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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published February 05 2012

Eriksmoen: North Dakota governor chosen as a ‘hero of his generation’

In 1960, North Dakota was asked to choose someone who would be honored with a statue in the new Statuary Hall of the U.S. Capitol. The requirement for that honor was that it was to be someone “who won popular acclaim as a hero of his generation.” The person chosen by a North Dakota state commission was John Burke, a man who served three terms as governor, was a U.S. treasurer for eight years, and spent 12 years on the state supreme court. While governor, he transformed the state from one run by a well-financed political machine to a much freer democratic community.

In 1906, with the help of Progressive Republicans, Burke defeated the incumbent governor, Elmore Sarles, to become the first Democratic governor elected in North Dakota.

One of the Progressives who supported Burke during the campaign was Usher Burdick, who was also elected as a freshman North Dakota legislator from Munich, N.D. Burdick was a Republican, but “during the 1907 session he worked with Burke to reform legislation as if they belonged to the same political party.”

Their major joint objective was to get rid of the stranglehold that the McKenzie machine had on North Dakota. The railroad, through McKenzie, offered free rail passes to those politicians who were willing to vote on measures favorable to the railroads. Both Burke and Burdick saw this as bribery and tried to get it outlawed. However, their efforts in 1907 were unsuccessful.

In 1908, Burke ran for re-election, and he was opposed by Charles A. Johnson, a Minot attorney, legislator and newspaperman. Johnson was a McKenzie-man, and again the Progressives joined with the Democrats in electing Burke. Burdick was elected speaker of the house, and together they were able to get some reform measures through the legislature.

In 1910, Burke ran for an unprecedented third term, and he again faced Johnson in the general election. At the time, the governor and lieutenant governor were elected separately and, during Burke’s first two terms, his lieutenant governor was a Republican. Burke was re-elected and a Republican was again elected lieutenant governor, but this time it was his friend Burdick. As lieutenant governor, Burdick presided over the Senate and helped steer many reform measures through the legislature, which Burke quickly signed into law. One of the most important was a bill outlawing McKenzie’s free passes.

During Burke’s three terms as governor, he and the legislature initiated many reforms, including regulation of lobbying and laws against corrupt practices. Together they provided for the first primary election; establishment of a tax commission, an employment compensation commission, public health laboratories and juvenile courts; legislation regarding child labor, sanitation inspection and public health; and regulation of public utilities, medicine and surgery.

It has been written that “Burke changed North Dakota from a colonial possession of wealthy plutocratic interests into a free democratic community.” Burke decided not to seek a fourth term. One thing the legislature did in 1910 was to carve a separate county out of Ward County and name it Burke County in honor of “Honest John.”

In June of 1912, Burke attended the Democratic National Convention in Baltimore. While there, he was pushed by William Jennings Bryan to run for vice president. He “received nearly 400 votes on the first ballot,” but withdrew his name from contention. Burke, a Woodrow Wilson supporter, swung all of North Dakota’s votes to Wilson. In gratitude, Wilson appointed Burke as U.S. treasurer on April 1, 1913.

In 1916, Burke agreed to run for the U.S. Senate against Porter J. McCumber, the Republican incumbent, who had served since 1899. After receiving less than 40 percent of the North Dakota votes, Burke returned to his job as treasurer. In 1920, Warren Harding, a Republican, was elected president and he selected a different treasurer. Burke’s replacement was also a former North Dakota governor – Frank White.

With several employment opportunities, Burke decided to join a New York stock brokerage firm, the Kardos Company. It was established by Louis M. Kardos, who turned the firm over to his son, Louis Jr. When Burke joined, it was renamed Kardos & Burke. Burke was told he would not have to worry about the affairs of the firm and would receive $500 a week. By February of 1922, the company declared bankruptcy, owing 60 creditors $2 million. Time magazine called Kardos a “notorious bucket shop.” This meant that the firm was engaged in fraudulent action by taking the client’s money and not investing it in the market. “If the price of the commodity fell, even temporarily, the firm then took 100 percent of the customer’s investment.”

At a hearing, Burke was asked if Kardos only “wanted to use your name and the prestige attached to it.” Burke replied, “I did not think so at the time, but I realize it now.” Burke was never implicated in any of the wrong-doing and was said to be “an innocent dupe.”

None of his money or possessions was named in the bankruptcy, but he felt obligated to make it right with the investors. Burke sold his real estate, cashed in his life insurance policy and sold his seat on the stock exchange and turned all of his wealth and possessions over to the creditors. He was now broke and out of work.

Burke returned to North Dakota, and Burdick quickly offered him a partnership position at his Fargo law office. In 1924, a vacancy opened up on the North Dakota Supreme Court, and Burdick persuaded his partner to seek that position. Burdick circulated the election papers and acted as Burke’s campaign manager. Six candidates sought the position, and at the June 25 primary, Burke received 41 percent of the votes. Charles J. Fiske, the next-highest vote-getter, received 18 percent. At the general election on Nov. 4, Burke received 60 percent of the votes.

He remained on the high court until his death on May 14, 1937, serving as chief justice from 1929 to 1931 and from 1935 to 1937.

Besides having a county named in his honor and his statue in Washington, D.C., a duplicate statue was placed near the south entrance of the North Dakota Capitol in 1963. In 1942, a liberty ship, the SS John Burke, was commissioned and named in honor of the former governor. The ship soon found action in the South Pacific during World War II. In December 1944, it was part of a 100-ship convoy to resupply the U.S. troops on Mindano. On Dec. 28, the Japanese launched an air attack on the convoy and the Burke was hit by a kamikaze piloted-plane. All 68 crew members of the ship were killed.


“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.