- Floyd B. Olson
name=Floyd B. Olson
caption=Floyd B. Olson
office= Governor of Minnesota
January 6 1931
August 22, 1936
Henry M. Arens, Konrad K. Solberg, Hjalmar Petersen
birth_date= birth date|1891|11|13|mf=y
death_date= death date and age|1936|8|22|1891|11|13|mf=y
spouse=Ada Krejci Olson
Floyd Bjørnstjerne Olson (
November 13, 1891ndash August 22, 1936) was an American politician. He served as the 22nd Governor of Minnesotafrom January 6, 1931to August 22, 1936. He died in office from stomach cancer. He was a member of the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party, and was the first member of the Farmer-Labor Party to win the office of governorin Minnesota.
Floyd B. Olson was born on the north side of
Minneapolis, Minnesotato a Norwegian father and a Swedish mother. He was an only child. After graduating from North High School in Minneapolis in 1909, Olson went to work for the Northern Pacific Railway. The next year, Olson enrolled at the University of Minnesota, but left after only a year, during which he was constantly in trouble for wearing a derby in violation of school rules and for refusing to participate in required ROTC drills.
Heading west, Olson worked a series of odd jobs in
Canadaand Alaskabefore settling briefly in Seattle, Washington, where he became a stevedoreand joined the Industrial Workers of the World. During this time, Olson read widely and began to adopt a populist, semi-socialist philosophy which he would retain for the rest of his life.
Returning to Minnesota in 1913, Olson enrolled in Northwestern Law College, a
night school, and earned his " Juris Doctor" in 1915. That same year, he met and married Ada Krejci in New Prague, Minnesotaand became a practicing lawyer.
Hennepin County Attorney
During that same time period, he made his first foray into politics when he helped form the "Committee of 48," an organization that attempted to draft Senator
Robert M. La Follette, Sr.to run for president on a third party ticket. The effort proved unsuccessful, but La Follette would later run on the Progressive Party ticket in 1924. That same year, Olson ran in the Democratic primary for the local seat in the House of Representatives, but lost.
As Hennepin County Attorney, Olson quickly earned a name for himself as a stern
prosecutorwho relished going after crooked businessmen. He took on the Ku Klux Klanin a well-publicized case that brought both respect and death threats and was re-elected to the position in 1922 and 1926.
Candidate for governor
In 1923, Olson brought a case against the leaders of the
Minnesota Citizens Alliance, a faux-grassroots organization dedicated to preserving "right-to-work" laws, after they hired a hitmanto dynamitethe home of a union leader. Olson's vigorous pursuit of the Citizens Alliance made him a hero to the local labor movement, which encouraged him to run for the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party's gubernatorial nomination.
Having secured the endorsement of the Hennepin County Farmer-Labor Central Committee, Olson narrowly won the nomination in a bitterly-fought primary. Buoyed by the presidential campaign of Senator La Follette, who endorsed Olson and vice-versa, he received 43% of the vote, losing to Republican candidate
Theodore Christianson's 48%. The Democratic candidate came in a distant third with 6%.
Four years later, in 1928, the new "Farmer-Labor Association" (which had changed its name to avoid being linked with local communists) attempted to draft Olson to run for governor again. Although the party committee once again endorsed him and this time guaranteed that he would not face a primary battle, Olson declined to run. That year, the Farmer-Labor candidate lost in the Republican landslide that accompanied
Herbert Hoover's election to the presidency.
By 1930, however, the
stock markethad crashed and the Great Depressionhad begun. After the party's newspaperurged that Olson be drafted, he easily won the nomination. Forming a coalition of farmers, organized labor, and small businessmen, Olson swept to a landslide victory in the election, receiving 59% of the vote in a four-way race and winning 82 of the state's 87 counties.
Olson as Governor
Nevertheless, Olson soon proved himself skilled at the art of politics and he managed to fulfill the vast majority of his campaign promises. During his three terms as governor, Olson proposed, and the legislature passed, bills that instituted a progressive income tax, created a
social securityprogram for the elderly, expanded the state's environmental conservation programs, guaranteed equal pay for womenand the right to collective bargaining, and instituted a minimum wageand a system of unemployment insurance.
Despite these successes, the thing that Olson wanted the most, a bill that would have put Minnesota's electric utilities,
ironmines, oil fields, grain elevators, and meatpacking plants under state ownership, never saw the light of day, as the legislature balked at what they saw as socialismand Olson insisted was "cooperativism."
As the platform of his party grew successively more radical, Olson's support amongst the
middle classgradually began to erode. His support with labor and agriculture, however, remained unchecked and he was easily re-elected in 1932 and 1934.
Olson was notorious in his own time for using martial law to resolve labor unrest and threatening to use dictatorship powers to arbitrarily seize property. In its April 24, 1933, issue, Time magazine quoted Olson speaking from the steps of the state capitol:
"I am making a last appeal to the Legislature. If the Senate does not make provision for the sufferers in the State and the Federal Government refuses to aid, I shall invoke the powers I hold and shall declare martial law. ... A lot of people who are now fighting [relief] measures because they happen to possess considerable wealth will be brought in by provost guard and be obliged to give up more than they would now. There is not going to be misery in this State if I can humanly prevent it. . . Unless the Federal and State governments act to insure against recurrence of the present situation, I hope the present system of government goes right down to hell."Fact|date=October 2008
Despite considerable achievements and popular support, Olson's administration was marred by allegations made by crusading newspaper editor
Walter Liggettthat there were links between some members of his administration and organized crime. Although no evidence ever linked Olson personally, Liggett was gunned down in front of his family in 1935. Kid Cann, Minnesota gangster, was charged with but not convicted of the killing.
As the 1936 election neared, Olson ruled out the possibility of running for president as a third party candidate, and instead announced his intention to run for Minnesota's U.S. Senate seat.
Unbeknownst to Olson, however, his health was beginning to fail. Having suffered from severe
ulcers ever since his election, Olson went to the Mayo Clinicin December 1935, where he was diagnosed with stomach cancer. Although the cancer was malignantand would eventually prove fatal, Olson was not told of the seriousness of his condition, as was the practice of the day.
Thus "reassured" of his "good health," Olson proceeded to further weaken himself by not only resuming his duties as governor, but also beginning to organize his party's state convention and returning to his senatorial campaign. As he stumped across the state, promising to support federal ownership of monopolies and to back President Franklin Roosevelt's court-packing scheme, he further weakened his
immune system, allowing his cancer to metastasize.
Olson last made a public appearance on
June 29, 1936, giving a stump speech in Minnehaha Park in Minneapolis. The next day, he returned to the Mayo Clinic for treatment, but it was too little, too late. He died there on August 22. He was 44 years old.
Since his death, dozens of
statues of Olson have been constructed throughout the state, many of which declare him to be the state's "greatest governor."
Shortly after Olson died,
Minnesota State Highway 55(a highwaythat was then being constructed) was renamed the "Floyd B. Olson Memorial Highway" in his honor. A proposal by the Taxpayer's League in late 2004 to rename the highway after the recently-deceased President Ronald Reaganmet with widespread public condemnation and was soon abandoned.
* [http://www.mnhs.org/people/governors/gov/gov_24.htm Minnesota Historical Society]
"The Political Career of Floyd B. Olson" by George H. Mayer, The University of Minnesota Press (1951)
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