Grange, Partisanship & Elections for Public Office


By Krist Novoselic

April 15, 2010


Ever since its inception, there has been tension regarding the scope of the political work in the Grange. In a previous article I wrote about Knights of the Plow, a history of the early Grange by Thomas A. Woods that covers these early controversies within the order.  The Grange was started in the beginning of a period of broad-based agrarian dissent. Oliver H. Kelley, whose portrait hangs in our hall, battled with Grange leadership over how deep the organization was going to get into the social and economic turmoil of the period. Kelley had big ideas on how the order was going to fight corporations, entrenched lawmakers and other monopolies. Over the course of its history, the intensity of these political urges has, in some cases, surged enough to inflict damage onto the Grange - mostly from members leaving en masse because of the organization's leaders subduing attempts at widespread political mobilization. Nevertheless, the organization has endured many eras while other groups have come and gone. The Grange has done a lot over during its 140 years, but the one thing it has never supported is endorsing candidates.


Of course, many lawmakers have been, or are, members - with the most notable being Presidents F.D. Roosevelt and H. Truman. However, this has never been an issue or problem as these kinds of individuals are only members. In fact, it is a source of pride for the organization.


The following are historical accounts taken from the study: RICH HARVEST – A History of the Grange 1876-1900 by D. Sven Nordin. From this tome, we find examples of how the Grange always resisted efforts of being dragged into partisan politics and elections for public office.


The Grange has a history of denouncing almost every dissident move in its ranks aimed at forwarding either parties or would-be office seekers. Here’s Granger Mortimer Whitehead on the order in The American Journal of Politics – 1892,


“Its teachings are full of pure politics, but is partisan NEVER. It cannot be used as a cat’s paw to draw political chestnuts out of the fire either for parties or for individuals . . . The Grange is not a good place for one who loves his party more that his country; or for one who makes the organization or his party secondary to his own personal ambition. It cannot be used by such as a stepping-stone to political preferment.” (Whitehead placed the emphasis in this quote.)


Ignatius Donnelly joined the Cereal Grange No. 25 in Hastings Minnesota in January, 1873. Donnelly viewed membership as a way to advance his political career. A gifted orator, he used his skills to speak out about agrarian grievances and traveled the state visiting Grange meetings.


By September, Donnelly had gained much notoriety. He sensed an opportunity and called upon Grangers to send delegates to a convention creating a new political party. This alarmed the leaders of the Minnesota Grange. State Master George I. Parsons sent letters to local Granges urging members not to heed Donnelly. He wrote, “Prohibition [against partisan politics] is our only safeguard against sure and speedy destruction. Upon obedience to the law depends our very existence as an order.”


This situation itself caused a rift in the organization. Granger William Paist sided with Donnelly writing an open letter in the Farmer’s Union paper, “We would say to Bro. P[arsons] that there is no danger of us (as he says) bartering away our beloved order for a mess of political pottage, but we are going to try and have a little sauce with our pottage, by electing good and true men to office, and give those political hucksters a chance to stay at home and learn the principles of honesty.”


 The paper’s editor, W.J. Abernethy wrote an editorial in opposition to Donnelly and his supporters, “Given to the hands of politicians, it [the Grange] will be manipulated for their own selfish interests and eventually [will be] split up under the leadership of various factions, and its usefulness entirely destroyed.”


Donnelly countered his opposition with a pamphlet he circulated saying, “That you should organize Granges, wear regalia, meet o’ nights, discuss your wrongs and resolve to seek a remedy but ‘don’t go into politics!’ ‘You will hurt some one’ Who? Why the fellows who are counseling you . . . We are told the Granges are not political. True. But if the discussions in the Granges lead the members to certain political conclusions, they have a right to put those conclusions into force at the ballot box.”


 Donnelly pushed ahead with a convention of Grangers, and non-grangers were also invited. The Anti-Monopoly party drafted a platform, voted on resolutions and nominated candidates.  Because of all the energy, there was a lot of anticipation for success in the Minnesota election. But the party did poorly in the public vote. Still, some Grangers, as Anti-Monopoly party members, were elected – including Donnelly.


There was a stressful relationship between the new party and the Minnesota State Grange leadership. As a result, the 1874 state convention was difficult, with the rift between Parsons and Donnelly dominating the proceedings. Parsons was voted out as State Master and the bad feelings led to a mass withdrawal of members. The weakened Minnesota Grange, in turn, impacted Donnelly and his career as granger-politician. He lost his bid to represent the state in the US Senate when the Minnesota legislature chose another candidate. Donnelly left the order to join the new Greenback Party.


 The Grange refused to tie its fortunes to the Anti-Monopoly party, and as a result, didn’t sink along with it. Unlike the other groups that grew out of that period of agrarian strife, the Grange lasted the 19th century. In the early 20th Century, under the leadership of William M. Bouck, the Washington Grange found itself in the middle conflicts during that era of controversy in our state. Master Bouck quit the order in the early 1920’s amidst contention that resulted in a collapse of membership across Washington.


As a casual reader of Grange history, I’ve noticed a paradox. It seems like Grange membership swells in times of political unrest – only to come crashing down when leadership puts the brakes on partisan passions. At the same time, the order manages to survive – while other prominent groups over the course time have faded into the past.


I’d like to see an invigorated, successful third party in American politics. But there is no need for the Grange to hitch itself onto such an endeavor. This is a multi-faceted organization. For example, Grays River Grange is exploring the precepts of the order by exemplifying the various degrees. This is an ongoing process that’s an opportunity for members to understand our ritualistic aspects while also finding meaning in its symbolism. And don't forget there's always issues! Just check out the State Grange Policy Handbook to see what the organization is supporting.


 It’s quite the coincidence that the date for the GRHED election* will be the same day as our booster night. (County poll closes at 8pm.) Grangers should come to our event regardless of their individual preference on the ballot. The Grange itself will have voted, but according to the rules, that result will never be revealed. If we do want to find out something that night – let’s look to the grange hall as a place where partisanship, and certainly any election-time acrimony, can be left outside. While it is uncertain that this ideal can be attained universally, one thing is clear; the Grays River Grange has a future regardless of the outcome of this election.


*Grays River Grange, as a group, has voting rights in this local single issue election. Read More Here.