The Secession of North Dakota

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By 1963, North Dakota was home to 300 Minuteman nuclear ICBM silos. At that time the USSR and the United States controlled nearly all of the nuclear warheads in the world, while France, the UK, and China all had burgeoning nuclear programs of their own. None, even up to today, have exceeded 300 warheads of their own, which lead to the commonly-quoted fact that, were the state of North Dakota to secede from the Union, they would become the third largest nuclear power in the world.[1] In 1995, North Dakota had the largest stockpile of nuclear weapons in the United States, numbering 1,710 warheads[2], continuing the possibility that, if North Dakota were to take its nuclear weapons and secede, it would be a nuclear power to rival all others.

As a cute local joke, the thought of North Dakota seceding from the union to become a world power seems laughable -- but during the troubled 1930s, the state of North Dakota nearly left the union - twice.


Contents

Seeds of Secession

Declares Secession Talk Is Being Heard
New York Jan 8 1934 - AP - Howard Y Williams of St Paul, Minn, national director of the League of Independent Action said Sunday night that "considerable talk is heard of secession from the union by mid-west states if the depression continues and any effort is made by the huge trade associations formed under the NRA to increase their grip on the country and force an economic dictatorship."
"Prominent public officials," he said, "have told me that they would call out the militia if necessary to prevent such control."
Mid-west farmers, he said, are moving definitely to the Left.
"The NRA and the AAA have had little effect as yet on our agricultural communities", Williams asserted.
"If the new congress fails to pass the Frazier bill for the refinancing of farm mortgages and the NRA refuses to ratify a farm code guaranteeing farmers cost of production this country will see by spring the greatest farm strike the world has known."[3]

Secession of 1933

On January 16th, 1933, veteran state senator William E Martin of Morton County took the floor to introduce Concurrent Resolution A-2[4] to solve the economic problems of North Dakota farmers. Session was being held in a local auditorium, due to the fact that the State Capitol has burned down two years before.

Martin proposed that thirty-nine of the forty-eight states should secede, leaving the United States of America consisting of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Jersey. The reasoning was thus: those states, whose industry was largely commerce and manufacturing, were gaining their wealth through control and subjugation of the western agrarian and raw-material economies. "[T]hrough manipulation of tariff laws" and manipulation of "congress and congressional legislation," the eastern economic centers have created "a financial oligarchy with Wall Street as the center of the financial power of the union," using laws and the influence of large banks to make "the people of 39 other states financial peons."

Resolution A-2

Whereas, ever since the close of the civil war, the states of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Jersey, because of their dense population and consequent dominant power of Congress, have so manipulated Congress and congressional legislation that said states have become rich at the expense of the rest of the Union, and

Whereas, through the manipulation of tariff laws said eastern states have protected their manufacturing industries at the expense of the cotton, tobacco, corn, hog, wheat, cattle and fruit growers of the nation, which said producing states have been struggling ever since the Civil War without any actual protection under tariff laws, and

Whereas, through such manipulated unjust and discriminatory measures there has grown up in said eastern states a financial oligarchy, with Wall Street as the centre of the financial power of the Union, and

Whereas said Wall Street interests are now seeking to reach out through the chain banking system to obtain absolute control of the balance of the nation, which they have already looted through the Tariff System, and with the purpose in view, evidently, of making the people of thirty nine other states financial peons, and

Whereas, in addition to the unjust, discriminatory and grasping attitude of said states, detailed in this resolution, said financial east, through the New York Stock Exchange and the House of Morgan, and with the accumulation of the peoples money flowing to the east under the system described, their field of operations has been extended to foreign countries, and huge, unnecessary, and uncollectable loans have been made to every country on earth, and the bonds of said countries sold to the people of this country to their loss and damage, and

Whereas, said financial interests of said eastern states have influenced the administration of our Government to loan money to foreign governments which were then and are now unable to pay, and

Whereas, in each and every instance of such government loans the said financial interests have influenced this government to either cancel said foreign loans or discount them at an unreasonable rate and defer payments until the net returns, when paid, if ever, will not be equivalent to the interest on the debt, and

Whereas, in case of disturbances or war in foreign countries said, financial interest, desiring to protect their said loans to foreign governments are the first in this country to talk war, and demand that our young men offer their lives to protect their money, and

Whereas, said financial interests maintain in their metropolis and place known as the "Stock Exchange" where securities are gambled daily, and the markets of our products caused to rise and fall with the turn of their gambling wheel, and

Whereas, we are now fully and unalterably convinced that said states have had and will never have the best interest of the rest of the nation at heart, or ever intend to live in the Union under a plan of justice to all, we therefore

Recommend that we, the remaining thirty-nine states secede from the above named states, carrying with us the Star Spangled Banner, and leaving them the stripes, which they so richly deserve; let them continue to prey upon their own people; give them a free hand but they must keep off us. All we will demand is that our remaining territory have no treaty, or trade relations, no agreements or understanding whatsoever, no business or social connections, and we can then proceed to build anew and carry out the principles of Democratic government as founded by the immortals Washington and Jefferson.

Be it further resolved that this resolution be duly authenticated, and sufficient copies thereof forwarded to our Senators and Representatives in Congress, for the information of Congress and the press of the country.

Pre-Vote Response

Immediate reaction ranged from utter disapproval, to sarcastic recommendations of turning such efforts over to the state's "military affairs" committee, to enthusiastic applause. This announcement came at a time when the Great Depression was causing a variety of changes to occur, most notably the creation of the Social Security act, increased taxes, unemployment insurance, and the plight of the western farmers and ranchers appeared to be ignored by Eastern interests. Motions were made to remove Martin's resolution, all of which failed. One supporter indicated that when objectors repeal the anti-socialist "red flag law," they would be open to rethinking Martin's motion.

Martin's proposal was not one to take action; he was requesting that this statement of secession be printed in the senate journal. Martin himself described his resolution to be for "educational purposes to wake up the people." Other senators agreed that, while they may not agree with the sentiment, Martin was within his free speech rights to request publication by a free and public press. Once published, copies of the approved resolution were to be distributed to the other 38 'seceding' states. The vote on Martin's resolution was postponed for the next day.

On Saturday, January 28th, 1933, Senators Charles Bangert, LP Cain, AW Fowler, and WS Lynch submitted the "corrective" Senate Resolution A-5, which was not directed at Martin's motion, exactly. Time Magazine published a short article covering Martin's secession resolution, and declared that the North Dakota senators "arose and cheered" when Martin finished his statement. The senators who brought the corrective resolution forward disagreed with Time regarding the amount of enthusiasm Time described in the article, and demanded that Time issue a retraction. The vote on the retraction demand was postponed until the 30th to allow the senators to familiarize themselves with the magazine article. Time magazine published a copy of the corrective resolution in their 'letters to the editor' section[5].

Senate Resolution A-5

Introduced by Senators Bangert, Cain, Fowler and Lynch

WHEREAS, TIME Magazine in its issue of Jan. 30, 1933, on p. 15 thereof, in connection with its report of the consideration of Concurrent Resolution A-2 introduced by Senator Martin, by the Senate of the State of North Dakota, makes the following statement, viz:

"North Dakota's 48 State Senators meeting in a Bismarck auditorium rose and cheered 83-year-old Senator William Martin last week when for the first time since the Civil War secession was publicly proposed in a State Legislature," and

WHEREAS, TIME Magazine holds itself out as a periodical which always adheres strictly to the truth, and

WHEREAS, said aforesaid statement is not true and correct in that not one of the 48 State Senators arose and cheered but on the contrary upon the substitute motion made that said Resolution A-2 be printed in the Journal with the language to the effect that the 39 States secede from the Union, and reference to our Flag, be eliminated and that the remainder be printed in the Journal," 24 Senators voted for such substitute motion and 24 Senators against the same and the presiding officer declared the motion lost—as shown upon p. 9 of the Journal of the Senate for Tuesday, Jan. 17, 1933, and upon the motion of Senator Hamilton that Senate Resolution A-2 be printed in the Journal, the roll was called and there were Ayes, 28; Nays, 20; absent and not voting, 1; and so the motion was carried.

NOW THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that in order to set forth the truth this resolution be adopted and the Secretary of the Senate is directed to send a copy hereof to TIME Magazine.

Voting on the Resolution

The 17th of January brought animated discussion among the senators. Martin was accused of treason and sedition, both capital offenses. Detractors submitted a major motion regarded striking a passage which read that the 39 seceding states would be "carrying with us the star spangled banner, and leaving them the stripes which they richly deserve." The motion to strike this one line from Martin's motion failed by one vote, with Lt. Governor Ole Olson casting the deciding vote.

Much of the support for Martin's resolution was not a direct intent to secede; Martin was a senior member of the state senate, his sentiment was popular with the public, and votes in favor of the resolution supported its publishing, not necessarily its content. Objection to the resolution didn't necessarily oppose the content, either, but denounced the motion's inflammatory rhetoric which threatened to obscure the sentiment.

Those opposing the resolution, however, were presented a conundrum: if they voted against the publishing of the resolution, Martin still had the opportunity to present the statement of secession as a bill, which would result in it being published regardless of the vote to support it. If the motion passed as a bill, it would make Martin's proposal a full act of the state legislature, bearing far more weight than just the publishing of a resolution in the journal.

Martin's resolution passed with a vote of 28 to 25; at this point, however, the resolution went before the senate state affairs committee for consideration.

Post-Vote Response

Martin's motion hit the national news and resulted in a torrent of response from all corners of the country. Martin claimed most of the response was positive, and while he did admit receiving negative comments originating from those nine abandoned states they only seemed to improve Martin's opinion of the relevance of his resolution.

Martin's archives reside at the North Dakota Historical Society, and the secession-related letters (which comprise a large portion of the archive) represent a variety of opinions. Many compare North Dakota to South Carolina, the first southern state to secede prior to the Civil War. Most negative responses try to inform Martin that North Dakota receives a great deal of federal money and assistance, and seceding would cut them off of this necessary income. Those that are definitely supportive recognize Martin's declaration as a cunning satire on the state of financial power in the United States at the time. The supportive letters recognize that the villain in Martin's resolution are not the remaining nine states, but the corporations in those states who, in the opinion of Martin and his supporters, wield a dangerous degree of control over the West's profit-making abilities while being so greatly removed from the effects as to be ignorant of them. Martin was hardly a modern Jonathan Swift, but his point was made and was well-received by those who understood its meaning.

From within, however, accusations of sedition and the legality of the resolution continued to build. On 2 February 1933, a statement from Martin was read before the Senate, clarifying the seditious nature of his motion. Martin claimed he was not advocating secession from the Union, but proposed "to keep the union and get rid" of the nine northeastern states. This seems contrary to the line "Recommend that we, the remaining thirty-nine states secede from the above named states...", but clarifies the continuing sentiment, "...carrying with us the Star Spangled Banner...", the line that was originally proposed to be removed from the resolution. Martin's statement concedes that the resolution uses the word 'secede', but feels that the sentiment, removing the nine states for their crimes against the rest of the nation, was more important than who was seceding from whom.

Death and Expurgation of the Resolution

Once Martin's resolution A-2 reached the state affairs committee, no further motion was made to keep the bill in action. On February 23rd, 1933, Martin announced that his resolution was not going to be reported out and had died in committee when the time limit for its consideration expired at noon that day[6]. Martin was not disappointed with the results, though; he said the bill "...woke up those people in the east, and that's more than we've been able to do before. We had to do something drastic and I guess we scared some of those fellows."[7]

Later, the Senate, realizing the incendiary voice expressed even in publication of Martin's resolution, voted to expunge the resolution from the congressional journal. The vote was 29 in favor of deletion, 14 against. [8]

William "Wild Bill" Langer's 1934 Secession

William "Wild Bill" Langer was the controversial governor at the time of Martin's resolution; in fact, Langer -- from a hospital room due to serious illness -- took his oath of office only days before Martin took the floor to proposes Resolution A-2. Only a few months later, Langer was in the courtroom, defending himself against accusation of misappropriation of federal funds. Langer was found guilty, a felony; state law required a governor be removed from office if found guilty of committing a felony. Langer claimed he should not be removed from office until his appeal process was exhausted; the state Supreme Court convened to determine if having been found guilty of a felony by the first judge, regardless of merit, counted towards unseating of the governor.

On July 17th, 1934, the state Supreme Court issued a decision that Langer was to be removed from office. Despite the decision, both Deputy Governor Ole Olson and Langer went through the motions of being an acting governor; Olson was certain that the Governor's seat became empty the moment the judge gave his verdict, but Langer took several steps to attempt to hold his control over the state. In the process, Langer called out the National Guard to preserve the peace as groups of unruly supporters and opponents began to gather in Bismarck in anticipation of the decision. Langer had used the National Guard several times before to prevent anarchy, so this was not a particularly unusual tactic for Langer. In fact, the power of a governor to declare 'martial law' and calling out the guard was not unusual for the time. A few days after Langer's action, the governor of Minnesota did the same due to rioting strikers in Saint Paul[9]. His opponents, however, construed the Guard's influence as a militaristic power grab on Langer's part. Langer claimed his intent was to protect himself and his opponents from retaliation until the state Supreme Court reviewed the impeachment as legal and enforceable. Those who pushed for impeachment took it as an attempt by Langer to retain his governorship by force.

Unknown to his opponents at the time, Langer and his supporters had signed a "Declaration of Independence for the State of North Dakota" on the evening of the Supreme Court's decision. Langer's order for martial law, released a half hour after the Declaration was signed, covered the entire state, not just Bismarck. These hints of a coup would indicate that Langer's opponents were not completely unfounded in their fears.

By the morning of the 18th, however, cooler heads prevailed. Ole Olson's staff found the Governor's offices in the capitol empty. Langer devoted his attention to overturning the felony and getting re-elected as Governor legitimately - both of which occurred within a few short years of his 'Declaration of Independence'. Langer was called to defend his sedition, however, upon his seating in the United States Senate in 1941. Other congressmen, aware of Langer's "colorful" history, objected to his seating on the grounds that he has a history of unethical behavior. Langer answered several questions regarding the "Declaration of Independence", but entirely avoided any seditionistic discussion.[10]


The Declaration of Independence for the State of North Dakota

The following were present on July 17, 1934, at 10:30 o'clock p. m., in the Governor's office, when the said Governor, William Langer, declared martial law marking the Declaration of Independence for the State of North Dakota.

It was signed by 27 men present[11], including Langer, many of them members of the state congress. In his testimony before Congress in 1941, Langer defended the statement:

Mr. McQuire: What did you mean by this "Declaration of Independence"?
Senator Langer: It meant when I was ousted as Governor and when the conviction was reversed there was a nucleus for going out and putting up one great, big fight to be reelected to the office of Governor of North Dakota. I might say that was the nucleus right there. What we started out, right after the ouster, seeing to it that I got back into the Governor's chair. I got there 2-1/2 years after that.[10]

Langer's Declaration of Martial Law

William "Wild Bill" Langer issued the following, as Executive Order No. 10[12] at 11pm on July 17th, 1934:

Whereas an emergency has arisen throughout the state of North Dakota, and there is imminent danger of tumult, riot and breaches of peace throughout the state, and

Whereas, there has already been called to my attention by the civil authorities that mobs are beginning to assemble, and that a mob is at present assembled at the capitol building, and peace and order is being threatened and the situation is becoming more serious hourly, and

Whereas, I believe that it is necessary to declare martial law and call out the military forces of the state, in order to execute the law, suppress insurrection and prevent rioting, and have reason to believe that unless martial law is declared there will be rioting, bloodshed, and popssible [sic] loss of life.

Now, therefore, I, William Langer, as governor of the state of North Dakota, by virtue of the power invested in me by the constitution of the state of North Dakota, and the statutes thereof, I do hereby declare martial law within the state of North Dakota, and do hereby, order out the active militia, known as the national guard [sic], the military forces of the state of North Dakota, to suspend and prevent the service of civil process and unlawful assemblies, and prevent disorders, and carry out the purpose and intent of this proclamation and order, according to the customs and law applicable to the state of North Dakota.

References

  1. DeForest's True Dakotans, Vol. 1, undated
  2. US Nuclear Weapons Locations, 1995, NDRC Nuclear Notebook, Nov 1995
  3. "Declares Secession Talk Is Being Heard", The Bismarck Tribune, 8 January 1934
  4. Time Magazine, 13 Feb 1933
  5. Time Letters: Feb. 13, 1933.
  6. "Too Expensive", The Helena Daily Independent, 26 February 1933.
  7. "Martin Resolution Dies in Committee", The Bismarck Tribune, 23 February 1933.
  8. The Law of Hard Times: Debtor and Farmer Relief Actions of the 1933 North Dakota Legislative Session - Sarah Vogel, 1933 Congress
  9. The Minneapolis Teamster Strikes of 1934, many others; Google
  10. 10.0 10.1 Senator from North Dakota : hearings before the Committee on Privileges and Elections, United States Senate, Seventy-seventh Congress, first session, relative to a protest to the seating of William Langer, a senator from the state of North Dakota : November 3 to 18, 1941., USGPO, 1941.
  11. In the senate hearing, the questioner initially says 28; Langer counts, and comes up with 27. In the original list, there appears both "James M Hanley", and "J M Hanley", which may account for the discrepancy
  12. Citizens as Soldiers: A History of the North Dakota National Guard, By Jerry Cooper and Glenn Smith
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