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Stassen, Harold (1907–2001)

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Black and white photograph of Harold Stassen signing a bill into law, 1941.

Harold Stassen signing a bill into law, 1941. Photographed by the St. Paul Dispatch.

During a lifetime devoted to public service, Harold Stassen left an indelible mark upon American politics. He first gained national prominence in the 1930s by revitalizing Minnesota’s Republican Party and establishing a progressive, cooperative approach to state government. Although his achievements are often obscured by his seemingly relentless quest to become president, Stassen contributed greatly to the cause of international peace following World War II.

Harold Edward Stassen was born in 1907 on his family’s truck farm in West St. Paul. His father, William, taught him the importance of civic engagement and the prominent role the Republican Party had played in Minnesota during the late nineteenth century.

At the age of fifteen, Stassen graduated second in his class from St. Paul’s Humboldt High School. After another year of helping to run the family farm, he enrolled at the University of Minnesota, where he became active in campus politics. He joined the debating society and led the U of M rifle team to three consecutive national championships. He was also elected student-body president. Stassen’s exposure to history and international relations at the U of M helped form his lifelong interest in world peace.

Stassen graduated from the University of Minnesota Law School in 1929. He opened a law office in South St. Paul with his classmate Elmer Ryan. That fall, he married his longtime sweetheart, Esther Glewwe.

Stassen decided to run for Dakota County attorney in 1930, despite contracting tuberculosis. He won the election with the help of family and friends who campaigned while he convalesced at Pokegama Sanitarium. Once fully recovered, he prepared to assume his duties at the Dakota County Courthouse in Hastings.

Stassen faced many challenges as Dakota County attorney during the Great Depression. He battled organized crime, tried to avert labor strikes, helped to prevent farm foreclosures, and successfully argued an important tax case before the U.S. Supreme Court. He observed state politics closely during the 1930s and feared the growing influence of the Farmer-Laborites. Led by three-time governor Floyd B. Olson, the Farmer-Labor Party had by 1934 completed its transition from a populist-oriented, third-party movement to the people’s choice in Minnesota.

In 1935, Stassen helped establish the Young Republican League of Minnesota. A year later, he was elected its first chairman. He sought the Republican nomination for governor in 1938.

Stassen’s brand of Republicanism was progressive and forward-thinking. It appealed to young and independent voters who were suspicious of the Farmer-Labor Party’s lock on state offices. Stassen carried the Republican primary easily and then won the 1938 gubernatorial election. He was only thirty-one years old.

On January 2, 1939, Stassen became the youngest governor in Minnesota history. Promising to rid the State Capitol of corruption and political patronage, Stassen pursued an ambitious set of legislative reforms addressing civil service, labor relations, public welfare, and government reorganization. He soon gained the attention of GOP leaders outside Minnesota. In 1940, he was chosen to deliver the keynote address at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia.

In 1942, Governor Stassen announced that he would resign the following spring to join the U.S. Naval Reserves. That November, he was reelected to a third term. In the summer of 1943, he joined Admiral William Halsey’s staff in the South Pacific. He served with distinction for the remainder of the war. He attended the San Francisco Conference in 1945 to help draft the United Nations Charter. Stassen also organized the evacuation of nearly twenty thousand Allied POWs held by the Japanese at the end of the war.

Stassen began running for president in the 1940s and never really stopped. He sought the GOP’s nomination a record ten times between 1944 and 1992. His efforts to win state presidential primaries yielded several early victories and set a precedent for future candidates. Stassen served as president of the University of Pennsylvania from 1948 until 1953, when he joined President Eisenhower’s national security team.

After leaving the Eisenhower Administration in 1958, Stassen practiced international law and ran unsuccessfully for many more offices in Pennsylvania and Minnesota. He died in 2001 and is buried alongside his wife at Acacia Cemetery in Mendota Heights.

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Gunther, John. “Stassen: Young Man Going Somewhere.” In Inside U.S.A., 293–308. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1947.

Hinderaker, Ivan. “Harold Stassen and Developments in the Republican Party in Minnesota, 1937–1943.” PhD diss., University of Minnesota, 1949.

Kirby, Alec. “Harold Stassen: A Biographical Memoir.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 147, no. 3 (September 2003): 319.

——— , David G. Dalin, and John F. Rothmann. Harold E. Stassen - The Life and Perennial Candidacy of the Progressive Republican. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2013.

Stassen, Harold E. Where I Stand! New York: Doubleday, 1947.

——— , and Marshall Houts. Eisenhower: Turning the World Toward Peace. St. Paul: Merrill/Magnus, 1990.

Stuhler, Barbara. “Harold E. Stassen’s Search for Peace—and the Presidency.” In Ten Men of Minnesota and American Foreign Policy, 145–168. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1973.

Werle, Steve. Stassen Again. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2015.

Related Images

Black and white photograph of Harold Stassen signing a bill into law, 1941.
Black and white photograph of Harold Stassen signing a bill into law, 1941.
Black and white photograph of Harold Stassen and his wife, Esther Glewwe Stassen, c. 1939.
Black and white photograph of Harold Stassen and his wife, Esther Glewwe Stassen, c. 1939.
Black and white photograph of Harold and Esther Stassen casting their ballots during an election, c.1940.
Black and white photograph of Harold and Esther Stassen casting their ballots during an election, c.1940.
Black and white photograph of Governor Harold Stassen delivering an address to the Minnesota Legislature,1941.
Black and white photograph of Governor Harold Stassen delivering an address to the Minnesota Legislature,1941.
Color image of oil-on-canvas portrait of Harold Stassen. Painted by Carl A. Bohnen in 1943.
Color image of oil-on-canvas portrait of Harold Stassen. Painted by Carl A. Bohnen in 1943.
Color image of Harold Stassen in his U.S. Naval Reserve uniform, c. 1945.
Color image of Harold Stassen in his U.S. Naval Reserve uniform, c. 1945.
Black and white photograph of William Frederick Hasley with Harold E. Stassen and Edward J. Thye, 1945.
Black and white photograph of William Frederick Hasley with Harold E. Stassen and Edward J. Thye, 1945.
Black and white photograph of Harold E. Stassen, John Foster Dulles, and Dwight D. Eisenhower, c.1953.
Black and white photograph of Harold E. Stassen, John Foster Dulles, and Dwight D. Eisenhower, c.1953.

Turning Point

On May 17, 1948, Stassen takes on New York Governor Thomas Dewey in a nationally broadcast radio debate. In response to the question of the evening (“Should the Communist Party in the United States be outlawed?”), Stassen argues yes. Dewey’s counterargument leads to his victory over Stassen in the Oregon presidential primary and the eventual demise of Stassen’s quest for the Republican nomination that year.

Chronology

1907

Harold Edward Stassen is born on April 13 to William and Elsbeth Stassen on the family’s farm in West St. Paul. His father, William, is active in the Republican Party and is elected to several local offices.

1922

Stassen graduates from St. Paul’s Humboldt Senior High School at the age of fifteen. He ranks second in his class.

1929

He graduates from the University of Minnesota with a law degree and opens a small law office in South St. Paul with fellow attorney Elmer Ryan. In November, he marries Esther Glewwe, whom he had first met at a Sunday school picnic many years earlier.

1930

Stassen is elected Dakota County attorney.

1936

Stassen is elected the first chairman of Minnesota’s Young Republican League.

1938

He is elected governor of Minnesota with nearly 60 percent of the vote. At thirty-one years of age, Stassen is the youngest governor in the state’s history.

1940

He delivers the keynote address at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia and helps secure the presidential nomination for Wendell Willkie. Willkie loses to Roosevelt in November, but Stassen is reelected governor.

1942

Stassen announces that if reelected he will resign his governorship to join the U.S. Naval Reserves the following spring. He wins his third gubernatorial election.

1943

After resigning as governor, he moves to the Great Lakes Naval Training Station in Chicago. Lieutenant Commander Stassen is assigned to the South Pacific to serve as flag secretary for Admiral William “Bull” Halsey.

1945

He is appointed by President Roosevelt to represent the United States at the founding of the United Nations. Returning to active duty, Stassen helps plan and lead an operation to liberate nearly twenty thousand Allied servicemen from Japanese POW camps.

1948

Stassen campaigns actively for the Republican nomination for president but comes in a distant third at the Republican National Convention. He begins his tenure as president of the University of Pennsylvania.

1953

Stassen joins the Eisenhower Administration as director of mutual security. He later serves as special assistant to the president for disarmament.

1958

Stassen resigns his post in the Eisenhower administration and returns to Philadelphia. He runs unsuccessfully for governor of Pennsylvania.

1978

After returning to Minnesota to resume his law practice, Stassen enters the U.S. Senate race but fails to secure the Republican Party’s nomination.

2001

Stassen dies in Bloomington on March 4, at the age of ninety-three.