Section 1: Introduction

When North Dakota became a state in 1889, Alexander McKenzie was already well-established as a political boss. From his strong position, he controlled seven of the first eight governors of the new state. He had strong influence in the legislature which not only wrote laws for North Dakota, but also elected U.S. Senators.

It was fairly easy for McKenzie and his “machine” to assert control, because farmers had not built an effective political organization. The Progressive Republicans could not overcome McKenzie’s illegitimate power. In addition, North Dakota was very poor. The state had a very small income-$270,000 in 1889 ($6,794,117 today)–and many debts to pay.

During the first few years of statehood, governors tried to control spending. School budgets were cut. The health department did not have enough money to pay salaries. Governor Frank White told the legislature to avoid “much legislation” which he thought would save the state money. Taxes were high because the state’s population was small, but farmers usually paid their full tax burden.

The political process was open to corruption. North Dakota did not have primary elections in which the voters chose the candidates. The candidates were chosen by delegates to political party conventions. McKenzie controlled votes by offering the delegates money, passes to ride the trains for free, or appointment to office. Delegates to the legislature and to political party conventions were usually poor and often accepted the bribes. Bribes ranged from $50 to $500, but one notable offer was for $1,400 which the legislator refused. Many honest legislators and convention delegates turned down bribes from McKenzie’s agents.

Most of the governors who served North Dakota between 1890 and 1906 owed their position to McKenzie’s political machine. The only governor between 1890 and 1906 that McKenzie did not control was Eli Shortridge. Governor Shortridge was elected by a coalition of Democrats and Populists for one two-year term in 1892. The voters hoped that Shortridge would be able to challenge McKenzie’s power. Though Shortridge had some success in office, he was not able to undermine the power of Alexander McKenzie.

McKenzie controlled the legislature, and the legislature elected the U.S. Senator. McKenzie’s candidates for Senate were usually successful. Henry C. Hansbrough was one of Mckenzie’s close associates. Hansbrough served North Dakota as the United States Senator from 1891 to 1909. However, during Shortridge’s term, McKenzie failed to get his man elected. The Republicans in the legislature refused to allow McKenzie to control the process. It took 44 days and more than 60 ballots, but finally in the spring of 1893, a coalition of Democrats and Republicans elected William N. Roach to the Senate. McKenzie was not happy.

McKenzie used any tool at hand to control North Dakota politics. One of his favorite tools was the Prohibition law. If the legislature considered a bill to assert some control over railroad rates or business practices, McKenzie’s legislative boss, Judson LaMoure, would suggest bringing prohibition back to the people for another vote. LaMoure would ask the anti-liquor legislators to oppose the railroad bills. In return, he promised to stop the bill that would send the prohibition law back to the voters. By pitting prohibition interests against the legislators that would control railroad corporations in North Dakota, McKenzie made North Dakota a favorable place for the railroads to do business.

McKenzie’s tactics were clearly unacceptable in a democracy.Democracy, with a small “d,” is a term which describes our governmental principles. Republican, with a small “r,” is a term we use to describe our government. The words democracy and democratic should not be confused with the Democratic Party. The word republican should not be confused with Republican Party. The political parties chose titles that reflect our nation’s ideals, but the words have meaning beyond the party label. Between 1883 and 1906, he made as many enemies as friends. Farmers usually did not like McKenzie’s politics, but farmers had little political power until the Farmers’ Alliance formed a political party. McKenzie’s conviction in the Alaska gold mine scheme tarnished his reputation in North Dakota. He also chose candidates whose public behavior raised some concerns. In 1906, McKenzie backed Elmore Y. Sarles for a second term. Sarles drank beer publicly. John Knauf, McKenzie’s choice for Attorney General, had swindled a client.

McKenzie’s poor choices led to a growing division in the Republican Party. Reformers among the Republicans, known as the Progressives, recognized that McKenzie was costing them votes. They were right. In 1906, voters elected a Democrat, John Burke, to the governorship. McKenzie’s tight grip on North Dakota politics was finally loosened.

Why is this important? Capable politicians learn quickly how to locate sources of power. Of course, the most important source of political power lies with the people. Another source comes from the coalition of political interests. These are normal and usually acceptable political processes. When power comes from a legitimate source and is used for the good of the people, government functions well and the rights of the people are respected. However, when power is misused, it undermines the will of the people.

McKenzie misused the legitimate power of the voters, and bought illegitimate power with dollars and favors. McKenzie said that he was doing good things for North Dakota. However, in a democracy, the process of acquiring political position and power is as important as the outcome. By mistreating democratic processes, McKenzie undermined the rights of the people. When the people asserted their legitimate political power, they were able to curb McKenzie’s reign as “boss of North Dakota.”

For more about Alexander McKenzie see: