Volstead, Andrew John

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Volstead, Andrew John

Andrew John Volstead was a midwestern lawyer and ten-term U.S. representative from Minnesota who gained national prominence as the originator of the Volstead Act, officially the National Prohibition Act (41 Stat. 305). The Volstead Act was a comprehensive statute enacted to enforce the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It prohibited the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquor. The Volstead Act was later rendered inoperative by the passage of the Twenty-First Amendment, which repealed Prohibition.

Volstead, a reluctant national symbol of Prohibition, was the product of modest, rural beginnings. His parents had been Norwegian farmers who earned their living by selling surplus produce in Oslo street markets until they immigrated to the United States in 1854, where they eventually settled on a farm near the town of Kenyon, in Goodhue County, Minnesota.

Volstead was born October 31, 1860, near Kenyon, Minnesota. After attending local public schools, he went on to Saint Olaf College, in Northfield, Minnesota, and the 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. Volstead married Helen ("Nellie") Mary Osler Gilruth on August 6, 1894.

From his platform as mayor of Granite Falls, Volstead launched his first major political campaign in 1902. Running as a Republican, he sought to represent Minnesota's seventh congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives. He was elected, and was returned to office nine times, serving for a total of almost twenty years.

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. He believed the Underwood Tariff Act of 1913 (19 U.S.C.A. §§ 128, 130, 131 [1982]) discriminated against the farmer, the Federal Reserve Act of 1913 (12 U.S.C.A. § 321 [1989]) benefited large city banks, and the clay-ton Act of 1914 (15 U.S.C.A. § 12 [1994]) exempted labor from federal laws.

In spite of, or perhaps because of, his opposition to Wilson's domestic agenda, Volstead was admired and supported by his conservative rural constituents. He was also respected by his Washington, D.C. colleagues. Over the years, he earned a reputation as a hardworking public servant with a fine legal mind. Volstead joined the House Judiciary Committee in 1913. As a committee member, he frequently demonstrated his ability to frame successful bills and to move them through the legislative process. 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 drafted by Wayne B. Wheeler, 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.

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.

Volstead refused to profit from the Prohibition debate, and he turned down lucrative speaking engagements with some regularity. He did, however, continue to support the cause that had cost him reelection. From 1924 to 1931, he lived in St. Paul and served as the legal adviser to the Northwest Prohibition Enforcement District. The Volstead Act was repealed by the Twenty-first Amendment in 1933.

He died in Granite Falls at age eighty-seven, on January 20, 1947.

"Every lawyer is familiar with the … large corporate interests … that appeal to our courts to set aside the will of the people as expressed by our State legislatures. [t]hose who seek to thwart the will of the people should not have [that] advantage."
—Andrew J. Volstead

Further readings

Men of Minnesota: A Collection of the Portraits of Men Prominent in Business and Professional Life in Minnesota. 1915. 2d ed. St. Paul, Minn.: R. L. Polk.

Narvestad, Carl. 1972. A History of Yellow Medicine County, Minnesota, 1872–1972. Granite Falls, Minn.: Yellow Medicine County Historical Society, and Carl and Amy Narvestad.

Rose, Arthur P., ed. 1914. An Illustrated History of Yellow Medicine County. Marshall, Minn.: Northern History.