ELWYN B. ROBINSON DEPARTMENT OF SPECIAL COLLECTIONS
CHESTER FRITZ LIBRARY
UNIVERSITY OF NORTH DAKOTA
GRAND FORKS, ND 58202
SIZE: 900 linear feet
ACQUISITION: The William Langer Papers were deposited in the Orin G. Libby Manuscript Collection by the Langer family in 1963.
ACCESS: Open for inspection under the rules and regulations of the Department of Special Collections.
William Langer was born September 30, 1886 in Everest township, near Casselton, Dakota Territory. He was one of six children born to Frank J. and Mary (Weber) Langer. His father was a member of the first legislature of North Dakota, served as a Cass County Commissioner and acted as cashier of the First National Bank of Casselton. William graduated from Casselton High School as valedictorian in 1904.
He attended the University of North Dakota and graduated with a Bachelor of Laws degree on June 14, 1906. While at UND, Langer was Vice President of the Junior Law Class and participated in the University's annual oratorical contest.
Since Langer was not allowed to practice law until the age of 21 (although he had passed the bar at 18), he decided to continue his education at Columbia University in New York City. While at Columbia, he was active in the Sigma Chi fraternity, several debate and literary societies, the rowing club, and the Newman club. He was also elected Junior Class President. He graduated in June 1910 with a Bachelors degree in liberal arts from the Columbia College. He was the valedictorian of that college, and also won the Roelker Medal for being deemed by his classmates to be the most worthy of special distinction. Following graduation, Langer was offered a position in a prominent New York law farm, but decided to return to North Dakota.
Settling in Mandan, he first found work with H.R. Bitzing, the States Attorney for Morton County. He served as Assistant States Attorney until 1914, when he was elected the States Attorney for the county. In 1915, Langer and S.L. Nuchols, another Mandan lawyer, formed the law firm of Langer and Nuchols. Langer was elected North Dakota Attorney General in 1916, an election in which defeated his opponent by over 58,000 votes and carried every county in the state. Langer was endorsed by both the Nonpartisan League and Usher Burdicks Progressive Republicans. He was re-elected Attorney General in 1918.
On February 26, 1918, William Langer married Lydia Cady in New York City. The daughter of prominent New York architect, J. Cleveland Cady, the couple met in New York City, while Langer was a student at Columbia. Langer was fond of recalling how he first spied Lydia at a concert, and then arranged for her date to be called away to answer a fake phone call. He went and introduced himself, which was the start of a long courtship. The couple had four daughters: Emma, Lydia, Mary and Cornelia.
On March 23, 1920, Langer announced that he would be a candidate for governor, endorsed by Usher Burdicks Progressive Republicans. He also received support from the Independent Voters Association, a group consisting of both liberals and conservatives created to battle the NPL. Langer had defected from the NPL in 1919, telling NPL leader A.C. Townley You and your hirelings have lied to and are deceiving the farmers of North Dakota. Langer was defeated by the NPL candidate, Lynn Frazier in a close election.
Langer rejoined his law firm, although he and Nuchols moved the practice to Bismarck. Capitalizing on Langers name recognition and court-room skills, the firm quickly became one of the most successful in North Dakota. The financial success of his law practice allowed Langer to use some of his personal finances to improve the poor financial status of the NPL, to which he returned in the 1920s. Between 1928 and 1932, Langer contributed over $21,000 to the party. He was nominated to his former position of Attorney General in 1928, but was defeated in the primary.
Although he still had major enemies within the party, William Lemke and Gerald P. Nye among them, Langer went to the 1932 NPL convention with high hopes of winning the nomination for governor. Langer's allies succeeded in nominating a gubernatorial candidate as the first item of business at the convention. The hope was that Langer would not be forced to make deals with other NPL endorsees. The strategy worked, as Langer won the nomination on the eighth ballot.
Langer, along with all other major NPL candidates, was swept into power in the 1932 election. Langer played to the heart of North Dakotans suffering in the Great Depression by pledging to reduce taxes and end nepotism. His opponent, incumbent Governor George F. Shafer, lost votes by defending the policies of President Herbert Hoover and opposing government action against the Depression. Langers inauguration day, January 3, 1933 found the new governor in a Bismarck hospital, sick with influenza.
Governor Langer immediately set about fulfilling his campaign promises. He slashed state appropriations in almost every area, save for primary and secondary education. In the fall of 1933, he set about raising the price of wheat by placing an embargo on all out of state wheat. Although the embargo was struck down several months later by the federal district court in Minneapolis, it accomplished its goal of raising wheat prices. He also placed a moratorium on foreclosures, except those by the federal government and its agencies. As stated by Elwyn B. Robinson in History of North Dakota, "The moratorium helped morale in a time of great anxiety." (page 405)
Langer quickly ran into legal problems, however. After his inauguration, Langer cleaned out most executive departments and appointed persons loyal to him. He also openly solicited state employees for subscriptions to his newspaper, the Leader. Each subscription was equal to five percent of their annual state salary. While Langer viewed this as a legitimate campaign fund raising, he was indicted by a federal grand jury in the spring of 1934 on charges of "soliciting and collecting money for political purposes from federal employees and of conspiring to obstruct the orderly operation of an act of Congress" (History of North Dakota, p.410). After a trial lasting almost a month, Langer was found guilty of the charges and sentenced to eighteen months in prison, and subject to a $10,000 fine. The verdict was handed down on June 17, 1934. One month later, on July 17th, the North Dakota Supreme Court removed Langer from office, since he had been convicted of a felony. The former lieutenant governor, Ole H. Olson, moved into the governor's office on July 19th, even while crowds marched through Bismarck shouting "We Want Langer."
Lydia Langer was chosen by the Republicans to take her husband's spot on the 1934 ticket. During the subsequent election, many prominent members of the NPL, including Gerald Nye and Ole Olson, threw their support behind the democratic candidate, Thomas Moodie. While Lydia Langer lost the election, other important state offices remained in the hands of Langer supporters.
In 1935, Langer's legal appeal was gathering steam. On May 7, 1935, the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the original conviction, and ordered a new trial. The first conspiracy trial resulted in a hung jury. A perjury trial in December, found Langer not guilty. A second conspiracy trial, also held in December, settled the issue by finding Langer not guilty.
In 1936, Langer succeeded in winning the NPL nomination for governor, while the Democrats nominated John Moses and the Republicans Walter Welford. This forced Langer to enter the race as an Independent. In a close three-person race, Langer returned to the governor's chair, winning the election with 36% of the vote.
Langer's second term was marked by continued efforts to stem the Great Depression, but also by conspiracy and charges of corruption. Langer directed the State Mill and Elevator to pay 35 cents per bushel over the market price, while also appropriating nearly six million dollars for general relief. On the other hand, three of Langer's close friends were found to be profiting by purchasing county bonds at a discounted price and selling them back to the Bank of North Dakota at full value. In 1938, the State Board of Equalization reduced the assessment on property owned by the Great Northern Railroad by three million dollars. It was revealed that an attorney of the railroad had purchased $25,000 of worthless stocks from Langer, and then never asked for the delivery of the stocks.
These rumors of impropriety colored the 1938 campaign. The NPL endorsed Langer for Gerald P. Nye's seat in the U.S. Senate. Nye defeated Langer in the Republican primary election, after which Langer filed as an Independent. In the fall election, the anti-Langer forces reached an agreement: Nye and William Lemke agreed to support the Democrat John Moses for governor. In exchange, Moses arranged for the Democratic candidate for senator, Jess Nygaard, not campaign for the position. The anti-Langer votes were no longer split between two candidates, allowing Nye to return to the Senate, and awarding the governorship to Moses.
Although he faced a setback following the 1938 election, Langer declared his intentions to run again for the U.S. senate in 1940, opposite incumbent Lynn Frazier. This time, the anti-Langer coalition failed to hold. Langer won the support of the NPL, and followed this with a victory in the Republican primary. This caused one-time Langer supporter William Lemke to abandon a bid for the U.S. House of Representatives (for which he had won the Republican nomination) in order to run against Langer as an Independent. Lemke hoped to replicate the strategy from the 1938 election, by having the Democratic candidate, Charles Vogel, not campaign. Vogel, however, feared that aiding Lemke would reduce President Roosevelt's chances of taking North Dakota in the presidential election. Vogel actively campaigned, causing the anti-Langer votes to split. Langer won a seat in the Senate with a popular vote of over 100,000. Lemke finished in second with a little over 92,000.
Although Langer had won the election, his enemies were determined to not allow him to take his seat. When Langer was presented to take the oath of office on January 3, 1941, a petition was presented to the secretary of the Senate arguing that he not be seated. The matter was turned over to the Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections. The committee listened to much testimony, some of it very damaging, regarding Langers conduct. During the hearings, Langer was forced to admit that he had paid the son of the judge who presided at his second and third trials in 1935. Throughout the process, however, Langer proved to be a most cooperative witness, testifying before the committee on several instances. The committee recommended, by a vote of 13-3, that Langer not be seated. The entire Senate took up the committee's motion on March 27, 1942; the Senate disregarded the recommendation and voted to seat Langer by a vote of 52-30.
Langer served on several Senate committees, including Civil Service, Indian Affairs, Judiciary, Post Offices and Post Roads and Printing. He was a champion of rural electrification and rural telephone service. The cause of adequate and affordable health care was also important to Langer, who struggled with diabetes nearly of all of his adult life. He was also concerned with agriculture, although he was unsuccessful in obtaining a position on the Agriculture Committee, as Senator Nye was already a member. When Senator Milton Young joined the Senate, Langer yielded a position on the committee to him, since he and Young saw eye to eye on agricultural issues.
Langer's Senate career was also marked by his reputation as a strict isolationist. He opposed the Lend-Lease Act, the extension of Selective Service, and the transfer of ships to Great Britain. Langer did, however, did join the entire North Dakota delegation in voting for the declaration of war following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
Langer ran for re-election in 1946, and faced a difficult primary. Joseph B. Bridston, a state Senator from Grand Forks, attacked Langer for his isolationist views, especially his vote against the United Nations. Langer won the primary by almost 14,000 votes and bettered his Democratic opponent in the fall election by a margin of two to one.
Langer's isolationist philosophy did not change after the end of the war. Besides his opposition to the United Nations, Langer also voted against the North Atlantic Treaty, aid to Greece and Turkey and the Marshall Plan. Langer was also known for being critical of Winston Churchill. In March 1949, Langer criticized the Spanish-American War record of Churchill, saying that he had fought against the U.S. in the conflict. Several senators, including Thomas T. Connally of Texas, rebuked Langer, saying that the historical record showed that Churchill was not even in Cuba during the war. The second instance occurred in 1951, when the former British Prime Minister visited the U.S. Langer sent a telegram to the pastor of Boston's Old North Church requesting that two lanterns be placed in the belfry to warn Americans that the British were coming.
Langer ran for re-election in 1952. He again faced a formidable opponent in the Republican primary, this time in the person of three-term former governor and the current U.S. representative, Fred Aandahl. Aandahl attacked Langer as a tool of "big labor," causing Langer to return the taunt by calling Aandahl a tool of "big business." Both Langer and Aandahl campaigned hard for the nomination, but Langer was eventually triumphant by almost 30,000 votes.
Langer won re-election for a third time in 1958. At the time of the campaign, his wife was suffering from cancer, and his health was deteriorating as well. He won without making a single campaign speech or even making an appearance in the state. He did appear on a half-hour block of television the night before the primary, however. He carried every county in the state.
William Langer died on November 8, 1959 in Washington, D.C.. He is buried in Casselton, North Dakota.
Sketch taken largely from:
Geelan, Agnes. The Dakota Maverick: The Political Life of William Langer, also known as "Wild Bill" Langer. Fargo: Kaye's Printing Company, 1975.
Robinson, Elwyn. History of North Dakota. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1966.
The William Langer Papers are divided into several sections. Each individual section has its own scope and content note and box and folder inventory. Please follow the links below:
|Pre-Senatorial Papers: 1900-1941||Senatorial Papers, Box 107-225|
|Senatorial Papers, Box 226-350||Senatorial Papers, Box 351-475|
|Senatorial Papers, Box 476-625||
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