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Elmer Austin Benson
24th Governor of Minnesota

In office
January 4, 1937 – January 2, 1939
Lieutenant Gottfrid Lindsten
Preceded by Hjalmar Petersen
Succeeded by Harold Stassen
United States Senator
from Minnesota

In office
December 27, 1935 – November 3, 1936
Preceded by Thomas D. Schall
Succeeded by Guy V. Howard
Personal details
Born (1895-09-22)September 22, 1895
Appleton, Minnesota, United States
Died March 13, 1985(1985-03-13) (aged 89)
Appleton, Minnesota, United States
Political party Farmer-Labor (until April 15, 1944)

Democratic-Farmer-Labor (after April 15, 1944)

Spouse(s) Francis Lillian Miller
Alma mater William Mitchell College of Law
Profession politician
Religion Lutheranism
Military service
Service/branch United States Army
Years of service 1918–1919
Rank Private
Battles/wars World War I

Elmer Austin Benson (September 22, 1895 – March 13, 1985) was an American lawyer and politician from Minnesota. In 1935, Elmer Benson was appointed to the U.S. Senate following the death of Thomas Schall.[1] He served as the 24th Governor of Minnesota, defeating Republican Martin Nelson in a landslide victory in Minnesota's 1936 gubernatorial election. He lost the governorship two years later following his defeat to Republican Harold Stassen in the 1938 gubernatorial election.


Born in 1895 in Appleton, Minnesota, he studied law at William Mitchell College of Law (then the St. Paul College of Law) and served for a year in the U.S. Army during World War I. Benson never practiced law after returning from active duty, choosing instead to pursue a banking and business career.

He was a close ally of Governor Floyd B. Olson, another member of the Farmer-Labor Party, who helped orchestrate Benson's political rise. Olson appointed Benson state Commissioner of Securities before choosing him to replace Thomas D. Schall in the United States Senate after Schall's death in December 1935. Benson served in the 74th congress, until November 3, 1936.

After Olson's premature death from cancer in 1936 and the interregnum of Lieutenant Governor Hjalmar Petersen, Benson stepped into the breach and was elected the 24th Governor of Minnesota by the largest margin in state history. He served as the 24th Governor of Minnesota from January 4, 1937, to January 2, 1939. He lost his bid for reelection in 1938. His defeat by a record margin in 1938 is seen as the end of the Farmer-Labor Party as an independent political force, and a setback for progressive politics in Minnesota. In 1940, he ran for the United States Senate against Henrik Shipstead, an incumbent senator who defected from the Farmer Labor Party to join the Republicans. Benson took second place, receiving 25% of the vote, in a race that also involved a Democrat, while Shipstead was reelected. He ran for the Senate for the last time in 1942, and was defeated by Republican Joseph H. Ball in a four-way race.

Benson was also the chief figure behind a schism within the DFL Party in Minnesota between 1946 and 1948. The DFL (or Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party) had been created in 1944 with the merging of the Minnesota Democratic Party and the Farmer-Labor Party. Benson and his supporters actively took control of the party's main committee in 1946, but were displaced by the supporters of Hubert H. Humphrey (then the Mayor of Minneapolis) two years later in 1948. The influence of Humphrey and his supporters had grown significantly within the party between 1946 and 1948 due to Humphrey's popularity and his work through the ADA, the state farm co-ops, and support from the national arm of the CIO. Humphrey's group of supporters – which included such future DFL political stars as Arthur Naftalin, Orville Freeman, and Walter Mondale – wrested control of the DFL Party from Benson's supporters in a party convention held in February 1948. Humphrey's later successful Senate campaign signaled a significant victory for his faction within the fledgling DFL Party and the defeat of Benson's candidates in the DFL primaries. This schism in 1948 eventually led to the defeated Benson and his supporters permanently exiting the DFL Party.

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 its candidate, Henry Wallace. This was the last hurrah of an outspoken statesman who lived to see many of his once-radical ideas enacted into law. He died in 1985 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and is buried at the Appleton Cemetery in the town of his birth, Appleton, Minnesota.

Further reading[]

  • Benson, Elmer A. "Politics in My Lifetime." Minnesota History 47 (1980): 154-60. online
  • Haynes, John Earl. Dubious alliance: the making of Minnesota's DFL Party (U of Minnesota Press, 1984)
  • Lovin, Hugh T. "The Fall of Farmer-Labor Parties, 1936-1938." Pacific Northwest Quarterly (1971): 16-26. in JSTOR
  • Sofchalk, Donald G. "Union and Ethnic Group Influence in the 1938 Election on the Minnesota Iron Ranges." Journal of the West (2003) 42#3 pp: 66-74.
  • Elmer Austin Benson at the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress Retrieved on 2009-5-18
United States Senate
Preceded by
Thomas D. Schall
U.S. Senator (Class 2) from Minnesota
Served alongside: Henrik Shipstead
Succeeded by
Guy V. Howard
Political offices
Preceded by
Hjalmar Petersen
Governor of Minnesota
Succeeded by
Harold Stassen
Honorary titles
Preceded by
F. Ryan Duffy
Most Senior Living U.S. Senator
(Sitting or Former)

August 16, 1979 – March 13, 1985
Succeeded by
Claude Pepper


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