Culbert Olson

Culbert Olson

Culbert Olson was born in Filmore, Utah on 7th November, 1876. His mother was involved in the campaign for women's suffrage and eventually became the first female elected official in Utah. He was brought up in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon) but rejected religion at an early age.

At the age of fourteen Olson left school and found work as a telegraph operator. In 1890 Olson enrolled in the Brigham Young University at Provo, Utah. After graduating he found work as a journalist for the Daily Ogden Standard.

Olson took a keen interest in politics and in 1896 campaigned for William Jennings Bryan. He later moved to Washington as a newspaper correspondent.

Olson studied law at George Washington University and the University of Michigan and was admitted to the Utah Bar in 1901. Olson became a lawyer in Salt Lake City. A member of the Democratic Party, Olson was elected to the state legislature of Utah in 1916. Over the next four years he advocated an end to child labour, progressive taxation, old age pensions, government control of public utilities and legislation to protect the rights of trade unionists.

In 1920 Olson moved to Los Angeles. In his law practice he gained a reputation for investigating business fraud. In the 1924 presidential election he campaigned for Robert La Follette and the Progressive Party and later for the novelist, Upton Sinclair, when he tried to become Governor of California.

A strong supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, in 1934 Olson became state chairman of the Democratic Party. In November 1938 Olson was elected as Governor of California, the first Democrat to hold this office for forty-four years.

Culbert Olson (1938)
Culbert Olson (1938)

One of the first acts was to pardon Tom Mooney, a trade union leader who had been convicted of a bombing which occurred in San Francisco in 1916. Although strong evidence existed that the District Attorney of the time, Charles Fickert, had framed Mooney, the Republican governors during this period, William Stephens (1917-1923), Friend Richardson (1923-1927), Clement Young (1927-1931), James Rolph (1931-1934) and Frank Merriam (1934-39) refused to order his release. In October 1939, Olson pardoned Warren Billings, a friend of Mooney's who had also been imprisoned for the bombing.

As governor Olson tried to introduce an advanced New Deal in California. In Olson's words that would provide "economic security from the cradle to the grave, under a government that recognizes the right to an education, to employment on a basis of just reward, and to retirement at old age in comfort and decency, as inalienable as the right to life itself."

Olson was defeated in his campaign to be re-elected in 1942. Olson, an atheist, told a friend that he lost "because of the active hostility of a certain privately owned power corporation and the Roman Catholic Church in California."

In 1957 Culbert Olson became president of the United Secularists of America and held the post until his death in Los Angeles on 13th April, 1962.

Primary Sources

(1) Culbert L. Olson, interviewed by Paul Coats in 1961.

I was born in a small country town. The entire community belonged to one religion and church, which controlled the educational, cultural and civic affairs of the community. Any apostate was looked upon as having fallen by the wayside by the influence of the "Devil." It may be that I was naturally a skeptic, for, notwithstanding the religious influence of my early youth, I did not join in the emotion that other children seemed to enjoy in their emotional response to the passionate sermons of the church teachers who told of revelation from God and the appearance of an angel to the prophet, seer, revelator and founder of the church. Reason forced me to conclude that the founder was a bold, ambitious impostor whose revelations did not make sense. My conclusion was not reached easily because of my desire to conform with the religion of my Mother whom I dearly loved - the kindest, most humane and self-sacrificing person I have ever known.

(2) Tom Mooney, letter to Aline Barnsdall (13th June, 1938)

Olson visited me last week and told about the desperate plight in which he finds himself with regard to the necessary finances in order to conduct a vigorous campaign. It is not a pushover for him by any means. This is our one sure shot for freedom if he is elected and in the event that the United States Supreme Court fails to liberate me in the Fall.

(3) Culbert L. Olson, Inaugural Address (January 2, 1939)

I wish to assure every citizen that I enter the high office of Governor of our great State free of all prejudices, even against those who most bitterly, and sometimes unfairly, opposed my election. I respect honest differences of philosophy and viewpoint on public policies. Marked differences in partisan opinion, for the most part, arise out of differences in understanding our common problems and the methods necessary to meet them through government. These are but the natural and healthy attributes of a functioning democracy.

Every person in California, regardless of party, color, creed or station in life, must know that, not only am I without prejudice, but I regard it as my sacred duty, under the oath I have taken today, to protect every person's civil liberties, and equality before the law, with every power at my command. These are precious rights. The founders of our republic and the preservers of the Union made supreme sacrifices for these rights. They are the very cornerstone of our democracy.

As we witness destruction of democracy elsewhere in the world, accompanied by denial of civil liberties and inhuman persecutions, under the rule of despots and dictators, so extreme as to shock the moral sense of mankind, it seems appropriate that we Californians, on this occasion, should announce to the world that despotism shall not take root in our State; that the preservation of our American civil liberties and democratic institutions shall be the first duty and firm determination of our government.

America has built enormously productive facilities for manufacturing. Our scientists, engineers and technicians have literally recreated the world in which we live. It is now well known that we have both the capacity and the ability to produce abundantly for all. But these advances, wonderful as they are, have brought along their own new and extremely difficult problems. We are a long, long way from the goal of social justice. We have yet failed to solve the question of distribution that attends our newly developed productive skills and capacities. This failure has plunged us into hard times and depression - the longest and most persistent in modern times.

But with all of our seeming failure; with all our difficulties and economic mal-adjustments; despite the puzzling paradox of unemployment and poverty in the midst of potential plenty, every right-thinking citizen, native or foreign born, regards his American citizenship as his most precious possession. He knows that it is a part of the sovereign power of the people to guide their own destinies.

Confronted by economic and social crisis, are we going to move forward toward the destiny of true democracy, or slide backward toward the abyss of regimented dictatorship?

In the final analysis, this depends upon the intelligence with which the people exercise their franchise, upon the wisdom and integrity of their leadership; and upon the courage with which we face our problems.

Until all the electorate shall have the benefit of a free education to aid them in the expression of their citizenship, it may be expected that in the future, as in the past, a large proportion may be confused and guided away from their purpose to go forward for their collective welfare, by deliberately false or selfish propaganda, superficial considerations, or provincial circumstances. Such impediments may delay, but they must not be permitted to defeat the ultimate successful working of American democracy.

The people of California want employment, a decent standard of living, education, opportunities for youth, social security, old age retirement, protection against pauperism and starvation. Activities in private industry and individual enterprise must be guided by these social objectives, if our present economy is to survive.

Owners of capital and means of production and distribution must realize their responsibility to society - not to radically engage in human exploitation, but to conservatively engage in management for human advancement. They must be satisfied with stability and permanency of investments for strictly conservative and safe returns. Our policies in the field of industrial relations will be to aid in establishing this sound basis for industrial activity.

In the field of private industry, the right of organized labor to honest collective bargaining must be protected; minimum wages must be established and vigorously enforced to maintain a decent American standard of living; vocational training must be extended, and the doors of employment and of opportunity for advancement, through useful and meritorious service, must be opened to the eager, splendid youth of our State. Youth's social-minded ideals, developed while in training for lifetime service, must not be shattered upon their entrance to adult life by a selfish, cold unwelcome world.

California's elderly citizens have taken the lead in bringing the general public to the realization of the plight of those who, having served their best years in American industry, must be left to spend their declining days in poverty and misery, unless social security programs provide for their retirement in health and comfort.

Such programs have been started, with provisions for partial aid to the support of those in need who have reached the age of sixty-five years. California has more than matched the small amount ($15.00 per month) provided for such eligibles by the Federal Government to make a total of thirty-five dollars per month. This amount, however inadequate, is more liberal than that paid by any other State. A total of thirty-two and one-half million dollars per annum is now required of the State and the counties to meet this pension; yet the amount of the pension is too low and the age limit too high. For our State to meet the amount required to provide this inadequate pension for those of its citizens who find themselves in need of pensions at the age of sixty years would require approximately forty-eight and a quarter million dollars per annum.

Old age pensions must be furnished by those who are producing and by the machinery of production.

Public support of the old or the young can only be furnished by taxation in one form or another.

When other states fail to provide aid for their aged, equal to ours, it may naturally be expected that their citizens approaching the eligible age will seek residence here. This places a disproportionate share of the tax for this worthy social purpose upon our State. For the purpose of uniformity, it is necessary that old age pensions, in their entirety, be financed by the Federal Government. We shall continue to urge an adequate Federal old age security program.

Meantime we shall favor State aid for pensions to the aged to the limit that State finances will permit. That limit, however, because of the tax necessary for present unemployment relief, may for a time at least, be very nearly reached. But as our tax burden is linked with unemployment, so is it linked with the need for old age pensions. More liberal old-age pensions may be anticipated when the unemployed are placed at productive work for their own support and the heavy tax burden for unemployment relief is thus reduced.

(4) Culbert Olson, Convention of the United Secularists of America (August 1952)

Social problems are created by economic maladjustment, poverty in the midst of plenty, mass unemployment occurring when war or preparation for war is not providing full employment; continued concentration of the wealth and control of the national economy in the hands of a small percentage of the population opposing every effort of government to interpose controls for economic stabilization and for the general welfare.

To my way of thinking, it is the social responsibility of government in promoting the general welfare, to exercise controls of stabilization of the national economy; to plan and provide for full employment when private industry fails; to prevent business cycles which result in industrial depressions; to provide for ways and means of making available to all the people health protection, and the utmost in educational services; to protect the national resources against wasteful exploitation for private greed; to plan and carry forward huge projects in the great river valleys of the country for flood control, reclamation, and conservation of water resources, harnessing the water power and providing and making available to the people hydro-electric power at reasonable cost; to protect civil rights and enforce social justice in industrial relations regardless of race or creed and, I might add, to require the federal licenses of radio and television circuits to grant secularists equal rights with churches to discuss religious subjects over the air. . . .

The political cry that such progress will lead to dictatorship and regimentation is pure demagoguery. Socially minded citizens, and certainly all secularists, in our constitutional democratic-republican form of government will be the first to protect the rights of man in our American democracy as social progress develops through democratic processes and constitutional means.

(5) Culbert Olson, Convention of the United Secularists of America (October 1956)

Our present state of affairs has been reached after centuries of the predominant power and influence of religious superstition and god-worship. Organized religions, led by church priesthoods, claim leadership of the people's minds and thoughts by virtue of divine authority.

It is certain that organized religion and prayers to their almighty deity have not been the means of saving humanity from want or from wars, a large proportion of which have been wars for power between conflicting religious dogmas. Nor have the principles of morality taught as a part of religious doctrine, become prevalent by that method. Witness the extent of selfishness, greed, opportunism, hypocrisy, and crime which now permeates our society.

(6) Culbert Olson, Progressive World, (February 1961)

I wouldn't say that religion has promoted the social progress of mankind. I say that it has been a detriment to the progress of civilization, and I would also say this: that the emancipation of the mind from religious superstition is as essential to the progress of civilization as is emancipation from physical slavery.