In politics, there are those who fall because of one error and there are those who survive despite words or actions that would doom the careers of most politicians. Until the 2020 election, the latter seemed to be how it was for President Donald Trump. The same goes for another figure of a different time and persuasion, William “Wild Bill” Langer (1886-1959) of North Dakota. A theme I like to come back to on my blog now and again is that the Great Depression was a time in which the people turned to unconventional figures for help. Many of them were Democrats, but Langer was a Republican, albeit not your average Republican.
Langer’s career began with the Non-Partisan League faction of the GOP, which was the progressive wing that sometimes experimented with socialism. From 1916 to 1920 he served as North Dakota’s attorney general where he aggressively enforced the state’s Prohibition law. He gained some notoriety in this role for, as among other things, he “led a posse against illegal liquor stores, commandeered telephone lines during a vice raid, censured 275 North Dakota schools for failing to display the American flag, been blamed for the suicide of a former attorney general, and escaped impeachment by one vote” (U.S. Senate). Langer had greater ambitions and had a bit of a break with the faction as he accused its founder, Arthur C. Townley, of practicing “Bolshevism” and tried to defeat its candidate, Lynn Frazier, for the gubernatorial race in 1920. Frazier would be the first governor in history to successfully be recalled the following year, but this wouldn’t prevent him from winning a Senate seat in 1922. Langer’s turn would come in 1932, when the state was in dire straits being nearly broke, farmers were losing their farms in foreclosures, and the staple crop of wheat’s price had fallen below production. He in response cut state budgets while imposing a suspension of foreclosures and imposing an embargo on the shipment of beef and grain out of the state. For the latter two acts, he used the National Guard to enforce them. The enforcement of the embargo was subsequently declared unconstitutional by a federal court. Langer, like the other unconventional governors of the Great Depression I have covered, abused his power.
The Contribution Scheme
Governor Langer’s relationship with the Roosevelt Administration was testy, as he criticized the New Deal for not going far enough in his eyes. He solicited state employees to contribute 5% of their salaries to the Leader, his newspaper. This was legal at the time, but what was not legal was soliciting federal employees in the state to do so as well. Langer was indicted, and in his defense no one contributed to the paper who didn’t want to. The timing of the indictment was considered suspect as it occurred a short time before the Republican primary, as was the matter in which the indictment was conducted: the first jury declined to indict and the second jury was made up largely of people opposed to Langer and the NPL, with the judge being an old rival. However, Langer took $12,000 from the funds to his newspaper and placed them in his bank account. He was convicted, and sentenced to 18 months imprisonment requiring him to leave office. Game over, right? Wrong.
Langer appealed his conviction to the state Supreme Court, in which they ruled 4-1 he was disqualified from office. He proceeded to barricade himself in his office, declared martial law, and deployed the National Guard to surround the capitol. Langer’s supporters remained steadfast in support, and they demonstrated in Bismarck chanting “We want Langer” (Kerzman). He even tried seceding from the United States as he drew up a declaration of independence for North Dakota and got 26 of his supporters to sign. However, one of the justices got word of this and visited Langer, managing to convice him that his secession plan wouldn’t work and that he needed to resign office. He resigned office, gave the nomination for the 1934 gubernatorial race to his wife Lydia, and continued to fight his conviction. Lydia Langer lost in a three-way race to Democrat Thomas Moodie, who soon had to resign himself as it was discovered he did not satisfy the five-year residency requirement to be governor. In his second trial in 1935, the jury deadlocked, with a 10-2 vote for conviction. In his third trial he was acquitted.
In 1936, the people of North Dakota again elected Langer governor, this time as an Independent. Two years later, he ran for the Senate against Gerald Nye but lost as Nye himself was popular at the time as well. In 1940, Langer defeated Lynn Frazier for his Senate seat in the GOP primary and won a three way race. However, ethics complaints from a group of North Dakota voters made their way to a Senate committee. The committee that investigated the corruption charges against him found that as a lawyer he on one occasion kidnapped his own client from jail, took him and his ex-wife across state lines, and convinced her to remarry him so she couldn’t testify as a witness against him in a murder case. Langer promised to handle the divorce for free after the case concluded, but he never followed through, which she found out nine years later when she tried to remarry. The committee ruled 13-3 that Langer was unfit to be a senator and should be expelled, finding “gross impropriety, lawlessness, shotgun law enforcement, jail breaking, violation of oath as an attorney, rabble rousing, breach of the peace, obstruction of the administration of justice, and tampering with court officials” (Langeveld). They recommended he be expelled based on poor moral character, but the majority of senators felt it wasn’t their place to deny the will of the people of a state, even if they elected a corrupt man. The majority also reached the conclusion that the charges against Langer were widely known by the North Dakota voters and they had voted for him anyway. The proposal to expel him was defeated.
Langer was a staunch foe of FDR’s foreign policy, voting against the Lend-Lease Act and arming merchant ships. Although he supported the war effort after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, his non-interventionist views didn’t cease after World War II. Langer politically proved to be holdover from a time past for the remainder of his career. He voted against the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan while being one of the most progressive Republicans on domestic issues, opposing the Republican 80th Congress on most of their economic agenda and supported continuing New Deal policies. Langer’s lifetime MC-Index score is a 33%, which is unusually low for a Republican. He was also one of only three senators to oppose US participation in the UN. The other two were Hiram Johnson of California who paired against it and died shortly after and Henrik Shipstead of Minnesota who voted against on principle while realizing it would cost him his political career. Shipstead would indeed lose renomination in 1946, while the voters of North Dakota happily reelected Langer.
Langer was known for his eccentricity while in the Senate such as his backing, on the request of black organizations that supported the Garveyite “Back to Africa” movement, a bill to expatriate black settlers to Liberia. He was a bitter critic of Winston Churchill and filibustered the nomination of Earl Warren to the Supreme Court. Langer also lobbied West Germany High Commissioner John J. McCloy to commute the sentence of Martin Sandberger, an SS officer who had been sentenced to death for his role in committing massacres of Jews as part of the Einsatzgruppen. Langer thought that only the high-ranking Nazis should be tried as a matter of American legal tradition. Sandberger’s sentence was commuted and he was released in 1957. In 1950, he filibustered against overriding President Truman’s veto of the Internal Security Act until he collapsed despite having initially supported the bill.
In 1954, Langer voted against censuring Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin. This was an odd vote given Langer’s opposition to the Internal Security Act and his opposition to red-baiting, but in truth it was returning a favor: McCarthy had campaigned enthusiastically on his behalf in 1952 when a conservative threat to his renomination was present. He was also a staunch supporter of civil rights legislation and in 1956 he tried to get the administration’s voting rights proposal to the Senate floor, but the Senate delayed consideration until the next year to avoid it becoming an election issue. In 1958, Langer ran for reelection despite his failing health as a result of advanced diabetes. He did not make a single campaign appearance on account of attending to his also ailing wife, and won reelection. However, Langer was not long for this world and died only a year after winning reelection.
Sometimes to attain a status I refer to as “political immortality”, you must do something that voters either view as a great act (or acts) of conscience or have helped the voters in a profound and unforgettable way. William “Wild Bill” Langer of North Dakota was a bit lacking in the former, but he came through in spades on the latter. The fact that many farmers in North Dakota credited him with saving their farms during the Great Depression helped him survive political crises that would have done in most politicians.
Kerzman, K. (2018, January 2). The time a ND governor was convicted of a felony, refused to leave office and declared martial law. InfoForum.
Langer, William (1886-1959). Encyclopedia of the Great Plains.
Langeveld, D. (2015, March 8). William Langer: breaking away. The Downfall Dictionary.
Plummer, B.G. (1996). Rising wind: Black Americans and U.S. foreign affairs, 1935-1960. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press.
William Langer Expulsion Case. U.S. Senate.
William Langer. North Dakota Studies.