Friday, December 16, 2011
Governor Lynn Frazier called a historic special session of the State Legislature on this date in 1919. Although billed as a meeting to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granting women’s suffrage, the session would be remembered as an “affront against democracy” by the Non-Partisan League.
The Non-Partisan League, or NPL, was a socialist political movement that originated in rural North Dakota in 1915. Advocating state ownership of mills, elevators, banks, and industry, the NPL united the state’s farmers and spread like wildfire across the Great Plains. American farmers felt the NPL finally gave them a voice in American politics, which had been ruled by corrupt political bosses of the national parties since the turn of the century.
As the NPL gained influence, however, it also gained enemies. Many decried the party’s use of scare tactics, and criticized its own growing corruption. Particularly at target was the party’s organizer, A. C. Townley, who had himself gained a reputation for corruption and greed. Despite this however, by 1919, NPL leaders ruled North Dakota’s state government by a comfortable majority. To protect the League from dissenters, NPL members began to adopt more and more defensive measures. The height of these was realized in December of 1919 when Governor Frazier called a special session of the legislature. During that meeting, the NPL succeeded in passing no less than seventy-two bills. Of these, four were considered especially incendiary. The first was a provision allowing for absentee voting, but required the presence of a notary, thus eliminating the privacy ensured by secret ballot. It was believed that such pressure would force many to vote NPL who would otherwise not. The second and third bills allowed for an Investigation Committee and a State Sheriff, both of which would be filled by legislative leaders and having almost unlimited power. The fourth bill became known as the “anti-liars law,” making it a crime to tell any falsehood against the state or its industries. One state legislator told the North Star Dakotan, “This is the end of democracy. Nothing is sacred.”
In 1920, William Langer wrote a book criticizing the activities of the NPL. In the introduction, Langer claimed that everything he wrote was true, since any falsehood would put him in prison for a year under the Anti-Liars Law. The book, along with public outcry, led to the recall of Governor Frazier in 1921.
Dakota Datebook written by Jayme L. Job
Morlan, Robert Loren. 1955 Political Prairie Fire: the Nonpartisan League, 1915-1922.
University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis, MN.
Langer, William. 1920 The Nonpartisan League: its birth, activities, and leaders
(published under penalty of the Anti-Liars law of North Dakota providing for one
year in the penitentiary). Morton County Farmers Press: Mandan, ND.
The New York Times, “Legislation, the League, and Free Speech: Terrorism and Fraud of
the Non-Partisan League.” January 4, 1920: pp. 1, 10.