Digital History>eXplorations>Lynching>Anti-Lynching Legislation of the 1920s>Comments by A.J. Volstead


CONGRESSIONAL RECORD-HOUSE Comments by A. J. Volstead (January 18, 1922)

Mr. Volstead: There is no merit in blinking the fact that we are face to face with the situation that lynch law is the only law that functions under certain circumstances. The mob is the judge, the jury, and the executioner. Its acts are sanctioned by the weakness or supineness of the State. The fact that the mob does not consult statutes or measure the punishment it inflicts with the nicety of the ordinary court does not make it any the less a tribunal for the punishment of crime. The lawlessness of the punishment it inflicts should not be made a shield against prosecution. It can not be material that the mob does not claim to represent the State or that it has no authority from the State when it usurps and performs the functions that no one but the State can lawfully perform. The enforcement of the lynch law is not revolution against the State; but is, as the phrase goes, the act of the public taking the law into their own hands. While I do not believe that it makes any difference whether the mob has any authority from the State or not, I confess I can see no good reason why the mob should not be held to represent the State when it assumes to function for the State. Its action is the only administration of law when it puts a person to death as a punishment for a crime. It seems to me there is as much reason for holding its act to be the act of the State as there is for holding that an unauthorized act of a State officer is the act of a State. We punish such and officer upon the theory that he acts for the State; why not make the members of the mob subject to like punishment? The officer has no more warrant from the State for his action than has the mob.

The question of whether Congress can punish those who interfere with an officer of a State was carefully considered by the circuit court in United States v. Powell (151 Fed., 658).

This case was affirmed by the Supreme Court because, as I construe the decision, it rests on statutes that are direct instead of corrective. Statutes that only protect against the invasion of the rights and privileges secured to citizens by the Constitution of the United States and not rights and privileges pertaining to citizens of a state that are only guaranteed to such citizens by the fourteenth amendment. In my view of the law the Supreme Court was right in affirming this case.

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