Who the Hell Was Volstead?

Who the Hell Was Volstead?

The Volstead Act upended America and created a sexual, cultural, and economic shift that would last well past the demise of Prohibition.  But who was Volstead and why is he to blame for the dry years of Prohibition?

Representative Andrew Volstead was, perhaps, the author of the Act named for him that led to nationwide Prohibition.  Although he was not completely opposed to alcohol, he did sponsor the Act and spent the rest of his term in Congress defending it against amendments.  The most interesting fact about Volstead is despite the famous federal law with his name, he lost his campaign for reelection only two years after the Act became law in 1922.  Immediately upon his departure from Congress, Volstead became the attorney for the National Prohibition Enforcement Bureau.

But did Volstead actually write the Act, or should we instead curse the Wheeler Act?  Wayne Wheeler, outspoken advocate of the Anti-Saloon League, claimed authorship of the notorious Act up until his death.  Wheeler was far more outspoken, political, and calculating than Volstead, who may have been nothing more than the name on the Act.  Unlike Volstead, Wheeler was a strict prohibitionist since childhood.  As a child, Wheeler was stabbed by a drunk employee on his family’s farm and thereafter, he adamantly maintained that alcohol was the root of all sin.

While Volstead objected to attempts to amend the Volstead Act, i.e. letting states define “intoxicating liquor,” Wheeler built strange coalitions to protect his passion project.  Women’s suffragist groups aligned with anti-immigrant groups, corporate owners partnered with the KKK, but while all of these groups shared an interest in Prohibition, Wheeler was the only one that was completely devoted to one issue.

Wheeler was the sort of political powerbroker we’ve now become accustomed to in this country.  The careers of politicians rose and fell with the rhetoric of Wayne Wheeler.  No one was above or beyond his reach.  So why didn’t he campaign on behalf of his old pal, Volstead?  If Wheeler was the nation’s first king-maker, how did he let his pal fall in a reelection campaign?  Even in the 1920’s incumbents rarely lost reelection.

Is it possible that Volstead’s Act didn’t go far enough?  There were, of course, exceptions in the Volstead Act like medicinal purposes and religious purposes.  Might Wheeler have expected the next Representative from Minnesota to be even more draconian?  Is it because Volstead wasn’t actually opposed to alcohol in moderation?  Maybe.

What we do know is that on the one hand we had a single-issue voter with nothing but time and money to promote his pet project and on the other hand, an elected official that seemed to appreciate moderation, and certainly had other issues on his desk on Capitol Hill.  And for at least a short-period of time in our country’s history, one stayed in power and one fell out of favor.

Ironically, what both may best be remembered for is creating cocktails, speakeasies, and Capone.

Written by Amy Williams

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