While enjoying the last nice days of what has been a pretty nice summer near the RedState Department of History International Headquarters, we had a staff meeting on our veranda at the close of another long, hard week of history-seeking.
In so doing, we enjoyed one of the few major domestic beers we can stand as a group, Samuel Adams Boston Lager. We like our microbrews, mind, and we all have our favorite libations, but as we sat and watched the sunset, the team was left to remark on an important anniversary.
On this date in 1919, the United States Congress overrode President Woodrow Wilson’s veto to make the Volstead Act the law of the land.
Andrew Volstead was from farm country southeast of the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. Born to Norwegian immigrants, he was a ten-term Congressman and a Republican, and the one time mayor of the city of Granite Falls, Minnesota. First elected to Congress in 1903, he was one of the very few politicians of the day to actively advocate for Federal laws against lynching.
He was an advocate for farmers. He co-sponsored legislation which made farm co-operatives legal, arguing 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.”
But it was for another piece of legislation that Andrew Volstead’s name is remembered. As Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, he was responsible for managing the passage of the enabling leglsiation that established the mechanics of American prohibition – known as the Volstead Act.
The Act itself was more than likely the product of Volstead and Wayne Wheeler, who was the leader of the Anti-Saloon League. Wheeler claimed credit for writing the act, which Volstead denied, but both men were prohibitionists at heart.
The 18th Amendment which established prohibition did not define an intoxicating drink or provide penalties for violation of the new law. The bill had three distinct provisions:
to prohibit intoxicating beverages,
to regulate the manufacture, sale, or transport of intoxicating liquor (but not consumption), and
to ensure an ample supply of alcohol and promote its use in scientific research and in the development of fuel, dye and other lawful industries and practices, such as religious rituals
Wilson vetoed the bill in part because it covered wartime prohibition, but both houses of Congress overrode the veto on the same day it was issued. Thus, the prohibition era began,
For their parts, Wheeler and Volstead handled their roles differently. Wheeler was a highly outspoken prohibitionist, even missing his 50th wedding anniversary to take part in a prohibition debate.
But Volstead, true to his Scandinavian heritage, was more sedate about his role. He didn’t actively speak out on prohibition, but used his office actively to defeat every measure to amend or repeal the Act which bore his name while he was in office, until the passage of the 21st Amendment, which repealed prohibition across the land in 1933.
He said he was not a rabid prohibitionist, and even took a drink himself once in awhile. He was, however, what we might call today a traditional conservative, according to the Minnesota Historical Society. 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.”
Much of the Volstead archives housed at the Minnesota Historical Society consists of hate mail Volstead received for sponsoring the act which enabled prohibition.
After defeat for re-election in 1922, Volstead returned to Granite Falls, where he quietly – very quietly, again in accordance with his heritage – practiced law until his death in 1947. Despite numerous invitations to speak about his role in establishing prohibition, Volstead turned down every one of them, saying it would be unethical to do so.
His home in Granite Falls is on the National Register of Historic Places. And, Volstead is memorialized in one other unique way today. His face is captured — in a bottlecap mosaic – at the Freehouse Brew Pub in Minneapolis.
Maybe we can all drink to that (except on Sundays). Enjoy today’s open thread!