The Progressive Era and Presidential Prospects

“The best brain and the surest brawn of the nation is found here (in the Midwest) and it should be organized into one mighty moral, material and patriotic force to overthrow paternalism and plunder, and regenerate politics and the Republic.”

John A. Johnson
Governor of Minnesota, 1905-1909*

In presidential politics Minnesota’s first favorite son who almost became president is little known today. John A. Johnson was the 16th governor of Minnesota and the first native-born Minnesotan to serve in that post. He was born in St. Peter to very humble circumstances. His mother struggled to hold the family together after being abandoned by his alcoholic father. Johnson learned hard work early, dropping out of school to help his mother as she washed clothes to pay the bills. He took one humble job after another just to keep food on the family table.

His later skills as a newspaper editor and orator soon launched his political career, winning a seat in the Minnesota State Senate as a Democrat in a prominently Republican district. He followed that up with a surprising 1904 gubernatorial victory as a progressive from the Democratic Party in a state that had been dominated by Republican politics since the Civil War.

At the time Minnesota was in the midst of what was known as the “progressive era”. Political leaders, farmers, laborers and small business leaders from rural Minnesota ushered in progressive policies that reshaped our transportation system, commodities markets, employment relations, and economic structure.  This era gave us innovative solutions like cooperative organizations, antitrust laws, direct election of U.S. Senators, labor rights, and workers compensation.  Things so commonplace to our social structure today that we would be stunned at the political struggle in the early 1900s that was necessary to put them in place.

One of the giants of this progressive movement both in Minnesota and nationally was the man that came from humble beginnings, Scandinavian Minnesota Governor John A. Johnson.  He was one of our most beloved governors.  His statue is one of two that guards the front entrance to our State Capitol building.  He was so nationally respected that in 1909 most Democrats viewed him as the presumptive Democratic nominee for president in the 1912 election. He had won three statewide races in a Midwest Republican state and had all the campaigning tools a party could wish.

The above quote was from a speech given to Chicago businessmen in Johnson’s first term.  It was his belief that Midwest idealism and its determined work ethic would reshape the nation.  Purposeful government policies would set the course of the future generation and leave the plundering paternal barons of the East Coast behind.  The battles that ensued in Midwest politics reshaped our state and national policies and the political structure forever.

Unfortunately a sad fate intervened for Johnson with his premature death in September of 1909 after a fourth surgery for intestinal problems at the Mayo Clinic. His casket was placed under the Rotunda of the State Capitol on September 22, where an estimated 50,000 mourners would pass. The Democrats’ second choice for the 1912 election was New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson who bore a striking physical resemblance to Johnson but most agreed lacked his great speaking ability. Wilson had a surprise victory when a divided Republican Party opened the door for him with incumbent Taft facing the challenge from former president Teddy Roosevelt and his fledgling Bull Moose Party.

Certainly Hubert Humphrey came very close to the presidency in 1968. Walter Mondale was also nominated for president in 1984 but took a beating as bad as the Minnesota Vikings in the Super Bowl. Michele Bachmann’s light burned bright in the Iowa presidential straw poll last year but quickly sputter out a few months later. Tim Pawlenty just sort of sputtered in Iowa last year with his bid for president. Before all of them there was Minnesota’s favorite son John A. Johnson who arguably had the best chance of any to have been Minnesota’s first president of the United States of America.

  • quote from The Progressive Era in Minnesota, Carl H. Chrislock, Minnesota Historic Society, 1971. p36

About John Tuma

John is a former state legislator and litigation attorney. He served in the Minnesota House of Representatives for eight years from the Northfield area, beginning in 1994. Elected as a Republican, John was known for his independent thinking and ability to work across party lines. He is well-known in Minnesota state government circles.
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