Scandinavian power in Minnesota politics

Floyd B. Olson, the son of a Norwegian father and Swedish mother, enjoyed a meteoric rise in Minnesota politics. After achieving success and tremendous popularity as governor he ran for U.S. Senate, only to die of stomach cancer before the election at just 44. (Digital image of original artifact)

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

The Fourth of July is a big deal in Minnesota’s Iron Range region. Really big. Even the smallest towns here throw a parade or fireworks celebration.

See, Northern Minnesota exemplified the quintessential “melting pot” of American industrialization and immigrants. July 4 became not just something to celebrate, but a shared cultural experience that brought together different and sometimes disagreeable people. In this manner, a foreign born population became American, though not entirely like the rest of the country.

One group of immigrants had an outsized impact in making Minnesota what it is today. Swedish-American author Klas Bergman details the story in his new book “Scandinavians in the State House: How Nordic Immigrants Shaped Minnesota Politics,” published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press.

Political and economic turmoil in Norway, Sweden and Finland during the 19th and early 20th Centuries sent thousands of immigrants to Minnesota. This place somewhat resembled their homelands, but more importantly boasted free or cheap land recently wrested from the Ojibwa and Dakota peoples. The ability to own land and work provided the central motivation for Nordic immigrants.

Republican Knute Nelson, a Norwegian, was the first Scandinavian elected governor of Minnesota. He also served a long career in the U.S. Senate.

Far more German-Americans lived in Minnesota then. Still do. But Bergman explains that the Germans, along with the Irish, were internally divided between Protestant and Catholic factions. In addition, they generally remained loyal to the pro-alcohol policies of the Democratic Party. The Democrats weren’t a major factor in Minnesota at the dawn of statehood. The Scandinavians, however, arrived as strong anti-slavery temperance voters who quickly assimilated into the Republican majority.

Scandinavians also arrived more literate and better educated than most immigrant groups. Many of them began forming strong political beliefs before they even left Norway or Sweden.

“They learned English and attended public schools, and they became civically involved soon after their arrival in Minnesota,” writes Bergman. “After their political breakthrough at the end of the nineteenth century, Scandinavian immigrants and their descendants were an integral part of every phase of Minnesota’s political history, among both the rural conservatives and urban progressives. In many ways, they came to form a new political class in Minnesota, following years of Yankee domination, and their brand of politics set a political legacy that helped build the modern state of Minnesota.”

Within just a couple decades Scandinavian Republicans, and a few Democrats, seized hold of the governorship and state house. For nearly a century, Scandinavian surnames were the key to victory in most Minnesota political races, and they still help plenty even today.

But it was the constant development of the Scandinavian political ethos that most changed Minnesota. What began as opposition to slavery and alcohol developed into a wide swath of pro-worker progressive beliefs. As a result, most Scandinavians gradually moved away from the Republicans.

Scandinavians fueled the rise of the Nonpartisan League here in Minnesota. This was a progressive caucus that ran candidates in both parties. Its first gubernatorial candidate was Charles A. Lindbergh Sr., father of the famed aviator. Eventually the Nonpartisan League became the Farmer-Labor Party, still the most successful third party in American history. Through the 1920s and ‘30s the Farmer-Labor Party set into motion progressive policies that gave Minnesota its reputation for good schools and high quality of life for working people.

An entire chapter is dedicated to the Finnish story on the Iron Range, articulating that Finnish labor organizers helped spur the labor movement throughout the United States, arguably around the world.

Bergman’s “Scandinavians in the State House” is an excellent read for anyone interested in Minnesota history or the immigrant story in Minnesota. Bergman points out this history repeats itself in new ways today. One of the most impressive aspects of this book is the way Bergman explores research from both here in America and from back in Norway, Sweden and other Nordic countries. This paints a full and fascinating picture of the past and its impact on us today.

One quickly realizes that Scandinavian story intertwines with Minnesota history in ways even this great-great grandson of Finland, Sweden and Norway didn’t know. Many families know when their immigrant ancestors arrived in America. But “Scandinavians in the State House” tells something even more important: why they came in the first place and what they did when they got here.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, July 2, 2017 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

Comments

  1. I’m a third generation 100% Finnish-American born on the Iron Range and proud if it!

  2. Mike Worcester says:

    I’ll quibble a little bit here Aaron — are we really including Finland in Scandinavia? Something I got drilled into me in college studying history and geography was that while Finland was adjacent to Sweden and Norway we could not include them as Scandinavian. Their language was to European/Germanic and their culture was more Asian/Russian than Northern/Western European.

    Mind you this is a distinction that most folks, understandably, don’t make.

    Thoughts from you and/or your readers? 🙂

    • Mike Worcester says:

      *was not European/Germanic

    • You’re right that Finland is not a Scandinavian country. It is, however, considered “Nordic.” Bergman includes Finnish immigrants in his book, which is why I talk about it. I’d say that while Finnish ethnic history is different, it’s economic history at the time of peak immigration is similar, as is the literacy and political inclinations of most of the people. So it’s fair game to include them here. But yes, “Finland is not Scandinavia” remains law. 🙂

      • Mike Worcester says:

        Fair enough. 🙂 The mix of Finnish immigrants into the stew of early 20th century populism in Minnesota is there for all to see. I’d be curious to see a study on why Finns were not elected in such numbers as other ethnic groups in the state.

Speak Your Mind

*