The Nonpartisan League's Rise to Power: An Overview
The Nonpartisan League (NPL) was the most successful farmer protest movement in American history. It came out of nowhere to gain total political control of the state within four years and to enact its program of state-owned industries. Although it expanded into other states, with limited success, the NPL grew out of the North Dakota experience and is a unique chapter in the state’s history.
How did a political movement take root and spread like a “prairie fire”? Three factors explain the NPL’s rapid rise to power. First, two organizations, the American Society of Equity and the North Dakota Socialist party, actively promoted the idea of government action to aid farmers, who made up 70 percent of the state’s population. The Equity promoted farmer-owned cooperatives, arguing that farmers could rid themselves of control by the Minneapolis grain companies. By 1912, it was demanding that the state of North Dakota establish a state-owned terminal elevator. Farmers joined the organization in great numbers.
The Socialist party began a farm-to-farm membership campaign under the direction of A.C. Townley. Its newspaper, The Iconoclast, claimed a “flood of membership” - farmers who liked the idea of state-owned industries. The membership successes of the Equity and the Socialist party indicated that North Dakota’s farmers wanted change, paving the way for the NPL.
Second, farmers obviously had become discontented with the economic power of Twin Cities grain merchants, millers, and railroads. They were certain, even in prosperous times, that they were not receiving their fair share of profits. Only state-owned and operated terminals, they believed, could ensure a fair system. Farmers were ready to revolt against this colonial statusCcontrol of the state’s economy by outside corporations.
Three, the genius of Arthur C. Townley was a major reason for the NPL’s success. He was a master organizer and tireless worker who understood that one had to go from farm to farm to sign up members. He shrewdly placed NPL candidates in Republican primary elections, knowing that North Dakota was a Republican state and that farmers would be reluctant to vote for a third party.
News stories from the North Star Dakotan recreate the meteoric rise of the NPL from 1914 through 1916, drawing its material and quotations from the newspapers of those years. Robert Patterson, legislative reporter for the Fargo Forum, observed firsthand the rise and fall of the NPL. His interview comes from essays published in the magazine, Nation, and later reprinted in These United States by Cornell University Press in 1992.
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.