Andrew J. Volstead
Andrew Volstead is best remembered as the author of the Volstead Act. It is officially the National Prohibition Act of 1919. The Volstead Act was very important. It enabled enforcement of the Eighteenth Amendment. (That’s the “Prohibition Amendment.”)
While the “Volstead Act” is remembered, the name of the architect of that legislation is not. He was Andrew John Volstead, a member of the House of Representatives for 10 terms. Volstead was a representative from Minnesota.
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, Minn., before transferring to Decorah Institute, in Decorah, Iowa. He graduated from Decorah in 1881. After graduation, he taught school in Iowa, and studied law with two Decorah attorneys. Volstead was admitted to the Iowa bar in 1883 and to the Minnesota bar one year later. He practiced law in Granite Falls, Minnesota.
In 1887, one year after his arrival, Volstead was named Yellow Medicine County attorney—a post he held for fourteen years. He was a member and president of the Granite Falls Board of Education, a Granite Falls city attorney, and a Granite Falls mayor.
In 1894, Volstead married Helen Mary Osleer Gilruth “Nellie”. She was a school teacher and assistant county auditor, who was born in Scotland. The next year their only child, Laura Ellen Volstead, was born. She later graduated from the law school of George Washington University. After that, she practiced law in the Volstead office.
The Volsteads moved to Granite Falls, Minnesota, in 1886. There, he became the county’s prosecuting attorney. From 1887 to 1893 and again from 1895 to 1903, he served in that role. Volstead was mayor of the town from 1900 to 1902. He was also city attorney and president of the board of education.
Elected to Congress
Andrew Volstead won election to the U.S. House of Representatives as a Republican, and remained at his post from March 4, 1903 to March 3, 1923. For four years, Volstead was chairman of the Committee on the Judiciary. Among the unpopular stances he had the courage to take was arguing for enactment of federal legislation outlawing lynching.
Also less known to the public was his leadership in advocating for farmers. He did this by means of the Farmers Cooperative Act (the Capper-Volstead Act). It permitted farmers 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.”
Farmers Cooperative Act (Capper-Volstead Act)
Volstead sought to protect the interests of the small farmer in general—and western Minnesota wheat farmers in particular. He opposed legislation that favored big cities, big business, and big labor. He believed in competition, he hated monopolies, and he supported early legislative attempts to regulate the railroad industry. Though he had supported President Woodrow Wilson’s World War I policies, Volstead opposed many of the administration’s domestic programs.
Volstead considered the Farmers Cooperative Act to be his greatest legislative achievement. The Capper-Volstead Act — which is still in effect — enabled farmers to form combines without fear of prosecution under the Sherman Antitrust Act. Volstead explained at the time: “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.”
The Volstead Act (National Prohibition Act)
The name of “Volstead” will forever be associated with an experiment that failed. It was, however called the “Noble Experiment” – a characterization by Herbert Hoover – and it was grounded on a sincere desire to rid society of the ills of alcohol. It was designed to improve health, cut crime, and relieve taxpayers of a portion of the burden of subsidizing prisons.
The problem was: it failed to take into account human nature and the truism that things are apt to go wrong when the government tinkers too much with personal choices. What the 18th Amendment did was to ban “the manufacture, sale, or distribution of intoxicating liquors.” It went into effect July 1, 1920. The Volstead Act — also known as the National Prohibition Act — was enacted in October, 1919 to provide for enforcement mechanisms. It gave federal authorities the power to prosecute violations. Also, it defined intoxicating beverages as those containing more than .5 percent alcohol.
Volstead’s professional skills were put to the test in 1918. Shortly after the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment, he was named chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. In this capacity, he was called upon to draft a new law to enforce Prohibition. Volstead’s bill permitted the sale of alcohol for industrial, medicinal, and sacramental purposes. It outlawed any beverage containing more than one-half of one percent of alcohol; provided concurrent state and federal power to allow for the enforcement of stricter state laws; included a search and seizure clause; and provided for injunctions against, and the padlocking of, establishments selling alcoholic beverages. The bill was passed in 1919 over President Wilson’s veto.
Although Volstead’s bill was less drastic than an earlier measure conceived and largely drafted by Wayne B. Wheeler, the de facto leader of the Anti-Saloon League, and less strict than existing laws in Ohio and New York, it was not well received by those against Prohibition. Passage of the National Prohibition Act forced the quiet Minnesota congressman into the national spotlight, and made him a central figure in the country’s ongoing debate between wet and dry factions.
It is somewhat ironic that Volstead became so closely associated with the Prohibition debate. He was a nondrinker who supported Prohibition, but he had never made a speech on the issue before his bill was passed. And, though he was proud of the act that came to carry his name, he expressed disappointment in later years that the Volstead Act got more attention than other legislative contributions that he deemed equally or more important.
After passage of the Volstead Act, Andrew Volstead refused to discuss National Prohibition or its enforcement. He did, however, effectively use his political position to defeat every bill designed to modify the Act. Among many others, they included bills to raise the legally permissible alcohol content of beverages. Permit states to decide for themselves what constituted “intoxicating liquors.” Provide a national referendum on Prohibition. Transfer enforcement of Prohibition from the Treasury to the Justice Department. Repeal the Volstead Act, and Amend the Volstead Act.
Volstead drank little alcohol and was almost an 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….
In spite of his outstanding record of support for Minnesota farmers, Volstead’s notoriety following the passage of the Volstead Act made him vulnerable in reelection bids. A coalition of Prohibition opponents was unable to defeat him in 1920, but two years later, Ole J. Kvale, a Lutheran minister, was elected to replace the ten-term congressman, not so much based on the Volstead Act but apparently more likely tied to low farm prices
Volstead resumed law practice in Minnesota, then was hired in 1924 as legal adviser to the chief of the National Prohibition Enforcement Bureau. He served in that capacity until 1933, then returned to Granite Falls, remaining active as a lawyer until the age of 83. Volstead refused to profit from the Prohibition debate in the belief it would be unethical to do so, and he turned down lucrative speaking engagements with some regularity.
He died at age eighty-seven, on January 20, 1947. His house in Granite Falls is now a National Historic Landmark.