Political History in Wisconsin | Wisconsin Historical Society

Political History in Wisconsin

Celebrate BIG History. Political History.

Celebrate BIG Moments: Political History in Wisconsin

The Badger State has a rich, ever-evolving political history. The Republican Party was founded in Ripon, Wisconsin, Milwaukee had a strong socialist movement in the early 20th century, and the Progressive Party briefly dominated the state’s political landscape. Wisconsin has long held the label of a swing state in presidential elections, voting for Republican presidential candidates 25 times, Democrats 18 times, and Progressives once. As of 2021, thirty-one Wisconsin governors were Republicans, 12 were Democrats, one was a Progressive, and one was a Whig.

The Society has put together a page with stories, images, and artifacts from our political collections. These items just scratch the surface of the history of politics in Wisconsin. Please take an opportunity to explore these resources below.

Fascinating Items From Our Historical Collections

The Society has thousands of items related to politics, political campaigns, and elections available to explore in our online collections. Here are a few highlights.

Framed assortment of buttons and pins representing the presidential campaigns of William McKinley versus William Bryan (1896-1900), Theodore Roosevelt versus Alton Parker (1904), and William Taft versus William Bryan (1908). Most are typical round buttons showing the portraits of the candidates, but a few oddities appear, such as a bee with McKinley and Hobart's portraits on the wings, and a metal button of Theodore Roosevelt riding an elephant.

Campaign Buttons

Three presidential political campaign bumper stickers for Ronald Reagan. The top bumper sticker has an image of the shape of the state of Wisconsin, which is split in half horizontally by a change in color, with the top in blue with white stars and the bottom in red. It reads: 'Reagan.' The middle bumper sticker has red text and reads: 'Reagan, 'Mexican-American Democrats for Reagan.' The bottom bumper sticker is white with blue text that reads: 'Reagan,' and on the right is an image of the shape of the state of Wisconsin, which is split in half horizontally by a change in color, with the top in blue with white stars and the bottom in red with white text that reads: '84.'

Campaign Stickers

The Wisconsin constitution allowed black citizens to vote, provided that the idea was 'submitted to the vote of the people at a general election, and approved by a majority of all the votes cast at such election.' When in 1849 Wisconsin residents voted on that question, African American voting rights were approved 5,265 to 4,075. But there were several issues on the ballot that day and less than half of all people who went to the polls voted on the black suffrage question. Because 'a majority of all the votes cast' that day did not approve black suffrage (the majority had not voted on it at all), most observers believed that African Americans were not permitted to vote in Wisconsin. In subsequent referendums in 1857 and in 1865, voters rejected black suffrage outright.					During the 1865 referendum, Ezekiel Gillespie, a leader of Milwaukee's black community, was not allowed to register to vote. Working with attorney Byron Paine (who had argued against the Fugitive Slave Law in the Joshua Glover case), Gillespie took the election inspectors to court. His suit immediately advanced to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, where his attorney claimed that the phrase in the 1848 constitution (quoted above) meant that only a majority of votes on the suffrage issue had to prevail, not a majority of all votes cast on all issues that day. The Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of Gillespie; the transcript of the court's ruling is provided here.

Reaffirm Black Suffrage Court Documents

Votomatic punch card voting device used in Walworth County, Wisconsin, until 2000.

Punch Card Voting Machine

United States flag used to drape the caskets of both Robert M. La Follette, Sr. and Jr.

La Follette's Casket Flag

Garnet velvet evening gown worn by Wisconsin First Lady Charlotte McAleer Kohler to President Eisenhower's 1953 Inauguration Ball.

First Lady's Evening Gown

Governor Tommy Thompson and his wife, Sue Ann at the inauguration ball, 1987. Image courtesy of Wisconsin State Journal

Sue Ann Thompson's Inauguration Gown

More Historical Items

Vel Phillips's Desk | Charles Arndt Vest | Women's Suffrage Tunic | Teddy Roosevelt Glass | John Fox Potter Knife | Democratic Convention Delegate Badge | Governor Dreyfus's Red Vest | Cassius Fairchild Appointment Book | Wisconsin State Capitol Spitton

Compelling Images from the Society's Historical Collections

Campaign poster supporting Shirley Chisholm, an African American woman who was a Congresswoman, representing New York's 12th District for seven terms from 1969 to 1983. She ran as a Presidential candidate in the 1972 election. Features a black and white image of Chisholm in a flower patterned shirt.

Campaign Posters

President Barack Obama speaking at rally.

Campaign Photos

Joseph McCarthy at the time of his election victory over Senator Robert M. La Follette, Jr., in the Republican primary.

Politician Photos

In a recount that lasted almost four hours, the tide turned in favor of Alderman John Budzien, who apparently had lost last Tuesday's election to Robert A. Anderson by two votes. The recount conducted by the city election commission Monday showed that Budzien won by five votes.

Election Photos

Read More from the WHS Press

Check out these related books from the Wisconsin Historical Society Press. They are available at your favorite book retailer, online, or through most e-book vendors.

More Historical Books

Fighting Bob La Follette: The Righteous Reformer | Fighting Son: A Biography of Philip F. La Follette

Shop Political History

Shop political merchandise from our online store. 100% of the proceeds support the Society.

Women's Suffrage Merch

Women's Suffrage

Wisconsin's State Flag

Wisconsin State Flag

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Explore Wisconsin's History

You can find out more about our history in these pages focusing on other monthly celebrations!