The Ghost of Old Bob

Gravesite of Robert LaFollette

The ghost of Robert LaFollette has hung over the state of Wisconsin for decades. His actions and legacy have forever altered the state. Robert La Follette was a long time Wisconsin politician, serving as both Governor and Senator of the state. La Follette was a champion of progressivism and progressive policies. La Follette helped develop the Wisconsin idea, that government institutions, like the public university, should be used to help all people in the state of Wisconsin and the entire country. La Follette also ran for president as a third party progressive candidate in 1924, winning his home state, one of the few third party candidates to ever win a state in an election.

The Candidate (Ghost of Old Bob)

The Candidate (The Ghost of Old Bob)
The Candidate (The Ghost of Old Bob) by Wisconsin artist Gibson Byrd is an example of La Follette’s legacy. The painting depicts a nasty looking politician at the bottom of the steps of the Wisconsin capitol building, with a ghostly Robert LaFollette at the top of the stairs representing an ideal that is not being met. The corrupt candidate walking away from how things should be, with La Follette walking towards the way things aught to be done. When Byrd finished painting The Candidate in 1965 La Follette had already been dead for 40 years, and yet was still seen as a powerful symbol within Wisconsin politics.

Robert M. La Follette, Sr., Pounding his Fist

The Tomb of Fighting Bob
La Follette would die a year after his presidential run in Washington DC and was buried in Forest Hill Cemetery in Madison Wisconsin. Many Wisconsin politicians have invoked La Follette as a figure and is still looked to as a progressive icon. This gravesite is where Robert La Follette was put to rest, its where his ability to fight came to an end. Robert La Follette has not done anything for nearly a century but is still a person on the minds of many. What would Bob do, what should we do know, how did he accomplish what he accomplished so that we perhaps could reenact it in a modern era. Robert La Follette may be put to rest at Forest Hill cemetery, but his influence was not.

Robert M La Follette funeral

1855 Robert La Follette is born
1880 Elected as Dane County District Attorney
1884 Elected U.S. Representative
1901 Elected Governor of Wisconsin
1906 Elected U.S. Senator
1923 Gibson Byrd is born
1924 Presidential Campaign as a Progressive Party candidate
1925 Robert La Follette dies
1955 Gibson Byrd comes to the University of Wisconsin
1965 Gibson Byrd paints The Candidate (Ghost of Old Bob)
1985 Byrd retires from University of Wisconsin due to Parkinson’s disease
2002 Gibson Byrd dies
Why I choose this object?
I have been interested in Robert La Follette for a long time. I believe him to be a transformative figure and did a lot to improve the lives of the people of Wisconsin and the entirety of the United States. Another aspect of him that I find really interesting is that he is a known figure among most history buffs. Outside of presidents it is difficult to name any politician from a hundred years ago. I can’t tell you the other senators who served along with La Follette, but I know who La Follette is. This object is part of the reason for that, his legacy has been utilized by people for decades after, be it to positively compare themselves to him, or to view him as an ideal that should be strived towards. He continues to be a powerful figure and I wanted to analyze at least a small part of that.

Brett Hancock

History 401 [Spring 2022]

Leslie A. Bellais