William Langer, the (short-lived) dictator of North Dakota

The economic tumult of the 1930s wrought considerable havoc in governments around the world, and the United States was no exception. Huey Long, a left-wing populist governor and Senator in Louisiana, is the most well-known emblem of authoritarian American politicians during this era. The comparatively ineffectual William Langer is much less studied.

Langer was elected North Dakota governor in 1932 as a member of the populist Non Partisan League. Upon taking office, he required all state employees to donate a portion of their salaries to the Non Partisan League as well as the Leader, a newspaper owned by members of the Langer administration. When highway department employees, who were funded in part by the federal government, were forced to contribute, the Roosevelt administration prosecuted Langer as part of a conspiracy to defraud the federal government, and the governor was convicted.

The Supreme Court of North Dakota, acting pursuant to the conviction, ordered William Langer to leave office. Not wanting to back down from the fight, Langer responded to the Court by declaring North Dakota an independent country, imposing martial law, and locking himself in the Governor’s Mansion. Eventually, though, Langer relinquished his power and agreed to step down.

One might expect that this dictatorship stunt would kill William Langer’s career. Think Again. Langer came roaring back into office during the state’s next gubernatorial election, then went on to serve in the U.S. Senate, where he won election in 1940 as a Republican. After a contentious debate regarding his previous conviction, the U.S. Senate agreed to seat him. During Langer’s time in the Senate, he encouraged high farm subsidies and opposed internationalism. He was popular among his constituents, who had evidently forgiven his past transgressions.

North Dakota hosts one of the smallest state populations in the country, and claims no major metropolitan area (Sorry, Fargo!). It is clear, however, that the state has no shortage of colorful history. Anyone who doubts this has probably never heard of William Langer.

References

Vogel, Robert (2004). Unequal Contest: Bill Langer and His Political Enemies. Crain Grosinger Publishing.

“Wild Bill.” United States Senate, November 8, 1959. https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/minute/Wild_Bill.htm

“William Langer.” State Historical Society of North Dakota. Retrieved May 8, 2022. https://www.history.nd.gov/exhibits/governors/governors17.html.