After Tennessee seceded from the Union in June 1861, the Civil War began in earnest. It would be won by force just a few years later, in a war that tore the country apart — a war that Americans still haven’t forgotten. So when North Dakota governor William “Wild Bill” Langer declared North Dakota’s independence — in 1934 — you have to wonder what he was thinking.
It’s likely he was thinking about anything that would get him out of going to a federal prison. Langer was just convicted of a felony and the state Supreme Court upheld a conviction that would remove him from the Governor’s office. His lieutenant governor, Ole Olson (yes, that’s really his name), took over.
Good thing the National Guard was already on the streets.
Langer was skimming money from government paychecks into an account run by the group that put him in the office of governor. But that’s not even what he was convicted for, which was conspiracy to violate an act of Congress. His jail sentence was longer than his time in office.
But the voters loved him anyway. Despite the charges and convictions, they voted for him.
Martial law had to be declared in North Dakota. Earle Sarles, adjutant general of the North Dakota National Guard and the man technically in charge of the entire state at that moment, basically decided, on the spot, who would be governor: Olson or Langer.
What no one except Langer loyalists knew at the time was that the governor drew up a “Declaration of Independence for the State of North Dakota” the night before Court’s decision. But true to the North Dakota Constitution (and the oath he took to wear a U.S. Army uniform), he supported the court ruling and backed Olson.
When the North Dakota National Guard was called up to forcibly remove him from the Capitol Building in Bismarck, Langer’s supporters will still marching and demonstrating the capital’s streets.
Langer would be exonerated for the crime in 1935 and successfully ran for U.S. Senate, being seated in 1941 — where he had to explain the Declaration of Independence to the Congress.