Exploited by powerful corporate and political interests in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Midwestern farmers banded together in the early twentieth century to fight for their political and economic rights. Farmers formed the Nonpartisan League (NPL) and wrote a significant chapter of Minnesota Progressive Era history.
In the 1910s, farmers began to decry poor market conditions and violations of their economic rights. Middlemen in the grain elevator, stockyard, cold storage, banking, and rail industries regularly gouged farmers. To fight corporate interests, the NPL was formed in North Dakota in 1915.
The NPL was founded by former Socialist Party member Arthur Townley, who was also a failed flax farmer. The NPL advocated state-run mills, grain elevators, stockyards, and warehouses. In order to protect farmers further, the NPL fought for state insurance programs, pensions, and employment bureaus. After success in North Dakota's 1916 election, the NPL began to expand. Minnesota became the center of its activities.
During the election cycle of 1918, Minnesota farmers tried to take control of the state's politics. On March 19, NPL delegates from across Minnesota met at the Pioneer Building to select candidates and develop a party platform. These farmers represented forty-eight counties that the NPL felt they could carry. The counties not represented were urban, or part of the Iron Range. The NPL agreed to back labor candidates from those counties. The farmers were joined by supporters of the labor movement.
Former Sixth-District congressman and farmer Charles A. Lindbergh Sr. was endorsed to head the NPL ticket as its candidate for governor. Lindbergh was considered the "farmer-labor" candidate. The meeting became a rally attended by seven thousand people. In a foreshadowing of events to come, Governor Burnquist and the mayor of St. Paul declined invitations to speak.
From the inception of its Minnesota campaign, the NPL faced strong opposition from the Minnesota Commission of Public Safety. With the United States' entry into World War I, loyalty and patriotism became political weapons. Fear of socialism and pro-German sympathizers spread throughout the nation. To combat disloyalty and sedition, the Minnesota Legislature created the Commission shortly after the start of the war.
Lindbergh opposed the United States' entry into World War I, making him and the NPL targets for accusations of disloyalty. As Governor Burnquist started his reelection campaign, backed by the Commission, he called himself the "loyalist" candidate. Burnquist and his allies successfully framed the campaign in terms of "loyalists" and the "disloyal." By doing so, they hoped to spur Democrats to cross over and vote for the governor. In addition, those opposed to the NPL used its socialist principles against it, labeling all members "Bolsheviks."
Lindbergh's campaign across Minnesota revealed a divided state. In some towns he drew very large crowds, and was welcomed as a hero. In others, however, he faced violence and strong opposition. Law enforcement, local citizens, and home guards prevented many NPL meetings. Townley and other NPL leaders were arrested. Lindbergh was stoned, hung in effigy, and shot at.
The wave of loyalism during World War I proved too much for the League. Lindbergh was defeated in an election that saw many Democrats vote for Burnquist due to his "loyalty." After Lindbergh's defeat, delegates of the NPL and organized labor met separately, but worked closely to endorse new candidates. In doing so the League deviated from its principle of endorsing candidates of existing parties. Needing a party name to place their candidate on the ballot, the NPL and labor delegates agreed on the "Farmer-Labor Party."
The NPL declined in popularity during the 1920s, as the decade was prosperous for farmers. The formation of the Farmer-Labor party also drew the politically active. Though the NPL never gained a strong political foothold in Minnesota, the campaign of 1917–1918 remains a prominent chapter in the history of the Progressive Era. In 1925, the United States Supreme Court examined the events of the Minnesota Campaign and determined that the civil liberties of NPL members had been violated. The court ruled that states could not interfere with the Bill of Rights.
"Burnquist's Sand." Princeton Union, March 14, 1918.
"Farmers are the Better Bluffers." New Ulm Review, February 27, 1918.
Jenson, Carol. "Loyalty as a Political Weapon: The 1918 Campaign in Minnesota." Minnesota History 43, no. 2 (Summer 1972): 42–57.
Morlan, Robert L. Political Prairie Fire: The Nonpartisan League, 1915–1922. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1985.
———. "The Nonpartisan League and the Minnesota Campaign of 1918." Minnesota History 34, no. 6 (Summer 1955): 221–232.
National Nonpartisan League Papers, 1915–1927 (microfilm)
Manuscript Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Correspondence and miscellany with particular focus on the NPL's efforts in Minnesota.
Henry G. Teigan Papers, undated and 1916–1941
Manuscript Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Correspondence and other material collected by Teigan as secretary of the National NPL.
"Nonpartisan League Head Under Arrest." Bemidji Daily Pioneer, February 28, 1918.
"Opening Campaign Rally!!" Willmar Tribune, April 24, 1918.
Starr, Karen. "Fighting for a Future: Farm Women of the Nonpartisan League." Minnesota History 48, no. 6 (Summer 1983): 255–262.
On March 19, 1918, delegates of the Minnesota Nonpartisan League meet at the Pioneer Building in St. Paul to adopt a party platform and nominate candidates for office. A two-day rally follows that inaugurates one of the most tumultuous campaigns in Minnesota history.
The Nonpartisan League (NPL) is formed in North Dakota.
The NPL moves its headquarters from Fargo, North Dakota to St. Paul.
Charles A. Lindbergh Sr. is endorsed as the NPL's candidate for governor. He and members of the League face violent opposition during the campaign.
The NPL has over fifty thousand members in Minnesota.
NPL candidates are defeated in Minnesota elections and the organization is greatly damaged by accusations of disloyalty.
The NPL declines in Minnesota during a prosperous decade for farmers.
The United States Supreme Court decides that the rights of NPL members had been violated in Minnesota during the 1917–1918 election. The court rules that states cannot interfere with the Bill of Rights.