Fila Sophia

applied philosophy, deep democracy, sustainability / by A.R.Teleb

Inspiring Story: Albert R. Hall, A Real Wisconsin Hero

This is a story of the power of one dedicated individual, a story that could restore your faith in politics. This is a story about how a modest farmer, of a slight build and a squeaky voice, nearly single-handedly eliminated the biggest source of corruption of his time.

Albert R Hall, originally from the Northeast, spent time in Minnesota before settling in the tiny town of Knapp, Wisconsin. He successfully ran for State Assembly for Dunn County in 1890 and was re-elected five consecutive times.

When he first took office in 1891, he noticed what appeared to be every single member of the Assembly accepting free passes from the railroads that operated in the State–not only that, but passes were regularly requested for friends, family, and acquaintances. He refused to accept any himself. Given that at that time railroads were the only form of reliable transportation, this was an enormous perk and an expensive gift to turn down. This all seemed curious to him, so he asked the Tax Commission for some statistics. He then also noticed that railroad corporations had unusually low tax rates. In the context of what happened in 1875 (when RR money defeated a new Governor, then quickly overturned a 1874 bill that would have regulated railroads through a State commission) this farmer smelled manure in Madison.

According to those figures, the underpayments were $500,000 to $1,000,000 (in 1890 dollars) per year compared to other property owners. He immediately introduced a Bill banning the acceptance of gift passes by government employees. Not surprisingly, it was handily defeated. For the next eight years, he fought to end this practice. He repeatedly reintroduced measures in the Assembly and resolutions at Republican Party conventions or caucuses, always citing statistics about underpaid taxes and pointing out that railroad rates to the general public were higher in Wisconsin than in neighboring states.

In 1895, with some of his railroad-related bills pending, he had an idea to both embarrass corrupt politicians and educate the public about what was going on in their State government. Spending $2,000 of his own money ($53,207 in today’s money) he printed literature about the pass practice, hinting at privileges that railroads received in return. He secretly prepared referendum ballots on his anti-pass and railroad tax measures. After sending them to as many town clerks throughout the State as he could, two days before the next election, he had proof that, by an overwhelming margin of 50,000 to 700, Wisconsin voters believed that railroad passes to government employees ought to be eliminated!

During the 1899 legislative session, his anti-pass bill was finally adopted. It proved to be the first step towards cleaning up the State government, reforming the tax code and, ultimately, ushering in Wisconsin’s legendary era of progressive reforms.

Upon his death in 1905, Albert R Hall was the first person to be honored with a bronze memorial plaque inside the Wisconsin State Assembly. That year, the Assembly, with the Senate concurring, issued a resolution praising the man “…whose noble record should serve as an inspiration worthy of emulation.”

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4 comments on “Inspiring Story: Albert R. Hall, A Real Wisconsin Hero

  1. ahmedrteleb
    2013-01-12

    Where you are, can you think of a deeply principled person or group who worked for a structural reform that set-off an era of change?
    Please share that story!

  2. ahmedrteleb
    2013-01-23

    It is interesting to note that upon election as Governor in 1901, Robert Marion LaFollette’s first proposals in his first speech to the WI State Assembly and Senate were a direct primary, a second choice ballot (ranked voting), and taxing railroads like other businesses. The first was to wrest power from Republican Party bosses, the second to make government more representative (beyond the two-party system), and third to take back an unfair tax-break that a monopolistic private enterprise was getting based on its influence in government.

  3. Pingback: Pound on the Lochner Court: An Ounce of Philosophy Explains a Ton of Anomaly | Ahmed R Teleb

  4. Pingback: Inspiring Story: Albert R. Hall, A Real Wiscons...

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