Farmer-Labor Party of 1920
FARMER-LABOR PARTY OF 1920
FARMER-LABOR PARTY OF 1920. The Farmer-Labor Party emerged from a chaotic convention held in Chicago in July 1920. It represented an amalgamation of the Labor Party of Illinois, several smaller labor parties, and radical elements in the Committee of Forty-Eight, a progressive organization containing the remnants of the "Bull Moose" Progressive Party of Theodore Roosevelt.
The party had strong support from the Chicago Federation of Labor, led by John Fitzpatrick (1871–1946), and the Illinois State Federation of Labor under the leadership of John H. Walker (1872–1955). Illinois laborites hosted a convention in Chicago in November 1919 that brought together eight hundred delegates from thirty-four states and the District of Columbia. Delegates created a national Labor Party, selected Chicago as its head-quarters, and made plans to hold a July 1920 convention to draft a platform, select a presidential ticket, and unite other agrarian and progressive groups. The party's "Declaration of Principles" called for disarmament, expansion of civil rights, guarantees of civil liberties, the eight-hour day and forty-hour week, and nationalization of "all the basic industries."
The Committee of Forty-Eight gathered in St. Louis shortly afterwards. Some three hundred delegates drafted a platform calling for public ownership of most public utilities and natural resources, and full and equal civil, legal, and political rights for all regardless of sex or color. The Committee also supported the creation of a new, broadly based national political party, and made plans to attend the July 1920 convention.
Though the expressed goal of the two groups, meeting separately but advocating merger, was one of cooperation and joint action, the relationship was tense from the start, and there was mutual suspicion. Some Forty-Eight leaders feared the new party would be dominated by laborites favoring widespread economic nationalization. Ultimately, the more radical Forty-Eighters bolted their own convention and joined the Labor Party proceedings. The joint convention reconstituted itself as the Farmer-Labor Party (though little support existed from agrarian groups), drafted a platform, and sought to name Senator Robert LaFollette (1855–1925), the overwhelming choice of those in attendance, as the party's candidate for the U.S. presidency. The Wisconsin senator rejected their offer, considering the party platform too radical. The delegates then selected Parley P. Christensen (1869–1954), a little-known Utah lawyer who had chaired the Forty-Eight convention, to be their presidential candidate, and a longtime Cleveland labor leader and socialist, Max S. Hayes (1866–1945), as his vice-presidential running mate. Christensen had a long career in Utah politics. Starting as a Republican, he gradually broke with party leaders over political reforms, and affiliated with the Progressive Party in 1912. After service in the Utah legislature, where he championed a number of progressive measures, Christensen moved leftward, helped form the Utah Labor party, and served as counsel for several members of the Industrial Workers of the World incarcerated at Utah's Camp Douglas.
Despite a lack of funds, few organizers, large-scale defections by Forty-Eighters, and Eugene V. Debs's presidential campaign from prison, Christensen ran an enthusiastic effort calling for large-scale nationalization of the economy, amnesty for political prisoners, expanded civil rights for blacks, and recognition of the Soviet Union. On the ballot in only eighteen states, Christensen garnered more than a quarter million votes, primarily in Washington, South Dakota, Montana, and Illinois, though he generally ran behind state and local party candidates.
After the election, Fitzpatrick sought to assure the party's political viability. In March 1923 he called for a convention to meet in Chicago to build "a broad alliance of workers and farmers." By the time of the gathering, however, American Communists had emerged as a dominating factor; the party split, and the Communist led Federated Farmer-Labor Party appeared as a short-lived, competing entity.
In 1924 the Farmer-Labor Party, reflecting Fitzpatrick's control, supported LaFollette's Progressive candidacy. After the disappointing outcome of the campaign, and LaFollette's death in 1925, the party shifted its headquarters to Ogden, Utah, and gradually died out, though state affiliates supported Farmer-Labor presidential candidates in 1928 and 1932.
Draper, Theodore. American Communism and Soviet Russia: The Formative Period. New York: Viking, 1960.
Shapiro, Stanley P. "Hand and Brain: The Farmer-Labor Party of 1920." Ph.D. dissertation, University of California-Berkeley, 1967.
Sillito, John R. "Parley P. Christensen: A Political Biography, 1869–1954." M.A. thesis, University of Utah, 1977.
Weinstein, James. The Decline of Socialism in America, 1919–1925. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1967.