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Plains Folk

Four for the League

“At heart, the story of the Nonpartisan League is about leadership,” writes Terry L. Shoptaugh, author of Sons of the Wild Jackass: The Nonpartisan League in North Dakota. His focus on the NPL elite is old-fashioned political history, but it makes significant contributions to understanding our political heritage on the northern plains.

The author, archivist emeritus of Minnesota State University-Moorhead, is an established regional historian. Of his many works I would point particularly to his history of the Red River Valley Sugarbeet Growers, Roots of Success, and to his profile of Herman Stern, rescuer of persecuted Jews from Nazi Germany, You Have Been Kind Enough to Assist Me. Now he is roasting the biggest chestnut in North Dakota history, the Nonpartisan League, which effort calls for some appraisal.

The old standard work on the subject dates from 1955: Political Prairie Fire, by Robert Morlan. Morlan’s work is not just dated, it is flawed in idiosyncratic ways--excessive reliance on the NPL’s own literature, and obsessive focus on the charismatic Arthur C. Townley. A more sophisticated treatment is the 2015 work, Insurgent Democracy, by Michael Lansing. Lansing takes a more critical view, but also strives to recapture the NPL for the progressive tradition, considering it as an episode of movement culture.

Now, if I were to tackle the subject of the NPL, I would go after its popular base, try to understand what circumstances and strategies moved and stirred the farmers of North Dakota, most of them of recent immigrant stock, to join up. I believe Hans Nielsen Hauge and evangelical Lutheranism had a lot to do with this. But the subject today is not what I would say about the NPL, but what Shoptaugh says.

Four men, he argues, were the movers and shakers: Townley, the master of stump oratory who was incapable of managing a farm, let alone a movement; William Lemke, the “born organizer,” the detail guy, tireless, perhaps manipulative, but a financial wreck; William Langer, courageous and devious, by turns noble and disgraceful; and Lynn J. Frazier, the least srutable of the four, but probably the most sensible. These “four potential saviors” were the ones who “challenged North Dakota’s politics,” but their errors and flaws, Shoptaugh concludes, “broke the movement into fragments.”

So, what do we profit from a new history of the league? Shoptaugh has no ax to grind, but simply examines actions and evidence and makes considered statements--some of them rather critical of the NPL. Of Townley at the height of his powers he asks, “Was the attention becoming so enjoyable that it might affect his judgment?” Well, yes.

Shoptaugh deems the anti-capitalist rhetoric of the NPL to have been excessive, because it provoked rancorous exchanges with the opposition, the Independent Voters Association--and the very rancor of political discourse proved debilitating to a movement that rested on grassroots support from decent farm folk.

The author also brings new research to the table, not only newspapers accessed via digital technology but also old-fashioned manuscript research, particularly in collections at the University of North Dakota. Shoptaugh’s treatment of the Minnie Nielsen affair, which caused Bill Langer to split with party leadership, and particularly his exploration of the reports of private detectives that Langer sicced on his rivals, these are rich new narratives.

Given the consequence of the Nonpartisan League in regional history, the region’s scholarly press, North Dakota State University Press, needed to have a title on the subject. How fortunate that Dr. Shoptaugh came forth with such a judicious work to fill the bill.

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