Section 1: Introduction

In 1915, North Dakota entered a time period of political events that were exciting, experimental, complicated, daring, and sometimes corrupt. This era was dominated by a political organization (not a political party) called the Nonpartisan League. Both Democrats and Republicans sought the endorsement of the NPL in their campaigns for state office. The NPL controlled state politics from 1916 to 1921 and remained an important factor in state politics for many more years.

The story of the NPL is huge. The NPL operated a great variety of businesses and planned for many more. Many of these businesses failed. Others were derailed by fraudulent business practices. However, the NPL was very successful in a few areas. Today, North Dakota has a state-owned bank and a state owned grain elevator and flour mill. These institutions were created by the legislature under the leadership of the Nonpartisan League.

In this brief history of the Nonpartisan League, we discuss the ways in which the NPL served the state and improved its economy. The NPL had widespread support in the state, especially from farmers who had felt their political voice had not been given due respect by state government in the 25 years of statehood. We also discuss ways in which the NPL undermined constitutional practices of our democratic republic. Corruption, both political and financial, led to the downfall of the NPL’s leaders.

Though North Dakota’s “socialist experiment” ended with the recall of Governor Lynn Frazier in 1921, the League left a permanent imprint on North Dakota. The NPL is still a very controversial topic, but in order to understand our state today, we need to understand the changes the Nonpartisan League fostered.

The NPL story does not end in 1920. Unit IV will revisit the NPL and the state of North Dakota politics in the 1920s.

You may want to read more about the NPL. We recommend:

  • Mike Lansing, Insurgent Democracy: The Nonpartisan League in the North American West. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014.
  • Agnes Geelan, Dakota Maverick: The Political Life of William Langer, also known as “Wild Bill”
  • Langer. No publisher, 1975.
  • Robert L. Morlan,  Political Prairie Fire: The Nonpartisan League, 1915–1922. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1985.
  • No author. The Red Flame: A Chronicle of the fierce controversy surrounding the early days of North Dakota’s Non-Partisan League . Minot: Lowe and Larson Printing, 1975.
  • Larry Remele. The Lost Years of Arthur C. Townley. Bismarck: North Dakota Humanities Council, 1988.
  • Larry Remele. “Power to the People the Nonpartisan League,”  in The North Dakota Political Tradition. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1981.
  • D. Jerome Tweton. “The Anti-League Movement: The IVA,” in The North Dakota Political Tradition. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1981.
  • Glenn H. Smith. “William Langer and the Art of Personal Politics,” in The North Dakota Political Tradition. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1981.