In John Milton Cooper Jr’s “Why Wisconsin? The Badger State in the Progressive Era” he talks about why Wisconsin was the leading state in the progressive movement and if it was just by a freak accident or not. Wisconsin became known as the laboratory of democracy around this time period by leading the reform movements that became known as progressivism. Many people like to accredit this to its people’s naturally bright, creative, forward looking attitudes. Yet there was no good reason why Wisconsin should have been the state to take the lead with this movement.
Urban reforms are what first made an impact in the change in Wisconsin’s laws. There were many municipal reforms in many of the larger cities and towns but none of them ever grew into full-fledged movements that made it to other cities and states.
Wisconsin took the lead in this movement in 1900 when Robert M. La Follette won the governorship at the head of an insurgent republican party that wanted to reform railroad taxation, railroad regulation, and the direct primary. From that moment on Wisconsin would remain at the head of the movement. The timing of this was one of the big factors that contributed to Wisconsin’s success. There were state wide reform movements appearing all over the mid-west, Ohio or Michigan may have beaten Wisconsin to the punch if it wasn’t for La Follette’s election at that time.
Historians like to say that a person does not a movement make. But without La Follette Wisconsin probably would never had advanced as far as it did. Another fact that helped Wisconsin enter the reform as early as it did was its relative weakness of the conservative business allied elements that held power in the Republican Party, there was no political machine that ran the state. So clearly Wisconsin’s leading role in the progressive movement was not all due to one man, but that doesn’t make La Follette’s impact in the state any less real.
Wisconsin became the lead in this movement by being the first to enact laws on a state level, which would never have happened so fast if it wasn’t for La Follette. Between his elections he made sure to keep his name out there in the people’s minds by tirelessly speaking about reform issues, he also contacted likeminded leaders in counties and towns across the state and kept their names in an elaborate filing system, talking with them through frequent letters and meetings. La Follette’s followers called themselves “progressives” one of the first times the word that would become the signature for this era was used.
Thanks to Muck-raking journalists who were pointing to La Follette and his state as shining examples on how to make things better, Wisconsin become renowned as the flagship state for reform. The progressives in the state would have times where the “Stalwarts” took control of the state but after a few of those times the progressives help on to control for over 20 years.
So in conclusion, there were many reasons why Wisconsin was the leading state in the reform policies of the progressive era. Some of the reasons are directly related to people and their actions, and some are thanks to good luck and amazing timing. La Follette was the main reason that Wisconsin was able to do so well for itself, his amazing charisma unrelenting drive for changed is what pushed Wisconsin to pass all the reform laws that’s it did so early in the era. Yet if La Follette didn’t get elected when he did Wisconsin may have been lost in the confusion because other states would have beat them to the punch. Another reason why they did so well was because of their lack of a strong political machine that ran the state making it easy to pass laws and change things that have been the same in the state for so very long. So all in all La Follette was the main reason that Wisconsin was the flagship of the progressive movement, but he had plenty of help from luck, good timing, and amazing circumstances.
Courtney from Study Moose
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