1924 Interview with George Paterson

ROBERT GEORGE PATERSON is associated with the Fargo Forum and is considered to be one of the most astute observers of North Dakota and its politics.

How have people generally viewed the events of the last few years - the rise, success, and fall of the Nonpartisan League?

North Dakota’s revolt has been one of the century’s outstanding political events in America. It has had as many interpretations as it has had observers. Many passively noted it as one of those freakish experiments in which in the name of progress certain western states occasionally have indulged themselves, a temporary obsession to be viewed with no more concern than a city changing to the commission form of government. To some it has seemed the heroic effort of the second generation of a pioneer people to conquer political chiefs, economic overlordship, and the forces industrial civilization has erected, as their father subdued Indian chiefs and the forces of nature. Others saw it as a conflagration fired by the incendiary bombs of demagogues whose personal destruction offered the only hope for its extinction. Still others have fancied it everything from the first American foothold of the foreboding international to a result of the tenantry.

To which of these theories do you subscribe?

None of these estimates is wholly correct. North Dakota has been greatly misunderstood, for it is not a state of Marxian idealists. Prior to the Nonpartisan League’s appearance it had but a straggling socialist element scarcely able to muster two thousand votes on Election Day. Unlike its neighbors of South Dakota and Iowa to the south, it never had any land tenantry worth mentioning. It has not been bothered by labor disturbances, as it has no laboring class except its floating farm helpers who come and go in the spring and autumn. While in 1913 there was a brief I.W.W. flurry at Minot, the rioters were not North Dakotans but the typical western rovers who frequent the trans-Mississippi region during the harvest season together with a boisterous handful of Butte’s mining element who had strayed eastward out of Montana. Of all the states North Dakota is one of the freest from poverty. Nearly all of its half million people are landowners. A country of magnificent distances, its mighty expanse adapted itself to the acquisition of enormous tracts. The “bonanza farm,” covering thousands of acres, sprang into vogue. Inconsequential indeed was the farmer possessing less than a sectionC640 acresCof land. The forty or eighty-acre farm of the middle or eastern states is inconceivable to the average North Dakotan. The majority of the 30 percent of its people that are not Scandinavian are keen-faced Yankees who migrated from Iowa, Illinois, and western New York to get rich quick in the early land boom, but on seeing the country’s possibilities decided to stay. The years have dealt generously with them, and though North Dakota boasts only a few millionaires nearly everyone is well to do. Virtually every farmer has his car, some three and four. A few years ago the tremendous business of the Ford plant at Fargo ranked it near the top of that company’s branches throughout the country.

The Ford Plant in Fargo. Courtesy of North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies.

What specifically do you think brought about the farmers’ revolt, the NPL?

North Dakota’s revolt came as the direct result of its complete subjection to outside domination. Hunger, poverty, class distinctions, religious oppression, political graft, and chicanery all prompt rebellion. But nothing is more certain to provoke it than the attempt of one people to govern another. Nominally a sovereign state, in reality North Dakota has experienced few of the thrills of sovereignty. From the hour of statehood it has been merely the “flickertail” of the Minnesota gopher. Albeit Bismarck is the capital where the governor resides and the legislature convenes, the actual seat of the state government always has been in St. Paul and Minneapolis, homes of the overlords who played with its destinies. At the outset James J. Hill became its acknowledged patron saint and colonized it with Norwegians as Minnesota already had been settled by their Swedish cousins. Throughout the years his excellent paternal care well entitled him to the fond sobriquet of “Father of North Dakota.” From St. Paul he watched over its interestsCso closely interwoven with his ownCwith the same anxious eye a keen guardian displays for a wealthy ward. From a carefully guarded chamber in the West Hotel in Minneapolis its political wires were manipulated with rare dexterity by that most astute of all the Northwest’s political chiefs, the frequently mentioned but infrequently seen “Alec” McKenzie of Klondike fameCfame suggested, if not exactly extolled, by Rex Beach in The Spoilers. Perchance because of the proprietary concern exhibited in the state by these two gentlemen, the financiers, merchants, and millers of Minnesota’s chief centers assumed that North Dakota was their private preserve. And few moves in North Dakota became possible without their sanction, as its legislators, bankers, and grain growers soon came to understand.

Were there signs of rebellion against outside domination before the NPL came to power?

Sporadic outbursts from the beginning revealed North Dakota’s unconscious groping for self-determination. Queer things, impulsive and incoherent, were done in this battle for independence, but all revealed the underlying aim. At its second election it chose a Populist governor. The experiment did not last. The next uprising in 1906 had more enduring effect and made North Dakota a vital contributor to the subsequent Republican schism. For six years a Democratic governor and an “insurgent” Republican legislature fought the McKenzie “Stalwarts” for control. In that time they enacted into law nearly every suggestion that promised hope of deliverance from outside political and financial influence. The statutes bristled in their defiance of the railroads and all outside business operating within the state. They affected nearly every commodity used, inasmuch as North Dakota is wholly agricultural and manufactures practically nothing for its own consumption. Could you be more specific concerning the dependence of North Dakota? Farming on a huge scale, the ills of the North Dakotan lie in marketing. His crop is wheat and small grains. He is dependent on the railroads to move it and on the grain commission men of the Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce to sell it. Between the two he early fond himself a helpless victim of strange price fluctuations and freight tariff s that more frequently favored the big elevator, milling, and railroad interests than himself. The chief Twin City millers and elevator magnates controlled the Chamber of Commerce, and the trading privileges of its floor were largely restricted to their representatives. As they were in position to buy grain virtually at their own grading, the North Dakota farmer felt himself at their mercy.

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

Related Links

For further reading:

“Power to the People: The Nonpartisan League,” Larry Remele. The North Dakota Political Tradition, edited by Thomas W. Howard (Iowa State University Press, 1981)

Political Prairie Fire: The Nonpartisan League, 1915-1922. Robert L. Morlan (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1985).