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Political Prairie Fire

Political Prairie Fire: The Nonpartisan League, 1915-1922

Robert L. Morlan
Copyright Date: 1955
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 422
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  • Book Info
    Political Prairie Fire
    Book Description:

    Political Prairie Fire was first published in 1955. The farmers of North Dakota were ripe for revolt when the magnetic figure of A. C. Townley strode into their midst and offered them a new political formula to redress their grievances. Townley’s plan was simple but revolutionary; it called for the formation of a Nonpartisan Political League dedicated to the election of candidates through the established two-party system and to a platform emphasizing public ownership of certain vital farm services and facilities, such as terminal grain elevators and hail insurance on crops. Like the great prairie fires of the plains states, the political flames of the Nonpartisan League spread swiftly from one farm to the next across North Dakota and into the adjoining states. The League is regarded by many as the last of the great agrarian protest movements. It is historically significant because it achieved a measure of success well beyond that of most similar movements. It controlled the government of one state for some years, elected state officials and legislators in a number of midwestern and western states, and sent several congressmen to Washington. Its impact helped shape the destinies of a dozen states and the political philosophies of an important segment of the nation’s voters. The League’s methods of operation often serve today as a guide for political action. This is the first detailed, unbiased history of the Nonpartisan League. Thoroughly documented for the specialist, it is nevertheless equally interesting for the general reader.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-6373-6
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[x])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [xi]-2)
  3. 1 Pattern for Conflict
    (pp. 3-21)

    “FIFTY-FIVE million dollars a year is lost to the farmers of North Dakota through unfair practices in the grain trade.”¹ The speaker was John H. Worst, president of the North Dakota Agricultural College at Fargo and a veteran crusader for improved marketing practices. His audience, the 1916 convention of the Tri-State Grain Growers Association, received the statement in stony silence— the situation was all too familiar even if the exact figures were not. Convinced that they had been tyrannized for years by the grain combine, the railroads, and the bankers, and smarting under the sense of having too long been...

  4. 2 “Grass Roots” Operations
    (pp. 22-46)

    ONTO the stage thus set for a leader strode the magnetic figure of A. C. Townley. Frequently as important to the course of history as the familiar “man on horseback” is a young man with an idea, and Arthur Townley was possessed by an idea. The answer he saw for North Dakota was a nonpartisan political organization of farmers, not based on the halfhearted adherence to general principles which characterized the earlier political movements in the state, but with each member having a definite stake in success and pledged to support a concrete program of reform with his votes.* Townley...

  5. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  6. 3 Up from the Sod House
    (pp. 47-59)

    AS THE long series of winter meetings wore on, and enthusiasm for the forthcoming campaign waxed high, slogans became inevitable. The most common, in recognition of the revolution against the maxim that farmers could not stick together, was simply “We’ll Stick!” Before long buttons began to be seen in lapels and danglers on watch chains bearing the figure of a tired, abused, and rebellious goat. Beside it was the inscription, “The Goat That Can’t Be Got,” and this shortly became the unofficial emblem of the Nonpartisan League. The farmer was certain that he had been the goat for too long...

  7. 4 First Blood
    (pp. 60-75)

    THE candidates had been chosen, and the long-awaited convention had come and gone, but the real battle lay ahead. With general farmer support, a largely Republican state ticket could hardly lose in North Dakota, and it was consequently no secret to the least politically minded that the actual fight for state control would come with the June primaries and not in November, unless something unforeseen developed. The League was more than used to the continuous barrage of slurs cast in its direction by the opposition press, and had for the most part turned them to good account, but League leaders...

  8. 5 Daybreak on the Prairie
    (pp. 76-91)

    IT HAS often been stated that the Republican party of North Dakota was captured in 1916 by the Nonpartisan League. It would actually be fully as correct to say that the Republican party was captured by the Republican voters of the state, who were using a political party as it is theoretically supposed to be used—as a vehicle for carrying out the will of the majority of its members. A. C. Townley and his circle of close associates did not vote the candidates into office; that was done by the farmers of North Dakota, and it is hardly open...

  9. 6 Farmers at the Helm
    (pp. 92-108)

    JANUARY 1917 brought bitter cold to Bismarck, but it also brought a new state administration. A farmer sat in the governor’s office on capitol hill and farmer legislators, frequently looking a bit ill at ease, had come to “take over.” There were some among Bismarck’s residents who looked on with amused condescension, while the opposition newspapers indulged in thinly veiled sneers and considerable crude humor. For the most part, however, they carefully continued to direct their attacks at the League leadership rather than at the farmers of the state, and it remained for the editors of theSaturday Night,a...

  10. 7 Storm Warnings
    (pp. 109-151)

    SCARCELY a month after the adjournment of North Dakota’s fifteenth legislative assembly the United States entered World War I, and for months the nation was in the grip of a kind of hysteria which it had rarely if ever before experienced. In scores of localities there erupted a fanatical brand of pseudo-patriotism, wherein certain selfrighteous individuals took upon themselves the setting of standards as to what constituted “loyalty.” Hundreds of innocent persons were injured in an orgy of name-calling and in the actual physical violence which soon followed. The attitude of the “super-patriots” was frequently childish in the extreme, yet...

  11. 8 The Reign of Terror
    (pp. 152-182)

    IN THE early days of League organizing in Minnesota its activities received relatively little attention, and in a number of instances there was interested cooperation by village and city commercial clubs in providing facilities for farmers’ meetings. As the strength of the organization grew, however, so also did that of the opposition. The attack was led by the Twin Cities newspapers, whose views were frequently copied by many country weeklies, and the attitude of the Public Safety Commission was also extremely influential. Business interests throughout the state were given to understand that the Nonpartisan League was fundamentally disloyal and that...

  12. 9 A New National Party?
    (pp. 183-221)

    POLITICAL apathy was no problem in the Midwest as the election year of 1918 rolled around. It was do or die for the League in North Dakota, where the organization had been looking toward this election since the day following the elections of 1916, when it had become obvious that control of the Senate could not be achieved. There was optimism among Minnesota farmers, where the real battle was likely to take place, and there was talk that there might be surprises even in the less completely organized states. Nor were the anti-League forces biding their time. North Dakota might...

  13. 10 “The New Day in North Dakota”
    (pp. 222-238)

    THE sixteenth session of the North Dakota legislature convened in January of 1919 amid an air of eager expectation such as seldom if ever has surrounded the opening of such an assembly. This was the culmination of more than three years’ work and struggle; this was the legislature that was to enact the program which would bring about the long-awaited “new day in North Dakota.” Arthur Townley spoke to the opening legislative caucus, keynoting the session with one of his most earnest, idealistic, and moving addresses. Gone was the “rabblerouser” technique—the day of opportunity was at hand:

    What does...

  14. 11 Schisms and Prosecutions
    (pp. 239-261)

    IN NO state other than North Dakota did the League have sufficient representation to be a really significant factor in a state legislature, yet fear of the League as a future political force was everywhere evident. As a rule, League proposals were unceremoniously beaten down, although in Montana an opposition-sponsored bill for a state-owned terminal elevator at Great Falls was passed. The “anti-red-flag” and “criminal syndicalism” bills so widely adopted at this time were proposed in a number of states with one eye on the League, but most significant were the attempts to abolish the direct primary and return to...

  15. 12 Revenge Politics
    (pp. 262-278)

    THE thirty-seventh annual convention of the Minnesota Federation of Labor, held at New Ulm on July 20, 1919, took action that was to have far-reaching consequences. It endorsed unanimously the recommendation of a labor political conference, which had preceded the regular convention, to form a Working People’s Nonpartisan League, designed to be the political arm of the labor movement and to work closely with the farmers’ Nonpartisan League. The decision to take this step followed an address by S. S. McDonald, president of the North Dakota Federation of Labor and newly appointed chairman of the state’s Workmen’s Compensation Board, in...

  16. 13 Year of Crisis
    (pp. 279-302)

    NINETEEN TWENTY was recognized by the League as a decisive year—the year which would determine whether the organization was to march forward as a national power or lapse slowly into obscurity. With the opposition already massing for an “all-out” drive, the League called its precinct caucuses for the end of January, a month earlier than usual. In many areas, of course, county organizations would be formed at this time, and it was hoped that a bit of additional time before the state conventions would give them a chance to get more solidly on their feet. For the first time,...

  17. 14 A Legislature without Legislation
    (pp. 303-314)

    GOVERNOR FRAZIER eyed the composition of the North Dakota legislature and made his biennial message concise. No new major legislation was needed, he said, although it would be desirable to improve the rural schools, raise the soldiers’ bonus levy to one mill, provide for state operation of a lignite mine to furnish fuel for state institutions, and memorialize the Congress to develop a St. Lawrence seaway, to permit the states to regulate interstate corporations doing intrastate business, and to guarantee an honest market in farm products. The shorter the session the better, he suspected:

    During the past four years the...

  18. 15 The Recall Imbroglio
    (pp. 315-335)

    SCARCELY a year after the passage of the League-sponsored constitutional amendment making possible the recall of public officers petitions were being circulated for the recall of League-elected state officials. Such action had been talked of almost since the election of 1920, but it was given new impetus at the I.V.A. meeting in Bismarck on February 12, 1921, when a general recall was threatened unless the League acceded to the previously mentioned demands that control of the Industrial Commission be transferred to the I.V.A., the Bank of North Dakota reduced to a farm loan agency, and so on. Two days before...

  19. 16 The Tide Ebbs
    (pp. 336-362)

    TROUBLES rarely come singly, and the League’s problems were no exception to the old maxim. On April 29, 1921, the Minnesota Supreme Court at last ruled on the appeal of Townley and Gilbert from their conviction in Jackson County in 1919 on charges of conspiring to discourage enlistments. The court quoted at length from the speeches of the defendants introduced at the trial by the prosecution and concluded that this circumstantial evidence, combined with the direct evidence based on the testimony of Ferdinand Teigen, clearly established the defendants’ guilt. “Granting that he is a man of doubtful veracity and the...

  20. Footnotes
    (pp. 365-390)
  21. Bibliography
    (pp. 391-402)
  22. Index
    (pp. 403-408)