Over a century ago, Prohibition got teeth when President Woodrow Wilson signed the Volstead Act on October 28, 1919.
The new law enacted the 18th Amendment which had been ratified in January, banning the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcohol nationwide.
While temperance groups like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union had advocated for Prohibition for decades, it was a Congressman from Minnesota, Andrew Volstead, who wrote the legislation that ushered in this controversial era in American history.
Volstead, who represented Minnesota’s 7th district including Granite Falls, was a vocal supporter of the temperance movement.
As chair of the House Judiciary Committee, he drafted the bill that bore his name, enforcing the 18th Amendment’s ban on liquor.
Reactions to Volstead Act Mixed
The Volstead Act was strongly opposed by many Americans who felt it infringed upon their personal freedoms. Brewers stood to lose their livelihoods.
Even Volstead faced threats over what was seen by many as an overreach of government power. He made the cover of Time magazine in 1926 as the face of Prohibition, which had sharply divided public opinion.
While Volstead had supporters, particularly among rural and Protestant voters, the backlash would ultimately end his Congressional career.
He lost to a Farmer-Labor candidate in 1922. But Volstead continued his work enforcing Prohibition, serving as legal counsel for the federal Prohibition Bureau.
Though billed as a victory for public morals, Prohibition had many unintended effects. Bootlegging surged, with illegal liquor transported and sold by criminal networks.
Speakeasies proliferated in cities. Gang violence increased as rival mobsters competed for control of the underground booze trade.
Far from ending America’s appetite for alcohol, Prohibition changed how and where it was consumed, often making it more dangerous. It turned millions of law-abiding Americans into criminals overnight.
Repeal and Volstead’s Legacy
With Prohibition deeply unpopular by the early 1930s, the 21st Amendment repealing the 18th was ratified in December 1933. Volstead returned to private law practice in Minnesota. He died in 1947 at age 91.
Volstead’s Granite Falls home is now a National Historic Landmark, representing this fascinating if failed social experiment.
The Minnesota Historical Society has digitized Volstead’s papers on the 100th anniversary of Prohibition’s start, preserving a complex chapter in America’s past.
- U.S. Constitution – Eighteenth Amendment | Resources | Constitution Annotated | Congress.gov | Library of Congress
- Twenty-First Amendment | Browse | Constitution Annotated | Congress.gov | Library of Congress
- Overview – Prohibition & the Volstead Act – LibGuides at Minnesota Historical Society Library (mnhs.org)
- 100 years ago, a Minnesota congressman’s law passed, and Prohibition really began | MPR News
- The Volstead Act | National Archives