John Mandt Nelson Papers, circa 1890-1977


John Mandt Nelson, educator, lawyer, and politican, served as Progressive Republican congressman from Wisconsin's Third District for a quarter of a century. For many years he was regarded as the dean of the Wisconsin congressional delegation.

Nelson obtained his B.A. degree from the University of Wisconsin in 1892, after which he taught school for a number of years and served as superintendent of schools for Dane County. Between 1894 and 1897 he was a bookkeeper in the office of Secretary of State. During the same period he also studied law, receiving his degree from the University of Wisconsin in 1896. From 1898 to 1902 he acted as correspondent in the state treasurer's office.

In 1906 after the death of the incumbent congressman from the Third District (which at that time included Dane County), Nelson was elected to fill the vacancy. From that time until 1932 he was reelected to every Congress save one.

Nelson was a follower of Robert M. La Follette Sr., and a leader of the Progressive Republican or “insurgent” faction in Congress. In general, Nelson, along with other Progressives in Congress, voted with the Regular Republican majority in matters of organization, but independently when matters of conscience were involved. Nelson tended to support legislation favoring labor, woman suffrage, restriction of monopoly, liberalization of immigration, Philippine independence, and similar measures. He most notably broke with the party leadership in 1908-1910 when he led a fight to reform the rules of the House of Representatives, including a reduction in the powers of the speakership, at that time held by “Uncle Joe” Cannon. During the 1920s he was again involved in several attacks on restrictive rules.

Nelson's independent position worked to his political disadvantage in at least two cases. In 1917 he voted against entry into World War I. Nelson's political enemies sought to create an issue by accusing him of a lack of patriotism and his son Byron (who was in Canada at the time of the passage of the Selective Service Law) of draft-dodging. Although Nelson and his son were vindicated, he lost his bid for renomination in 1918. In 1924 Nelson managed La Follette's independent presidential campaign and was rewarded by the withdrawal of his patronage privileges for many years.

In 1932 Nelson lost his fight for renomination after the district was reshaped in conformance with Regular Republican wishes. After an unsuccessful attempt in 1933 to secure a position in the Agricultural Adjustment Administration Nelson retired from public and business life. He died on January 29, 1955.