Andrew Volstead: Tool or Dedicated Prohibitionist?

Andrew Volstead is best remembered as the author of the Volstead Act. It is officially the National Prohibition Act of 1919. The Volstead Act enabled enforcement of the Eighteenth Amendment. (That’s the “Prohibition Amendment.”)

Volstead-Wheeler Dispute

However, it appears that the author of the bill was largely Wayne Wheeler. He was the de facto leader of the Anti-Saloon League. It was Wheeler who conceived and largely drafted the bill. However, Volstead denied that assertion. Volstead was chair of the House Judiciary Committee. It was his job to sponsor the legislation. Nevertheless, Prohibition transformed the name of an otherwise obscure legislator from Minnesota into a household word. The name Volstead was cursed by some, praised by others, but known by all.

Early Life

Andrew Volstead was born of Norwegian immigrants on October 31, 1860, in Kenyon, Minnesota. He attended local public schools and then enrolled in St. Olaf’s College. He then transferred to Decorah Institute, from which he received his degree in 1881. He became a school teacher and studied law on his own (read law). Volstead joined the bar in 1883 and opened a law office in Grantsburg, Wisconsin.

Andrew Volstead

Andrew Volstead

In 1894, Volstead married Helen Mary Osleer Gilruth. She was a school teacher who was born in Scotland. The next year their only child, Laura Ellen Volstead, was born. She later graduated from the law school of George Washington University. After that, she practiced law in the Volstead office.

The Volsteads moved to Granite Falls, Minnesota, in 1886. There, he became the county’s prosecuting attorney.  From 1887 to 1893 and again from 1895 to 1903, he served in that role. Volstead was mayor of the town from 1900 to 1902. He was also city attorney and president of the board of education.

Elected to Congress

Andrew Volstead won election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1903. He served until 1923. While there, he was a strong supporter of civil rights. He was one of the few politicians in Congress to argue for federal legislation against lynching.

Also less known to the public was his leadership  in advocating for farmers. He did this by means of the Farmers Cooperative Act (the Capper-Volstead Act).  It permitted farmers to form combines legally under the Sherman Antitrust Act. Volstead argued that “Business men can combine by putting their money into corporations, but it is impractical for farmers to combine their farms into similar corporate forms. The object of this bill is to modify the laws under which business organizations are now formed, so that farmers may take advantage of the form of organization that is used by business concerns.”1

Farmers Cooperative Act

Volstead considered the Farmers Cooperative Act to be his greatest legislative achievement. When the Cooperative Hall of Fame induced Volstead posthumously in 1979, it noted that

Minnesota Representative Andrew Volstead was an earnest creator and supporter of the ‘˜farmer cooperative Magna Charta’, the Capper-Volstead Act. He was a student of cooperatives in this country and abroad, and believed that co-ops were appropriate instruments for the advance of small farmer welfare. His tenure in Congress covered years when the nation’s farmer marketing co-ops were still in their developing stages, and when there were repeated efforts to limit their effectiveness. The struggle to enact his legislation was intense, and its final success was credited in no small measure to his legislative effectiveness.2

Defended Prohibition

After passage of the Volstead Act, Andrew Volstead refused to discuss National Prohibition or its enforcement. He did, however, effectively use his political position to defeat every bill designed to modify the Act. Among many others, they included bills to

  • Raise the legally permissible alcohol content of beverages.
  • Permit states to decide for themselves what constituted “intoxicating liquors.”
  • Provide a national referendum on Prohibition.
  • Transfer enforcement of Prohibition from the Treasury to the Justice Department.
  • Repeal the Volstead Act.
  • Amend the Volstead Act.3

Volstead drank little alcohol and was almost an abstainer. “But he never made a temperance speech, had written that he saw no harm in taking a drink, and was anything but the fanatic he was labeled. The seven boxes of his papers in the archives of the Minnesota Historical Society contain stacks of correspondence’”much of it hate mail’ about prohibition….”4


“championed the homesteader, believed in competition, hated monopolies and was appointed to the House Judiciary Committee in 1913 as its ranking Republican. Thereon he opposed the Underwood tariff (1913) because it discriminated against the farmer, the Federal Reserve Act (1913) because it benefited large city banks, the Clayton Anti-Trust Act (1914) because it legalized holding companies and exempted labor from nearly every federal law, and the Webb-Pomerene Act (1918) for suppressing competition in export trade.5

Later Life

Volstead failed re-election in 1922. That was two years after the implementation of National Prohibition. He then returned to Granite Falls. There, he briefly practiced law. He became legal adviser to the chief of the Prohibition Bureau in 1924. He served in that role until the end of National Prohibition in 1933.

Upon returning to Granite Falls, Volstead continued practicing law until the age of 83. He received lucrative offers to give speeches on Prohibition. In the belief it would be unethical to do so, he declined them all.

A contemporary described Volstead, who had gray eyes, gray hair, and wore gray suits. He was “The Little Gray Man.” “His serious, almost solemn attitude toward all subjects of discussion, further cast a gray aura about his personality. There is no suggestion of color, of gaiety, or sparkle, or scintillation about him. Only quiet, earnest, serious grayness.”6

The head of the Minnesota Historical Society considers Volstead a major historical figure. He said Volstead is the Minnesotan who has made the greatest impact on Americans.7

Andrew Volstead

Andrew Volstead House

Volstead appeared on the cover of Newsweek  on March 29,1926. He is listed in the

  • Norwegian-American Hall of Fame.
  • National Agricultural Hall of Fame.
  • Cooperative Hall of Fame.

He died in 1947 and his house in Granite Falls is now a National Historic Landmark.


Publications about Andrew J. Volstead.

Andrew Volstead’s legacy: Capper-Volstead, not Prohibition, greatest gift of co-op pioneer. Rural Coop, 1997, 64(4), 4-5.

Andrew Volstead (1860-1947). The Father of Prohibition. Norwegian-American Hall of Fame.

Hunt, H. He made the U.S. legally dry but will not talk about amendment. Cape Girardeau Southeast Missourian, Sept 6, 1922, p. 2.

James, C. Andrew J. Volstead. A Summary of Research. St. Paul, MN: C.L. James, 1978.

Plleger, H., and Rea, G. Volstead and prohibition. Ramsey County Hist, 1975, 12(1).

Volstead, Andrew J. Am Nat Bio, 1999, vol. 22.

Selected Publications by Andrew J. Volstead.

The National Prohibition Act. Washington, DC: GPO, 1920.

Reckless Falsehoods of Wet Propaganda Exposed. Washington, DC: GPO, 1922.

Prohibition and Its Enforcement. The Medicinal Value of Intoxicating Liquor Negligible. Medical Profession Changing Its Opinion. Science Condemns Liquor as Therapeutic Agent. Washington, DC: GPO, 1921.

Light Wine and Beer and Prohibition Enforcement. Washington, DC: GPO, 1922.

Enforcement of War-Time National Prohibition. Washington, DC: GPO, 1919.

Legislation Supplemental to National Prohibition Act. Washington, DC: GPO, 1921.


1. Andrew Volstead (1860-1947) The Father of Prohibition. Norwegian-American Hall of Fame. 
2. Andrew J. Volstead. Cooperative Hall of Fame.
3. Hunt, H. He made the U.S. legally dry but will not talk about amendment. Cape Girardeau Southeast Missourian, Sept 6, 1922, p. 2.
4. Andrew Volstead’s legacy: Capper-Volstead, not Prohibition, greatest gift of co-op pioneer. Rural Coop., 1997, 64(4), 4-5. 
5. Andrew Volstead’s legacy, ibid.
6. Hunt, ibid.
7. Andrew Volstead’s legacy, ibid.