Mandan is associated with four of the thirty-one men who have served as Governor of North Dakota. One was born here; one died here; one moved here and one started his professional career here.
William Langer was born on a farm on September 30, 1886 near Casselton to Frank and Mary (Weber) Langer, one of six children. His father was also active in state and county politics and was a bank officer for the First National Bank of Casselton.
Bill attended rural schools and graduated from Casselton High School as valedictorian in 1904. He obtained a bachelor of laws from the UND-Grand Forks in 1906 and passed the bar exam.
But at 18, he was too young to practice law in ND which required an age of 21. He continued his undergraduate education at Columbia University in New York where he graduated at the top of his class in 1910. Although offered a position at a prominent New York law firm, Langer chose to return to North Dakota.
Settling in Mandan at a boarding house at 300 2nd Ave NW, he found work with H.R. Bitzing, the States Attorney for Morton County. He served as Assistant States Attorney until 1914, when he was appointed Morton County States Attorney. He quickly began to make a name for himself politically. He swore out 167 warrants for arrest of liquor dealers and vice operators on his very first day of work. He successfully sued Northern Pacific Railway for $1,250,000 in back taxes, establishing a reputation as an enemy of corporations.
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. He was re-elected Attorney General in 1918 on the Non-Partisan League (NPL) ticket.
Morton County Courthouse c. 1913 Click to Enlarge
Bill and Lydia Langer voting in 1940 election
On February 26, 1918, William Langer had married Lydia Cady in New York City in February 1918 while ND Attorney General. The daughter of prominent New York architect, 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.
In March 1920, Langer announced his candidacy for governor on the Progressive Republican ticket. Langer had defected from the NPL in 1919 accusing its leaders as selling out farmers. Langer was defeated by the NPL candidate, Lynn Frazier in a close election.
Langer returned to his law practice and he and his partner moved their firm to Bismarck. The practice now benefited tremendously from Langerís name recognition. He eventually rejoined the NPL and directly helped the party work through its financial issues. While he lost the primary for Attorney General in 1928 he did receive the 1932 gubernatorial nomination. Langer, along with all other major NPL candidates, was swept into power in the 1932 election.
He was unwavering in his support of ND farmers. When the price of wheat fell low, Langer declared an embargo on North Dakota wheat until prices rose. He also declared a moratorium on farm foreclosures, even resorting to use of the National Guard to stop sheriffs' sales.
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, which represented about five percent of their annual state salary. Although Langer viewed this as a legitimate campaign fund raising, he was charged and found guilty of soliciting contributions illegally by a Federal court, sentenced to eighteen months in prison, and fined $10,000.The ND Supreme Court had him removed from office on the basis of his felony conviction. It would take three more trials, but eventually Langer was acquitted of all charges.Langer returned to serve as the ND governor in 1937-1941.
After completing his second term as governor, Langer successfully ran for US Senate. Although Langer had won the election, his enemies were determined to not allow him to take his seat. A petition was presented to the Senate.The Senateís investigation committee listened to testimony, some very damaging, regarding Langerís 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. The committee recommended, by a vote of 13-3, that Langer not be seated; but the entire Senate disregarded the recommendation and voted to seat Langer by a vote of 52-30.Langerís victory made the front page of the New York Times and other papers around the country.
William Langer served on Civil Service, Indian Affairs, and Judiciary Senate committees, among others. He was a champion of rural electrification and telephone service as well as affordable health care.
His Senate career was also marked by his reputation as a strict isolationist. He opposed the Lend-Lease Act as well as the extension of Selective Service prior to WWII. He did, however, vote to declare war following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Despite the lessons learned during WWII, Langer's isolationist philosophy did not change.
c. 1934 Federal REA Poster
Langer was also extremely critical of Great Britian's Winston Churchill. In one instance prior to a scheduled visit to the US by now former Prime Minister Churchill, 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 won re-election in 1946 and 1952. Langer also won re-election for a third time in 1958 despite failing health of both he and his wife. Despite not making a single campaign appearance in the state, he carried every county in the state.
William Langer died while serving in Washington as a US Senator on November 8, 1959. He is buried in Leoís Catholic Cemetery in Casselton.
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