|Leader||Arthur C. Townley|
|Preceded by||Socialist Party of North Dakota|
|Succeeded by||North Dakota Democratic-Nonpartisan League Party|
|National affiliation||Socialist Party of America|
The Nonpartisan League (NPL) was a left-wing political party founded in 1915 in North Dakota by Arthur C. Townley, a former organizer for the Socialist Party of America. On behalf of small farmers and merchants, the Nonpartisan League advocated state control of mills, grain elevators, banks and other farm-related industries in order to reduce the power of corporate and political interests from Minneapolis and Chicago.
The NPL goat served as the US League's mascot. It was known as "The Goat that Can't be Got."
By the 1910s, the growth of left-wing sympathies was on the rise in North Dakota. The Socialist Party of North Dakota had considerable success. They brought in many outside speakers, including Eugene V. Debs spoke at a large antiwar rally at Garrison in 1915. By 1912, there were 175 Socialist politicians in the state. Rugby and Hillsboro elected Socialist mayors. The party had also established a weekly newspaper, the Iconoclast, in Minot.
In 1914, Arthur C. Townley, a flax farmer from Beach, North Dakota, and organizer for the Socialist Party of America, had attended a meeting of the American Society of Equity. Afterwards, Townley and a friend, Frank B. Wood, drew up a radical political platform that addressed many of the farmers' concerns, and created the Farmers Non-Party League Organization, which later evolved into the Nonpartisan League. Soon, Townley was traveling the state in a borrowed Ford Model T signing up members for a payment of $6 in dues. Farmers were receptive to Townley's ideas and joined in droves. However, Townley was soon expelled from the Socialist Party due to this method of rogue operating.
The League grew larger beginning in 1915, at a time when small farmers in North Dakota felt exploited by out-of-state companies. One author later described the wheat-growing state as "a tributary province of Minneapolis-St. Paul." Minnesota banks made its loans, Minnesota millers handled its grain, and Alexander McKenzie, North Dakota's political boss, lived in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Rumors spread at a Society of Equity meeting in Bismarck that a state representative named Treadwell Twichell had told a group of farmers to "go home and slop the hogs." Twichell later said that his statement was misinterpreted. He had been instrumental in previous legislative reforms to rescue the state from boss rule by MacKenzie and the Northern Pacific Railroad around the start of the 20th century.
Proposing that the state of North Dakota create its own bank, warehouses, and factories, the League, supported by a populist groundswell, ran its slate as Republican Party candidates in the 1916 elections. In the gubernatorial election, farmer Lynn Frazier, won with 79% of the vote. In 1917, John Miller Baer won a special election for the United States House of Representatives. After the 1918 elections, in which the NPL won full control of both houses of the state legislature, the League enacted a significant portion of its platform. It established state-run agricultural enterprises such as the North Dakota Mill and Elevator, the Bank of North Dakota, and a state-owned railroad. The legislature also passed a statewide graduated income tax, which distinguished between earned and unearned income, authorized a state hail insurance fund, and established a workmen's compensation fund that assessed employers. The NPL also set up a Home Building Association, to aid people in financing and building houses.
During World War I, Townley demanded the "conscription of wealth", blaming "big-bellied, red-necked plutocrats" for the war. He and fellow party leader William Lemke received support for the League from isolationist German-Americans. However, the NPL's initial success was short-lived, as a drop in commodity prices at the close of the war, together with a drought, caused an agricultural depression.
As a result of the depression, the new state-owned industries ran into financial trouble, and the private banking industry, smarting from the loss of its influence in Bismarck, rebuffed the NPL when it tried to raise money through state-issued bonds. The industry said that the state bank and elevator were "theoretical experiments" that might easily fail. Moreover, the NPL's lack of governing experience led to perceived infighting and corruption. Newspapers and business groups portrayed the NPL as inept and disastrous for the state's future.
In 1918, opponents of the NPL formed the Independent Voters Association. In 1921, the IVA organized a recall election which successfully recalled Frazier as governor. Frazier lost the recall election by a margin of 1.8%, becoming the first U.S. state governor to be recalled. However, a year later he was successfully elected in the 1922 United States Senate election in North Dakota, serving until 1940.
The 1920s were economically difficult for farmers, and the NPL's popularity receded. However, the populist undercurrent that fueled its meteoric growth revived with the coming of the Great Depression and Dust Bowl conditions of the 1930s. The NPL's William "Wild Bill" Langer was elected to the governorship in 1932 and 1936. Langer was later elected to the U.S. Senate, serving from 1940 until his death in 1959.
By 1950, two factions divided the traditionally left-wing NPL; on one side were the Insurgents, and on the other were the Old Guard. The Insurgents aligned liberally with pro-farmers' union, organized labor, and Democratic Party groups. The Insurgents wanted to merge the NPL with the North Dakota Democratic Party. In 1952, the Insurgents formed the Volunteers for Stevenson Committee, to help elect Adlai Stevenson II, the governor of Illinois and Democratic nominee for president. The Old Guard, also known as the Capitol Crowd, were more conservative, anti-farmers' union, anti-labor, and pro-Republican segment of the league, these members wanted to keep the Nonpartisan League aligned with the Republican Party; they supported General Dwight D. Eisenhower in the 1952 presidential race. Over the following four years, legislative polarization grew and the Nonpartisan League eventually split in two. In 1956, the Nonpartisan League formally merged with the state Democratic Party, creating the North Dakota Democratic-Nonpartisan League Party, while much of the League's base joined the North Dakota Republican Party. The Democratic-Nonpartisan League Party introduced a unified slate of candidates for statewide offices and adopted a liberal platform that included the repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act, creation of a minimum wage of $1.25 an hour, and a graduated land tax on property worth $20,000 or more. In May 1956, the Democratic Convention accepted the Nonpartisan League's candidates and adopted its platform, fully unifying the two parties into one.
Although the Democrats were still in the minority in the state government, the number of Democrats in the state legislature increased greatly. Before the league moved into the Democratic Party, there were only 5 Democrats among the 162 members of both houses of the legislature in 1955. By 1957, the number grew to 28, and in 1959 the numbers continued to grow, reaching 67.