The Virtual Corkscrew Museum's Weekly Newspaper
Sunday, January 20, 2008
March 29, 1926
The greater part of a decade has elapsed since prohibition became national and the word Volstead was minted for household use. Yet last week while Andrew J. Volstead, three years since retired from Congress, was quietly busy in St. Paul investigating the validity of manufacturing permits for the use of industrial alcohol, a wave of anti-prohibition sentiment rose. How large the wave may have been, how much genuine and how much propaganda-made, there is no saying. But it made a big splash.
There were the newspaper polls, conducted by more than 400 newspapers in nearly every state. Unfortunately there were three polls, and there is no means of estimating how much they overlapped.
The largest, conducted by 375 members of the Newspaper Enterprise Association, (and by the New York World) polled some 1,700,000 votes. The voter was given three choices, prohibition as it is, light wines and beers, or repeal of prohibition. Forty-seven states (all except North Dakota) engaged in the poll. In only two states, Kansas and South Carolina, was there a majority for prohibition. Only six others gave pluralities to prohibition. And the total vote was about five to one against prohibition.
The Hearst papers and their allies conducted a similar poll, which brought in upwards of a million votes with similar results. The Chicago Tribune and New York Dally News and their allies also ran a poll, in which more than 300,000 votes were cast, again with similar results.
The vote was light in the South, the United Press came to nearly 3,000,000 votes,* of which the proportion was more than five to one for modification or repeal.
The vote was light in the South and of course the city vote predominated, further handicapping the Drys, but the poll remains a rather sensational demonstration of wet sentiment, however inconclusive.
The noise made by the Wets was probably all out of proportion to the political success which they may achieve in the country at large in the immediate future. But their enthusiasm was undamped. "Down with Volstead!" was their cry. "Hurrah for Volstead!" answered the Drys enthusiastically if somewhat feebly. Each side with derision or with exultation waved in the face of the other that name, like a banner, like a symbol of its fierce spirit, like a strange mythological device.
It must be painful to a man to become a myth before he is dead. That great mythmaker, the public, is no respecter of persons, and least of all has it respected the person of Andrew J. Volstead, a little man of Scandinavian descent who was born in Minnesota in 1861. His father was a Norwegian immigrant who built the log cabin on the farm where Andrew was born. His mother was the daughter of a market gardener, who lived just outside Oslo, then Christiania. One way and another young Andrew completed his education at St. Olaf's College and prepared for the bar. After a time he settled down to practice in Granite Falls, Minn. The year he arrived they made him attorney of Yellow Medicine County. He had Germans, Scandinavians, Canadians and "Americans" in his bailiwick. For 14 years part of his job was prosecuting blind-pigs, but he was not known as a drastic prohibitionistrather as a man who "plugged" at his job. He also held the jobs of mayor, city attorney and president of the board of education. He was not a reformer, he was not a handshaker, he was not a "glad-hander," he was not sensational in politics or in any other field. But he did have a good many friends and was well liked as a hard working, honest, kindly man. It is even understood at this late day that before prohibition he openly and quite naturally enjoyed a drink.
It came about in the natural course of events that he was elected to Congress, and served unostentatiously for nearly 20 years. For 20 years he lived mostly in Washington, with his wife (a Scotswoman**) and Laura, his daughter. In recent years Laura has been his secretary. She is known as a very clever woman.
It so happened that in the course of 20 years, by the workings of seniority, he became chairman of the Judiciary Committee. When the resolution for the 18th Amendment was in Congress it was of course referred to the Judiciary Committee. The Committee voted for it, and Chairman Volstead, as was his duty, reported it. After the Amendment was ratified, an enforcement act had to be drafted. That again fell to the Judiciary Committee, and Mr. Volstead as its chairman drew up the act and then reported it. So his name was attached to itand so he became famous.
But he was never a red-hot prohibitionist. He was known to be dry, just as he was known to be a bit stubborn.*** He never campaigned sensationally for prohibition; he never signed a prohibition pledge or belonged to the Prohibition party. In fact, in 1916, when he came up for election he was opposed by a prohibition candidate. How did he win? He said: "I just kept in the middle of the road." Twenty years in Washington, however, told on Mr. Volstead's hold on his constituents. Some of his old friends had died, others had moved away from Granite Falls. In 1920 along came Rev. O. J. Kvale (pronounced Quail) and contested with him for the Republican nomination. He told the electors that Volstead was an atheist. Kvale beat Volstead in the primaries.
Minnesota happens to have a law, not very often used, that if one candidate abuses his rival and lies about him to the electorate, he can be denied his nomination even if successful in the primaries. Volstead went to court. At the trial Laura testified that her father was "a good Christian man, a good father." The court disqualified Kvale. The local Republican Committee then renominated Volstead and he was reelected.
In 1922, however, Kvale ran again as an Independent, and whether Volstead had been irreparably injured by the charge of "atheist" or whether he had simply lost his hold on Granite Falls, he was defeated.
He went back to Granite Falls and resumed his practice. Last fall he was appointed legal aid to the prohibition administrator in Minnesota. Now in the Postoffice Building in St. Paul,**** one may go up a narrow hall and into a bare, brownish room. Piles of pamphlets lie on the floor. At one end is a table desk. Behind it sits a slight, stoop-shouldered, mild man with heavy grey mustaches and a bush of grey hair, through which he has a habit of running his fingers. A gold watchchain is twisted through a buttonhole of his dark vest, and dangles a little compass at its end. His collar stands out from his spare neck.
He is very quiet and unaffected, speaks in a low quiet voice, has a twinkle in his greenish grey eyes. One can judge readily enough that he would not take a drink nowadays, not for any hypocritical reasons but because he would regard it as lawbreaking. In fact, he seems to be a likable sort, upright, not courting the limelight, not endowed with the graces that make for success in societybut likable. But of course this is not Andrew Volstead. Volstead is a myth. Volstead is a figure as noble as John Barleycorn is sinister, a powerful crusader, a tower of righteousness, a leader of a great causeor, if you prefer, he is a bigoted little reformer, a benighted, misguided zealot.
*This is the largest straw vote on prohibition ever taken. In 1922 the Literary Digest poll brought out 905,000 votes, of of which 550,000 were for modification or repeal of prohibition.
**He was a Lutheran until his marriage in 1894. Since then he has been a Congregationalist.
***Old Senator Knute Nelson of Minnesota (1843-1923), who was not without a stubborn streak himself, once remarked, "Andrew's all right, but he's too damn stubborn."
****"The prohibition officials occupy one whole floor of the building.
Editor's Note: This article appeared in Time magazine March 29, 1926.
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©2008 Don Bull, Editor