Harold Knutson of Minnesota
By Ray Hill
By 1948, Harold Knutson had been in Congress for thirty-two years. Knutson, a Republican, had risen to perhaps the highest position a congressman could aspire to outside of the speakership; Knutson chaired the immensely powerful Ways & Means Committee in the House of Representatives. When the Republicans had won on the slogan “Had Enough?” following the deprivations and sacrifices made by Americans during the Second World War, Harold Knutson had been elevated to the chairmanship of the committee from which tax laws emanated. As specified in the Constitution, all tax legislation was supposed to originate in the House of Representatives and the Ways & Means Committee was where tax laws were born or died. Usually, holding the chairmanship of such a powerful committee helped a congressman with his constituents. That proved not to be the case for Harold Knutson.
Knutson had been born in Norway and was six years old when his family moved to the United States. The Knutson family settled in Chicago first before moving to a farm near Clear Lake, Minnesota. Young Harold Knutson found work as a printer’s devil with the Clear Lake Times and the Foley Independent. Eventually, Knutson became the editor of the Royalton Banner and bought the Foley newspaper. The congressman from the district, Charles A. Lindberg, father of the famous aviator, left his seat to run for the United States Senate in 1916 and Harold Knutson became a candidate for Congress. Knutson won the general election handily.
Almost immediately, the new congressman was faced with voting for a declaration of war against the German Empire. Knutson was one of the fifty congressmen who voted against going to war. Knutson wasn’t the only congressman from Minnesota who voted against going to war. Ernest Lundeen, then a Republican, also voted against the declaration of war. Lundeen did not survive the next election while Harold Knutson was reelected. The noninterventionist sentiment in Minnesota remained quite strong all the way through December 7, 1941. Isolationist feelings pretty much ceased everywhere in the United States when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Knutson was certainly reflecting the views of the people who had elected him.
Knutson survived an electoral free-for-all in 1932 when Minnesota’s congressional delegation was forced to run statewide due to the legislature’s failure to redistrict. Knutson’s most difficult election prior to 1948 came in 1934 when he faced another incumbent congressman and former United States senator in the general election. Magnus Johnson had been born in Sweden and was a farmer and excellent rabble-rouser who ran on the Farmer–Labor party ticket. With redistricting complete, Harold Knutson and the fiery Swede found themselves competing against one another in Minnesota’s Sixth Congressional District. Knutson won the hard-fought contest, a three-way race, with 46%. Johnson got almost 38% of the vote while Democrat Frank Weber won just under 16% of the ballots cast.
Bald and somewhat portly, Harold Knutson made his reputation through his assiduous attention to the people of Minnesota’s Sixth Congressional District. That same attention kept Knutson in Congress for thirty-two years.
It had been Congressman Harold Knutson who had made public the rumor going through Washington that President Roosevelt had mistakenly left his beloved Scottish terrier, Fala, behind on one of the Aleutian Islands, and had sent a destroyer to fetch his dog at great expense to the taxpayers. That led to one of FDR’s most famous speeches and helped to get his 1944 reelection campaign back on track.
TIME magazine had described Congressman Knutson as “kewpie-shaped” and “one of the most incorrigible rumormongers in Congress.” The weekly news magazine was published by publishing magnate Henry Luce, who was a fervent internationalist and his publications tended not to show isolationist members of the Congress in a positive light.
When President Harry Truman had announced he was calling Congress back into session to provide financial aid to France and Italy in a program that would cost billions, Knutson was the chair of the House Ways & Means Committee. The Minnesotan had said the aid would only be $1 billion while Truman was envisioning much, much more. Knutson had originally said, “Get them a paddle and then tell ‘em – – – ‘Go paddle your own canoe.’”
Twice before Congressman Knutson had passed his tax reduction bill through the House and watched helplessly as President Harry Truman vetoed it. Finally, with the Republicans having a majority in Congress, Knutson as chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee passed his bill for the third time and watched gleefully as Congress overrode Truman’s veto to become law. When Truman wanted to merely cut income taxes by $40 across the board for Americans and reinstate the excess profits tax, Knutson’s counterpart on the Ways & Means Committee, North Carolina’s Robert “Muley” Doughton would have nothing to do with Truman’s proposal and flatly refused to sponsor it.
Harold Knutson had some idea he might face some backlash from voters and announced the 1948 campaign would be his last. Knutson promised if reelected, he would serve out his term and leave office in 1951.
Democrats had not been much of a political threat in Minnesota prior to 1948. The usual general election fight had been between Republicans and the Farmer–Labor Party. Henrik Shipstead, a fiery progressive born in Norway, had been elected on the Farm–Labor ticket to the United States Senate and stayed there until his defeat in the 1946 Republican primary. One of the political heroes of those who supposedly admired political statesmen was Minnesota’s senior United States senator, Joseph Ball. Joe Ball had first been appointed to the U.S. Senate by Governor Harold Stassen following the death of profoundly isolationist Senator Ernest Lundeen, who had been killed in a plane crash in 1940. Ball had mortified isolationists when he made a speech outright urging the United States to help Great Britain against the Nazi assault waged by Adolf Hitler. Thirty-five years old when he was first appointed to the Senate, Joe Ball had been a journeyman reporter before Governor Stassen tapped him to sit in the United States Senate.
Ball undermined his own standing with fellow Republicans when he endorsed a war-weary and ailing Franklin Roosevelt for a fourth term instead of GOP presidential nominee Thomas E. Dewey. Ball also earned the undying enmity of organized labor for having strongly supported the Taft – Hartley Right-to-Work Bill. Ball faced the young mayor of Minneapolis in the general election, a Democrat named Hubert Humphrey. The Democrats and the remnants of the once “radical” Farmer–Labor Party merged to form the DFL – – – the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party of Minnesota. The DFL was organized and energized in 1948 and the Republicans were hard-pressed in the general election.
Harold Knutson was catching hell from some of his constituency about the tax legislation approved by the Republican-dominated Congress and despite his enduring popularity over the years, some of the younger, more “modern” Republicans like former governor Harold Stassen snubbed the congressman while trying to save Joe Ball’s seat in the United States Senate. That brought a protesting editorial from the St. Cloud Times, which pointed out Congressman Knutson had been a faithful Republican who had “done more yeoman service for the Republican party than anybody else in the history of the Republican party in Minnesota, including Stassen himself.” Stassen had urged support for Tom Dewey and Joe Ball, and asked voters to reelect GOP congressional incumbents but made no mention of Harold Knutson. The Times pointed out “Stassen did his best to prevent the nomination of Knutson” in two previous primary contests. Then, as now, the reduction of taxes was portrayed by the opposition as benefitting the rich at the expense of the poor.
Knutson celebrated his sixty-eighth birthday during the 1948 general election campaign. The congressman announced a tour of central Minnesota for the month of October, stopping to visit 33 towns. Knutson still found himself on the defensive, saying his vote against the Marshall Plan had been a mistake.
Some believed Knutson would win the election easily as his opponent, a farmer by the name of Fred Marshall, was completely politically inexperienced. Yet as the returns began to trickle in after the polls had closed, much to the surprise of just about everybody, Harold Knutson was trailing his challenger. The congressman never caught up. The final tally showed Knutson losing to Fred Marshall by 4,407 votes. Marshall’s election was considered an upset and the fact Hubert Humphrey had beaten the hell out of Senator Joe Ball certainly didn’t help the other candidates running on the GOP ticket. Without formally conceding, Congressman Knutson said on the night of the election “on the face of the returns I have been defeated.” One veteran reporter thought Harold Knutson’s loss was the major surprise in an election full of surprises, but also believed the congressman’s defeat was largely due to the voters’ dissatisfaction with the recent Republican program. Certainly, the farmers were unhappy and Republicans suffered heavy congressional losses in the Mid-Western states. Most political observers were shocked by Knutson’s defeat.
The St. Cloud Times editorialized loftily, “The Times does not think that Harold Knutson regrets his defeat a great deal.” The newspaper thought the congressman had been sincere when he had said he would retire should he be reelected to one final term. The Times noted Knutson’s thirty-two years in Congress had been due to his diligence in serving the people he represented. “No Congressman was ever in Washington who proved to be such a faithful and on-the-spot chore-boy for the folks back home,” the Times editorial intoned. “His personal service was unbeatable.”
The St. Cloud Times readily admitted, “Because of his personal following, he was unbeatable and nobody expected him to be defeated even at this election.” Yet the editorial acknowledged that over the years Congressman Knutson “became one of the most solid reactionaries, isolationists and high tariff advocates there was in Congress.” The editorial ticked off those things the congressman had opposed over the years: America’s entry into the First World War; “everything that savored of the New Deal,” the European Recovery Plan (the Marshall Plan). Yet due to his personal service to his people, Harold Knutson, “in spite of all his reactionary faults” had been unbeatable at the polls. The editorial concluded, “But no anti-liberal could have outlived the smashing Democratic trend that swept the Democratic party back in power in this election.”
As for Congressman Knutson, he attributed his loss to organized labor and the “whispering” campaign waged against him. “This undercover whispering campaign was carried on by labor leaders and employees of various federal agricultural organizations.”
Harold Knutson’s defeat illustrated perfectly the notion that any officeholder can be beaten. It takes the right candidate, the right set of circumstances and the right issues to all come together in many instances, but it can happen.
Former congressman Harold Knutson retired to his home in Wadena, Minnesota, and resumed his newspaper interests. In 1953, he suffered a series of heart attacks, which sent him to the hospital. Knutson had divided his time between his winter home in Venice, Florida, and had been keeping regular office hours at the Wadena Pioneer Journal.
Knutson rallied slightly only to grow weaker as his sister-in-law and two nephews sat at his bedside to offer comfort and solace. The former congressman rested beneath an oxygen tent. The seventy-two-year-old Knutson just slipped away quietly.
Knutson left behind not only a legacy from his long congressional service but a more tangible gift for several generations of youngsters. The former congressman owned a vacation property in Crosslake, Minnesota, located between the waters of the Big Trout and Lower Whitefish Lakes on thirty acres. Knutson’s bequest was specifically designated to serve children and young adults afflicted with “autism, heart disease, skin conditions, Down syndrome, burn survivors, HIV/AIDS, and experiencing homelessness.”
Camp Knutson still thrives to this day and if the fresh happy faces of children are any indication, Harold Knutson’s gift has made a very real difference.