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Van Lear, Thomas (1869–1931)

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Thomas Van Lear, 1917

Thomas Van Lear during his term as mayor of Minneapolis, 1917. Public domain.

The only Socialist mayor of Minneapolis (1917–1919), Thomas Van Lear was a machinist and influential union leader. Socialist opposition to World War I proved a major factor in his failure to win reelection in 1918, after which he retired from politics. A talented writer and orator, he later helped found and lead the short-lived Minneapolis Daily Star.

Van Lear was born in Maryland in 1869 to a working-class family. His career officially began at the age of eleven in an Appalachian coal mine. From a young age, Van Lear showed an interest in workplace organizing, joining the Knights of Labor in 1887 on his eighteenth birthday. In the early 1900s he took his activism a step further by joining the newly-established Socialist Party.

After leaving Maryland and serving in the Army during the Spanish–American War, Van Lear relocated to Minneapolis to pursue work as a machinist. After being elected to lead the local chapter of the International Association of Machinists, he organized strikes and unionizing efforts at shops around the Twin Cities and served as the chapter’s “business liaison” in negotiations with owners.

A powerful orator, Van Lear pulled no punches. He won the support of many Minneapolis workers through his withering criticism of business owners, managers, and strike-breakers.
While he preferred to seek reformist measures in pursuit of socialist ends, he also had a unique ability to make socialist theory relevant to the lives of average workers. The board of the Minneapolis Labor Review, of which Van Lear was also a member, frequently lauded his contributions to the labor movement, opining in January 1908 that workers “may commend Mr. Van Lear’s methods as a good example to follow.”

Van Lear ran for office several times unsuccessfully―for mayor in 1910 and 1912 and for Congress in 1914―before finally prevailing in the 1916 mayoral contest against Republican County Sheriff Otto S. Langum. During the 1916 campaign, Van Lear successfully used controversies surrounding Twin Cities Rapid Transit streetcar fares and corporate control of the city’s utilities to his advantage. Advocating for municipal control of utilities and increased funding for schools, he also benefitted from the support of progressive Democrats wary of the city’s dominant Republican business class. In fact, it was not uncommon to see banners supporting Van Lear alongside those for Democratic President Woodrow Wilson.

As mayor, Van Lear undertook an ambitious reform effort across the city. Though a reluctant City Council blocked several of his main proposals—including a municipal food market and renegotiation of the streetcar franchise—his few successes left a mark on the city. One prominent accomplishment was his appointment of Lewis Harthill, a fellow Socialist and close ally, as police chief. Shortly after his term began, Harthill began a determined but humane effort to rid the city of “vice.” Illegal gambling, prostitution, and liquor ventures were shut down, with even the conservative Minneapolis Journal applauding the moves. But if the political climate had favored Van Lear in 1916, it did not take long for the winds to turn against him. The primary cause of this shift was American entry into World War I, which not only turned Democrats away from the Socialist Party but also prompted a schism within the socialist movement itself.

In April 1917, the Socialist Party held a national convention in St. Louis and adopted a firmly anti-war platform. Though Van Lear did not attend the convention and made statements supportive of the war effort, if not its rationale, his opponents succeeded in using the controversy surrounding the St. Louis Platform against him. Refusing to explicitly denounce the platform, Van Lear was targeted by business interests for an alleged lack of patriotism. In 1918, he was defeated by “Loyalist” candidate J. E. Meyers in a race dominated by war politics.

In 1919, Van Lear shifted away from politics to become vice president of Northwest Publishing, a labor-friendly media company which printed the short-lived Minneapolis Daily Star before it sold in 1924. In 1921, Van Lear made one last run for the office of mayor, falling short to Republican Col. George E. Leach. He died on March 4, 1931, from surgical complications surrounding an inflamed appendix, and is interred in Minneapolis.

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Henry G. Teigan papers, undated and 1916–1941
Manuscript Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Correspondence, pamphlets, platforms and other documents collected by Teigan, secretary of the Nonpartisan League and a leader in the Farmer-Labor movement. Includes campaign material related to Van Lear’s runs for office and the Working People’s Nonpartisan Political League of Minneapolis.

Correspondence Relating to the War with Spain. Washington, DC: United States Army Center of Military History, 1993.

“Dean Shops Squared.” Minneapolis Labor Review, April 2, 1908.

Everts, William P. “A Minnesota Pacifist during World War I.” Hennepin History Magazine 55, no. 4 (Fall 1996): 4–21.

“Gompers Endorses Van Lear.” Minneapolis Labor Review, October 30, 1914.

Hennepin County Central Committee for the Candidates of the Socialist Party. The Workers’ Herald Campaign Leaflet. Minneapolis: A. A. Maley, 1918.

Holbrook, Franklin F. Minnesota in the Spanish-American War and the Philippine Insurrection. St. Paul: Minnesota War Records Commission, 1923.

“Labor Review Managers Chosen.” Minneapolis Labor Review, April 11, 1907.

Nathanson, Iric. “Thomas Van Lear: City Hall’s Working-Class Champion.” Minnesota History 64, no. 6 (Summer 2015): 224–233.

——— . “Hodges Isn’t the First Minneapolis Mayor to Get Pushback Over Working-class Issues.” MinnPost, October 30, 2015.

——— . “‘Newspaper with a Soul’: The Short-lived Minneapolis Daily Star launched in 1920.” MinnPost, March 23, 2015.

——— . “Remembering Nov. 11, 1918: ‘A big siren tore the midnight silence.” MinnPost, November 11, 2018.

Nord, David Paul. “Minneapolis and the Pragmatic Socialism of Thomas Van Lear.” Minnesota History 45, no. 1 (Spring 1976): 2–10.

———. Socialism in One City: A Political Study of Minneapolis in the Progressive Era. Master’s thesis, University of Minnesota, 1972.

“Socialism Is Defined By Thomas Van Lear.” Minneapolis Morning Tribune, April 1, 1912.

Steffens, Lincoln. “The Shame of Minneapolis.” In The Shame of the Cities. New York: McClure, Phillips & Co., 1904; reprint, New York: Hill and Wang, 1957.

Sturdevant, Andy. “‘Not From Here’: Turns out a Lot of Minneapolis Mayors Fit Jacob Frey’s Path to Office.” MinnPost, November 14, 2017.

Van Lear, Thomas. “Corriston and His Strike Breaking Pets.” Minneapolis Labor Review, October 24, 1907.

“Van Lear’s Contributions.” Minneapolis Labor Review, January 2, 1908.

Working People’s Nonpartisan Political League of Minneapolis. City Platform and Program of the Working People’s Nonpartisan Political League of Minneapolis. Minneapolis: City Central Committee of the Working People’s Nonpartisan Political League of Minneapolis, 1921.

Related Images

Thomas Van Lear, 1917
Thomas Van Lear, 1917
Minneapolis Morning Tribune front page featuring Thomas Van Lear
Minneapolis Morning Tribune front page featuring Thomas Van Lear
American Socialist front page featuring Thomas Van Lear and Meyer London
American Socialist front page featuring Thomas Van Lear and Meyer London

Turning Point

In November 1916, Thomas Van Lear is elected the twenty-sixth mayor of Minneapolis.



Van Lear is born in Maryland on April 26.


Van Lear joins the Knights of Labor on his eighteenth birthday.


After serving four years in the Army, including a stint in Cuba during the Spanish American War, Van Lear relocates to Minneapolis to find work as a machinist.


After gaining a reputation as a leading local labor organizer, writer, and orator, Van Lear is appointed to the Minneapolis Labor Review’s Board of Control.


Van Lear makes his first run for mayor, surprising the city’s political establishment by coming close to defeating incumbent Democratic mayor James C. Haynes.


Nominated again for mayor, this time by petition, Van Lear’s campaign for the city’s top position prompts Democratic candidate Charles Gould to drop out in favor of business-backed Republican Wallace G. Nye. Van Lear is again narrowly defeated.


On his third attempt for the office, Van Lear is elected mayor on November 7.


Embroiled in the controversy surrounding the Socialist Party’s position on World War I, Van Lear loses reelection to “Loyalist” candidate J. E. Meyers.


Continuing his lifelong commitment to labor activism, Van Lear takes a position as vice president of Northwest Publishing, a left-wing media company.


In his last run for public office, Van Lear falls short of regaining his old position in City Hall.


Van Lear passes away on March 4.