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Culbert Levy Olson

In office
January 2, 1939 – January 4, 1943
Lieutenant Ellis E. Patterson
Preceded by Frank Merriam
Succeeded by Earl Warren

Born November 7, 1876(1876-11-07)
Fillmore, Utah
Died April 13, 1962 (aged 85)
Los Angeles, California
Political party Democratic Party
Spouse(s) Kate Jeremy
Profession Journalist, Lawyer, Politician
Religion None (Atheism)

Culbert Levy Olson (November 7, 1876 – April 13, 1962) was an American lawyer and politician. A Democrat, Olson was involved in Utah and California politics and was elected as the 29th Governor of California from 1939 to 1943.


Personal background

Olson was born in Fillmore, Utah to Daniel Olson and his wife Delilah King on November 7, 1876. Olson's mother, Delilah, was a suffragette and became the first female elected official in Utah. Both his mother and father belonged to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. However, Culbert was unconvinced of the existence of God, becoming an atheist at the age of ten. Olson's change of beliefs distanced himself from his parents' Mormon beliefs.[1]

Leaving school at the age of 14, Olson worked briefly as a telegraph operator and in 1890, enrolled at Brigham Young University in Provo, studying law and journalism. Upon graduating at the age of 19 in 1895, Olson embarked on a career as a journalist with the Daily Ogden Standard. During the 1896 Presidential Election, Olson openly campaigned for Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan. After the election, Olson moved briefly to Michigan, studying law at the University of Michigan, and then later to Washington, D.C., working as a newspaper correspondent and secretary for the U.S. Congress. During his time in the capital, Olson attended law school at George Washington University, being admitted to the Utah Bar in 1901.[2]

Time in the Utah and California State Legislatures

Olson moved back to Utah in 1901, settling in Salt Lake City to join a law practice. Building a reputation of defending trade unionists and political progressives, Olson was elected to the Utah State Senate in 1916. During his four years in the State Senate, Olson wrote and endorsed legislation to end child labor in the state, guarantee old age pensions, and expand government control of public utilities.[3]

Olson declined to run again for the State Senate in the 1920 general election. Instead, Olson relocated to Los Angeles, California, beginning another law practice, where he again gained a reputation of investigating corporate fraud. Politics never remained far. Olson campaigned openly for Progressive Party candidate Robert La Follette in the 1924 Elections, and for Democrat Franklin Roosevelt in the 1932 Elections.

In 1934, in the middle of the Great Depression, Olson ran as a Democrat for the California State Senate, representing Los Angeles. During the 1934 state general elections, Olson campaigned for former Socialist Party member and Democratic nominee for Governor, Upton Sinclair, participating in Sinclair's End Poverty in California campaign.[4] While Sinclair lost the gubernatorial election to Republican Frank Merriam, Olson was elected to the State Senate that year.

While in the California State Senate, the second state legislature he was elected to, Olson openly supported Roosevelt's New Deal policies towards the unemployed. Seeing large business interests as a barrier to change, Olson wrote the Olson Oil Bill to cut down oil company monopolies in the state.

With the open support of President Roosevelt, Olson ran for Governor of California in the 1938 general elections against conservative Republican and anti-labor incumbent Governor Frank Merriam. Merriam, known for suppressing the 1934 Longshore Strike and his conservative fiscal policies, was a highly unpopular candidate among progressives, unionists, and even among conservative Republicans who were angered by his 1935 tax reforms. Merriam lost soundly to Olson. He was the first Democrat to win the governorship since James Budd's election in 1895, breaking the forty-year Republican dynasty over the governorship.


Olson was inaugurated as California's twenty-ninth executive on January 2, 1939. In his inaugural address, Olson pointed at progressives and the Left for his inspiration, citing that "[t]hey point the way forward- toward the achievement of the aspiration of the people for an economy that will afford general employment, abundant production, equitable distribution, social security and old age retirement, which our country, with its ample resources, great facilities and the genius of its people, is capable of providing."[5]

Olson refused to say "so help me God" during his oath of office to state Supreme Court Justice William H. Waste. Olson remarked earlier to Justice Waste that "God couldn't help me at all, and that there isn't any such person." Instead, Olson said, "I will affirm."[4]

Olson's tenure in the governorship began to a rocky start. Olson collapsed four days after his inauguration. Doctors discovered that Olson was suffering from an ailing heart. On top of personal health matters, Kate Jeremy Olson, the Governor's wife of nearly thirty-nine years, died shortly after Olson assumed the office.[6]

Contrasting with the conservative policies of Governor Frank Merriam, Olson extended friendly relations with the state's labor unions. In September 1939, Olson officially pardoned Tom Mooney, a labor activist and political prisoner accused of plotting the 1916 Preparedness Day Bombing in San Francisco. Olson cited scant evidence against Mooney as the reason for his pardon. The next month, Olson pardoned Mooney's alleged accomplice, Warren Billings.[4]

Olson's relationship with the California State Legislature was often bitter. With conservative Democrats controlling the Assembly, and business friendly Republicans in the Senate, Olson had little room to promote his New Deal politics, while the Legislature remained weary of Olson's leftist agenda. By the first year of his governorship, Olson's proposed budget was cut by nearly 100 million dollars, plus the Governor's proposal of compulsory universal health insurance for every Californian was defeated. The Legislature also defeated legislation to raise income, bank and corporate taxes, as well as Olson's proposed bills to regulate lobbyists and reform the state penal system. State subsidized relief for farmers was also nearly cut in half.[7] During his tenure of the governorship, Olson installed a telephone hotline to the Legislature to get immediate word of lawmakers' positions on bills in committee or on the floor for a vote.[8]

During his tenure of the governorship, Olson grew increasingly critical of the Roman Catholic Church and its presence in the state educational system. A secular atheist, Olson was disturbed by the State Legislature's passage of two bills in 1941, one to give free transportation to students attending Catholic schools, while the other would release Catholic children from public schools in the middle of the school day in order to attend catechism, leaving the schools and other students idle until the Catholic students' return. Olson signed into law the first bill, later citing the enormous pressure of the Catholic Church on his office and on state lawmakers. However, he vetoed the second ("early release") bill.[4]

Due the entry of the United States into the Second World War in December 1941, California witnessed near hysteria due to fears of a Japanese invasion. On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, ordering federal officials to remove all West Coast Japanese and Japanese Americans to internment camps. Testifying before a U.S. House committee on March 6, 1942, Olson, a longtime supporter of nearly every Roosevelt position on economics, politics and foreign policy, supported the move wholeheartedly. "Because of the extreme difficulty in distinguishing between loyal Japanese-Americans, and there are many who are loyal to this country, and those other Japanese whose loyalty is to the Mikado. I believe in the wholesale evacuation of the Japanese people from coastal California."[9]

By the 1942 general elections, Republicans had accused Olson of blatant partisan politics during wartime, citing Olson's often bitter divides with the State Legislature. The Republican Party nominated California Attorney General Earl Warren as the party's nominee for the governorship. Warren, a centrist Republican, campaigned as a moderate voice that would appeal to both liberals and conservatives during a time of war, where California was considered as a possible front line, while accusing Olson as an uncompromising, left-wing Democrat.

Olson lost to Warren by a large margin. In later years, Olson accused "the active hostility of a certain privately owned power corporation and the Roman Catholic Church in California" to his defeat.[3]

Post governorship

Following his departure from the governorship, Olson returned to law. He regained the public spotlight again in the 1950s, when the Legislature voted to exempt Catholic schools from real estate taxes. Olson filed an amicus curiae brief to the state Supreme Court, asking the court to explain how the state's exemption of a religious organization from civil taxes was constitutional.

In 1957, Olson became president of the United Secularists of America, a body made up of secularists, atheists, and freethinkers.

Olson died in Los Angeles on April 13, 1962, aged 85, long predeceased by his wife, Kate. Olson is buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery, Glendale, California.


Olson speaking to his successor, Earl Warren, shortly before his inauguration in 1943:[10]

If you want to know what Hell is like, just be Governor.

Olson on religion:[4]

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.

Olson's view of the power of the Catholic Church:[4]

What I wish to do now is to revert to [return to the topic of] the political activities and influence of the [Roman] Catholic Church under its priesthood direction in our secular government of California. Who in public life now or heretofore has not felt that pressure of that influence?


  1. ^ — Spartacus Schoolnet biography and collection of interviews
  2. ^ American Atheists biography and interviews
  3. ^ a b Culbert Olson
  4. ^ a b c d e f Culbert L. Olson
  5. ^ — Inaugural Address, January 3, 1939
  6. ^,9171,761572,00.html "Olson's Luck." Time Magazine, July 3, 1939
  7. ^ Olson's Luck - TIME
  8. ^ — Government of California
  9. ^ "Olson wants all Japs moved." United Press, March 6, 1942
  10. ^

See also

External links

Political offices
Preceded by
Frank Merriam
Governor of California
January 2, 1939 – January 4, 1943
Succeeded by
Earl Warren


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