Francis E. McGovern Papers, 1909-1915, 1935


[The following sketch of McGovern's life is a summary of an obituary in the Milwaukee Journal of May 17, 1946 and accounts in J. S. Gregory's History of Milwaukee (4 vols., Chicago, 1930), 4:416-20; and M. M. Quaife's Wisconsin, Its History and Its People (4 vols., Chicago, 1924), 3:192-97.]

Francis Edward McGovern was born on January 21st, 1866 near Elkhart Lake in Sheboygan County, Wisconsin, the seventh child in a family consisting of eight children. Twenty years earlier his parents had come from Ireland and settled on the farm where Francis was born. The family met the usual obstacles of pioneers successfully and before the Civil War had ended was one of the most prosperous families in the area.

The McGovern children attended the rural schools of Sheboygan County--and four of them, including Francis who got his Bachelor's degree from the University of Wisconsin in 1891, became university graduates. At Madison, McGovern received class honors and was one of the first students ever to be offered a fellowship by the University. He also distinguished himself as an orator and debater and as managing editor of the school paper.

After leaving school McGovern went to work supporting himself and paying off the debts he had incurred in attending school. He continued his education, however, by studying law in his spare time and was rewarded with a law degree in 1897. Three years later he secured an appointment as assistant district attorney for Milwaukee County in which capacity he began acquiring his reputation as a reformer as the result of his fight against social and political corruption. His good work won for him the position of district attorney in 1904, and, armed with full power, he continued his reform campaign. Defeated in the 1906 primary for reelection, McGovern ran as an independent and won by a huge majority. In 1908 he ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senator. By 1910, however, his reputation as a reformer had gained enough progressive support to put him in the governor's chair where he remained for two terms. Because of the La Follette-McGovern rift (discussed below), McGovern's promising political career was cut short. He tried again to get into the U.S. Senate in 1914, but largely because of La Follette's animosity lost out to the Democratic candidate, Paul O. Husting, even though it was a Republican year in Wisconsin. Twice again McGovern tried to secure high political office without success. During the New Deal he became a Democrat and as such was defeated for the U.S. Senate in 1934 and for governor in 1940.

After his last gubernatorial term McGovern returned to his private law practice in Milwaukee, but the war soon interrupted his law business and he entered the army as a major. He was appointed judge advocate of the 18th division and was later advanced to lieutenant colonel. Always the liberal, in the army McGovern's main work consisted of championing the cause of enlisted men before the court-martial. As the result of his work, punishment in the 18th division was cut down considerably.

In 1920 McGovern served as general counsel of the United States Shipping Board, and was ex-officio chairman of the Claims Board of the United States Emergency Fleet Corporation. He reorganized the entire claims department and helped to formulate the principles of law and rules of practice for the settlement of claims against the government growing out of wartime shipping contracts.

By 1921 he was back in Milwaukee to resume his law practice. He was elected president of the Milwaukee Bar Association in 1923, and for years was a member of the executive committee of the Wisconsin State Bar Association. He was also a member of the American Bar Association. McGovern was also an active member of the Knights of Pythias, the Masons, the City Club, the Milwaukee Athletic Club, and the American Legion.

In 1930 McGovern was appointed chairman of the state-wide committee that surveyed conditions in Wisconsin's penal and correctional institutions. As chairman, McGovern had much to do with writing the final report which denounced prison conditions as savagely inhumane and urged the punitive treatment be replaced by a program designed to recover criminals for the state--not to make permanent enemies of them. The report also advocated the amelioration of social and economic conditions felt to be instrumental in crime causation.

Although he still entertained political hopes, the rest of McGovern's life was devoted be his private law practice and club activities. He died on May 16th, 1946, at the age of 80.

Sketch of the Progressive Movement in Wisconsin to the McGovern Administration

In Wisconsin, as in many of the Northern states of the nation, the Republican Party controlled the political situation practically unchallenged for several decades following the Civil War. The Republican Party organization of Wisconsin was typical of other state bodies and the national setup. It was representative in form, the power resting in the convention elected by the party rank and file, but oligarchic in practice, the real authority being wielded by the central committee--a small permanent body which carried on the work between conventions. The central committee, generally influenced by wealthy supporters of the party (if not consisting of them) determined the party platform and proposed the slate of candidates which the ungainly conventions invariably ratified. In 1873 and 1891 enough Republicans who were dissatisfied with the way their party was run joined the Democrats to elect Democratic governors. But for the most part there were few insurgents, for the would-be rebels were usually willing to subordinate their objections in return for the political spoils that redounded from party solidarity.

During the Depression of 1893 the Democratic Party controlled the state chiefly because of the support of insurgent Republicans. During the Depression, however, the Democrats comported themselves in a way not noticeably different from the stalwart Republicans; thus making the insurgents realize that the reforms necessary could not be implemented simply through changing parties. So they returned to the Republican Party, and in the convention of 1894 presented a progressive for governor. However, the insurgent or progressive nominee, Nils P. Haugen, supported by the already famous progressive, Robert M. La Follette, had no chance against the “machine” whose candidate was William Henry Upham. Upham won the nomination and an easy election. In 1896 and 1898 the progressive wing of the Republican party tried again to capture the nomination without success--even though Robert M. La Follette, the recognized leader of the progressives, ran both times. But though they could not capture the governorship, the Republican reform element was slowly getting its ideas inserted into the party platform. In fact, under stalwart Edward Scofield's administration (1894-1900) a few progressive measures, including an anti-railroad pass law, an anti-lobbying act, and a commission to study the possibility of equalizing taxation, went through the legislature. Led by La Follette, the progressives meanwhile campaigned for the enactment of a direct primary law which would enable the party rank and file to circumvent the control of party leaders. A direct primary law was not passed, but enough furor was created to have La Follette nominated for governor at the 1900 convention and subsequently elected.

During La Follette's first term as governor, the reforms demanded by the progressives were generally blocked by a majority of stalwarts in the upper house, but in the election two years later the progressives won both houses of the Legislature and the reform measures began to take form in laws. One of the first measures passed, of course, was the primary election law; others included an ad valorem railroad tax, an inheritance tax, a state civil service act, legislation to promote conservation and reforestation, and a railroad commission with authority to control rates and the quality of service, and prevent discrimination. La Follette resigned the governorship to become U.S. Senator in 1906, but his entrance into national politics did not interfere with his first place position in Wisconsin politics.

Lieutenant Governor James O. Davidson took over where La Follette left off, and the steady flow of progressive legislation continued. All public utilities were made subject to the control of the Railroad Commission, insurance companies were regulated, a two-cent railway fare law was passed, and a proposed constitutional amendment authorizing the imposition of the income tax was presented by the Legislature to the people for their approval.

McGovern's Administrations

When McGovern succeeded Davidson in 1911, the progressives of the Republican Party had been in complete control of the state for almost a decade, and the reforms instituted under them had brought Wisconsin much national and some world fame as the “ideal” state. The progressive majority that elected McGovern demanded that the good work be carried on until all reforms proposed by them were consummated in legislative enactment or constitutional amendment. Never in the history of reform was there a better opportunity for the creation of a truly democratic and humanitarian state. McGovern was fully aware of the temper of the times and in his initial address to the newly-assembled lawmakers urged them to make full and judicious use of their mandate from the Wisconsin people:

Many legislative matters of the very highest importance concerning which men of every shade of political opinion are agreed, have been fully considered and await only enactment into law at your hands, unquestionably your responsibility is grave; but the opportunity thus presented for disinterested and patriotic service is correspondingly rare and enviable.

McGovern went on in his speech to outline the progressive measures that he felt the Legislature should consider--and, remarkable in the annals of American political history, this list of his proposals proved to be a nearly complete record of the achievements of his administration. In the field of political reform McGovern called for a stringent corrupt political practice act, a presidential primary law, a second choice primary law, and home rule for cities. His educational reform proposals included the consolidation of school districts, additional funds for the hiring of better qualified superintendents and teachers, a vocational education program, and enlargement of the facilities and functions of the University and its Extension Division. In the interest of farmers and laborers, McGovern urged the legalization and encouragement of cooperatives, aid to the development of highways, a workman's compensation law, establishment of an industrial commission, abolition of child labor, and amelioration of working conditions for women. Among the miscellaneous reforms dwelt upon in the message were enforcement of the weights and measures legislation, a law taxing incomes, and the creation of a state board of public affairs empowered to investigate inefficiency in government operation and to recommend corrective measures. Nearly all of McGovern's legislative suggestions were acted upon favorably, and many of the laws passed became the first of their sort in the country. His message to the next Legislature meeting in January, 1913 reflected his pleasure:

Broad, comprehensive policies were then adopted that have for their object the partial solution at least of problems as old as the human race and as insistent as the requirement of daily bread: the problems of how to secure a closer approximation to mental democracy in our civil institutions and to social justice in our industrial affairs.

Elated as he was, McGovern urged more attention to necessary reforms particularly stressing the need for child welfare legislation, health protection measures in industry and for the public, and a law permitting the direct election of U.S. Senators. As the result of disaffection within the liberal Republican ranks, the McGovern administration was the “high water mark” of the progressive movement in Wisconsin. Thereafter the fortunes of the progressive wing of the Republican Party declined.

The main division developed between the two leading figures of the movement, La Follette and McGovern. Jealousy between the two men may have been the real cause of the split, but the animosity between them did not become known until June, 1912 at the Republican National Convention in Chicago.

Taft, Roosevelt, and La Follette contended for the nomination in a grossly complicated affair--not in the least clarified by La Follette in his Autobiography, by McGovern in the long explanatory letters that he soon sent out to his wavering supporters, or by the chairman of the National Republican Committee himself, Victor Rosewater, in his reminiscences called Back Stage in 1912: The Inside Story of the Split Republican Convention (Philadelphia, 1930). It seems that the La Follette delegation, consisting of Wisconsin and North Dakota, held the balance of power since Roosevelt and Taft were fairly well-matched. McGovern who headed the Wisconsin delegation had himself presented as candidate for temporary chairman of the convention with the expectation of getting the votes of both the La Follette and Roosevelt delegates. McGovern would have succeeded in this maneuver had not La Follette's representative denounced the move as a trick to swing the convention to Roosevelt and asked all La Follette delegates to refrain from voting. Apparently La Follette's plan was to keep the convention deadlocked on Taft and Roosevelt until the delegates turned to him as a compromise candidate. At any rate, the split in the progressive forces caused the nomination of Taft, and La Follette never forgave McGovern for his “treachery.”

For purposes of party solidarity La Follette gave McGovern lukewarm support in the gubernatorial campaign later in the year. When the governor sought a seat in the U.S. Senate two years later, however, La Follette denounced him vigorously. McGovern managed to win the Republican primary anyway, but his prestige had been impaired by La Follette's opposition and, although it was a Republican year in Wisconsin, he lost out to the Democratic candidate, Paul O. Husting.