My Lindbergh Biography as Minnesota History

Yesterday I took another step toward the publication of Charles Lindbergh: A Religious Biography of America’s Most Infamous Pilot and submitted my response to what are called the page proofs. Though still just a PDF, that file is my first look at the actual layout, pagination, typesetting, etc. In short, a preview of how we’ll all see the book when it comes out in August!

I shared one brief sample from ch. 1 in my Anxious Bench post last Tuesday. Here’s another, from a more controversial moment in Lindbergh’s life:

In the Bench post, I reflected on some of the autobiographical subtext for my version of Lindbergh’s biography. But reading the proofs has also reminded me how much this Minnesotan’s telling of the life of a particularly (in)famous Minnesotan is also a history of our state.

In alphabetical order, here’s a partial glossary of the Minnesotans not named Lindbergh who play supporting roles in the book:

Elmer L. Andersen

I couldn’t actually find room to talk about Minnesota’s 30th governor, like Charles Lindbergh the son of a Swedish immigrant. After his single gubernatorial term ended in 1963, the liberal Republican threw himself into service and philanthropy. Perhaps Andersen’s most enduring contribution to Minnesota came in the 1970s, when he joined Lindbergh in successfully lobbying President Richard Nixon to create what became Voyageurs National Park out of 300+ acres on the state’s border with Ontario. It’s but one more example of Lindbergh’s latter-day commitment to the preservation of wildlife and wilderness. “In establishing parks and nature reserves,” Lindbergh said in 1973, “man reaches beyond the material values of science and technology. He recognizes the essential value of life itself…of the miraculous spiritual awareness that only nature in balance can maintain.” Andersen later served on the board of the Lindbergh Foundation and helped sponsor the Lindbergh statue that still stands on the mall of the State Capitol in St. Paul.

Rainy Lake in Voyageurs National Park – Creative Commons (Steevven1)

Elizabeth Taylor Ayer and Charles S. Harrison

A native of Massachusetts, Elizabeth Ayer and her New York-born husband Frederick started their missions work in Michigan, where they learned Ojiibwe and ran a school and church. After retiring from that project, they moved to Minnesota the year it became a territory (1849) and settled in Morrison County. In 1857 they established what became the First Congregational Church of Little Falls, where Charles Lindbergh developed his negative first impression of organized religion.

I know less about Harrison, another East Coast Congregationalist, save that he was sent to Minnesota in 1860 by the American Home Missionary Society and started a church in Sauk Centre, one year after Charles Lindbergh’s grandfather settled in the nearby village of Melrose. The Lindberghs eventually attended an Episcopal church, but in 1861 August Lindbergh’s path crossed with Harrison’s in a story I told in greater depth last February at The Anxious Bench. (TL;DR – Lindbergh’s grandfather almost died in an accident at a saw mill; Harrison attended him, paid for the surgeon, and wrote up the incident in his missions society’s magazine.)

J.A.A. Burnquist and Knute Nelson

In 1918 Minnesota held one of its most contentious gubernatorial elections against the backdrop of the U.S. entering World War I. C.A. Lindbergh ran against fellow Republican J.A.A. Burnquist. While Lindbergh’s father remained staunchly opposed to the war and received the backing of the progressive Nonpartisan League, he ultimately lost to the pro-war incumbent, infamous in Minnesota history for creating a Commission of Public Safety that investigated what Burnquist regarded as “disloyal” elements.

Wikimedia/Minnesota Historical Society

Five years later, C.A. Lindbergh made one last serious run at state office, seeking the Farmer-Labor nomination to succeed Senate Knute Nelson, a Norwegian immigrant who died in the middle of his fifth term as U.S. Senator. (During WWI, Nelson had called Lindbergh’s father “as disloyal as can be.”) Though his son flew him around the state on a brief tour, C.A. finished third in a three-man primary.

Philando Castile and George Floyd

Though certainly not direct participants in the story of a man who died in 1974, my afterword reflects on how the murders of Castile (d. 2016) and Floyd (d. 2020) bookended a research and writing project focused on a Minnesotan who affirmed white supremacy.

Daniel J. Cogan

Born in Dublin, Ireland in 1836, Cogan was ordained a Catholic priest and came to the United States. In 1875 he took a job teaching at what’s now Saint John’s University, founded a year before Minnesota’s statehood by Benedictine monks from Bavaria. In 1876 he started Grove Lake Academy, a private college preparatory school near Sauk Centre (where he died in 1889 while serving as pastor of the Church of Our Lady of Angels). Two of Cogan’s students went on to represent Minnesota in the U.S. House of Representatives: a lawyer and judge from Minneapolis named George Smith; and C.A. Lindbergh, Charles’ father.

John Cowles, Sr.

In May 1941, Charles Lindbergh came back to Minnesota to address an America First rally in Minneapolis. While the Upper Midwest was a historic bastion of isolationism, the publisher of the city’s largest newspaper supported Franklin Roosevelt’s efforts to aid Britain in its struggle against Nazi Germany. That summer, John Cowles warned America First leader Douglas Stuart that Lindbergh was “playing the Nazi game unconsciously and unwittingly.” The following month, on September 11, 1941, Lindbergh came to Cowles’ home state for a rally in Des Moines. In his most infamous speech, he labeled American Jews as “war agitators,” who were using “their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government” to push the U.S. into WWII.

Cowles (left) with Tribune editor Tom Dillon and former Minneapolis Star owner John Thompson ca. 1935 – Minnesota Historical Society

John Dietrich

Ordained as a German Reformed pastor in Pennsylvania in 1906, Dietrich was defrocked five years later, having embraced what he termed “religious humanism.” He was called to the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis in 1916, where he was still preaching when C.A. Lindbergh began to attend services in the early 1920s. I couldn’t find a transcript of whatever Dietrich said at C.A.’s funeral in May 1924, but a First Unitarian advertisement from the time emphasized that his addresses never attempted “to offer any final conclusion on the matters discussed, but seek merely to promote clear thinking, to quicken individual conviction, and to inspire earnest action.”

Charles Fremont Dight and Pierce Butler

One of the most difficult themes in my biography of Lindbergh is the relationship between his spiritual journey and his support for eugenics, the popular pseudoscience that sought to improve the human species — amplifying positive genetic characteristics through selective breeding and removing other traits through coercive measures. Over half a century, that resulted in the forced sterilization of over 2,000 “feebleminded” Minnesotans. The state’s 1925 eugenics law was championed by a University of Minnesota professor named Charles F. Dight, who tried in vain to give Lindbergh a medallion inscribed “In Recognition of His Superior Hereditary Endowment.” While Dight had the fervent support of Minnesotans like Phillips Endecott Osgood, rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal in Minneapolis, eugenics was opposed by the first Minnesotan on the U.S. Supreme Court: Pierce Butler. Three weeks before Lindbergh flew the Atlantic, Butler (a Roman Catholic) cast the lone dissenting vote in Buck v. Bell, the infamous case in which Oliver Wendell Holmes argued for the majority that “three generations of imbeciles are enough.” (As a result of that decision, a Virginia woman named Carrie Buck was forcibly sterilized.)

Butler (2nd row, 2nd from right) stands behind chief justice William Howard Taft, the only former president to serve on the Supreme Court – Wikimedia

T. Willard Hunter

The son of an English professor at Carleton College (the alma mater of Butler and Burnquist), Hunter graduated from that school in 1936 and began to study law at Harvard. However, he soon shifted to working for the Moral Re-armament organization, an offshoot of Frank Buchman’s Oxford Group that sought to bring about worldwide spiritual renewal and regularly solicited the support of leading political, economic, and other figures. (MRA’s inability to recruit Charles Lindbergh is a recurring theme of my book.) After leaving MRA, Hunter returned to Minnesota to work for Macalester College in the late 1950s, then spent most of the rest of his life on the West Coast. Ordained as a Congregational pastor, he became fascinated by Charles Lindbergh after serving as interim pastor of the small Hawaiian church where the pilot is buried. In 1993 Hunter published his version of a spiritual biography of Lindbergh.

Frank B. Kellogg

Aside from the two writers that follow him on this list, the most famous name here is that of Frank Kellogg, who entered the Lindbergh story at two disparate moments. First in 1916, when the former president of the American Bar Association was elected to the U.S. Senate, easily defeating Rep. C.A. Lindbergh in the Republican primary. Eleven years later, Kellogg was serving as secretary of state under President Calvin Coolidge when C.A.’s son flew solo across the Atlantic Ocean. When Charles Lindbergh returned to the U.S., Kellogg praised the young Minnesotan at a formal presidential dinner, as exemplifying modern “progress in science, the arts, and invention.” Months later, Lindbergh began to tour Latin America as part of Kellogg’s initiative to improve diplomatic relations with other republics in the Western Hemisphere. (The tour started in Mexico City, where Lindbergh met his future wife, Anne Morrow, daughter of the U.S. ambassador.) In the middle of the Lindbergh craze, Kellogg joined French foreign minister Aristide Briand to negotiate a pact meant to ban war. Though it later seemed to exemplify the futility of the interwar years, it earned the Minnesotan the Nobel Peace Prize.

Sinclair Lewis and F. Scott Fitzgerald

I also quote Fitzgerald’s debut novel: “Here was a new generation, shouting the old cries, learning the old creeds, through a revery of long days and nights; destined finally to go out into that dirty gray turmoil to follow love and pride; a new generation dedicated more than the last to the fear of poverty and the worship of success; grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken….”

In my chapter on the near-religious response to Lindbergh’s 1927 flight from New York to Paris, Kellogg and Butler are joined by two other Minnesotans: arguably the state’s two most famous authors. Having earlier quoted Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street (based on his childhood in Sauk Centre, only 40 miles from Little Falls), I alluded to his greatest novel to help explain the American response to Lindbergh: “…the shouts of triumph that greeted Lindbergh disguised sighs of relief… Relief that a town not far from the one that raised and disillusioned Sinclair Lewis could produce something greater and purer than the mediocrity and hypocrisy of George F. Babbitt.” That leads straight into F. Scott Fitzgerald’s description of Lindbergh’s flight as “something bright and alien flashed across the sky. A young Minnesotan who seemed to have nothing to do with his generation did a heroic thing, and for a moment people set down their glasses in country clubs and speak-easies and thought of their old best dreams.”

The Mayo Clinic

Not a Minnesotan, but this Minnesotan institution makes two cameos in the book: its surgeons were unable to prevent cancer from killing C.A. Lindbergh; then about twenty years later, during World War II, Charles arrived at Mayo to participate in research on the effects of high altitude on pilots. (Not much more to say here, but I did write about the religious history of the Mayo Clinic in 2018, when Ken Burns’ documentary on the hospital premiered.)

Grace Lee Nute, Bruce L. Larson, and Russell W. Fridley

I’ve already written a post about Nute, the Harvard-trained historian at the Minnesota Historical Society whose research on the Lindbergh family in the 1930s provided important material for the first two chapters of my book. But two other Minnesota historians also bear mentioning. Russell Fridley was likely the most consequential director of MNHS, building it into a model of its type over three decades of leadership. That period included the last few years of Charles Lindbergh’s life, when the pilot wrote Fridley a “reminiscent letter” (published in 1972 as Boyhood on the Upper Mississippi) and came back to his childhood home to dedicate a new interpretive center for the state park named for his father. About that same time, Bruce Larson (a professor at what’s now Minnesota State University in Mankato) completed the political biography of C.A. Lindbergh that Nute had had to abandon in the 1940s.

Larson teaching at then-Mankato State ca. 1981 – Creative Commons (Minnesota State University)

Charles A. Weyerhaeuser

A German immigrant, Frederick Weyerhauser became known as the “Lumber King of the United States” as the owner of millions of acres of forest and numerous mills — like the one in Little Falls that cut as many as 60 million feet of timber per year and helped fuel a surge in the town’s population in the 1890s. The Pine Tree Lumber Company was operated in part by Weyerhaeuser’s son Charles Augustus, who befriended a similar-named attorney, Charles August Lindbergh. Just down the road from the Lindbergh House, the museum of the Morrison County Historical Society is named for him. (Likewise, you can read the Lindbergh Family Papers and other archival materials in the Weyerhaeuser Reading Room at the Minnesota History Center.)