Home > Research, Teaching Assistant > Conveying the radicalism of North Dakota

Conveying the radicalism of North Dakota

Today, I delivered lecture on the rise of socialism and the creation of the Nonpartisan League in North Dakota. This was quite fun for me, as I am going to be doing my dissertation on the NPL, specifically analyzing the landmark book by Robert Morlan Political Prairie Fire (1955), which I hope to update, incorporating new methods of interpretation into Morlan’s examination of the organization.

We began by exploring socialism in broad terms, then the rise of socialism in North Dakota. Given that traditional socialism revolved around industrial production and collective ownership of production means, many farmers were wary of the system. However, North Dakota was able to attract farmers by incorporating into socialism reforms that were ideal for farmers. The Socialist Party in North Dakota was founded in 1900 in Fargo and joined with the national party in 1902. It advocated state control of industries vital to agricultural production, including mills, elevators, banks, and implement dealers, as well as advocating a state-funded hail insurance program. This type of socialism with agricultural reforms at the center was termed “prairie Socialism” and was forged through the common experience of the Great Plains states facing economic struggles during the late nineteenth century.

These items led to growth in the movement as well as electoral success. In the 1912 elections, eight percent of ballots were cast for Socialist candidates and the cities of Minot, Hillsboro, and Rugby all elected Socialist mayors. There still was some disillusionment on the part of North Dakota farmers to the party, especially being called Socialists. This led to a moderation of the platform of the state party in 1914.

As the state party was moderating its position, a failed flax farmer from Beach, ND came on the scene. Arthur Charles, or A.C. Townley joined the ranks of the state Socialist party in an effort to secure justice for farmers. Having failed at bonanza farming and flax farming, which resulted in bankruptcy to the sum of $80,000, Townley felt that the current system was rigged against the farmer and sought to use the Socialists as a means to enact the reforms farmers needed. However, Townley, despite good organizational methods, including using the Model T and post-dated checks to recruit party members, ran afoul of the Socialists because he was recruiting members that were not “true” Socialists. The party fired Townley in late 1914. A side note was that we briefly touched on early activities, including violence of the International Workers of the World (IWW) that was going on in some parts of the state.

With Townley ousted from the party, the NPL was the next topic presented to students. I spoke about the 1915 legislative session, which saw Townley in Bismarck witnessing the failure of farm bills that would enact reforms. Legislators and others leveled impolite comments against the farmers, including Treadwell Twitchell, who reportedly told farmers that governing was none of their business and to “go home and slop the hogs.” This comment served as a rallying cry for Townley and his followers. Townley and the Wood brothers met at the Woods’ farm in McHenry County in February 1915 and created the Farmers Nonpartisan League, including drafting the platform.

The new League desired to use the Republican Party, then a strong political force in the state, to achieve its goals. The platform outlined the goals of the NPL, which were state control of mills, a terminal elevator, state bank, state control of grain grading, and state hail insurance to name a few ideas. The NPL grew quickly, claiming 30,000 members by fall 1915. Part of this rapid growth was due to Townley’s organizational skills, which used the automobile to travel great distances, and used high dues to make farmers feel a part of the group and invested in its success. Another contributor was the use of media. Socialist publications existed and were popular in the state and region earlier, including the Appeal to Reason and Iconoclast, but these publications would be dwarfed by The Nonpartisan Leader, which became a major publication with twice the circulation of any community newspaper in the state. I briefly pointed out the subtle use of imagery in the cover of the Leader presented in the slide show, which depicted North Dakota as a fair and diminutive women, while the farmer was a strong Pilgrim figure with a large gun on his shoulder, as if to say that the farmer would protect and preserve North Dakota. This imagery was quite appealing to farmers.

This is the point where we had to stop due to running out of time, but I will continue my lecture on Friday by discussing the electoral victory and platform of the NPL, as well as showing a video on what North Dakota was like at the time. Overall, this was my best lecture, but that is likely due to having some experience with the subject.

  1. Marlys Nelson
    March 12, 2010 at 1:37 pm

    I read your above post with interest since many of my relatives were farmers in ND in the late 1800s. I recently saw a news item about a relative, Oscar Johnson, who died in Alaska in 1919. The paper indicated that he had once run for governor of ND on the Socialist ticket. Have you run into information regarding such a candidacy?

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