Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor

LEMKE, WILLIAM (1878-1950)

William Lemke, North Dakota politician and unsuccessful third-party presidential candidate, was born in Stearns County, Minnesota, on August 13, 1878. His family moved to Towner County, North Dakota, in 1883. He graduated from the University of North Dakota in 1902, earned a law degree at Yale University in 1905, and returned to Fargo to practice law. In 1915 Lemke became legal adviser to the Nonpartisan League and played an instrumental role in the League's dominance of North Dakota politics. He was elected attorney general of North Dakota in 1920 but was recalled a year later.

In 1932 Lemke was elected to the House of Representatives as a Republican, although he supported Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt. After Roosevelt refused to support Lemke's proposals for farm mortgage refinancing and bankruptcy, Lemke broke with the president. Backed by a coalition of Roosevelt's opponents, including Father Charles Coughlin, Dr. Francis Townsend, and supporters of the recently assassinated Huey Long, Lemke ran for president in 1936 as the candidate of the Union Party. Lemke hoped to win enough votes to force the election into the House of Representatives, but he won fewer than a million votes.

After his defeat, Lemke resumed his House career. He ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in 1940 but returned to the House in 1942, where he remained until his death in Fargo on May 30, 1950. During his later years in Congress he emphasized natural resources, and he played an instrumental role in establishing the Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota's badlands.

See also PROTEST AND DISSENT: Nonpartisan League.

Fred M. Shelley Southwest Texas State University

Blackorby, Edward C. Prairie Rebel: The Public Life of William Lemke. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1963.

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