Floyd B. Olson
Floyd Bjørnstjerne Olson (13 November 1891 – 22 August 1936) was the 22nd Governor of Minnesota, serving from January 1931 until his death from stomach cancer in August 1936. Initially entering politics as the Hennepin County Attorney, he unsuccessfully ran as the Farmer–Labor nominee in the 1924 Minnesota gubernatorial election, and, after refusing attempts by Farmer–Laborites to draft him in the 1926 and 1928 gubernatorial elections, he later became the first Farmer–Labor governor, leading Minnesota through the economic crisis of the Great Depression, becoming one of the most influential American politicians of the era.
- The freedom of speech and the press should remain inviolate and any law which constitutes an entering wedge into that inviolability is unsafe.
- First inaugural address (7 January 1931)
- We are assembled during the most crucial period in the history of our State and of our Nation. An army of unemployed, some 200,000 homeless and wandering boys, thousands of abandoned farms, an ever-increasing number of mortgage foreclosures, and thousands of people in want and poverty are evidences not only of an economic depression but of the failure of government and of our social system to function in the interest of the common happiness of the people.
- Second inaugural address (4 January 1933)
- 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.
- Speech from the steps of the Minnesota State Capitol, as quoted in Time magazine (24 April 1933)
- If I were asked to name the greatest tragedy that has followed in the wake of the depression, I would say that it has been the destructive effect upon the morale of our youth. If I were asked to name the chief victim of the present heartless order I would not hesitate to say "youth."
- Radio address (27 September 1933)
- Today we are endeavoring to save the system we call Capitalism, by attempting to curb selfish individualism, and the avaricious profit motive. [...] That there will be anything left of the so-called Capitalistic system, when the ultimate changes take place, is very doubtful, that there will be great change is certain.
- Speech to the Junior Association of Commerce (22 January 1934)
- The Farmer-Labor Party of Minnesota maintains that the present economic order is in need of very serious alterations—that to continue it as it now is constituted is criminal folly and stupidity. We charge that it fails utterly to meet the needs of our people; that the massive load of misery and suffering which we witness all about us is due to its inherent defects.
Just why people are so reluctant to make changes in government—changes for the betterment—is somewhat puzzling. Certainly we cannot hope to solve our problems by continuing the very methods responsible for creating them. In almost every other field, we are prepared to take advantage of new ideas, of new improvements. In government, however, we become confused and frightened in the presence of suggested changes.
Perhaps the reason for this can be found in the fact that almost from infancy we are taught, by the rankest kind of sophistry, that it is un-American to make changes in government. We are taught that persons who suggest changes are radicals, and that a radical is an arch enemy of society, a wild destructionist, a bomb thrower, an assaulter of women. The result has been a perversion of the public mind to an where the people fear their very birth-right,—independence of action—and self-determination.
We believe in something that has not been tried as yet. We believe in restoring prosperity by restoring the purchasing power of the man at the bottom. Unless labor can receive wage to buy the farmers produce, the farmer can never be prosperous. Unless the farmer has cash to buy the goods that the laborer manufactures, the city worker can never be prosperous.
- "Governor of Minnesota Explains Farmer-Labor Party Principles", an article written by Olson and printed in The Cornell Daily Sun (15 April 1936)
- This has got me. Don't worry; it must be all for the best.
- Final words (22 August 1936)
Farmer–Labor Party addresses
Keynote address (1932)
- Campaign keynote address at the St. Paul Auditorium, St. Paul, Minnesota (3 October 1932)
- The unorganized worker owes a debt of gratitude to his organized brother. If his living standard has not been beaten down to the level of the Russian peasant of the Czarist days, it is due to the demands the organized worker has been able to enforce. The former has benefited from the struggles and sacrifices of the latter.
- It is the Republicans who have given us government that has been both corrupt and extravagant; aided the tax dodger and transferred his load to the taxpayer — you and me; made every function of state and national government subservient to the powerful special interests, and now they are shedding crocodile tears for the poor taxpayer.
Farmer–Labor convention address (1934)
- Farmer–Labor convention address at the St. Paul Auditorium, St. Paul, Minnesota (27 March 1934)
- Now I am frank to say that I am not a liberal. I enjoy working on a common basis with liberals for their platforms, but I am not a liberal. I am what I want to be—I am a radical. I am a radical in the sense that I want a definite change in the system. I am not satisfied with tinkering, I am not satisfied with patching, I am not satisfied with hanging a laurel wreath upon burglars and thieves and pirates and calling them code authorities or something else. I am not satisfied with that.
I want, however, an orderly, a sane, and a constructive change. I don't want any visionary things any more than the hardest Tory or Conservative wants them. But I know the transition can take place and that, of course, it must be gradual. It can't come overnight, but I want to do all I can to set it in motion and keep it going steady, not in jerks, or jumps, or in spurts, but going steadily ahead ....
- Never has the Republican party, both nationally and locally, been quite so low in morale and so bankrupt in ideas as today. It has stood like a man dazed, watching the parade go by, and not knowing what it is all about.
- Our ultimate goal is a cooperative commonwealth wherein Government will stifle, as much as possible, the greed and avarice of the private profit system and will bring about more equitable distribution of the wealth produced by the hands and minds of the people.
- Should not the government own all those industries which have to do with the obtaining of raw materials and transforming them into necessary products [...] mines, packing plants, grain elevators, oil fields, and iron mines? [...] I am speaking of these things as merely touching upon the ideals of this movement, of an ultimate cooperative commonwealth....
Farmer–Labor convention address (1936)
- Farmer–Labor convention address at the St. Paul Auditorium, St. Paul, Minnesota (27 March 1936)
- I look back at my three terms as Governor with one great regret. I did not have, on any occasion, a majority of the members of the legislature who agreed with the principles of this movement. To have had that, I say from my very heart—to have had that in any one session—would have been sufficient gratification so that I would have been willing thereafter to retire from public life.
- I cite you the fact that this movement sponsored and brought about the passage of the first compulsory old-age pension law; that this movement has always stood upon the principle of taxation based upon ability to pay. I cite you the fact that despite years of struggle in this State to bring about the passage of an income-tax law—it was not until the Farmer-Labor movement gained control of the executive branch of the government and the Farmer-Labor movement enlisted the aid of popular opinion and public sentiment—not until then, despite all those years of struggle—was there an income-tax law in the State of Minnesota.
Quoted in Ernest Lundeen's 1940 tribute
- In June 1940, Senator Ernest Lundeen (FL-MN) made remarks paying tribute to Olson on the floor of the United States Senate. The following quotes, spoken or written by Olson on dates unknown, were quoted by Lundeen in his remarks.
- Whose liberty? Liberty for what purpose? Liberty of the Citizens' Alliance to arm thugs to shoot defenseless strikers in the back? Liberty of promoters of spurious stocks to fleece widows and orphans? Liberty of millionaires to escape taxation? Liberty to make slaves of workers and serfs of farmers? These are the individual liberties that these people mean.
- Answering Republican charges that the Farmer-Labor Party's 1934 platform was a threat to individual liberty
- A nation cannot be preserved which does not preserve its citizens. Industry is retrenching, reducing wages, lowering the standard of living, destroying buying power, and throwing more and more men and women on the streets to shift for themselves. Just how that is going to solve our economic problems is beyond understanding.
Quotes about Olson
- He recognized that for unnumbered centuries the human race lived in a world which could not produce enough food and shelter to provide for the human family. It was an age when progress was advanced by individual explorers constantly in search of new lands, new inventions, and new methods for increasing our material resources. It was a period when the common welfare was promoted by individualistic activity.
Within Governor Olson's generation all of this untold individual effort produced the machine age and mass production.
The human family for the first time in its history lived in a world that could produce more than enough for all. Floyd Olson understood this basic change from an age of scarcity to an age of plenty. He understood that the social usefulness of selfish individualism was ended. He saw that there must be a new spirit of cooperation if this great power of production were to serve the common welfare. Floyd Olson and the movement of which he was the leader alined themselves with this great current of change—a change going on throughout the world. He supplied the function of leadership by giving constructive direction to the force of change in the period in which he lived.
- Wisconsin Governor Philip La Follette, oration at Olson's funeral (26 August 1936)
- Floyd Olson died on the threshold to greater things. A seat in the United States Senate was just a step away. The Presidency of the United States was a possibility.
In the event that he had achieved either, history would have recorded him, we believe, as among the great Americans. The idealistic policies he advanced will be accepted as commonplace in the next 10 years.
The cause of progress and liberalism has received a heavy blow in his death. There are other leaders, perhaps, who saw as he saw. There are advanced thinkers, no doubt, who carry on from the point where Floyd Olson, because of his tragic death, left off. We know of none, however, who has the Olson combination of brains, humanity, personality, and energy—a combination necessary to the accomplishment of radical and essential changes in a society shown, during the past generation, to be sadly out of gear.
- "Floyd B. Olson", St. Paul Daily News (26 August 1936)
- He was entering the national political picture for the first time, pleading eloquently for a national Farmer-Labor Party. There were little lines around his eyes that afternoon and he looked older somehow. He spoke effectively in the evening, but without the thunder and lightning that used to bring the most bitten audiences of independent farmers to their feet as a single man.
After the meeting a few of us took him to a late show, trying to cheer him up, he looked so tired. At the table there, or dancing, he was conspicuous. People didn't know who he was but they sensed that he was "somebody." For even then with fatal sickness creeping over him, he radiated a graceful power, a magnetic fellowship that was irresistible. There were no tables when we came in—but the waiter took a look at Floyd and found one. He looked about him slowly, obviously a stranger here, yet at home. And people who saw him that night must have wished, as we were wishing, that they could see him again soon. Unlike us, though, they could not have been aware that this was but a breath-taking before an important engagement, a rest after a very minor skirmish, another pause before a battle in which he was bound to play a leading, if not decisive, role.
And today that battle is nearer than before. The forces are gathering, now deflected by the false prophets, now rallied, now re-assembling where the rank and file sense the worthiness of the issue and a glorious outcome; still unprepared, now confident, now hesitating, ready.
But Floyd Olson is dead.
- Selden Rodman, "Floyd Olson—a Tribute", Common Sense (September 1936)
- At his funeral, tens of thousands gathered for the services in the Minneapolis Auditorium—the largest and most impressive funeral which Minnesota had ever given a man in either public or private life. Two hundred thousand people lined the streets and followed the hearse to the grave.
The rich and poor alike gathered—the poor to pay their last tribute to their friend and champion; the rich to pay their respects to a man who played the game hard but fair. A great American had passed on.
Thus fate snatched this leader of the common people as he was about to ascend the threshold to carry on the battle for them on the national scene.
- Ernest Lundeen, "Floyd B. Olson—Pioneer of Social Progress", Congressional Record (13 June 1940)
- People who were active in the movement during the 30s invariably have their favorite Olson stories to tell. One of the most revealing is a tale told by Jimmy Flowers. Flowers was an organizer for the United Farmers League during this period and an active member of the Communist Party. One day he dropped into Olson's office to dish out some hell about farm conditions in rural Minnesota. Olson's schedule was filled up pretty tight for the day, so he suggested that the two of them meet at 5:30 and drive to his home and spend the evening together.
The first thing Jimmy did on reaching the Governor's home was take a hot bath (a rare luxury for a travelling farm organizer), and then he joined Olson and some other guests Floyd had invited over for the occasion. Not all of them were "good Farmer-Laborites" by any means. A few hours later, the influentials departed, and Floyd asked Jimmy what he thought.
Well, Jimmy didn't think much of the affair, and he said so in his usually blunt way. He doubted the sincerity of the Governor's friends when it came to helping the farmers. Olson was equally blunt. He walked over to his bookshelf, pulled out a volume of Lenin's Collected Works, and turned to an essay called Left Wing Communism and Infantile Disorder. "You lousy Commie son of a bitch," said Olson (with more good nature than anger), "You're standing here talking to me about revolution, and you haven't even got the workers and farmers organized. That has to come first, and then we can move ahead ...."
The story is indicative of the Olson approach. Floyd Olson was a practical politician with a genuine dedication to the people. He didn't believe in advancing policies they would refuse to accept. He realized that the degree of change possible was dependent not simply on a governor's decrees, or high sounding platforms, but the level of militancy and political understanding of the people themselves. He would move left as the people moved left. He would articulate that leftward progress, even encourage it, but never at the price of endangering the Farmer-Labor Movement in the process.
- Thomas Gerald O'Connell, Toward the Cooperative Commonwealth: An Introductory History of the Farmer-Labor Movement in Minnesota (1917-1948) (February 1979).
- I'm sure he would have been president.
- Olson's daughter, Patricia Olson Krantz, as quoted in the Brainerd Dispatch (4 September 2004)
- In memoriam, 1891-1936, Floyd Bjornstjerne Olson, twenty-second governor of the State of Minnesota. Born in near poverty, schooled in adversity, intimate with hunger and want. Out of this crucible came pioneer leadership with purposeful direction and the indomitable courage to seek new frontiers of economic security for the underprivileged. To that which he wrought an enduring memorial is builded in the hearts of his people.
- Monumental plaque for Olson in the Minnesota State Capitol