Friday, July 25, 2014

"This is my stand:" "Soggy" Sweat's Whiskey Speech

Noah Sweat, Jr. came from a long line of Alcorn County and northeast Mississippi folk, and a long line of “Noahs” too. His great grandfather, Noah Sweat, was born in South Carolina and moved to Georgia, where his son Laney Noah Sweat (right) was born in 1857. Like his father, he was a farmer. He died at age 44 in 1901 in Kossuth, Mississippi. Two of his sons, William Commodore and Noah Spurgeon Sweat, became lawyers and practiced in Corinth. Commodore Sweat (1878-1960) was the attorney for the Alcorn County Board of Supervisors and served as secretary/treasurer for the Union Mill Gin and Warehouse Company in Corinth. * 

Commodore Sweat’s brother, Noah (left), was born in 1892. He was also an attorney and was elected to the Mississippi House of Representatives in 1923 at age 31. A Baptist, a Mason, and a member of the American Legion (he was a World War I veteran), Noah S. Sweat, Sr. (1892-1978) was elected as a city judge in Corinth after his service in the Legislature. He lived to the ripe old age of 86. His son – the fourth Noah Sweat in as many generations – was born in 1922. Like his father, Noah Spurgeon Sweat, Jr., was an attorney and was elected to the Mississippi Legislature at age 24, serving a single term in the House of Representatives. Although he would later serve as a respected judge and law professor, he is best known by his nickname, “Soggy,” and remembered most for a speech he gave in 1952 on the subject of liquor.  

In 1952, as in other years, the legalization of whiskey and other liquors was a topic of spirited debate in the Legislature. While the Senate had passed legislation for local option for legalized liquor sales, the House had not moved the legislation along. Not only were there moral objections to the sale of whiskey, but state legislators, and perhaps Gov. Hugh White as well, feared the loss of tax revenue from “black market” liquor sales which the state collected. On Friday, April 4, 1952, Rep. Noah S. “Soggy” Sweat (right), still just 28 years old and in his final year as a legislator, was invited to give a speech on the subject at a banquet for legislators and other state elected officials and their wives. Sweat, it seems, had let it be known that he had been working on a “universal approach” on the liquor question. The following speech was delivered that night at the King Edward Hotel in Jackson:

My friends, I had not intended to discuss this controversial subject at this particular time. However, I want you to know that I do not shun controversy. On the contrary, I will take a stand on any issue at any time, regardless of how fraught with controversy it might be. You have asked me how I feel about whiskey. All right, here is how I feel about whiskey:
If when you say whiskey you mean the devil's brew, the poison scourge, the bloody monster, that defiles innocence, dethrones reason, destroys the home, creates misery and poverty, yea, literally takes the bread from the mouths of little children; if you mean the evil drink that topples the Christian man and woman from the pinnacle of righteous, gracious living into the bottomless pit of degradation, and despair, and shame and helplessness, and hopelessness, then certainly I am against it.
But, if when you say whiskey you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine, the ale that is consumed when good fellows get together, that puts a song in their hearts and laughter on their lips, and the warm glow of contentment in their eyes; if you mean Christmas cheer; if you mean the stimulating drink that puts the spring in the old gentleman's step on a frosty, crispy morning; if you mean the drink which enables a man to magnify his joy, and his happiness, and to forget, if only for a little while, life's great tragedies, and heartaches, and sorrows; if you mean that drink, the sale of which pours into our treasuries untold millions of dollars, which are used to provide tender care for our little crippled children, our blind, our deaf, our dumb, our pitiful aged and infirm; to build highways and hospitals and schools, then certainly I am for it.
This is my stand. I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise.

The next day, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger reported that “Soggy” Sweat delivered a “somewhat powerful, hesitatingly unequivocal speech…in which he sort of emphatically described his ‘universal approach’ to our current controversial issue.” Sweat called his oration “The Whiskey Speech,” and apparently had spent some bit of time composing it. The reception from the assembled crowd of dignitaries was silence during the first half of the speech, followed by a “tremendous burst of applause” by those opposed to liquor. The second half of the speech was similarly received. Sweat recalled in later years that “The drys were as unhappy with the second part of the speech as the wets were with the first half.” Throughout, the newspaper reported, “‘Soggy’s’ youthful eyes twinkled at both the silences and the applauses.”
Although it has at times been incorrectly attributed to other politicians, “The Whiskey Speech” is today considered among the most iconic speeches ever delivered in American political circles. Similar arguments - those which seem to take both sides of a controversial issue - are known as “If by whiskey” speeches. Lauded by William Safire and other writers for its brilliant composition, “The Whiskey Speech” remains a part of Mississippi’s political landscape, so much so that it was reenacted by Rep. Ed Perry of Oxford during the centennial observance of the “new” state capitol in 2003. In 1952, however, the speech apparently had no effect on the issue at hand. In fact, it took another fourteen years for Mississippi to finally approve local options for legal liquor sales. The first legal liquor store in Mississippi was in Greenville, and opened on August 6, 1966. In reporting the opening of the “Jigger and Jug,” the Delta Democrat-Times’ ran a front page photo (above right) with a caption that read: “Happy Day.”
Noah “Soggy” Sweat, after serving just one term in the Mississippi Legislature, went on to become a judge and then taught in the law school at the University of Mississippi and was founder of the Mississippi Judicial College at Ole Miss. John Grisham, the acclaimed novelist, was once his assistant. Judge Sweat died in 1996 and is buried, along with most of the Sweat family, in the Henry Cemetery in Corinth. Despite a long and distinguished career as an attorney and a jurist, he will forever, and perhaps rightly so, be known for his famous “Whiskey Speech.”

* William Commodore Sweat’s youngest child was Jonathan Mitchell Sweat. Born in 1925, he was a graduate of both Vanderbilt University and Julliard and was a prominent member of the Millsaps College music faculty for 38 years. Dr. Sweat died in 2009.  

(1) Laney Sweat: http// 
(2) Noah S. Sweat, Sr.: From Mississippi Official and Statistical Resister, 1924-28
(3) Noah S. Sweat, Jr.:
(4) King Edward Hotel:
(5) Speech:
(6) Delta Democrat-Times: 

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