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North Dakota's youngest U.S. senator fought to root out corruption

"Did You Know That" columnist Curt Eriksmoen continues the story of Gerald P. Nye.

Gerald Nye public domain 1.jpg
Gerald Nye represented North Dakota in the U.S. Senate from 1925 to 1945.
Contributed / Public Domain / https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6209577
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FARGO — When Gerald P. Nye was appointed to the U.S. Senate on Nov. 14, 1925, at the age of 32, he became the youngest U.S. senator from North Dakota to ever hold that office.

Nye received that appointment from Gov. Arthur Sorlie following the death of Sen. Edwin Ladd. Although Nye, a Republican, did not have to launch a campaign to obtain that office, the road to becoming a senator was not an easy process for him.

As an active member of the Nonpartisan League (NPL), his views were much more progressive than the “regular Republicans.” Consequently, the more conservative Republicans in the U.S. Senate opposed having him officially seated. When the vote was finally taken to have him seated in January 1926, “a combination of Democratic and insurgent Republican senators seated him by a vote of 41 to 39.” Sixteen of the Senators who voted for him were Democrats.

At that time, the regular Republicans were in a bind because they could not control the Senate without the aid of progressive Republicans, but the progressive Republicans “would vote to defeat a number of the administration’s bills.” By allowing Nye to have an official vote in the Senate, the regular Republicans feared that his vote could tip the balance of power to the Democrats on a number of important “international and domestic issues.”

As Nye was nearing the completion of Ladd’s term in the Senate, he needed to run for that office in the upcoming 1926 election. According to North Dakota historian Elwyn Robinson, “The long contest over the seating insured Nye’s election in 1926... The fight made Nye’s name a household word in North Dakota.”

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In the June 30 primary, to try to defeat the young, dynamic senator, the Republicans chose as their candidate Louis B. Hanna, a 65-year-old politician who had served as a U.S. representative and governor of North Dakota. In the primary election, Nye defeated Hanna by over 15,000 votes. In the general election, Nye won by nearly 90,000 votes.

Nye had a boyish look and according to Robinson, he was “modest and unassuming,” but his appearance belied the fight and tenacity that he possessed. He “became a very active, popular and outspoken senator,” especially when it came to farm issues and U.S. neutrality in European wars.

Nye wanted “the same kind of help for farmers that the federal government had given to industry.” Nye soon became known as “the Wat Tyler of the prairies.” Tyler was a leader of the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt in England who led a group of rebellious farmers to London to oppose the institution of a poll tax and to demand economic and social reforms.

In the U.S. Senate, Nye joined with other progressive senators to form a bloc that “held the balance of power on the major issues of tax reduction, farm relief, amending the railroad laws, and Army and Navy bills.” That bloc included Lynn Frazier from North Dakota, William Borah from Idaho, Smith Brookhart from Iowa, George Norris from Nebraska and Bob La Follette Jr. from Wisconsin. All of those senators represented states with huge agricultural interests.

Following World War I, Nye had witnessed many of his North Dakota neighbors lose their farms because they could not pay off their debts. At the same time, Italy owed a large debt to the U.S. for the assistance it received during the war, and America greatly reduced the amount of the debt when Italy was unable to repay the full amount.

This fact contributed to Nye’s opposition to the U.S. getting involved in European wars. He wondered why we were able to help other countries, but were unable to help our own citizens.

It was reported that “It was in the Senate committees that Nye made his name a household name.” The first that he chaired was the Committee on Public Lands and Surveys.

Nye was appointed chair in December 1927, while the committee was still uncovering evidence about the political involvement in the Teapot Dome scandal. The results of the committee’s investigation led to “the removal of Robert Stewart as president of Standard Oil of Indiana, the jailing of Harry F. Sinclair of Monmouth Oil Company, the recovery of millions of dollars to taxes for the government, and the preservation of oil resources worth hundreds of millions of dollars.”

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As the investigation into Teapot Dome was wrapping up, Nye stated on Feb. 25, 1928, “The investigation has shown, let us hope, privilege at its worst. The trail is one of dishonesty, greed, violation of law, secrecy, concealment, evasion, falsehood, and cunning. It is a trail of betrayals by trusted and presumably honorable men — betrayals of a government, of certain business interests, and the people who trusted and honored them; it is a trail showing a flagrant degree of the exercise of political power and influence, and the power and influence of great wealth upon individuals and political parties.”

With this statement, Nye put on notice politicians and wealthy individuals who might try to influence politicians that he would root out corruption wherever he found it. In April 1930, Nye became chairman of the Senate's committee to investigate campaign expenses, which found numerous instances of corruption.

The investigation that, perhaps, led to his greatest satisfaction involved the cousin of his former opponent, Louis B. Hanna. Mrs. Ruth Hanna McCormick was the daughter of Sen. Marc Hanna and widow of Medill McCormick, heir to the Chicago Tribune. Nye’s committee uncovered information that showed that Ruth had spent $325,000 on the 1930 Republican primary election, and some of that money was possibly unaccounted for. Today, that amount is equivalent to over $5 million. Although nothing illegal was proven, the fact that she spent that kind of money during the start of the Great Depression had a huge impact on voters who ended up electing her opponent, J. Hamilton Lewis, to the U.S. Senate.

Nye’s next major political entanglement involved the most prominent North Dakota politician at that time. In 1932, William Langer was elected governor of North Dakota. Six months after he assumed office, he came up with a scheme “to raise operating money for the NPL and to help recoup the $21,000 he had contributed to the party.” His plan was to reissue The Leader, the official newspaper of the NPL, and to require all government employees to surrender 5% of their salary for a subscription to the newspaper. This became a legal issue because some of the employees worked for the federal government.

Sen. Nye demanded an investigation of wrongdoing, and on April 8, 1934, a conspiracy trial began in Bismarck. On June 29, Judge Andrew Miller found Langer guilty and sentenced him to 18 months in prison, and fined him $10,000. Langer appealed the verdict and, at a second trial, was found “not guilty.” However, the North Dakota Supreme Court had stripped Langer of the position of governor, but he saw a way to get even with Nye because in 1936, Sen. Nye would be running for reelection.

We will conclude the story of Gerald P. Nye next week.

“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@gmail.com.

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