Andrew Volstead

Andrew Volstead is best remembered as the author of the Volstead Act (officially known as the National Prohibition Act of 1919), which permitted enforcement of the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (the Prohibition Amendment).

However, it appears that the author of the bill was largely Wayne Wheeler, the de facto leader of the Anti-Saloon League. It was Wheeler who conceived and largely drafted the bill, although Volstead denied that assertion. Volstead was chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and it was his job to sponsor the legislation. Nevertheless, Prohibition transformed the name of an otherwise obscure legislator from Minnesota into a household word. The name Volstead was cursed by some, praised by others, but known by all.

Andrew Volstead was born of Norwegian immigrants on October 31, 1860, in Kenyon, Minnesota. He attended local public schools and then enrolled in St. Olaf's College in Northfield, Minnnesota. He then transferred to Decorah Institute in Decorah, Iowa, from which he received his degree in 1881. He became a school teacher and studied law on his own (read law), was admitted to the bar in 1883, and opened a law office in Grantsburg, Wisconsin.

In 1894, Volstead married Helen Mary Osleer Gilruth, a school teacher who was born in Scotland, and the next year their only child, Laura Ellen Volstead was born. She later graduated from the law school of George Washington University and practiced law in the Volstead office.

The Volsteads moved to Granite Falls, Minnesota, in 1886, where he became the county's prosecuting attorney from 1887 to 1893 and again from 1895 to 1903, and was mayor of the town from 1900 to 1902. He was also city attorney and a member of the board of education, to which he was elected president.

Andrew Volstead was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1903, where he served until 1923. While there, he was a strong supporter of civil rights and was one of the few politicians in Congress to argue for federal legislation against lynching.

Also less known to the public is his leadership in advocating for farmers by means of the Farmers Cooperative Act (commonly known as the Capper-Volstead Act) to form combines legally under the Sherman Antitrust Act. Volstead argued that "Business men can combine by putting their money into corporations, but it is impractical for farmers to combine their farms into similar corporate forms. The object of this bill is to modify the laws under which business organizations are now formed, so that farmers may take advantage of the form of organization that is used by business concerns."1

Volstead considered the Farmers Cooperative Act to be his greatest legislative achievement. When the Cooperative Hall of Fame induced Volstead posthumously in 1979, it noted that

Minnesota Representative Andrew Volstead was an earnest creator and supporter of the ‘farmer cooperative Magna Charta', the Capper-Volstead Act. He was a student of cooperatives in this country and abroad, and believed that co-ops were appropriate instruments for the advance of small farmer welfare. His tenure in Congress covered years when the nation's farmer marketing co-ops were still in their developing stages, and when there were repeated efforts to limit their effectiveness. The struggle to enact his legislation was intense, and its final success was credited in no small measure to his legislative effectiveness.2

After passage of the Volstead Act, Volstead refused to discuss National Prohibition or its enforcement. He did, however, effectively use his position as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee to defeat each and every bill designed to modify the Volstead Act. They included bills to raise the legally permissible alcohol content of beverages, to permit states to decide for themselves what constituted "intoxicating liquors" under the Eighteenth Amendment, to provide a national referendum on Prohibition, to transfer enforcement of Prohibition from the Treasury to the Justice Department, to repeal the National Prohibition Act of 1919, to amend the Volstead Act, and scores of others.3

Volstead was an alcohol abstainer "But he never made a temperance speech, had written that he saw no harm in taking a drink, and was anything but the fanatic he was labeled. The seven boxes of his papers in the archives of the Minnesota Historical Society contain stacks of correspondence—much of it hate mail —about prohibition...."4

Volstead

"championed the homesteader, believed in competition, hated monopolies and was appointed to the House Judiciary Committee in 1913 as its ranking Republican. Thereon he opposed the Underwood tariff (1913) because it discriminated against the farmer, the Federal Reserve Act (1913) because it benefited large city banks, the Clayton Anti-Trust Act (1914) because it legalized holding companies and exempted labor from nearly every federal law, and the Webb-Pomerene Act (1918) for suppressing competition in export trade.5

Volstead was defeated for re-election in 1922, two years after the implementation of National Prohibition. He then returned to Granite Falls, where he briefly practiced law until he was appointed to serve as legal adviser to the chief of the National Prohibition Enforcement Bureau from 1924 until National Prohibition was repealed in 1933. Upon returning to Granite Falls, Volstead continued practicing law until the age of 83. Volstead received lucrative offers to give speeches on Prohibition, but he turned them down in the belief it would be unethical not to do so.

A contemporary described Volstead, who had gray eyes, gray hair, and wore gray suits, as "The Little Gray Man." "His serious, almost solemn attitude toward all subjects of discussion, further cast a gray aura about his personality. There is no suggestion of color, of gaiety, or sparkle, or scintillation about him. Only quiet, earnest, serious grayness."6

Henry Harren of the Minnesota Historical Society said that Andrew Volstead is the Minnesotan who has made the greatest impact on Americans.7

Volstead appeared on the cover of Newsweek magazine on March 29,1926, and is listed in the Norwegian-American Hall of Fame, the National Agricultural Hall of Fame, and the Cooperative Hall of Fame. He died in 1947 and his house in Granite Falls is now a National Historic Landmark.

 

Publications about Andrew J. Volstead:

  • Andrew Volstead's legacy: Capper-Volstead, not Prohibition, greatest gift of co-op pioneer. Rural Cooperatives, 1997 (September/October),64(4), 4-5.
  • Andrew Volstead (1860-1947) The Father of Prohibition. Norwegian-American Hall of Fame. http://www.lawzone.com/half-nor/volstead.htm
  • Hunt, Harry. He made the U.S. legally dry but will not talk about amendment. Cape Girardeau Southeast Missourian, September 6, 1922, p. 2.
  • James, Carol J. Andrew J. Volstead: A Summary of Research. St. Paul, MN: C.L. James, 1978.
  • Plleger, Helen W., and Rea, George A. Volstead and prohibition: a roaring 20's memoir. Ramsey County History, 1975, 12(1).
  • Volstead, Andrew J. American National Biography, 1999, vol. 22.

Selected Publications by Andrew J. Volstead:

  • Andrew Volstead. The National Prohibition Act. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1920.
  • Andrew Volstead. Reckless Falsehoods of Wet Propaganda Exposed. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1922.
  • Andrew Volstead. Prohibition and Its Enforcement: The Medicinal Value of Intoxicating Liquor Negligible, Medical Profession Changing Its Opinion, Science Condemns Liquor as Therapeutic Agent. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1921.
  • Andrew Volstead. Light Wine and Beer and Prohibition Enforcement. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1922.
  • Andrew Volstead. Enforcement of War-Time National Prohibition. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1919.
  • Andrew Volstead. Legislation Supplemental to National Prohibition Act. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1921.

References:

  • 1. Andrew Volstead (1860-1947) The Father of Prohibition. Norwegian-American Hall of Fame. http://www.lawzone.com/half-nor/volstead.htm. 
  • 2. Andrew J. Volstead. Cooperative Hall of Fame. http://www.heroes.coop/inductees/volstead.html
  • 3. Hunt, harry. He made the U.S. legally dry but will not talk about amendment. Cape Girardeau Southeast Missourian, September 6, 1922, p. 2.
  • 4. Andrew Volstead's legacy: Capper-Volstead, not Prohibition, greatest gift of co-op pioneer. Rural Cooperatives, 1997 (September/October),64(4), 4-5. 
  • 5. Andrew Volstead's legacy: Capper-Volstead, not Prohibition, greatest gift of co-op pioneer. Rural Cooperatives, 1997 (September/October),64(4), 4-5. 
  • 6. Hunt, Harry. He made the U.S. legally dry but will not talk about amendment. Cape Girardeau Southeast Missourian, September 6, 1922, p. 2.
  • 7. Andrew Volstead's legacy: Capper-Volstead, not Prohibition, greatest gift of co-op pioneer. Rural Cooperatives, 1997 (September/October),64(4), 4-5.

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