Elmer Benson Biography

Elmer Benson was Minnesota’s second—and last—elected Farmer-Labor Party governor. His forthright assertion of a then-radical philosophy provoked strong reaction: While detractors accused him of being sympathetic to communism, ardent supporters admired his attacks on the excesses of capitalism and his support for the rights of farmers.

Benson was born in 1895 on a farm in Appleton, Minnesota. He studied at St. Paul College of Law, served in World War I, and returned to Appleton, where he worked as a banker and practiced progressive politics. Governor Floyd B. Olson engineered the political ascent of Benson, who represented farmers in the Farmer-Labor coalition. Olson appointed Benson commissioner of securities, then of banking, and finally to the vacated seat of U.S. senator. His election as governor in 1936 was a triumph for his party, which won control of nearly all state offices.

Benson’s platform combined support for the unemployed with New Deal-style social programs financed by increased taxes of big business and the wealthy. While most of his proposals passed the Farmer-Labor controlled House, only a few survived the Republican-controlled Senate.

To an unprecedented degree, Benson used the power of his office to support labor. In January 1937 he ordered state officials to provide food and shelter to striking timber workers in northern Minnesota. That same year, he deployed the National Guard to protect the Newspaper Guild’s right to strike. He also refused to renew the anti-labor Pinkerton Company’s license in Minnesota. In perhaps the most dramatic intervention, Benson ordered Albert Lea’s anti-union sheriff to release striking workers from jail. He then personally took charge of talks between workers and a reluctant management.

Defeated for re-election, Benson returned to farming near Appleton. He remained active in politics and played a role in the Farmer-Labor merger with the Democrats in 1944.

Before ill health drove him from the public arena, Benson became a force within the short-lived Progressive Party, managing the 1948 presidential campaign of Henry Wallace. This was the last hurrah of an outspoken statesman who lived to see many of his once-radical ideas enacted into law. Benson died in Appleton in 1985.