“Who, in God’s name, would waste a perfectly good bullet, a knife thrust or even a cup of ‘hemlock’ on such an infinitely despicable specimen of the genus vermin as Andrew J. Volstead?” asked another.
Such was the abuse that Volstead absorbed in hundreds of letters, archived by the Minnesota Historical Society, after becoming the namesake of Prohibition.
Known as the Volstead Act, the law that eradicated the sale and manufacture of legal alcohol went into effect 100 years ago this week to enforce the 18th Amendment, which was ratified a year earlier. But Volstead would probably prefer that you forget.
The lawmaker spent the rest of his career trying to shed his reputation as Congress’s resident party pooper. He wanted to be remembered for other accomplishments, like a landmark farm co-op bill, which allowed associations of farmers to collectively market their products, exempting them from certain antitrust laws.
But “Father of Prohibition” had a better ring to it than father of the Co-operative Marketing Associations Act of 1922.
As Time magazine wrote of him in 1926: “It must be painful to a man to become a myth before he is even dead."
Volstead, born in Minnesota to Norwegian immigrants in 1860, rose from a small-town lawyer to become one of the most powerful lawmakers in Congress as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, a position he assumed in 1919, the year the 18th Amendment was ratified.
The amendment had zipped through Congress in 1917 with overwhelming bipartisan support before being ratified by the states, ushering in a tumultuous era of bootlegging and bathtub gin. Later that year, Congress set out to give the amendment real enforcement teeth through the National Prohibition Act, which Volstead wrote.
But according to the Minnesota Historical Society, the lawmaker didn’t exactly volunteer his services. As Judiciary Committee chairman, it was just his job to write it. He was never a temperance evangelist, and he refused to take dry “pledges,” according to the historical society. Still, he also believed strongly in the cause.
“I have no sympathy for the kind of liberty [the wets] want, liberty to restore the saloon and nurse the brothel,” he said in Congress. “Liberty to profit on suffering and insanity; liberty to gratify their alcoholic drink habit at the expense of ruined homes and wasted lives — none of these are inalienable rights,”
Once the Volstead Act passed, Wayne Wheeler, a legal liaison for the Anti-Saloon League, congratulated Volstead for doing “more work, many times over, than any man in Congress” to make Prohibition a reality, according to a letter in the collection from Jan. 17, 1920. He promised Volstead “the nation will be increasingly grateful to you in years to come."
People accused him of being in cahoots with the burgeoning Coca-Cola Company. They said he was a secret drinker when nobody was looking, a hypocrite. One New York painting caused an uproar by depicting Volstead and others with Jesus at the Marriage of Cana — the Bible story in which Jesus turned water into wine. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” the inscription read.
The hate mail came in droves.
“This dry question is the biggest humbuggery of a thing that was ever perpetrated upon the American people,” one critic wrote.
Others begged him to change his mind: “Will you be kind enough to help the good people to get the return of Beer?”
There were death threats. Volstead saved newspaper clippings with his picture beneath the headline, “Here’s man whose bill made U.S. dry.” Someone sent it to him with a string noose tied around the image of his neck.
“When a man goes around advocating a ‘bone dry universe,’" the sender wrote, “you can safely bet your boots that he has been a great tank in his day.”
The congressman grew exasperated with his portrayal in the press and the public. In March 1920, as the nation was still settling into its new dry world, Volstead wrote to the editors of the St. Paul Pioneer Press and Baltimore Sun demanding retractions of an article that tried to frame him as a “half wet” who secretly drank.
“How does it feel to be ‘cussed’ from coast to coast, as a rabid and fanatical ‘dry,’ when really you are a ‘half wet’ and it was merely the fortunes of politics that caused your name to go on a prohibition law?” the Baltimore Sun had asked.
Volstead called it a “fake story.”
The congressman was defeated in the 1922 election, just two years after the Volstead Act took effect. He became a legal adviser for the National Prohibition Enforcement Bureau — but otherwise slipped into quiet obscurity. He avoided interviews. He turned down lucrative speaking engagements, according to the historical society.
A 1971 profile of Volstead, in the now-defunct Midland Cooperator, said he “lived as a self-sacrifice to Prohibition,” dying in 1947 “embittered” about his legacy as a “caricature of the Dry movement.”
“What the public knew of him, even if erroneously, ceased importance in 1933, when Prohibition was repealed,” the journal wrote. “But ‘Volstead’ was written with distaste in the minds of many of his contemporary men. Their hatred and ridicule forced him into a shy, introverted existence.”
In November 1933, just weeks before the repeal, Volstead reflected on his life in an interview with the New York Times, sitting in his law office in Granite Falls, Minn.
He knew by then that whatever he said would make everyone mad.
“If I were to say that prohibition had been a mistake, there would be an awful uproar,” he said. “And if I defended prohibition the other side would be after me. I have had experience enough to know that anything I say will be broadcast widely. … I am not even a spectator.”