J.A.A. Burnquist Biography

Joseph Alfred Arner Burnquist was a formidable figure, physically and politically. His athletic prowess served him well on the Carleton College football team, and his patriotic zeal made him a forceful, if controversial, wartime governor. Conservative Republicans had such faith in Burnquist’s leadership that they urged him to run for governor a third time in 1956, nearly 40 years after he had left office. The 77-year-old retiree said no, preferring to reflect upon a long, often tumultuous public career.

Burnquist practiced law briefly in St. Paul before entering politics as a state legislator in 1908. In 1915, during his second term as lieutenant governor, he succeeded Governor Winfield Hammond, who died in office.

Turbulent times surrounded America’s entrance into World War I in 1917. Not all Americans supported U.S. involvement in a European war, and this feeling was heightened in Minnesota, where dissatisfied farmers and laborers were more concerned with domestic policy than with the conflict overseas. Supporters of the war, including Burnquist, were suspicious of radicals, pacifists, and the foreign born, and the governor acted quickly to stifle dissent. Through the Minnesota Commission of Public Safety—which Burnquist created in 1917 to monitor public sentiment toward the war—he quashed pacifist demonstrations and denounced in his final inaugural message those “few socialistically and anarchistically inclined” who questioned America’s involvement in “the world’s baptism of blood.” The commission, ostensibly nonpartisan, firmly opposed any action its conservative members considered suspect or un-American.

While primarily concerned with war issues, Burnquist also initiated legislation that improved the state highways, disaster assistance programs, and, especially the welfare of children. After leaving office he practiced law for seventeen years before beginning his lengthy tenure—eight terms—as state attorney general in 1936. Until his death at 81, Burnquist maintained the bearing and manner of a strong-willed senior statesman.