Fighting for the Farmers: The Pacific Northwest's Nonpartisan League Newspapers

By Cronin, Mary M. | Journalism History, Autumn 1997 | Go to article overview

Fighting for the Farmers: The Pacific Northwest's Nonpartisan League Newspapers


Cronin, Mary M., Journalism History


Getting the goat of the farmers' organization has been one of the main objects of politicians, profiteers and big business lobbyists for three years, but the tables have been turned and instead of their getting the goat, the goat is getting them. Plunging over the rubbish pile made up of lies, slurs and false charges, the farmers goat is about to overwhelm the entire gang.

In 1890 struggling Washington state farmers denounced the tax burdens that urban residents increasingly imposed on rural members of society: When God created man, did he command him to be a lawyer, doctor or merchant? No, he commanded him to till the soil, to be a farmer.

He did not say: "Go multiply, so you may levy taxes to build up fine cities and costly court houses, to rule in legislative halls with mouth and hands ever open, asking and grasping for higher salaries at the expense of the farmer." No!1

More than twenty-five years later, neither farmers' problems nor their rhetoric had changed. The only change was the speed at which rural members of society found their political power decreasing. Washington state grange members, noting this, vented their frustrations at a 1916 meeting in Goldendale: "Many of our present laws are unfair to the farmer, confiscating his money and ignoring his rights to individual government . . . The power to make unfair laws is made possible by the lack of farmers' representation in our legislature. The farmers pay a large part of the taxes. They should be represented in our legislature in like proportion."2

Despite their concerns, several reform movements aimed at empowering farmers and improving their socioeconomic status-including the Farmers' Alliance and Populism-had come and gone with little longterm effect. Many farmers remained on the verge of financial ruin and complained that unfairly graded grain as well as high mortgages, insurance, and railroad shipping fees kept them poor.

Achieving political power had proven nearimpossible in the past, however. Partisan politics had often divided farmers. What rural citizens needed was not so much another agrarian political party along the lines of the Populist movement, but an organization that could bring farmers together as a voting block. In 1915, such an organization-the Nonpartisan Leagueemerged in North Dakota and spread quickly to thirteen states and two Canadian provinces. The League, which flourished until 1923, boasted several hundred thousand members beginning in North Dakota then spreading to Minnesota, South Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Washington, Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, Wisconsin, Iowa, Oklahoma, Texas, Alberta, and Saskatchewan.' The organization recognized that third party political movements had faired poorly in past elections and thus tried a new tactic to achieve power-using the direct primary to support farmfriendly candidates and legislation.

The NPL's goals included some which the Alliance and Populist movements had sought previously, including public ownership of utilities and the elimination of differential railroad rates for shipping crops. The League also sought the elimination of middlemen to guarantee a fair return on crop prices, state inspection of grain and state ownership of grain elevators, flour mills, packing houses, and cold storage plants, a tax exemption for farm improvements, rural credit banks operated at cost, and a state-run hail insurance program.4 Like other agrarian movements, the Nonpartisan League recognized that powerful organizations, such as the railroads, banks, and grain traders, largely controlled farmers' lives and fortunes.5

The similarity of goals among these agrarian organizations lends support to historian William Pratt's assertion that rural protest movements had both philosophical and membership ties to each other. When one movement died, another began with many members from the previous organization joining the new agrarian insurgency.6 This was the case with the League. …

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