The Minnesotan Who Ushered In Prohibition on This Day in History

Over a century ago, Prohibition got teeth when President Woodrow Wilson signed the Volstead Act on October 28, 1919.

The new law passed the 18th Amendment, ratified in January, which made it illegal to produce, sell, or transport alcohol across the country.

Temperance groups, such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, had supported Prohibition for a long time. However, it was Congressman Andrew Volstead from Minnesota who wrote the legislation that started this controversial period 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.

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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.

Unintended Consequences

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.


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