Robert L. Morlan (1920-1985)
Robert L. Morlan was a distinguished political scientist,
educator, administrator and author. He taught at the
University of Minnesota, Minneapolis from 1948 to 1949. Later Morlan became a professor of political science at the University of Redlands in Redlands, California, where he taught from 1956 until his death. His book on the Nonpartisan League titled Political Prairie Fire, is an important contribution to the history of one of the most important political movements that arose on the Northern Plains. Some of Morlan's other books were Intergovernmental Relations in Education; Capitol, Courthouse and City Hall; and American Government.
Political Prairie Fire
Political Prairie Fire provided the first in-depth history of the Nonpartisan League, including its inception, growth, progressive platform, political victories and death. A review in Ohio History noted, Political Prairie Fire still remains the best comprehensive history of the early years of the NPL with its political strength centered in North Dakota and Minnesota. Morlan's work with the Minnesota Democratic Farmer-Labor party in the late 1940s sparked his interest in the NPL's history and led to this narrative account that established the framework for researching and writing the history of the NPL.
Morlan emphasized the League's origins; its innovative use of the direct primary; its legislative program to aid family farmers; its condemnation as "socialist," "prussianized," and "bolshevik" in the wartime mobilization and postwar Red Scare of 1917-1920; and its rapid decline after 1920. By 1915 farmers in western North Dakota faced severe economic hardships including marketing malpractices in the inspection, weighing, and grading of grain; exorbitant elevator storage charges and discriminatory railroad rate practices; and domination by bankers in St. Paul and Minneapolis through high interest rates and increased farm foreclosures. Under the charismatic leadership of Arthur C. Townley and his Socialist veterans corps of organizers using modern sales techniques, Ford automobiles, and members' dues payment by postdated checks, farmers employed the direct primary to win control of the Republican Party in hopes of bringing about "the New Day in North Dakota."
Following the capture of the governorship and both houses of the state legislature in the 1918 elections, the NPL enacted the New Day in the 1919 legislative session. The NPL created state-sponsored and state-financed agencies such as the Industrial Commission, the Bank of North Dakota, the Mill and Elevator Association, and the Home Building Association. Morlan's account delivers massive narrative detail of these developments almost to the point of inundation. He leaves summary, analysis, and discussion of the NPL's legacy to the last in claiming that the NPL was "the last of the great farmers' crusades" which "laid much of the foundation of modern midwestern liberalism," so that the "radicalism of 1916 is in large measure the accepted practice of today" (pp. 359-361).