The movement for the prohibition of alcohol in the United States began in the early 19th century. For decades, the hot political topic left a great divide among family members and friends. Candidates attempts to get voters to hear their agenda at local stump speakings would be interrupted when someone in the crowd yelled “How do you feel about whiskey?!”
In Mississippi, you were either “fer it” or “agin it.”
Judge N. S. Sweat was both.
According to a 1996 Daily Journal Corinth Bureau article published upon his death, Noah S. “Soggy” Sweat, Jr. was born in Alcorn County, entered elementary school at the age of four and graduated Corinth High School in 1939. His nickname was given to him by a classmate who thought his red hair resembled the tassel on a sorghum stalk. He began calling him “Soghum” which later turned into “Soggy”. The name is said to have stuck with him like molasses to a breakfast plate.
In 1946 Sweat graduated from the University of Mississippi School of Business. His education was briefly delayed when he enlisted in the U.S. Airforce during his junior year. He served as a B-29 navigator and flew 35 missions during World War II. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
He would later graduate from Ole Miss School of Law in 1949 and receive his Master of Laws Degree from George Washington University at Washington, D.C., in 1952.
His studies would take him to Hague Academy of International Law in Holland, University of Paris Law School in France and a later sabbatical at the University of Birmingham, England.
An accomplished man at a very young age, Sweat was elected to the Mississippi Legislature in 1947 and served until 1952. During his tenure, legalization of whiskey had become an even more passionate debate. Though the Senate had passed legislation for local option for liquor sales, it was stuck in the House.
Sweat had let it be known to friends and fellow legislators that he had been working on a “universal approach” to the liquor question. On Friday, April 4, 1952, at only 28 years old and in his last year as legislator, he delivered his legendary “If by Whiskey” or “The Whiskey Speech” to a banquet room filled with statesmen and their wives at the old King Edward Hotel in Jackson. He stepped to the podium and stated his position in his speech, reprinted here in full:
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.
In a 1989 interview with the Daily Corinthian Sweat described the audiences response to his speech.
“When I finished the first half of the speech, there was a tremendous burst of applause. The second half of the speech, after the close of which, the wets all applauded. The drys were as unhappy with the second part of the speech as the wets were with the first half,” he said.
Neither response fazed Sweat.
His speech became monumental in terms of political double-speak and is touted today by many as one of the most controversial yet well-known political speeches ever given. He was ask to recite the classic words numerous times throughout his career including as Master of Ceremonies for a Young Democrats dinner in Jackson in 1957. The audience included Senator John F. Kennedy, who was seeking the Democratic presidential nomination.
Sweat’s long and illustrious career also led him to serve as 1st District Circuit Judge from 1962 to 1970 bringing him to the halls of the Itawamba County Courthouse. His signature can be found in historic record books on county cases from murder to financial disputes.
Judge Noah S. “Soggy” Sweat, Jr. died February 23, 1996 after battling Parkinson’s Disease. During his career, he left behind a legacy as legislator, circuit judge, law professor and district attorney among others. Fellow judges, students and attorneys remember him as an “innovator” who made a “great impression.”
In his “Whiskey Speech”, he also left behind an ever so colorful reminder that there’s two sides to every story.