During this political season, we have heard a lot about too-big-to-fail banks, corporate greed, politicians on the take, bad trade deals, inequality and … starting a revolution to save the middle class.
Just over 100 years ago, at the dawn of the first American Progressive Era, the same conditions sparked a revolution which spread from North Dakota throughout the prairie states.
In the early 1900s, family farms were under attack. Railroad robber barons charged farmers exorbitant prices to ship their grain, and if the farmers fell behind on loan payments, Wall Street banks stepped in—not to save the farmers but to foreclose on them.
As one farm family after another lost its land, politicians, who were in the pocket of big money interests, accepted the lobbyists’ cash and stood idly by.
Discontent grew among the farmers. In 1915, failed flax farmer A.C. Townley and his friend Fred Wood sat down at Fred’s kitchen table and drew up a progressive agenda to help the people of North Dakota. This blueprint for reform included regulating railroads and controlling fees, organizing farming cooperatives, and creating a state bank, which would make investments for the common good, instead of foreclosing on family farms. This was the birth of the Nonpartisan League (NPL).
Townley attached a Nonpartisan League sign to his Model T and began traveling around North Dakota to recruit citizens to join the Nonpartisan League and fight for change. Charging $6 for dues, Townley organized farmers, intellectuals, writers and women to stand up against the banks and the railroads. Knowing that they were the underdogs in this fight against the power brokers of the Gilded Age, the members of the Nonpartisan League called themselves the “six buck suckers.” Their slogan was, “We’re too dumb to quit.” The NPL published regular newspaper and used poignant political cartoons to educate North Dakotans. They knew they were in a David and Goliath match. Farm families were losing their land, their homes, and their livelihoods. What more did they have to lose?
One weapon that the Nonpartisan League had on their side was the right to vote, which North Dakota extended to women before the rest of the country did. The League sponsored meetings, not just for the farmers but also for the farm wives. Farm wives led lives of drudgery and isolation. Ladies luncheons—with political discussion—were a welcome change from everyday farm life for these women. Regardless of party, the NPL backed candidates who pledged to work toward these common goals. Their pitch—particularly to the farm wives—was “vote for the family, not for the party.” The NPL encouraged people to vote for politicians who shared their values and who would work for the people, instead of working for corporations.
In 1916, the NPL ran a slate of candidates as Republicans. (This is when progressive reformers like Teddy Roosevelt were Republicans.) The NPL took the governorship and seats in the Legislature. After the 1918 election, the Nonpartisan League controlled the entire Legislature, one Congressional seat, and the Governorship. With organization, true grit, and the right to vote, the Nonpartisan League staged a revolution in North Dakota. As a result, the NPL-led Legislature passed multiple progressive reforms to help the people of North Dakota. Most notably, these progressives created the Bank of North Dakota, which got North Dakota out from under Wall Street’s thumb and built a robust economy that is a model today.
Is It Time to Bring Back the NPL?