The Nonpartisan League's Decline Overview

The Nonpartisan League’s stay in power was brief. Conservative Republicans and Democrats were caught off guard by the instant success of the NPL. The two political groups organized as the Independent Voters’ Association (IVA) to fight against the League. In just three years, 1920-1922, the IVA wrested political control of the state away from the NPL.

How was the IVA able to defeat the NPL, which had had tremendous popular support, in such a short time? First, although anti-NPLers had been caught off guard by the League’s rapid success, once they organized as the IVA, they conducted an effective campaign. Theodore G. “Two Bit” Nelson was as sensational an organizer as Townley had been.

Second, the agricultural depression which began in 1920-1921 worked against the party or political faction in power. In 1921 the price of wheat dropped about 60 percent. In that year the IVA, in a recall election, ousted Governor Frazier, Attorney General William Lemke, and Commissioner of Agriculture and Labor John Hagan from office.

Third, the changing spirit of the nation worked against the NPL. Beginning in 1919, a hysterical anti-radical “Red Scare” swept across the United States. The IVA characterized the NPL as a radical, socialistCeven communistCanti-American organization. More and more North Dakotans agreed.

Fourth, the IVA came to power because the NPL did not know how to handle power once it had achieved it. Moving beyond its original program alienated many who had been loyal to the NPL. Laws passed in the special session of 1919 substantially detracted from the NPL’s original purpose and philosophy.

The days of the “first NPL,” as historians have come to call it, were over. It remained a faction of the Republican Party but shed its radicalism.

North Dakotans may have ended the “first NPL,” but they refused to end the state industries. The Bank of North Dakota in Bismarck and the North Dakota Mill and Elevator in Grand Forks stand today as successes of the 1919 NPL program.

The North Star Dakotan’s “Viewpoints” asks the question, “Are You For or Against the NPL?” H. R. Knappen in an editorial from the Capital Daily Press and A.C. Townley in the pamphlet, “The New Day in North Dakota,” present the NPL’s position. Jerry D. Bacon’s anti-NPL words come from his pamphlet, “The Farmers and Townleyism.” The Red Flame, Langer’s anti-League magazine, carried this and hundreds of other anti-NPL editorials.

No program has ever been so far-reaching. No organization has so clearly divided the people of the state into for and against viewpoints.

H. P. Knappen, the publisher of Bismarck’s Capital Daily Press:
For twenty-six years the farmers of North Dakota have been fighting for terminal elevators. More recently they have included in their demands state hail insurance, the exemption of farm improvements from taxation, rural credit banks, and other economic reforms.

Now for the first time in the history of the United States, representatives of the plain people compose the majority of the legislature of an American state and it is possible to enact this promised program into law.

Naturally Big Business interests howl. They will lose millions of dollars in excess profits if these measures pass. Consequently, their agents, lobbyists and subsidized newspapers, are trying to frighten and fool the legislators into abandoning the program.

“Go slow,” they cry, “go slow”; or “be fair, be fair.” They had the power for twenty-six years and failed to enact these measures. That is how slow they would have the farmers go. And how fair are they? When they were in power they told the farmers to “go home and slop the hogs.”

The time has come to act. The farmers of North Dakota expect the legislature to act. And farmers and workers all over the United States are looking toward this state in the hope that its lawmakers will write a new Declaration of Independence which will free the producers of America from the oppressive shackles of monopolistic exploiters.

The North Dakota State Mill and Elevator. Courtesy of D. Jerome Tweton.

A. C. Townley, the mastermind of the League:
For the first time in the history of the United States the lawmaking power of a sovereign state has been taken away from the exploiters and devourers, the beasts that prey, and has been placed in the hands of white menCmen who have a noble purpose, who are raised from out themselves.

We can depend upon the collective judgment of this group of men. Do not rely on my judgment, for I make mistakes. Every man makes mistakes. My only fear is that we may become entangled in the jealousies and prejudices that have kept the people apart for centuries, that we may let little personal desires intrude and so forget the big things. Let us guard this magnificent instrument which is ours to employ for the betterment of humanity. Let us make it an organization to serve the people, for everything in the League belongs to the people and it will survive only so long as it dedicates itself to unselfish service.

We have arrived at the place and the time to either accomplish the League program or quit coming to Bismarck. Much depends upon our actionCnot only the prosperity, safety, and happiness of the people of North Dakota, but the fate of the toilers all over the United States.

The special interests are not saying much just now, but this is only the lull before the storm. In a few days the most vindictive, vituperative, vile, dishonest flood of criticism in the history of the United States will be let loose. We will be abused as few men have ever been abused because we have the courage to stand for a new order.

But if you can really succeed in carrying out the League program, you will have done more toward the common good than any group of men in the world before you.

Jerry D. Bacon, publisher, Grand Forks Herald:

The apparent purpose of that man (A. C. Townley) is to revolutionize the financial, business, and economic life of the commonwealth into a Socialistic commune. Nationwide socialism is the true purpose of the Townley propaganda and the farmers of the state of North Dakota and of other states have gone into it without the least suspicion of the real purpose of Townley and his allied Socialists, Pacifists, and I.W.W. leaders - not to say disloyalists. The farmers of North Dakota are not Socialists at heart, with very few exceptions, and Townley camouflaged his true purposes as long as he possibly could. No farmer can now say, however, that he did not know Townleyism was Socialism, unless he has closed his mind against the mountain of Truth. Townley has many times said his movement would “sweep the nation.”

There is a wide difference between the purpose of Townley and the program of Townley. The Townley purpose is the creation of an autocracy that shall dominate the states of the northwest and the central west with the hope and ambition that it will be strong enough to dictate to one of the major political parties its policies and candidates in 1920, and to make it the tool of national Townleyism, which means radical “Red” Socialism. But the Townley program is a fearful and wonderful thing. It is capable of as many variations and changes as there are peoples to whom the autocrat desires to make appeal. It is a case of being “all things to all men” so long as the money comes rolling in and the votes are being lined up so that he can dictate to them.

J.D. Bacon. Courtesy of North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies.

The Red Flame, the anti-NPL magazine:
The Red Flame (the NPL) is SOCIALISM! Blind, unreasoning, radical SOCIALISM that has stolen into North Dakota under the guise of a “Farmers’ Movement.” Political power and millions of dollars are being misused and squandered by a small coterie of red-tide fanatics who are not farmers, not workers, not property-holders, not taxpayers, not homeowners, not producers in any sense - in a number of instances not even American citizensCand who are not Socialists of any philosophical or constructive type, but who are agitators, bent upon rending, destroying, and tearing down.

Inaugurated as a farmers’ movement, the National Nonpartisan League has degenerated into pure Bolshevism.

It is dominated wholly by Mr. A. C. Townley and a group of radical, international, socialists, who have nothing in common with and no real sympathy for the farmer.

They are, a majority of them, men who have never done an honest day’s work; men who despise work, and have nothing but contempt for the worker.

They are parlor socialists, men who live by their wits, and who eat bread produced by the honest toil of others.

By Dr. D. Jerome Tweton


Originally published as The North Star Dakotan student newspaper, written by Dr. D. Jerome Tweton and supported by the North Dakota Humanities Council.

North Star Dakotan:

Journals and Art Work: The Indian People, The Trade, and The Land

The Indian People

The Purchase and Exploration of Louisiana

The Fur Trade

Dakota Territory

The Military Frontier

The Reservation System

George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn

The Great Dakota Boom, 1878-1890

Reservation Troubles, 1886-1890

The Making of a State and a Constitution

The North Dakota Economy, 1890-1915

Life on the Indian Reservations

The North Dakota National Guard and the Philippines

North Dakota, The Great War and After

The Nonpartisan League's Rise to Power

The Nonpartisan League in Power

The Nonpartisan League's Decline

The 1920s

1930s: North Dakota's Economic and Political Climate

The New Deal in North Dakota

The Road to World War II

North Dakota and American Society

North Dakota Optimism and Economic Developments

North Dakota and Political Change