Nonpartisan League, National

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NONPARTISAN LEAGUE, NATIONAL. First organized in 1915 in North Dakota by Arthur C. Townley and the leaders of the Socialist and Equity Parties, the Nonpartisan League (also known as the Farmers' Non-partisan League and, later, the National Nonpartisan League) was the outcome of a grassroots farmers' revolt against monopolistic control of the wheat trade by financial speculators and government officials at the expense of wheat farmers. The original demands of this alliance of wheat farmers included the establishment of state-owned elevators, grain mills, and packing plants; state-provided hail insurance and rural tax credits; as well as the reform of state tax laws. Townley, along with colleagues William Lemke and William Langer, successfully and rapidly created a united politicized group of farmers and sympathizers, which he then used to endorse political candidates of either party (thus, the word "nonpartisan" in the league's name) who pledged to improve the working and living conditions of the farmers by supporting their agenda.

The North Dakota gubernatorial election of 1916 brought the league's first victory with the election of Republican Lynn J. Frazier, a dirt farmer who captured nearly 80 percent of the vote. Within four years, because of the league's aggressive organizing, the state legislature had effectively adopted the league's entire slate of reform measures within a far-reaching and legally mandated socioeconomic program. This program provided, among other things, production incentives by taxing unused farmland and exempting capital improvements on farmland, increased funding for rural education, established a shorter (nine-hour) work day for women, and created the Bank of North Dakota, a state-owned bank that made capital improvement loans to farmers. Although the league was not an established political party like the Republican or Democratic Parties, it nevertheless enjoyed widespread influence and power in local elections and legislative matters.

Membership fees created significant financial resources that enabled the league to expand throughout North and South Dakota, Minnesota, Montana, Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon. League funds were used to finance various legal challenges, brought for the purpose of strengthening the economic and political standing of member farmers. Strong farmer-labor coalitions emerged, highlighting issues unique to each market and culminating in favorable election results across the region.

Various political, economic, and social aftereffects of World War I, including the economic depression and a national unease with socialist concepts, lead to diminished coffers among the league's membership and eventually crippled its political effectiveness. By 1920 political conservatism was on the rise, further eroding the league's left-leaning political base. For the next thirty years, increasing political impotence, mismanagement, and financial scandal haunted the league, until it became affiliated with the Democratic Party in 1956, obscuring its original characteristics.


Jenson, Carol E. Agrarian Pioneer in Civil Liberties: The Nonpartisan League in Minnesota during World War I. New York: Garland, 1986.

Christine E.Hoffman

See alsoAgrarianism .