As Minnesota's first Farmer-Labor Party governor, Floyd B. Olson pursued an activist agenda aimed at easing the impact of the Great Depression. During his six years in office, from 1931 to 1936, he became a hero to the state's working people for strongly defending their economic interests.
Floyd Bjornstjerne Olson was born in 1891 in North Minneapolis. In 1909 he graduated from the city's North High School. He studied for a year at the University of Minnesota before holding several laboring jobs in Canada, Alaska, and the Pacific Northwest. In 1913 he enrolled at Northwestern College of Law in St. Paul (today the William Mitchell College of Law), where he earned his law degree.
Olson was hired as assistant Hennepin County attorney in 1919. The following year, he moved up to become county attorney when the incumbent left because of a corruption scandal. Olson became known as a crusader against this type of corruption. In 1924, while county attorney, he ran for governor on the Farmer-Labor ticket. He lost to Republican Theodore Christianson.
In 1930, running a second time for the governor's seat, Olson campaigned as a moderate. His biographer George Mayer noted that his pragmatic approach to problems melted conservative hostility. This gave him broader appeal.
Olson and his party won in a three-way race against a Republican and a Democrat. Soon the Farmer-Labor Party would emerge as the dominant political force in Minnesota. It became one of the country's most successful third-party movements.
Olson won a second term on November 8, 1932, the same day Franklin Roosevelt was elected president. By January 1933, however, unemployment was increasing rapidly in Minnesota, as were mortgage foreclosures, as part of the nationwide Great Depression. In Minneapolis, angry crowds blocked downtown streets to protest the city's inadequate relief payments.
These conditions provided the setting for Olson's second inaugural address that month. Leaving behind the moderation of 1930, Olson embraced a progressive agenda. He condemned "the failure of government" to function in the best interests of its people. Then he raised the specter of lawlessness and revolution if political leaders did not change course.
In his speech, Olson went on to call for a total restructuring of state government. He wanted it to be an agent for social and economic change. To fund this change, Olson called for a graduated income tax. He believed it was the most equitable form of tax.
Another change he proposed was a state system of unemployment insurance. "Unemployment creates misery among those unemployed, adds to the burdens of the taxpayers, and injures business," he said. To remedy these conditions, he called for an insurance system paid for by a tax on employer payrolls. Finally, Olson called for a major increase in public relief through direct state appropriations and expanded local-government borrowing powers.
After his dramatic second inaugural speech, Olson achieved some notable legislative victories. He also suffered some painful defeats. Despite conservative opposition, he was able to win approval for modified versions of his income tax and relief expansion proposals. However, while the House adopted a version of his unemployment insurance plan, the Senate blocked it.
Olson was elected to a third term in 1934. But his career was cut short near the end of that term: he died at Mayo Clinic of stomach cancer on August 22, 1936. He was forty-four.
Mayer, George H. The Political Career of Floyd B. Olson. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1987.
Dismal economic conditions provide the setting for Governor Olson's second inaugural address, given in January, 1933. Abandoning his earlier moderate approach, Olson calls for a total restructuring of state government to make it an agent for social and economic change.