University of Wisconsin Center for Wisconsin
Rural Cooperatives, September/October 1997, pp. 4-5.
Published by the Rural Business and Cooperative Development Service 

Andrew Volstead's Legacy: Capper-Volstead, Not Prohibition, Greatest Gift of Co-op Pioneer


Editor's note: The following article is reprinted from the St. Paul Bank News, Sept-Oct. 1997.

A recent Associated Press article on Andrew J. Volstead's death devoted several inches of space to his role in the 18th Amendment (Prohibition), but only in passing did it note what he considered his crowning achievement: "Besides the prohibition act he sponsored such measures as the Farmers' Cooperative Act."

The Farmers Cooperative Act, which we know as the Capper-Volstead Act, was passed by the 67th Congress and signed into law by President Warren G. Harding Feb. 18, 1922. Entitled "An act to authorize association of producers of agricultural products," its application was restricted "to farmers, planters, ranchmen, dairymen, nut or fruit growers engaged in collectively processing, preparing for marketing, handling and marketing in interstate and foreign commerce the products of persons so engaged."

The act requires these associations to be operated for the mutual benefit of members as producers and limits the vote of each member, annual dividends and the extent to which an association may deal in the products of non-members. Enforcement is a duty of the secretary of agriculture, with appeal to the federal courts under specified procedure.

In discussing the situation of cooperatives at the time, Mr. Volstead said: "The objection made to these organizations at present is that they violate the Sherman Antitrust Act, and that is upon the theory that each farmer is a separate business entity. When he combines with his neighbor for the purpose of securing better treatment in the disposal of his crops, he is charged with a conspiracy or combination contrary to the Sherman Antitrust Act. Businessmen can combine by putting their money into corporations, but it is impractical for farmers to combine their farms into similar corporate form. The object of this bill is to modify the laws under which business organizations are formed, so that farmers may take advantage of the form of organization that is used by business concerns. It is objected in some quarters that this repeals the Sherman Antitrust Act to farmers. That is not true any more than it is true that a combination of two or three corporations violates the act. Such combinations may or may not monopolize trade."

Officers of cooperatives had been arrested and indicted for alleged violations of anti-trust laws. The Capper-Volstead Act, in effect an amendment of the anti-trust statutes, stabilized the legal status of marketing cooperatives. It expressly authorized marketing combinations for the mutual benefit of members, included both stock and non-stock associations, and guaranteed farmers immunity from prosecution under the federal anti-trust laws in the handling and marketing of agricultural commodities, as long as they did not unlawfully combine and conspire with others to restrain trade.

The man to whom farmers are indebted for the act was born in 1860, one of four children of a Norwegian immigrant couple who farmed near Kenyon, Minn., and who encouraged their son to become either a farmer or a Lutheran minister. Andrew Volstead attended St. Olaf College at Northfield, Minn., then transferred to Decorah (Iowa) Institute. He graduated in 1891, then taught school and "read law" in Decorah until 1894, when he was admitted to the bar. That same year he married Helen Mary Osleer Gilruth, a native of Scotland and a teacher. A daughter, Laura Ellen, their only child, was born in 1895.

Volstead practiced law a short time in Lac qui Parle Co., Minn., and at Grantsburg, Wis., before settling in Granite Falls, Minn., in 1896. He entered politics as a Republican and was elected county attorney in 1887, serving until 1893 and again from 1895 to 1903, when he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. He had served as a member and president of the Granite Falls Board of Education, was city attorney for a time and was mayor of Granite Falls from 1900 to 1902.

In Congress he was known as kindly, unobtrusive and taciturn, a stubborn guardian of the interests of western Minnesota wheat farmers. He 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. He supported World War I measures vigorously.

He became known as a careful, methodical writer of legislation, and in 1918, following passage of the 18th amendment — the Volstead Act — became chairman of the Judiciary Committee. That same year Mrs. Volstead died after several months of illness, and their daughter, Laura, graduated from the law school of George Washington University.

Mr. Volstead, a tobacco chewer, was a non-drinker and a supporter of prohibition; the act bore his name because of his extensive work in drafting the legislation. 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, only a few pieces about the CapperVolstead Act.

Legislation to clarify the status of agricultural marketing cooperatives was initially introduced as the Capper-Hersman bill. Material in the Volstead papers indicate that the bill was poorly written, including such flaws as allowing control of a cooperative organization to go to its wealthiest stockholders. Both congressmen and farm groups opposed the bill vigorously.

Mr. Volstead wrote, "Not willing that legislation on so important a subject should fail, I tried to frame a bill that could be passed." After months of characteristically careful study and writing, Mr. Volstead sent drafts of his bill to farm organizations and congressional leaders for recommendations. After revisions, he submitted the bill in 1919. It took until 1922 to get it passed.

"I succeeded in getting the bill through the House, but not without a good deal of opposition," Volstead wrote in a letter dated Dec. 7, 1923. "After much delay it was finally taken up in the Senate; it passed there, but with amendments that made it worse than useless. I refused to accept the Senate amendments and it died in the 66th Congress.

"I introduced it again in the 67th Congress and got it through the House, but the Committee to which it was referred in the Senate reported it with practically the same amendments that had defeated it in the previous Congress. I then appealed to my friends in the Senate to defeat these amendments. I had several conferences with them. They made the fight and succeeded in passing it in the form in which I had drawn it."

Volstead noted that Kansas Senator Arthur Capper, who was to have carried the bill through the Senate, had little to do with its passage; Senator Frank B. Kellogg was chief spokesman for the Capper-Volstead bill in the Senate.

In his bid for re-election to Congress in fall 1922, Volstead was defeated by the Rev. O.J. Kvale, a Lutheran minister campaigning as an Independent, who had libeled him in the 1920 election by labeling him an atheist. Many incumbents were turned out of office in elections of 1922, a reaction by farmers to low farm prices

Volstead returned to Granite Falls in 1923 and practiced law until 1924, when he was appointed legal adviser to the chief of the National Prohibition Enforcement Bureau. He maintained an office in the Federal Courts Building in St. Paul from 1924 until 1933, when he returned to Granite Falls. There he lived the life of a country lawyer, largely devoting himself to probate cases. At one time, he owned three farms in the Granite Falls area and in the early 1970s was still credited with $56 on the books of the Wegdahl (Minn.) Cooperative Elevator, which had been founded in 1889.

Little was known or said of Volstead, and he received virtually no recognition from the cooperative sector for his three-year effort on its behalf. He took little part in community activities, and turned down lucrative offers to speak and write on prohibition because he believed it would be unethical. He devoted his spare time to reading Shakespeare, flower gardening and horticultural interests. In failing health, in the four years preceding his death at age 87 he abandoned the daily visits to his law office. He died at home in January 1947, his daughter, Laura, was at his side.

Andrew J. Volstead went to his grave reviled for his role in giving America prohibition. Scarcely noted was what he considered his legacy, the Capper-Volstead Act. Seventy-five years after its passage, Capper-Volstead still stands as landmark legislation enabling farmers to organize to market their produce more effectively.

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