Back to top

Humphrey, Hubert H. (1911–1978)

Creator: 
  • Cite
  • Share
  • Correct
  • Print
Black and white photograph of Hubert Humphrey, c.1968.

Hubert Humphrey, c.1968.

Hubert H. Humphrey, a giant of Minnesota politics, was one of the most influential liberal leaders of the twentieth century. His political rise was meteoric, his impact on public policy historic. His support for the Vietnam War, however, cost him the office he most sought: president of the United States.

Born in Wallace, South Dakota, in 1911, Humphrey was deeply influenced by his public-spirited father and the daily hardships of farming and small-town life in the Upper Midwest. When the Great Depression struck, the young Humphrey interrupted his college education at the University of Minnesota to help his father run the family drug store.

The experience made a lasting impression. Looking back in 1971, Humphrey declared he learned more about economics from one South Dakota dust storm than in all his years in college. Though he valued the educational benefits of his early years, in the late 1930s Humphrey had bigger things in mind. Returning to the University of Minnesota, he earned a bachelor’s degree in political science, added a master’s degree from Louisiana State University, and returned to Minneapolis. There, he began an almost instantaneous political rise.

Minnesota was in a time of political transition. The state’s Farmer-Labor Party, a coalition of progressives, populists, and socialists, had dominated politics for much of the 1930s. By the 1940s, it was in decline. The smaller Democratic Party lacked the strength to compete with the Republicans. Humphrey—outgoing, a gifted (if notoriously long winded) speaker, and possessing a sharp political intelligence—soon developed a following. He wasted no time applying a lesson he had learned in political science class: power goes to those who seek it.

In 1944, Humphrey took two crucial steps toward the power he sought. First, he was elected mayor of Minneapolis. He brought a reformer’s zeal to the office, establishing the city’s first fair-employment commission and effectively challenging the city’s ingrained discrimination against Jews. But it was the merger of the Democrats and Farmer-Laborites, a move he actively supported, that created an organization strong enough to support Humphrey’s larger ambitions.

The seeds Humphrey sowed in 1944 were fully harvested in 1948. His impassioned address to the Democratic National Convention, broadcast on nation-wide radio, won broad liberal acclaim (and a walkout by segregationist delegates). “The time has arrived,” he famously declared, “for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of state’s rights and walk forthrightly in the bright sunshine of human rights.”

Back in Minnesota, the two wings of the DFL split over the emerging Cold War. A staunch anti-Communist, Humphrey supported an aggressive approach to the Soviet Union and repression of Communists at home. Emerging victorious from the internal battle with the Farmer-Laborites, Humphrey was elected to the U.S. Senate, soundly defeating Republican incumbent Joseph Ball.

It was in this campaign that Minnesotans first encountered Humphrey as the “happy warrior”—an irrepressible politician with a genuine love of people and an uncanny talent for remembering the names and circumstances of folks from Grand Marais to Blue Earth and every place in between.

Humphrey’s arrival in the Senate as a rising liberal star was initially greeted with hostility by the Democrats’ entrenched Southern bloc. In response, Humphrey accepted the guidance of the Senate majority leader, Lyndon Johnson. He proved an adept student. He developed relationships across political parties and ideologies and—without sacrificing his core principles—learned how to use the system.

From the 1950s until his selection as Lyndon Johnson’s vice president in 1964, Humphrey’s marriage of liberal conviction and political know-how yielded legislation on issues ranging from food stamps, civil rights, and the Peace Corps to arms control and humanitarian foreign aid. Near the end of his career, a poll of one thousand congressional staff named him the most effective U.S. senator of the previous fifty years.

This remains his greatest legacy. In 1968, the fierce division over the Vietnam War cost him the presidency and the respect of a new generation of political activists. Re-elected twice to the Senate, Humphrey persisted, an unabashed liberal in an era of diminished belief in government. Humphrey died from pancreatic cancer in 1978, honored by world leaders and mourned by thousands of Minnesotans.

  • Cite
  • Share
  • Correct
  • Print
© Minnesota Historical Society
  • Bibliography
  • Related Resources

Caro, Robert A. The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002.

Delton, Jennifer A. Making Minnesota Liberal: Civil Rights and the Transformation of the Democratic Party. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002.

Eisele, Albert. Almost to the Presidency: A Biography of Two American Politicians. Blue Earth, MN: Piper Press, 1972.

Haynes, John. Dubious Alliance: The Making of Minnesota’s DFL Party. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

Shields, James. Mr. Progressive: A Biography or Elmer A. Benson. Minneapolis: Dennison, 1972.

Solberg, Carl. Hubert Humphrey: A Biography. St. Paul: Borealis Books, 2003.

Related Images

Black and white photograph of Hubert Humphrey, c.1968.
Black and white photograph of Hubert Humphrey, c.1968.
Black and white photograph of Jimmy Durante (back left) and Mayor Hubert H. Humphrey sing along with two unidentified men, 1946.
Black and white photograph of Jimmy Durante (back left) and Mayor Hubert H. Humphrey sing along with two unidentified men, 1946.
Black and white photograph of Hubert Humphrey reading comics on the radio, August 1946.
Black and white photograph of Hubert Humphrey reading comics on the radio, August 1946.
Black and white photograph of Hubert Humphrey riding the merry-go-round at the Minnesota State Fair, 1947.
Black and white photograph of Hubert Humphrey riding the merry-go-round at the Minnesota State Fair, 1947.
Black and white photograph of a “Hubert Humphrey for mayor” campaign worker rides his Cushman scooter before the Minneapolis mayoral election, 1947.
Black and white photograph of a “Hubert Humphrey for mayor” campaign worker rides his Cushman scooter before the Minneapolis mayoral election, 1947.
Black and white photograph of Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey throws out the first pitch of a baseball game played by the Minneapolis Millers at Nicollet Park in Minneapolis on April 27, 1948.
Black and white photograph of Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey throws out the first pitch of a baseball game played by the Minneapolis Millers at Nicollet Park in Minneapolis on April 27, 1948.
Black and white photograph of Hubert Humphrey delivering a speech on civil rights at the 1948 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.
Black and white photograph of Hubert Humphrey delivering a speech on civil rights at the 1948 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.
Black and white photograph of Hubert H. Humphrey reading from a pile of telegrams the day after winning a seat in the U.S. Senate, November 3, 1948.
Black and white photograph of Hubert H. Humphrey reading from a pile of telegrams the day after winning a seat in the U.S. Senate, November 3, 1948.
Black and white photograph of Hubert H. Humphrey says goodbye to the Minneapolis Mayor's office after winning a seat in the U.S. Senate, November 30, 1948.
Black and white photograph of Hubert H. Humphrey says goodbye to the Minneapolis Mayor's office after winning a seat in the U.S. Senate, November 30, 1948.
Color image of Vice Presidential nominee Hubert Humphrey with President Lyndon Johnson on the way to a landslide victory, 1964.
Color image of Vice Presidential nominee Hubert Humphrey with President Lyndon Johnson on the way to a landslide victory, 1964.
Black and white photograph of Vice President Humphrey discussing the Vietnam War with President Johnson and military officials, c.1965.
Black and white photograph of Vice President Humphrey discussing the Vietnam War with President Johnson and military officials, c.1965.
Black and white photograph of Martin Luther King and his wife, Coretta Scott King, with Vice President Hubert Humphrey, c. late 1960s.
Black and white photograph of Martin Luther King and his wife, Coretta Scott King, with Vice President Hubert Humphrey, c. late 1960s.
Black and white photograph of Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey campaigning for president, 1968.
Black and white photograph of Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey campaigning for president, 1968.
Color image of a pin-back button used during Hubert Humphrey’s 1968 presidential campaign.
Color image of a pin-back button used during Hubert Humphrey’s 1968 presidential campaign.
Color image of a lunch box created in support of Hubert H. Humphrey's 1968 presidential campaign.
Color image of a lunch box created in support of Hubert H. Humphrey's 1968 presidential campaign.
Color image of an anti-war march held in Chicago just before the Democratic National Convention, August 10, 1968.
Color image of an anti-war march held in Chicago just before the Democratic National Convention, August 10, 1968.
Color image of anti-war delegates oppose Humphrey’s nomination at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago.
Color image of anti-war delegates oppose Humphrey’s nomination at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago.
Black and white photograph of color Guard officers carrying the body of Hubert H. Humphrey down the steps of the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul, January 1978.
Black and white photograph of color Guard officers carrying the body of Hubert H. Humphrey down the steps of the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul, January 1978.

Turning Point

Humphrey’s historic civil rights speech to the 1948 Democratic National Convention establishes him as a rising star in national liberal circles.

Chronology

1911

Hubert Horatio Humphrey is born in Wallace, South Dakota, on May 27.

1931

Pharmacist’s license in hand, Humphrey returns to South Dakota to help run his father’s drug store. He develops compassion for the struggles of people suffering during the Great Depression.

1942

Having earned a masters degree in political science, Humphrey moves to Minneapolis and begins his public career as an administrator in a variety of war-time agencies.

1944

Regarded as a rising star in Minnesota’s Democratic Party, Humphrey plays a key role in the merger that creates the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (DFL).

1945

Humphrey is elected mayor of Minneapolis. He runs an energetic reform administration, creating policies to counter the discrimination of Jews and African Americans.

July 1948

In a nationally broadcast speech that makes him a hero to liberals and enrages Southern segregationists, Humphrey urges the Democratic Party to renounce segregation and adopt a strong civil rights platform.

November 1948

In a major victory for the Democratic wing of the new Democratic Farmer-Labor Party, Humphrey is elected to the U.S. Senate, winning a decisive victory over Republican Joseph Ball.

1949

Humphrey begins the first of three consecutive Senate terms, effectively championing liberal legislation on issues as arms control, humanitarian foreign aid, a nuclear test ban, food stamps, civil rights, and the Peace Corps.

1950–1954

Reflecting the anti-Communist sentiment of the time, Humphrey supports legislation to repress “subversives” and make membership in the Communist Party a felony.

1960

Humphrey runs an energetic campaign for the Democratic nomination for president but is handily defeated by John F. Kennedy.

1964

By now the most powerful liberal in the Senate, Humphrey is instrumental in the passage of the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964.

1964

As President Lyndon Johnson’s running mate, Humphrey is elected vice president in November. Though he supports Johnson’s war policies in public, he keeps silent about his personal doubts.

1968

In a Democratic Convention bitterly divided over the Vietnam War, Humphrey wins his party’s nomination. In the general election, he loses narrowly to Richard Nixon.

1971–1972

After a brief return to private life as a college teacher, Humphrey is reelected to the U.S. Senate. In his last serious run for the presidency, he loses the Democratic nomination to anti-war candidate Senator George McGovern.

1978

In his final legislative achievement, Humphrey wins passage of the Humphrey–Hawkins Full Employment Act, mandating the Federal Reserve Board to address unemployment in its decision-making process.