When North Dakota (Briefly) Tried to Secede From the United States

In 1915, a farmer in North Dakota named Arthur C. Townley created the National Non-Partisan League (“NPL”), a group that organized farmers and other agricultural workers in an effort to gain political power. The NPL quickly became a de facto political party loosely aligned with the Socialist Party of America nationally and formally aligned with Republican Party in North Dakota — and it found some early political success. In 1916, the NPL’s candidates for governor, a farmer named Lynn Frazier and a lawyer named William Langer, respectively, easily won their election. The next year, the party’s candidate for the House of Representatives was similarly successful.  And in the 1918 elections, the NPL won enough seats to control both houses of the state legislature. 

But their day in the sun was short-lived. Many North Dakotans — including Langer — accused then-Governor Frazier of being Bolsheviks, and voters recalled Frazier before his term was up. The NPL’s influence in North Dakota waned as quickly as it emerged — but it didn’t disappear altogether. Frazier ended up winning the 1922 Senate election under the NPL ticket and Langer, despite his efforts to oust his party-mate, won the state’s gubernatorial election in 1932.

And that’s when the chaos began.

As governor, Langer put a policy in place that to modern ears, sounds unethical: he required state workers to donate a percentage of their salaries to the NPL and to a newspaper run by people in his administration. While that sounds obviously corrupt, it apparently wasn’t a big deal at the time; in fact, it was both perfectly legal and as Wikipedia notes, “a common, traditional practice.” Unfortunately for Langer, he made a small mistake — he forgot to exclude members of the highway department from the edict. Those employees’ salaries didn’t come from the state’s tax base but rather through money provided by the federal government, and the federal government didn’t have such lax rules about the allocation of public funds. The U.S. Attorney for the state, P.W. Lanier, decided to prosecute Langer, alleging that he and others had conspired to defraud the United States. In 1934, Langer was convicted – and almost immediately thereafter, the state Supreme Court removed Langer, now a felon, from office.

Langer was supposed to step down on July 17, 1934, but he had other ideas. Along with a dozen or so of his closest political allies, Langer barricaded himself in the governor’s mansion and, as the New York Times reported, placed the state’s capital city of Bismarck under martial law, claiming that “the threat of rioting and disorder throughout the city” (in protest of his ouster) made it necessary. He further threatened to extend the order of martial law state-wide, sensing similar disorder spreading. And, just to drive home that he had no intention of paying heed to the conviction handed down to him in federal court, he and his compatriots, according to his subsequent testimony before the United States Senate, drafted and signed a “Declaration of Independence for the State of North Dakota.” In Langer’s mind, on that July day, North Dakota was a nation all to its own.

But sadly for Langer, his miniature Civil War was not a winnable one – and he knew it. He gave up the fight before morning and stepped down, giving the statehouse over to his lieutenant governor, Ole Olson. Langer, instead, focused his energy on beating his felony rap on appeal – and succeeded. The case against him was overturned and on retrial, he was acquitted. 

With his felony conviction now gone, Langer – who was still very popular in North Dakota — ran for governor again in 1936 and won. He served one term and then ran for Senate, winning that election as well. He represented North Dakota in Washington until his death in 1959. North Dakota did not end up seceding from the Union.

Bonus fact: If you grew up in the 1980s, you’re almost certainly familiar with the computer game “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” The 1985 game, designed to teach schoolkids about world geography, was a smash hit, selling at least half a million copies. It also inspired two mainstream sequel versions, “Where in the U.S.A. is Carmen Sandiego?” in 1986 and “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” in 1988 — and a much lesser-known spinoff called “Where in North Dakota Is Carmen Sandiego?” in 1989. That one was commissioned by the state government and, according to the Video Game History Foundation, it was “a sort of pilot program by Broderbund to see if it could make region-specific Carmen Sandiego games financially viable.” Given that there were no other region-specific such games made, the experiment can be deemed a failure. That said, the game is now a premium collector’s item — only three copies are known to exist. 

From the Archives: First Dakota: Which came first, North Dakota or South Dakota? We’ll never know!