The Volstead Act 1919

The Volstead Act


The Volstead Act

The National Prohibition Act of 1919 (commonly called the Volstead Act) was enabling legislation enacted to provide for the implementation of the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which established National Prohibition of alcoholic beverages.

The Eighteenth Amendment was very brief and general in its provisions. It stated simply that “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited” and that “Congress and the several States shall have concurrent power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”

What constituted “intoxicating liquors” and other terms needed specific legal definitions as well as penalties to be legislated before enforcement could occur.

The required enabling law was called the Volstead Act after Congressman Andrew J. Volstead who chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee and whose job it was to sponsor the legislation. However, its author was largely Wayne Wheeler of the Anti-Saloon League who conceived and drafted the bill. Nevertheless, Prohibition transformed the name of an otherwise obscure legislator from Minnesota into a household word. The name Volstead was cursed by some, praised by others, but known by all.

The bill was vetoed by President Woodrow Wilson on both constitutional and ethical grounds but overridden by Congress on the same day, October 28, 1919.

You can read both the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act at the bottom of the page.

The Volstead Act was officially titled “An act to prohibit intoxicating beverages, and to regulate the manufacture, production, use, and sale of high-proof spirits for other than beverage purposes, and to insure an ample supply of alcohol and promote its use in scientific research and in the development of fuel, dye, and other lawful industries.” Thus, its title identified its three distinct purposes (1) to “prohibit intoxicating beverages,” (2) “to regulate the manufacture, production, use and sale of high proof spirits for other than beverage purposes,” and (3) to “insure an ample supply of alcohol and promote its use in scientific research and in the development of fuel, dye and other lawful industries.”

The Volstead Act specified that “no person shall manufacture, sell, barter, transport, import, export, deliver, furnish or possess any intoxicating liquor except as authorized by this act.” The act defined intoxicating liquor as any beverage over 0.5% alcohol and superseded all existing prohibition laws in effect in states with such legislation. Contrary to common belief it did not specifically prohibit the purchase or consumption of intoxicating liquors. For example, those who had stockpiled alcoholic beverages could legally consume them.

The Eighteenth Amendment was only 111 words whereas the Volstead Act was over 25 pages in length. Its provisions and their subsequent interpretation by courts were confusing. However, even as written, its provisions were complex. The day before it went into effect the New York Daily News interpreted the law for its readers:

  • You may drink intoxicating liquor in your own home or in the home of a friend when you are a bona fide guest.
  • You may buy intoxicating liquor on a bona fide medical prescription of a doctor. A pint can be bought every ten days.
  • You may consider any place you live permanently as your home. If you have more than one home, you may keep a stock of liquor in each.
  • You may keep liquor in any storage room or club locker, provided the storage place is for the exclusive use of yourself, family or bona fide guests.
  • You may get a permit to move liquor when you change your residence.
  • You may manufacture, sell or transport liquor for non-beverage or sacramental purposes provided you obtain a Government permit.
  • You cannot carry a hip flask.
  • You cannot give away or receive a bottle of liquor as a gift.
  • You cannot take liquor to hotels or restaurants and drink it in the public dining room.
  • You cannot buy or sell formulas or recipes for homemade liquors.
  • You cannot ship liquor for beverage use.
  • You cannot store liquor in any place except your own home.
  • You cannot manufacture anything above one half of one percent (liquor strength) in your home.
  • You cannot display liquor signs or advertisements on your premises.
  • You cannot remove reserve stocks from storage. 1

In spite of its thousands of words, the Volstead Act could obscure rather than clarify. The U.S. Attorney General was asked, for example, if it was illegal under the Act to publish or circulate George Washington’s recipe for making beer, even when it was a photographic copy of the recipe written in his own handwriting. 2 Would hanging an antique alcohol ad in a private living room be illegal? Exactly what would be a bona fide guest? Even a casual reading of the Act reveals apparent inconsistencies. Legal rulings about different matters conflicted with each other and confusion reigned.

Effects of Prohibition

Within a week after the Eighteenth Amendment went into effect, small portable stills were on sale throughout the country. 3 California’s grape growers increased their acreage about 700 percent during the first five years of Prohibition and production increased dramatically to meet a booming demand for home-made wine. 4 The mayor of New York City even sent instructions on winemaking to all of his constituents. 5

There was also wort, or beer that had been halted in the manufacturing process before the yeast was added. The purchaser added yeast, let the wort ferment, and then filtered it. Since wort was sold before it contained alcohol, it was legal and openly sold throughout the entire country. 6 Organized smuggling of alcohol from Canada and elsewhere quickly developed. “Rum rows” existed off the coasts of large cities where ships lined up just beyond the three mile limit to off-load their cargoes onto speed boats. Murder and hijacking were common in this dangerous but lucrative business.

There was also the notorious and ever-present organized bootlegging. The scourge led to massive and widespread corruption of politicians and law enforcement agencies and helped finance powerful crime syndicates. The widespread corruption of public officials became a national scandal. Several rather typical cases reported by the New York Times in a short period illustrate the problem:

Fort Lauderdale, Florida – The sheriff, the assistant chief of police, and seventeen others, including policemen and deputy sheriffs, were arrested on charges of conspiracy.

Morris County, New Jersey – The former county prosecutor was found guilty of accepting bribes from liquor-law violators.

Philadelphia – A city magistrate was sentenced to six years in prison for accepting $87,993 in liquor graft during his ten months in office.

Edgewater, New Jersey – The mayor, the chief of police, two local detectives, a United States customs inspector, a New York police sergeant, and eight others were found guilty of conspiracy. A rum- runner confessed that he had paid them $61,000 to help land liquor worth one million dollars.

South Jacksonville, Florida – Practically the entire city administration, including the mayor, the chief of police, the president of the city council, the city commissioner, and the fire chief, were indicted by a federal grand jury. 7

In addition to the murders of law enforcement officers an even more common cause of death and disability were bootlegger’s hastily-made illegal products that were sometimes toxic and caused paralysis, blindness and death.

It became very difficult to convict those who violated Prohibition because public support for the law and its enforcement eroded dramatically. For example, of 7,000 arrests in New York between 1921 and 1923, only 27 resulted in convictions. 8 That is a conviction rate of only one for every 260 arrests.

In addition to being ineffective, Prohibition was counterproductive in that it led to the heavy and rapid consumption of alcohol in secretive, non-socially regulated and controlled ways. “People did not take the trouble to go to a speakeasy, present the password, and pay high prices for very poor quality alcohol simply to have a beer. When people went to speakeasies, they went to get drunk.” 9

The problems caused by Prohibition and its enforcement imposed enormous financial burdens on the nation, but bootleg, being untaxed, deprived the treasury of much needed revenue. A Congressional investigation (the Wickersham Commission report) found that two-thirds of the federal budget for law enforcement went to trying to police Prohibition.

Repeal of Prohibition

National Prohibition in the United States had been viewed by tens of millions of Americans as the solution to the nation’s poverty, crime, violence, and other ills and they eagerly embraced it. Upon establishment of the Noble Experiment in 1920, famous evangelist Billy Sunday staged a mock funeral for alcoholic beverages and then extolled the benefits of Prohibition. “The rein of tears is over,” he asserted. “The slums will soon be only a memory. We will turn our prisons into factories and our jails into storehouses and corncribs.”10 Since alcohol was to be banned and since it was seen as the cause of most, if not all, crime, some communities sold their jails. 11

Unfortunately, Prohibition not only failed in its promises but actually created serious and disturbing social problems throughout society. This led to an increasing disillusionment by millions of Americans. Journalist H. L. Mencken wrote in 1925 that “Five years of prohibition have had, at lest, this one benign effect: they have completely disposed of all the favorite arguments of the Prohibitionists. None of the great boons and usufructs that were to follow the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment has come to pass. There is not less drunkenness in the Republic but more. There is not less crime, but more. There is not less insanity, but more. The cost of government is not smaller, but vastly greater. Respect for law has not increased, but diminished.” 12

Women, led by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), had been pivotal in bringing about National Prohibition. Their interest had been a moral one: protecting the family, women and children from the effects of alcohol abuse. And with the passage of time it became women who proved to be pivotal in repealing Prohibition. Their interest was again a moral one: prohibition was undermining the family and corrupting the morals of women and children. The Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform and other women’s groups called for change.

As disillusionment and dissatisfaction spread, the number of Repeal organizations and their membership grew and the demand for Repeal became louder and louder. They included the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment, Labor’s National Committee for the Modification of the Volstead Act, United Repeal Council, the Women’s Moderation Union, and the Voluntary Committee of Lawyers.

The Democratic Party platform in the 1932 election included an anti-Prohibition plank and Franklin Roosevelt ran for the presidency promising Repeal, which occurred on December 5, 1933. The popular vote for repeal of Prohibition was 74 percent in favor and 26 percent in opposition. 13 By a three to one vote, the American people rejected Prohibition; only one state opposed Repeal. The Eighteenth is the only Constitutional Amendment ever to be repealed.

The U.S. Supreme Court held that the Volstead Act had become null and unenforceable upon repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment because it had rested on a grant of authority to Congress by that Amendment. Therefore prosecutions for violations of the Act that had not reached final judgments of conviction before the date of Repeal had to be dismissed.

Although National Prohibition had been repealed, some states continued their own state-wide prohibition for decades. Even today there are hundreds of dry counties across the United States. About 18,000,000 people live in the approximately 10% of the area of the US that is dry. In addition, many vestiges of prohibition continue to exist across the entire country.

Happy throngs sang “Happy Days are Here Again!” and President Roosevelt would soon look back to what he called “The damnable affliction of Prohibition.” 14 But not everyone was happy and temperance leaders vowed to continue the fight. 15

The Present

The temperance movement never really died. It was relatively dormant for several decades after World War II, but has re-emerged with a new identity and modified ideology. It has been described variously as “neo-prohibition,” 16 “new temperance,” 17 “new Sobriety,” 18 “new Victorianism,” 19 and “new paternalism.” 20 The consumption of beer, wine, and spirits had declined over the last quarter-century. But lower is never low enough for some people. As a critic of neo-drys wrote, “The slogan for the new temperance is, regarding alcohol, ‘less is better.'” 21 It is clear that:

In contemporary America, both the tactics and the tone of temperance sentiment have changed appreciably from the 1800s. Inebriety, licentiousness, moral depravity and sin have all but vanished form the extant vocabulary. The new contender for the status of moral purity would seem to be health (although ill- health has not yet achieved equivalence with religious fundamentalists’ conceptions of sin). Today, rallying cries once structured in terms of social order, home and basic decency are now framed in terms of health promotion and disease prevention. 22

The renewed movement is based on the assumption that individuals cannot be trusted to make appropriate lifestyle choices. Therefore, “to protect people from themselves or to protect society, the state should pass legislation that enforces restrictions likely [in the belief of the reformers] to promote health by taking away the individual’s personal choice.” 23 This, in spite of the fact that alcohol legislation in the United States already appears to be among the most stringent in the world.

Neo-prohibitionists believe that the per capita consumption of alcoholic beverages should be reduced by legislation that further restricts its sale and consumption and also by changing social norms to reduce the acceptability of drinking. They believe that alcohol should be stigmatized and that drinking should be discouraged and “de-normalized.”

Opponents argue that drinking in moderation is associated with better health and greater longevity than is abstaining from alcohol.

The debate about alcoholic beverages and their place in society will likely extend long into the future. Several months before his death in a nursing home 1938, temperance leader John Brown Hammond was working to organize “The Eighteenth Amendment Rescue Association” and believed that Prohibition would eventually return. Only time will tell if he was correct.