Nonpartisan League

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For the adjective used to describe various United States organizations and elections, see nonpartisan.
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 former Socialist Party of America organizer Arthur C. Townley. 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]

There was another Non-Partisan League that operated in Alberta, Canada in the 1910s. Among its candidates was former governor of Kansas John W. Leedy (who had come to Canada, and become a citizen). He ran on its behalf in the 1917 Alberta provincial and federal elections, but was not elected.

The NPL originated in North Dakota, but eventually spread throughout the American Midwest and Pacific Northwest during and after the Progressive Era and was briefly organized as a national party. It also spread northward into Canada, running in provincial elections and providing some of the basis for the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation in Saskatchewan and the Progressive Party of Canada. The NPL goat served as the League's mascot. It was known as "The Goat that Can't be Got."[2]


Its origins date from 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. In fact, Twichell 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. Ironically or not, the phrase was to become a rallying cry among large numbers of disaffected constituents.[citation needed]

A.C. Townley, a failed flax farmer[3] from Beach, North Dakota, attended the meeting. Townley and a friend, Fred Wood, drew up a radical political platform on 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, a significant portion of the League's platform was enacted. State-run agricultural enterprises such as the North Dakota Mill and Elevator, the Bank of North Dakota, and a state-owned railroad were mandated. A graduated state income tax distinguishing between earned and unearned income, a state hail insurance fund, and a workmen's compensation fund that assessed employers were established. In addition, the device of popular recall of elected officials was enacted.[citation needed]

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 an untimely 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, calling the state bank and elevator "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 the NPL 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, Frazier became the first U.S. state governor to be recalled. He was also the only one, until California's Gray Davis was recalled in 2003.[citation needed]

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 resurged 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 terms separated by his declaration of North Dakota's secession from the United States in 1934, and a jail term), and served in the U.S. Senate from 1940 until his death in 1959.[citation needed]

Many important remnants of the NPL's short reign continue today, including North Dakota Mill and Elevator and the Bank of North Dakota. Perhaps the most radical of the populist reforms, prohibition of corporate farming, or indeed even of corporate ownership of farmland, was enacted in 1932 by statewide initiative and remains a cornerstone of the state's economic landscape.[citation needed]


Although it began as a faction within the Republican Party in 1915, the NPL merged with the Democratic Party of North Dakota in 1956. The Executive Committee of the NPL still formally exists within the party structure of the North Dakota Democratic-NPL headed by former State Senator S. F. "Buckshot" Hoffner (D-NPL, Esmond), Chairman and former Lt. Governor Lloyd B. Omdahl, Secretary.

A fairly accurate portrayal of the founding of the NPL was dramatized in the 1978 film Northern Lights, starring Joe Spano, which won the 1980 Camera d'Or award for best first film at the Cannes Film Festival.

The Fred and Gladys Grady House and the Oliver and Gertrude Lundquist House, both in Bismarck, North Dakota, are listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places as examples of the work of the Nonpartisan League's Home Building Association.[4]

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 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", no. 1, pages 1–27 :1988).
  • 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]