"Lemke, William Frederick," written by Edward C. Blackorby, in the Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement 4: 1946-1950, p. 479-481, 1974.
"Lemke, William Frederick (Aug. 13, 1878- May 30, 1950), agrarian leader and Congressman, was born in Albany, Minn., the second son and fourth often children of Frederick William Lemke, a farmer, and Julia Anna (Klier) Lemke. His father, a native of Prussia, had immigrated with his Lutheran parents in 1851; his mother, whose Catholic family had come from Bavaria, was born in Wisconsin; the couple reared their daughters as Catholics and their sons as Lutherans. In 1881 Frederick Lemke moved his family to Dakota Territory, where he settled on a homestead near Cando in Towner County in 1883. There he prospered, acquiring 2,700 acres by the mid-1890s and winning election to the state legislature as a Republican in 1900, the year before his death.
Lemke lost an eye in a boyhood accident, but apparently suffered no great handicap as a result. He graduated from the Cando high school in 1898 and entered the University of North Dakota, from which he received the B.A. degree in 1902. He then studied law at North Dakota (1902- 1903), Georgetown University (1903-1904), and Yale University (1904-1905). After receiving his LL.B. degree from Yale in 1905, he established a practice in Fargo, N.Dak. On Apr.16, 1910, he married Isabelle McIntyre (originally McGilvray), a stenographer in his office. They had three children: William Frederick, Robert McIntyre, and Mary Eleanor.
While at Yale, Lemke's friendship with the son of a Mexican senator had aroused his interest in acquiring land in western Mexico for colonization by Americans. In 1906 he organized a company which raised $400,000 through a stock offering and purchased 550,000 acres in Sinaloa and Tepic. The Mexican revolution that broke out in 1911, however, dealt the venture a blow from which it never recovered. Desiring a strong Mexican government capable of protecting his interests, Lemke applauded the seizure of power by the dictator Victoriano Huerta in 1913 and vainly urged President Wilson to recognize the Huerta regime. Lemke expressed his bitterness toward Wilson in his book Crimes Against Mexico (1915).
Impoverished by his Mexican debacle, Lemke became an attorney for the Society of Equity, a manifestation of Midwestern agrarian discontent founded in North Dakota in 1907. As a boy Lemke had witnessed the local successes of the Farmers' Alliance and the Populist party and had absorbed his father's concern for their programs, and he sympathized with the society's goal of giving the farmer a greater share of his product through the creation of a cooperative exchange. One outgrowth of the Equity movement was the founding in 1915 of a vigorous new organization, the Nonpartisan League, which sought to work within the two major political parties for agrarian reform. Lemke soon became one of its leaders.
Regarding himself as a progressive in the tradition of Robert M. La Follette, Lemke soon rose to a position of great political influence; he became chairman of the Republican state committee (1916-1920) and a member of the Nonpartisan Leagues' national executive committee (1917- 1921). In the gubernatorial race of 1916 he gained league endorsement in the Republican primary for Lynn J. Frazier, who was elected for the first of three terms. More important, Lemke was the chief architect of the league's legislative program, enacted in 1919, which created the state- owned Bank of North Dakota, a state grain mill and elevator, the Workmen's Compensation Bureau, a state hail insurance program, an industrial commission to oversee state industries, and machinery for rural credit loans and the building of low-cost houses for farmers.
In 1920 Lemke was elected attorney general of North Dakota. By this time, however, both his influence and that of the Nonpartisan League had begun to wane. The league's isolationism during World War I, the socialist background the some of its leaders, the financial boycott of North Dakota, Langer's withdrawal, and the league's opposition to wartime restrictions on civil liberties had made it the object of conservative attack during the war and the subsequent red scare. The deflation of 1921, which caused numerous bank failures and halted construction of the state mill and elevator, cast doubt on the viability of the League's program. Lemke himself was criticized for using a state loan to build himself a house and was attacked as a political czar who controlled the league newspapers and the Bank of North Dakota. In 1921 a legislative audit committee disclosed evidence of favoritism in the bank's policy or redepositing funds in institutions in which Lemke had an interest. These charges, though unsubstantiated, gave impetus to a recall movement led by the anti-League Independent Voters Association, and in 1921 Lemke, Frazier, and John H. Hagan, the state agricultural commissioner, were removed from office. Serious charges against Lemke were unsubstantiated and the indictment against him was dropped.
Lemke succeeded in getting Frazier elected to the United States Senate in 1922 but was himself defeated for governor. Thereafter he engaged in several business ventures, most of them unfruitful. He had hopes of being appointed ambassador to Mexico by President Coolidge, and hence abstained from league politics in the mid-1920s. As a result, the organization was captured by his opponents, who had long regarded him as too radical. Lemke ran for the Senate in 1926 as candidate of the short-lived Farmer-Labor party, but was defeated. In the presidential election of 1928 he backed Alfred E. Smith. Lemke was an early supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 and led the successful campaign that gave Roosevelt North Dakota's votes in the presidential primary. The depression, his transfer of support from Smith to Roosevelt, and alliance with William Langer helped launch his second political career. That fall, with the endorsement of the league, Lemke was elected to the House of Representatives as a Republican. Save for 1940, when he ran unsuccessfully for the Senate against Langer, he was regularly returned to the House until his death.
As the depression deepened, Lemke became a supporter of the militant Farm Holiday Association led by Milo Reno. A foe of production controls, he consistently backed the association's radical proposal for a "cost of production" system in which the federal government would fix prices on various commodities. He also authored and--along with Senator Frazier-- cosponsored bills to ease bankruptcy terms for farmers, create a Bank of the United States (the only state-owned bank in the country), and allow farmers to refinance their mortgages at lower interest rates. Despite the opposition of President Roosevelt, Lemke by a tireless personal campaign lined up sufficient support to secure passage of the Frazier-Lemke Farm Bankruptcy Act (1934) and, when it was declared unconstitutional, its successor, the Farm Mortgage Moratorium Act (1935), which was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1937. Known as the Frazier bills, before Lemke's election to Congress, the latter's sole authorship has been acknowledged by Frazier; they were introduced into the Senate by Frazier and into the House by Lemke.
Embittered by Roosevelt's refusal to support his program, Lemke in 1936 accepted the presidential nomination of the vaguely agrarian-inflationary Union party, recently formed by three anti-New Deal demagogues: Father Charles E. Coughlin, the Michigan radio priest; the Rev. Gerald L. K. Smith, an ally of the recently assassinated Senator Huey P. Long; and Dr. Francis E. Townsend, campaigner for old-age pensions. Long and Coughlin had supported Lemke's bills; but his association with these fringe elements eroded his influence in liberal circles, and his presidential candidacy drew less than 900,000 votes. As World War II approached, Lemke's isolationist sentiments were rekindled, and he opposed increased armaments and spoke for the America First Committee against the Lend-Lease Bill in 1941. After the war, as a member of the House Public Lands Committee, he sponsored a number of conservation measures - Land reclamation, irrigation, land flood control - and the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Park, and a liberalization of the Alaskan homestead system. He enacted several bills for the betterment of American Indians and to repay them for land taken in the construction of Garrison Dam, which he had worked to finance.
Lemke was serious and reserved, with stern features and a manner that reflected his farm background. Although something of a deist, he accepted his wife's later Christian Science affiliation. He died in Fargo, North Dakota, of a sudden coronary attack at the age of seventy-one and was buried in that city's Riverside Cemetery. Lemke's career, unlike that of more traditional politicians, defies easy characterization. A dedicated public servant, he tenaciously pursued those policies, however radical or hopeless, which he believed to be in the interest of his constituents. Many considered him an extremist, and his zeal sometimes narrowed his vision and led him into questionable positions or dubious alliances. Yet as architect of the Nonpartisan League's program in North Dakota and as Congressman, he introduced and achieved enactment of much responsible, liberal legislation."
Donation; the original acquisition records are unavailable
The William Lemke Papers have been divided into six series:
Series 1: Correspondence
Series 2: Speeches
Series 3: Press Releases
Series 4: Miscellaneous Political Papers
Series 5: Land Finance Company
Series 6: Miscellaneous
Series 7: Photographs