Farmer-Labor Party of Minnesota

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FARMER-LABOR PARTY OF MINNESOTA. The Farmer-Labor Party of Minnesota, a third party that existed between World War I and World War II, was forged from a coalition of agrarian and labor organizations. During its twenty-six-year existence, between 1918 and 1944, it achieved a remarkable record at the polls and did much to stamp Minnesota with a progressive and issue-oriented political complexion that persists today. The Farmer-Labor party inherited a large voting base among the farmers of western Minnesota from the Nonpartisan League. The league, which originated in North Dakota in 1915, entered Minnesota in 1916. It attempted to gain control of the state's dominant political party—the Republicans—in the elections of 1918 and 1920 by nominating candidates in the primary election. The Nonpartisan League reached its high point in Minnesota in 1918, when its candidate, Charles A. Lindbergh, Sr. (a progressive Republican congressman from central Minnesota), was defeated in a strong bid to win the governorship. Thereafter the league's strength declined in the state. In the general election of 1918, efforts to form a coalition with the Democrats failed, but the league-labor forces worked together and entered their candidates on the ballot under the label Farmer-Labor—the first time the name of the future third party was used.

Although it lost the election, the new farmer-labor coalition immediately displaced the Democratic party as one of the two major political forces in the state. The 1918 election also witnessed the breakup of the bipartisan political consensus that had sustained the Progressive movement of the early twentieth century. A new coalition had emerged, stemming from division over U.S. participation in World War I and over the domestic reform policies of the Nonpartisan League. The Nonpartisan League's stronghold in Minnesota had been the farmers of northwestern and west-central Minnesota—of largely Scandinavian background—and the state's socialist movement. To this voting base the Farmer-Laborites added the vote of the German-American population throughout the state, alienated by the country's entry into the war; the emerging labor vote of Minneapolis, Saint Paul, Duluth, and the iron ranges of northeastern Minnesota; and the vote of radical Progressives typified by Lindbergh.

Labor's entry into the Farmer-Labor movement was given a strong impetus at a meeting in New Ulm in July 1919, when the Minnesota State Federation of Labor established the Working People's Nonpartisan Political League as a parallel political organization to the farmer oriented Nonpartisan League. Headed by William Mahoney, president of the Saint Paul Trades and Labor Assembly, it represented a membership of 45,000 in the state. It supported most of the same policies as the parent league: an eight-hour day; workmen's compensation; equal rights for women; and public ownership of rail-roads, steamships, banks, packing plants, grain terminals, and telephone and telegraph companies. On 24 March 1920, the two nonpartisan leagues held endorsing conventions in the same hotel in Saint Paul. Henrik Shipstead, a dentist from Glenwood, was selected by both organizations to head the ticket as their candidate for governor in the Republican primary. The third-party label was preserved by filing additional candidates for other offices under the "Farmer-Labor" designation. Shipstead lost to the regular Republican candidate in a close election, but two league-endorsed candidates were elected to the House of Representatives.

In 1922 the Farmer-Labor party abandoned the cautious tactics of the Nonpartisan League—that is, attempting to take control through the primary of the Republican party—and endorsed a full slate of their own candidates. A Farmer-Labor ballot appeared in the primary elections. In the general election the Farmer-Labor party's first major breakthrough for statewide office came when Ship-stead defeated the incumbent senator, Frank B. Kellogg. Also elected to Congress from northwestern Minnesota was Knud Wefald. Lindbergh, Shipstead, Magnus Johnson, Ole J. Kvale, and Wefald were the political figures around whom the independent Farmer-Labor movement had rallied during its formative period, 1918–1922. Working behind the scenes were the leaders of the two nonpartisan leagues: Henry Tiegan and Mahoney.

The need for a new organization was evident. In 1923 a joint convention of the two leagues formed the Farmer-Labor Federation. In the same year, the new party captured the state's second U.S. Senate seat by getting Johnson elected in a special election. In 1924 the party failed to win the governorship and lost Johnson's Senate seat, but it won three of the state's ten congressional seats. Emboldened by their electoral successes in the early 1920s, the Farmer-Laborites committed themselves to assuming the role of a national third party. The resurgence of the Republicans during the remainder of the decade reduced Farmer-Labor strength, but the new party retained a firm grip on Shipstead's Senate seat as well as on the House seat in the Red River valley of northwestern Minnesota.

In 1930 Floyd B. Olson, the Farmer-Labor party's foremost leader, easily won the governor's race. Reelected in 1932 and 1934, he served until his unexpected death from cancer in 1936. Olson had begun his career as a Democrat but had been the Farmer-Labor party's candidate for governor in 1924. A respected trial lawyer, his dynamic personality won him public support across a broad political spectrum. In office he acted much more cautiously than his rhetoric indicated; in fact, he largely ignored the radical planks of his 1930 platform. With his reelection in 1932, he struck a political alliance with Franklin D. Roosevelt, and thereafter his policies generally reflected those of the New Deal. Despite hostile legislatures Olson secured large appropriations for unemployment relief, a two-year moratorium on farm mortgage foreclosures, old-age pensions, conservation measures, and the state's first income tax (1933). His intervention in the Minneapolis truckers' strike of 1934 succeeded in forcing employers to grant union recognition.

Olson's reelection to a third term in 1934—this time with strong backing from urban labor and reform forces—promised a more radical program. The party's 1934 platform proposed public ownership of all industry, banking, insurance, and public utilities and the formation of a "cooperative commonwealth." Toward the end of his governorship, Olson's rural support dwindled, but his strength in urban areas increased. His last term in office was turbulent, with a near deadlock in the legislature, strikes, and intraparty fights. After his death the lieutenant governor, Hjalmar Petersen, served the remaining four months of Olson's third term.

Elmer A. Benson, recently appointed by Olson to fill an unexpired term in the Senate, was elected governor in 1936 with a smashing victory—61 percent of the vote. More radical and doctrinaire than Olson, Benson lacked the skills necessary to lead a coalition of dissenting political groups. The consensus disintegrated because of internal strife and the challenge of the young Republican candidate for governor in 1938, Harold E. Stassen, who leveled charges of corruption and communism at the Benson administration. Benson was overwhelmed by Stassen in the 1938 election by as large a margin as he had won by two years earlier. The Farmer-Labor party never recovered its earlier vitality. Although it fought a rearguard action and remained one of the state's two major parties, it retained only one Senate seat until 1941, when Ship-stead switched to the Republican party, and one congressional seat until 1944, when it merged with the Democratic party, forming the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party. Nationally, the party's presidential candidates were Robert M. La Follette in 1924 and Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, 1936, and 1940. In 1948 the Democratic-Farmer-Labor candidate Hubert Humphrey won election to the U.S. Senate. His long career in national politics owed its success in large part to the Farmer-Labor tradition in Minnesota politics.

During its existence the Farmer-Labor party of Minnesota compiled a string of victories remarkable for a third party. It won five of nine elections for the Senate, four of thirteen for governor, and twenty-six of ninety-six for the House. In all statewide elections its candidates finished lower than second only once. In congressional contests its strongholds were the northern, western, and central sections of the state. Its strongest victories came in 1932, 1934, and especially 1936, when it controlled the governorship, the state house of representatives, both seats in the U.S. Senate, and five of the state's ten House seats.

The Farmer-Labor party of Minnesota was the most successful third party in American history. It drew its strength from and enlarged upon the state's sturdy Populist tradition. It sent Shipstead, Johnson, Benson, and Ernest Lundeen to the Senate. Its foremost standard-bearer, Olson, was unquestionably one of the great leaders of radical political movements in the nation's history, holding together a tenuous coalition of political groups that together formed the Farmer-Labor party. The party brought about widespread citizen participation in political affairs and increased the public's commitment to social justice. Its legacy includes not only the name of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party but also the strong orientation of Minnesota voters toward social concerns, progressive reforms, high taxation for a high level of public services, and, above all, the state's issue-oriented and independent political tradition.


Leuchtenburg, William E. Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1932–1940. New York: Harper and Row, 1963.

Valelly, Richard M. Radicalism in the States: The Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party and the American Political Economy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.

Russell W.Fridley/a. g.

See alsoAgriculture ; Democratic Party ; Minnesota ; Nonpartisan League, National ; Political Parties ; Socialist Party of America .

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Farmer-Labor Party of Minnesota

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