Nonpartisan League

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1919 cover of the League's newspaper, The Nonpartisan Leader, portraying organized farmers and workers standing tall against big business interests

The Nonpartisan League (NPL) was a political organization founded in 1915 in the United States by Arthur C. Townley, former organizer for the Socialist Party of America. On behalf of small farmers and merchants, the Nonpartisan League advocated state control of mills, grain elevators, banks and other farm-related industries in order to reduce the power of corporate political interests from Minneapolis, Minnesota and Chicago, Illinois.[1]

In the 1910s, a different Non-Partisan League operated in Alberta, Canada . Among its candidates was former governor of Kansas John W. Leedy, who had moved to Canada and became a British subject. He ran as a candidate for the Alberta NPL in the 1917 Alberta provincial and federal elections, but was not elected.

The NPL in the United States originated in North Dakota, but eventually spread throughout the American Midwest and Pacific Northwest during and after the Progressive Era. It briefly had the status of a national party. It also attracted members and organization in Canada, with representatives running in provincial elections. Its leaders contributed to development of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation in Saskatchewan and the Progressive Party of Canada. The largest US chapter of the national NPL in absolute numbers by 1924 was in Wisconsin. The CCF legacy includes single-payer health care and it was a direct antecedent of the New Democratic Party of Canada.

The NPL goat served as the US League's mascot. It was known as "The Goat that Can't be Got."[2]


The League developed beginning in 1915, a time when small farmers in North Dakota felt exploited by out-of-state companies. One author later described the wheat-growing state as "really a tributary province of Minneapolis-St. Paul". Minnesota banks made its loans, Minnesota millers handled its grain, and Alexander McKenzie, North Dakota's political boss, lived in St. Paul.[3] Rumors spread at an American Society of Equity meeting in Bismarck that a state legislator named Treadwell Twichell had told a group of farmers to "go home and slop the hogs." Twichell later said that his statement was misinterpreted. He had been instrumental in previous legislative reforms to rescue the state from boss rule by MacKenzie and the Northern Pacific Railroad around the start of the 20th century.

Arthur C. Townley, a failed flax farmer[3] from Beach, North Dakota, and former organizer for the Socialist Party of America, had attended the Society of Equity meeting. Afterward Townley and a friend, Frank B. Wood, drew up a radical political platform at Wood's kitchen table that addressed many of the farmers' concerns. Soon, Townley was traveling the state in a borrowed Model T Ford signing up NPL members for a payment of $6 in dues. Farmers were receptive to Townley's ideas and joined in droves.[citation needed]

Proposing that the state of North Dakota create its own bank, warehouses, and factories,[3] the League, supported by a groundswell of "six-dollar suckers"[citation needed], ran its slate as Republican candidates in the 1916 elections. It won control of the state legislature and elected a farmer, Lynn Frazier, as governor with 79% of the vote. It also elected John Miller Baer to the United States House of Representatives. After the 1918 elections, in which the NPL won control of both houses of the legislature, the League enacted a significant portion of its platform. It established state-run agricultural enterprises such as the North Dakota Mill and Elevator, the Bank of North Dakota, and a state-owned railroad. The legislature passed a graduated state income tax, distinguishing between earned and unearned income; authorized a state hail insurance fund, and established a workmen's compensation fund that assessed employers. In addition, the device of popular recall of elected officials was enacted.[citation needed] The NPL also set up a Home Building Association, to aid people in financing and building houses.

During World War I, Townley demanded the "conscription of wealth", blaming "big-bellied, red-necked plutocrats" for the war. He and fellow leader William Lemke received support for the League from isolationist German Americans.[3] The NPL's initial success was short-lived. A drop in commodity prices at the close of the war, together with a drought, caused an agricultural depression.

As a result, the new state-owned industries ran into financial trouble, and the private banking industry, smarting from the loss of its influence in Bismarck, rebuffed the NPL when it tried to raise money through state-issued bonds. The industry said that the state bank and elevator were "theoretical experiments" that might easily fail. Moreover, the NPL's lack of governing experience led to perceived infighting and corruption. Newspapers and business groups portrayed the NPL as inept and disastrous for the state's future.

The socialist origins of many NPL members, who were European immigrants, and its widely publicized isolationist leanings during World War I also compromised its popular appeal. In 1921, after an investigation of the state bank showed it to be insolvent, voters had a special election and recalled Frazier, the first U.S. state governor to be recalled.

The decade of the 1920s was relatively prosperous for farmers, and the NPL's popularity receded. But the populist undercurrent that fueled its meteoric growth revived with the coming of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl conditions of the 1930s. The NPL's William "Wild Bill" Langer was elected to the governorship in 1932 and 1936 (the two two-year terms separated by his declaration of North Dakota's secession from the United States in 1934, and his serving a jail term). After serving as governor, Langer was elected to the U.S. Senate, serving from 1940 until his death in 1959.[citation needed]

North Dakota Mill and Elevator and the Bank of North Dakota continue to operate today. The legislature in 1932 prohibited corporate farming and corporate ownership of farmland. But industrial agriculture dominates the state in the 21st century.

Representation in other media[edit]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Goldstein, Robert Justin (2001). Political Repression in Modern America. University of Illinois Press. p. 99. ISBN 0-252-06964-1. 
  2. ^ Vogel, Robert (2004). Unequal Contest: Bill Langer and His Political Enemies. Crain Grosinger Publishing. p. 2. ISBN 0-9720054-3-9. 
  3. ^ a b c d Lubell, Samuel (1956). The Future of American Politics (2nd ed.). Anchor Press. pp. 145–147. 
  4. ^ Michelle L. Dennis (February 2006). "National Register of Historic Places Multiple Property Documentation: Nonpartisan League's Home Building Association Resources in North Dakota" (PDF). 

Further reading[edit]

  • Ellsworth, Scott. Origins of the Nonpartisan League. PhD dissertation. Duke University, 1982.
  • Gaston, Herbert E. The Nonpartisan League. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Howe, 1920.
  • Huntington, Samuel P. "The Election Tactics of the Nonpartisan League, Mississippi Valley Historical Review, vol. 36, no. 4 (March 1950), pp. 613-632. in JSTOR
  • Lansing, Michael. Insurgent democracy: the Nonpartisan League in North American politics (University of Chicago Press, 2015)
  • Lipset, Seymour M. (1971) Agrarian Socialism, (University of California Press, Berkeley)
  • Morlan, Robert L. Political Prairie Fire: The Nonpartisan League 1915-1922. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1955.
  • Morlan, Robert L. "The Nonpartisan League and the Minnesota Campaign of 1918," Minnesota History, vol. 34, no. 6 (Summer 1955), pp. 221–232. In JSTOR
  • Moum, Kathleen. "The Social Origins of the Nonpartisan League." North Dakota History 53 (Spring 1986): 18-22.
    • Moum, Kathleen Diane. Harvest of Discontent: The Social Origins of the Nonpartisan League, 1880-1922. PhD Dissertation. University of California, Irvine, 1986.
  • Nielsen, Kim E. "'We All Leaguers by Our House': Women, Suffrage, and Red-Baiting in the National Nonpartisan League." Journal of Women's History, vol. 6, no. 1 (1994), pp. 31–50.
  • Reid, Bill G. "John Miller Baer: Nonpartisan League Cartoonist and Congressman," North Dakota History, vol. 44, no. 1 (1977), pp. 4–13.
  • Remele, Larry. "Power to the People: The Nonpartisan League," in Thomas W. Howard, ed. The North Dakota Political Tradition. Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press, 1981.
  • Remele, Larry R. "The Lost Years of A.C. Townley (after the Nonpartisan League)." ND Humanities Council Occasional Paper, (1988) no. 1, pages 1–27
  • Rude, Leslie G. "The Rhetoric of Farmer‐Labor Agitators." Communication Studies 20.4 (1969): 280-285.
  • Saloutos, Theodore. "The Expansion and Decline of the Nonpartisan League in the Western Middle West, 1917-1921," Agricultural History, vol. 20, no. 4 (Oct. 1946), pp. 235–252. In JSTOR
  • Saloutos, Theodore. "The Rise of the Nonpartisan League in North Dakota, 1915-1917," Agricultural History, vol. 20, no. 1 (Jan. 1946), pp. 43–61. In JSTOR
  • Schoeder, Lavern.Women in the Nonpartisan League in Adams and Hettinger Counties. (In "Women on the Move", edited by Pearl Andre, 47-50: Book produced for the International Women's Year for North Dakota Democratic-NPL Women, 1975).
  • Starr, Karen. "Fighting for a Future: Farm Women of the Nonpartisan League," Minnesota History, (Summer 1983), pp. 255–262.
  • Vivian, James F. "The Last Round-Up: Theodore Roosevelt Confronts the Nonpartisan League, October 1918," Montana: The Magazine of Western History, vol. 36, no. 1 (Winter 1986), pp. 36–49. in JSTOR
  • Wasson, Stanley Philip. The Nonpartisan League in Minnesota: 1916-1924. (PhD Dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1955).
  • Wilkins, Robert P. "The Nonpartisan League and Upper Midwest Isolationism, Agricultural History, vol. 39, no. 2 (April 1965), pp. 102–109. In JSTOR

External links[edit]