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The Man Behind the 'Jones Act'

Maritime Activity Reports, Inc.

December 18, 2023

Senator Wesley Livsey Jones (Credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, photograph by Harris and Ewing, [LC-DIG-hec-15427])

Senator Wesley Livsey Jones (Credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, photograph by Harris and Ewing, [LC-DIG-hec-15427])

Senator Wesley Livsey Jones gave his name to the famous “Jones Act” governing U.S. domestic maritime trade. But what do really know about him? It turns out that he was much more than a leading merchant marine policy maker. (i)

Jones had a long career in the U.S. House of Representatives before he was a Senator, was an effective legislator, an astute politician, one of the hardest working legislators of his era, and always viewed as honest and forthright. His many maritime legislative successes included the Merchant Marine Act, 1928 in addition to the Merchant Marine Act, 1920 which is often referred to as the “Jones Act.”

But what he was best known for during the latter part of his legislative career was serving as a national leader of the “dry” movement in support of Prohibition. In fact, the most famous “Jones Act” of his era was the 1929 “Increased Penalties Act” which turned Prohibition violations into felonies. This last act defined him most of all and contributed to the one and only election he lost in 1932, shortly before his death.

Yakima Jones
Jones was born on October 9, 1863, in southern Illinois in an area known as “Little Egypt” shortly after his father died serving in the Union army. By the age of ten, he was hired out to do farm work and went to school only in the winter. At age sixteen, he began teaching school to earn his way through Southern Illinois “College,” a Cumberland Presbyterian institution located in Enfield, Illinois.

Enfield was a small town where no liquor was sold; there were, however, four churches. William E. Borah, the future senator from Idaho, a staunch isolationist, and leading opponent of President Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations, was a fellow classmate.

After receiving his degree, Jones moved to Chicago and studied law by day and taught school by night. He was admitted to the bar in 1886 at the age of twenty-two. Around this time, he married Minda Nelson from Enfield and had two children. After trying to establish a law practice in Decatur, he moved to North Yakima, Washington in 1889 at the age of twenty-six.

Jones volunteered for the Republican Party in Washington as he had in Illinois and caught the eye of Washington state leadership. Possibly because Republican leadership thought that they were going to lose in 1898 (Democrat William Jennings Bryan had won the state with about 57 percent of the vote in 1896), they picked Jones to run for one of the Washington at-large representatives to the U.S. House.

The state press described him as “‘Yakima’ Jones,” “a plain solid looking sort of man . . . of medium height, broad shouldered and strong, he looks what he is, a man of intelligence.” (ii) He gave his acceptance speech “in a strong, clear voice, slightly metallic, perhaps, but that has a pleasant ring to it when he emphasizes his words.” Moreover, “there was nothing light or frivolous about his words, he eschewed flippancy, talked in an earnest and impassioned way, dealt in cold facts, and kept his audience listening attentively.”

One of Jones’s opponents for the two at-large seats was J. Hamilton Lewis. Known as “Col. Lewis,” he had served in the Spanish-American War in the Washington National Guard. He was also known for flowery speeches.

Jones gained fame in an October 22, 1898, debate with Lewis in Walla Walla. The Seattle Daily Times, which supported Lewis, reported that Lewis “burnt the skin off him, making him [Jones] the laughing stock of the packed Republican audience” including calling out Jones for not serving during the Spanish-American War. (iii) The Seattle Post-Daily Intelligencer saw things differently: “‘Yakima’ Jones Vanquishes Col. Lewis” and “Orator Loses His Temper at His Good-Humored Opponent.”

That debate stayed with Jones. Pro-Jones news articles in 1932 referenced the debate when “Young ‘Wes’ Defeated ‘Dude’ Lewis.” (iv) Jones was fortunate that 1898, the year of the victory over Spain, favored Republicans, and Jones was elected to the U.S. House.

In 1898 and later campaigns, Jones’s personal qualities, his reputation as being honest, hardworking, cautious, practical, and without pretense or noticeable ambition, served him well. As one historian wrote, “Jones was a tall, sincere, devout former lawyer from Yakima. He did not drink, gamble, smoke, or swear. He was dedicated to middle-class American values and to the Republican party, both of which he in many ways personified.” (v)

The Oregonian wrote in 1920 that Jones “has gone far with moderate ability” but it was “ability re-enforced by sound character, honest convictions, genuine desire to serve.” (vi) James Michener in the novel Alaska, even though a work of fiction, wrote that Jones was a “hardworking, amiable Republican . . . whose devotion to duty had elevated him to the chairmanship of the important Senate Commerce Committee.”

His hardworking style was legendary: “the dominant legend of his life is one of toil” and “it is probable that he puts in more time in the Senate Chamber than does any other member of the upper house.” (vii) In the lead up to the 1920 Merchant Marine Act, he oversaw 37 hearings in 51 days, including six Saturdays taking testimony from over 100 witnesses. These qualities were played up in his campaigns and he was called the “Blacksmith Senator.”

In terms of his political philosophy, Jones liked to refer to himself as a “conservative progressive,” by which he meant that he did not favor what were considered radical approaches but was sympathetic to the reforms animating the progressive movement. For example, on race relations, he wrote to President Woodrow Wilson and other government officials protesting Wilson’s segregation of black government employees.

Jones also supported women’s suffrage, asking rhetorically in 1913 when the Senate considered a Constitutional amendment granting women the right to vote: “What peculiar sexual difference is there that entitles man to vote and prevents woman? Can anyone point out any such peculiarity? No one has ever done so.” (viii)

Jones was not, however, in the least bit in favor of immigration. When confronted as to whether he had the same solicitude toward Japanese immigrants as he did to blacks, Jones said that the difference was that blacks were U.S. citizens and Japanese were not and “I hope they never will be.” (ix)

On labor rights, he tried to thread a narrow path between business interests and labor reform. For example, he was wary of the Seamen’s Act of 1915 which reformed many long-standing mariner practices. In 1916, Jones advanced complaints of shipowners about their inability to crew their vessels, allegedly caused by that legislation, although he claimed he was not in opposition to the law.

Jones’s overall strategy worked because he was re-elected and served five terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, although he pined for the Senate. An opportunity arose in 1907 when Washington State adopted a non-binding Senate preferential primary law for the first time as a prelude to direct elections, rather than election by the state legislature.

Jones, then forty-five years old, campaigned hard in the primary and defeated the incumbent senator who had not had to campaign publicly before. Jones was then easily elected by the Republican-dominated legislature in early 1909.

On most issues, Jones was cautious and politically nimble. Senator Clarence C. Dill (D-WA) said in eulogy, “‘Senator Jones never knocks any flies. He bunts and always plays low ball. That is why he is always safe.’” (x)

Jones’ political adeptness, however, failed him in two major instances. Each time, he started from a principled position but held on too long after the position became a political loser—U.S. neutrality prior to World War I and Prohibition.

Armed Neutrality
Jones was a leader of the movement to avoid provocations that would embroil the United States in World War I. He was adamantly opposed to Americans travelling into war zones or on belligerent vessels. After the sinking of the Lusitania, he was widely quoted as saying that he would “rather resign my seat in the United States Senate than by my vote place the right of a citizen to go abroad above the right of my country to enjoy peace.” (xi)

In 1916, he said that an American who “persists in travelling for pleasure or profit in the danger zone and in a belligerent ship shows that he is utterly lacking in patriotism.” In this he clashed with former president Theodore Roosevelt, who wrote to the contrary—any leader who argued that “we need not take action” for the deaths of American on lawful travel “occupies a position precisely and exactly as base and as cowardly . . . as if his wife’s face were slapped on the public streets and the only action he took was to tell her to stay in the house.”

The neutrality issue came to a head with President Wilson’s early 1917 proposal to arm merchant vessels. Jones was one of the senators who urged that arming vessels be approached with caution since it effectively would put the United States at war with Germany.

The Seattle Times called Jones out on his attempt to argue both sides of the issue. (xii) The Seattle Star argued that Jones had “failed pathetically on the one big thing in his generation.”

Perhaps to make up for his earlier opposition, Jones became an avid supporter of the war effort once war was declared. He continued, however, to moralize, and it later defined his career. For example, Jones offered an amendment to the Army conscription legislation known as the “Selective Service Act of 1917.” His amendment prevented the establishment of “houses of ill fame, brothels, or bawdy houses within 10 miles of any military camp,” which became part of the law.

The Five-And-Ten Senator (xiii)
Jones’ tendency to moralize found its greatest expression with the Prohibition. He was a leading Prohibition advocate and his “portrait hung conspicuously in the office of the Anti-Saloon League [which led the Prohibition political campaign] for as long as the organization existed under that name.” (xiv)

After passage of the Eighteenth Amendment and the “National Prohibition Act of 1919,” known as the “Volstead Act,” Jones insisted on enforcement. In 1921, he argued “there is no such thing as personal liberty in a Republic” and the “law must be enforced or orderly government will fall.” (xv)

The New York Times remembered this phrase in 1929. The Times editorialized that Jones was a “felon-maker” and that “for him the Constitution is the Eighteenth Amendment.” (xvi) The Times sarcastically requested that “Senator Jones ought to create some more felonies.”

The Times was referring to the “Increased Penalties Act” of 1929. This made felonies of certain Volstead Act offenses, colloquially referred to as the “Five and Ten law” after the possible five years in jail or maximum $10,000 fine. The law was also called the “Jones-Stalker Act” or just the “Jones Act” or “Jones Law.”

Jones’s Five and Ten Law sponsorship came to define him much to Jones’s surprise. He argued that it would only affect commercial bootleggers and not individual consumption and that Americans should be “good sports” about complying with the law.

Over time he came to resent the law being associated with him and him alone. His defense and protestations were to no avail. Jones became the “author of the ‘five and ten’ law,” the “Daddy of the Jones Law,” and the “five and ten Senator.” (xvii) Moreover, Jones burnished his stern reputation, arguing that tourists who smuggled liquor should be prosecuted and lawyers who defended “wet” clients should be disbarred.

By the spring of the 1932 election year, it was obvious that Jones’s Prohibition leadership was going to hurt him politically. He started to argue that if the people of Washington State wanted it, then he would favor letting the people vote on “reversion.” When he did so, the New York Times reported that, “here in Washington nobody could be led to believe that Senator Jones could have a sincere change of heart. His dryness is the sort which might well be described as desiccated.” (xviii)

Jones was too ill to campaign in 1932 and was handicapped by his Prohibition position. He only received about 33 percent of the vote, which was slightly less than the vote received by Herbert Hoover in Washington State. Jones had had abdominal operations in 1928 and 1929 and had never fully recovered. He died on November 19, 1932, less than two weeks after his first and only election defeat.

Jones was remembered at the time as a national leader on irrigation, waterpower, Alaska, and the merchant marine. But even more so, the focus was on Prohibition and his role with the “Five and Ten Law.” The New York Times summary of Jones’ career was that he was the “long leading dry.” 

Critics of Jones’s character at the time of his death were scarce. Most typical were plaudits regarding the traits he had exhibited throughout his public career, ranging from when he started as “Yakima Jones” to when he became the “Five and Ten Senator.” Representative William Humphrey, his House colleague, eulogized Jones as follows—

     He performed every duty—he evaded no responsibility. He practiced no deception. Honesty was one of the outstanding qualities of his rugged character. He was intellectually honest. He was honest with himself and with others. There was about him no cant or hypocrisy. What he preached he practiced. That which his conscience dictated was done. In public and in private life, I have never known a cleaner man. (xix)



(i) This article is based on a chapter in the upcoming book, Journey to the Jones Act–U.S. Merchant Marine Policy 1776-1920, to be published by Adducent under its Fortis nonfiction imprint in Spring 2024.

(ii) “Republicans of Washington Turn Solid Front to the Foe,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 22, 1898, 1, 2; “Convention Report in Detail,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 22, 1898, 2.

(iii) “Opinion,” Seattle Daily Times, October 24, 1898, 5; J. Howard Watson, “‘Yakima’ Jones Vanquishes Col Lewis,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 23, 1898, 1.

(iv) “Jones, ‘Blacksmith Senator,” Enjoys Work–Family Once Slept in Barn on Auto Trip,” Seattle Daily Times, October 30, 1931, 26.

(v) Norman H. Clark, The Dry Years: Prohibition and Social Change in Washington (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988), rev. ed., 179–180.

(vi) “Senator Jones,” Oregonian, September 17, 1920, 8; James A. Michener, Alaska: A Novel (New York: Random House, 1987), 816.

(vii) “Senator Jones Defends the Jones Law,” New York Times Magazine, May 5, 1929, 3.

(viii) 50 CONG. REC. 5120 (September 18, 1913); “Demands Suffrage Debate–Senator Jones Wants Action on Amendment to Enfranchise Women,” New York Times, September 19, 1913, 8.

(ix) 51 CONG. REC. 2934 (February 5, 1914).

(x) Memorial Services Held in the House of Representatives of the United States, Together with Remarks Presented in Eulogy of Wesley L. Jones (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1933), 39.

(xi) For example, “Lister Occupies Olympia Pulpit,” Seattle Daily Times, May 17, 1915, 18; 53 CONG. REC. 505 January 15, 1916; Theodore Roosevelt, Fear God and Take Your Part (New York: George H. Doran, 1916), 35.

(xii) For example, “Jones Convicts Himself,” Seattle Daily Times, March 27, 1917, 6; “Inglis to Jones?” Seattle Star, September 7, 1920, 2.

(xiii) Don Charles, “The Five-And-Ten Senator,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, August 4, 1929, 70.

(xiv) Clark, Dry Years, 179.

(xv) 61 CONG. REC. 7705 (November 15, 1921).

(xvi) “Jones, The Felon-Maker,” New York Times, April 11, 1929, 28.

(xvii) “Senator Jones Dies; Long Leading Dry,” New York Times, November 20, 1932, 28.

(xviii) “Washington Tires of State Dry Law,” New York Times, May 1, 1932, 5.

(xix) Wesley L. Jones Memorial Services, 35.

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