initiatives that the Wilson administration, and a majority of Congress, deemed essential to the war effort. Among the measures he opposed was the Espionage Act, curtailing freedom of speech and of the press for the duration of the war. On August 11, La Follette introduced a resolution demanding a declaration of Allied war objectives. Then distorted press reports of an antiwar address that La Follette delivered the following month before the Nonpartisan League Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota, precipitated calls for his arrest on espionage charges and petitions for his expulsion from the Senate. Specifically, the reports alleged that he had defended Germany's sinking of the Lusitania.
On October 6, 1917, a week after the Senate referred to the Committee on Privileges and Elections a petition calling for La Follette's expulsion, the embattled senator rose on a question of personal privilege. He sought not merely to defend his own conduct and his own right of free speech, he explained, but to plead the cause of all "honest and law-abiding citizens of this country . . . terrorized and outraged in their rights by those sworn to uphold the laws and protect the rights of the people." La Follette's delivery was, in the words of one scholar of rhetoric, "unemotional, even detached," as he read for three hours from his prepared text. Citing an impressive array of authorities -- constitutional scholars, House and Senate "immortals," and distinguished former members of the British Parliament -- La Follette analyzed "the right of the people to discuss the war in all its phases and the right and duty of the people's representatives in Congress to declare the purposes and objects of the war."
The address brought resounding applause from the Senate galleries but a caustic rebuttal from Arkansas Democrat Joseph T. Robinson in "the most unrestrained language that has ever been heard in the Senate," according to one reporter. In the charged atmosphere of wartime, few of La Follette's allies dared openly voice their support for the controversial senator, but the correspondence that flooded his office was overwhelmingly favorable.
La Follette and his family suffered a "feeling of repression" for the remainder of the war, but with peace came a measure of vindication. After the war, the Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections investigated the charges against La Follette. On January 16, 1919, the Senate approved the committee's recommendation that the charges be dismissed and three years later awarded him compensation for legal expenses incurred as a result of the investigation. La Follette remained in the Senate until his death on June 18, 1925. His October 6, 1917, speech is still regarded by scholars of rhetoric and congressional history as "a classic argument for free speech in time of war."
Reprinted from Robert C. Byrd, The Senate, 1789-1989: Classic Speeches, 1830-1993. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1994.