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The 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibited the sale, transportation, importation and exportation of alcoholic beverages from 1920 to 1933. The law under that amendment, the National Prohibition Act of 1919 – more commonly known as the Volstead Act – was sponsored by Rep. Andrew John Volstead, a Republican from Granite Falls, Minn.

file photo, Star Tribune

This Minnesotan made a career out of Prohibition enforcement

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT
  • Star Tribune
  • October 6, 2011 - 9:56 AM

Andrew Volstead was back in the limelight — or lowlight — this week.

The uncompromising congressman from Granite Falls whose name was attached to the law implementing the ill-fated 18th amendment to the U.S. Constitution was among the leading characters of “Prohibition,” the three-part series produced by documentarians Ken Burns and Lynn Novick and aired on PBS. (It’s also available for viewing at www.pbs.org.)

Volstead, a strict teetotaler and Republican congressman for 20 years, left office in 1923 and made a career out of prohibition enforcement for 10 years thereafter. He died in 1947.

Despite Volstead’s Minnesota connection, this state was not a “dry” enclave. Rather, it was a microcosm of the nation as the movement to ban alcohol sales came to the fore nearly 100 years ago.

The anti-Catholic and anti-German sentiments that drove Prohibition in the rest of the country were strongly evident in Minnesota during World War I. But the state also boasted a large German and Irish population whose culture included strong drink.

A conflict between “wets” and “drys” dominated Minneapolis city politics beginning in 1884, when “dry” George A. Pillsbury unseated “wet” Mayor A. A. Ames. Two years later, with the help of saloon politicking among new arrivals, Ames won the seat back.

His relationship with liquor interests eventually led to the conviction of a number of members of his administration on corruption charges. 

The Burns and Novick series doesn’t pound on the lessons for today that spring from the nation’s disastrous ban on the sale and purchase of alcohol between 1920 and 1933. It did not need to.

The roots of Prohibition the series identified are still visible. Moralists still try to tell other people how to conduct private lives.

In small towns — the “real America,” in Sarah Palin’s parlance — many people still look askance at urban habits. Americans of longer standing still wish immigrants would change their ways. 

Prohibition’s message for 2011 in Minnesota and the rest of the nation seems to be a warning: Allow these roots to sprout and grow, and the consequences could well be unpredictable and undesirable.

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Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist.

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