United by low commodity prices, high interest rates, shady practices in the grain trade, and thwarted political goals, farmers of North Dakota gathered in the spring of 1915 to form the Nonpartisan League (NPL). Coalescing behind the impressive oratorical and organizational skills of Arthur C. Townley, the NPL served the state, and the nation, as a grand experiment in socialist agrarian reform.
After failing as a farmer and as an organizer for North Dakota's Socialist Party, Townley drifted to Bismarck to observe the 1915 session of the state legislature, where representatives prepared to debate the creation of a stateowned terminal elevator. The elevator was intended to give North Dakota farmers a degree of control over the marketing of their wheat. In the heated debate, Fargo representative Treadwell Twitchell allegedly told farmers crowding the balcony that "running the state was none of their business" and that they should "go home and slop the hogs."
Rather than returning home, however, Townley met with a number of McHenry County farmers to discuss their growing resentment and frustration with politics as dominated by the grain trade and the railroads. Declaring that the end had come for machine politics, which left no role for farmers or laborers, the assembled men declared the formation of the Farmers Nonpartisan Political League, later renamed the Nonpartisan League.
Familiar with the failure of third-party political movements, Townley determined that the NPL should use existing parties to implement the organization's agenda. Accordingly, the NPL sought to endorse candidates from either of the major political parties in the state's open primaries in order to form a "nonpartisan" ticket that farmers could support in the November election. To gain farmers' support, candidates needed only to promise to uphold the NPL's ever-growing list of demands. By the primary of 1916, the League's platform included state ownership of terminal elevators, flour mills, cold storage plants, and packing plants; formation of a state hail insurance program; and establishment of stateowned banks that would offer farmers lowinterest loans. Additionally, the state would inspect grain, exempt farm improvements from taxation, and create a program of public works for the unemployed.
Despite flooding on primary day that kept significant numbers of farmers from the polls, NPL-designated candidates carried all but one state office in June 1916. In the November general election, the NPL claimed control of the governorship, cabinet, and state house of representatives. Its failure to carry the state senate stalled the effort to achieve state socialism, but the organization's 40,000 members still held the day. During the 1917 session, the legislature passed into law much of the progressive agenda called for by NPL members. It created a much-improved grain grading system, established a state highway commission, prohibited rate discrimination by railroads, increased aid to education, and proposed constitutional amendments for female suffrage and the exemption of farm improvements from taxation.
In 1918, claiming near total victory, the Nonpartisan League began implementing what Townley referred to as the "New Day for North Dakota." Aided by constitutional amendments sponsored by the League and interpreted by an NPL-dominated state supreme court, the organization set about its agenda. The NPL utilized the 1919 legislative session to implement much of its platform, creating the North Dakota Mill and Elevator Association, the Home Building Association, the Bank of North Dakota, a statesponsored hail insurance program, and an industrial commission to oversee the development of further state businesses. The 1919 legislative session also sponsored progressive legislation to provide workman's compensation, reduced hours of labor for working women, the inspection of coal mines, and limited the use of injunctions in labor disputes.
The party's appeal was not limited to North Dakota, and over the course of 1918–19 the movement expanded into the majority of Great Plains and midwestern states. At the height of its popularity, the NPL claimed more than 200,000 members in twenty states. Although the NPL never took control of the reins of state power elsewhere as it did in North Dakota, the political debate in many states clearly felt the influence of the organization.
The work of the NPL did not go unchallenged. Increasingly, the league's leadership came under attack for malfeasance, socialist inclination, and fraud. The primary opposition came from a coalition of disaffected businessmen and Republicans locked out of their own party. Charges from the Independent Voters Association, as well as the defection of major NPL officeholders–Attorney General William Langer, Secretary of State Thomas Hall, and state auditor Carl Kozitsky–and the publication of the salacious Red Flame, ultimately brought the NPL era in North Dakota to a close. Equally detrimental to the cause of continued NPL control was the almost universally poor management of the state's new businesses.
On October 28, 1921, npl governor Lynn J. Frazier suffered the ignominy of being the first state official removed from office under the terms of an NPL-sponsored state constitutional amendment. The same recall election witnessed the removal of Attorney General William Lemke and Commissioner of Agriculture John Hagen. North Dakotans, however, voted to uphold the principles of state-sponsored business. Indeed, much of the program instigated by the NPL remains in place in modernday North Dakota.
Kimberly K. Porter University of North Dakota
Coleman, Patrick K., and Charles R. Lamb, compilers. The Nonpartisan League, 1915–1922: An Annotated Bibliography. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1985.
Morlan, Robert L. Political Prairie Fire: The Nonpartisan League, 1915–1922. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1985.
Robinson, Elwyn B. History of North Dakota. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1966.