In 1876 La Follette met Robert G. Ingersoll. He later recalled: "Ingersoll had a tremendous influence upon me, as indeed he had upon many young men at the time. It was not that he changed my beliefs, but he liberated my mind. Freedom was what preached: he wanted the shackles off everywhere. He wanted men to think boldly about all things: he demanded intellectual and moral courage." After graduating in 1879 he set up as a lawyer and the following year became District Attorney of Dane County.
Elected to Congress as a Republican, La Follette was extremely critical of the behaviour of some of the party bosses. In 1891, La Follette announced that the state Republican boss, Senator Philetus Sawyer, had offered him a bribe to fix a court case.
Over the next six years La Follette built up a loyal following within the Republican Party in opposition to the power of the official leadership. Proposing a programme of tax reform, corporation regulation and an extension of political democracy, La Follette was elected governor of Wisconsin in 1900.
Once in power La Follette employed the academic staff of the University of Wisconsin to draft bills and administer the laws that he introduced. He later recalled: "I made it a policy, in order to bring all the reserves of knowledge and inspiration of the university more to the service of the people, to appoint experts from the university wherever possible upon the important boards of the state - the civil service commission, the railroad commission and so on - a relationship which the university has always encouraged and by which the state has greatly profited."
La Follette was also successful in persuading the federal government to introduce much needed reforms. This included the regulation of the railway industry and equalized tax assessment. In 1906 La Follette was elected to the Senate and over the next few years argued that his main role was to "protect the people" from the "selfish interests". He claimed that the nation's economy was dominated by fewer than 100 industrialists. He went on to argue that these men then used this power to control the political process. La Follette supported the growth of trade unions as he saw them as a check on the power of large corporations.
In 1909 La Follette and his wife, the feminist, Belle La Follette founded the La Follette's Weekly Magazine. The journal campaigned for women's suffrage, racial equality and other progressive causes. Lincoln Steffens argued: "La Follette is the opposite of a demagogue. Capable of fierce invective, his oratory is impersonal; passionate and emotional himself, his speeches are temperate. Some of them are so loaded with facts and such closely knit arguments that they demand careful reading, and their effect is traced to his delivery, which is forceful, emphatic, and fascinating."
La Follette supported Woodrow Wilson in the 1912 presidential election and approved his social justice legislation. However, he complained that he was under the control of big business and was totally opposed to Wilson's decision to enter the First World War. Once war was declared La Follette opposed conscription and the passing of the Espionage Act. La Follette was accused of treason but was a popular hero with the anti-war movement.
Lincoln Steffens was a great supporter of La Follette: "Governor La Follette was a powerful man, who, short but solid, swift and willful in motion, in speech, in decision, gave the impression of a tall, a big man... what I saw at my first sight of him was a sincere, ardent man who, whether standing, sitting, or in motion, but the grace of trained strength, both physical and mental... Rather short in stature, but broad and strong, he had the gift of muscled, nervous power, he kept himself in training all his life. His sincerity, his integrity, his complete devotion to his ideal, were indubitable; no one who heard could suspect his singleness of purpose or his courage."
La Follette became the candidate of the Progressive Party in the 1924 presidential election. Although he gained support from trade unions, individuals like Fiorello La Guardia and Vito Marcantonio, the Socialist Party and the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain, La Follette and his running partner, Burton K. Wheeler, only won one-sixth of the votes.
Robert La Follette died on 18th June, 1925.