On This Day

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Library of Congress

On This Day: Congress Passes Act Enforcing Prohibition

October 28, 2011 05:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Oct. 28, 1919, Congress passed the Volstead Act, which established the laws under which Prohibition would be enforced.

The Volstead Act

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In the early 20th century, responding to a politically powerful temperance movement, many states passed prohibition laws. In December 1917, Congress passed an amendment to the Constitution prohibiting “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors.”

While awaiting state ratification of the amendment, temperance advocates in Congress sought to pass the laws necessary to implement Prohibition. Andrew Volstead, chairman of the house judiciary committee, sponsored a bill written by Wayne Wheeler of the Anti-Saloon League that outlined the laws of Prohibition.

The National Prohibition Act, better known as the Volstead Act, forbade Americans from producing, selling or buying alcoholic beverages unless they received a permit for medicinal or sacramental purposes. Those caught manufacturing or selling alcohol could be fined up to $1,000 and imprisoned for six months. Repeat offenders would receive a $200-2,000 fine and a prison sentence of at least one month and up to five years.

Though the purchase of alcohol was prohibited, it was legal to consume alcohol in one’s home “provided such liquors are for use only for the personal consumption of the owner thereof and his family.”

Congress passed the bill on Oct. 28, 1919, after overriding President Woodrow Wilson’s veto of it. Less than three months later, on Jan. 16, 1920, the 18th Amendment was ratified. A year later, it took effect and the United States became a dry country.

Background: The Temperance Movement

Early American history has several examples of prohibition laws issued by colonies, states or local governments. For example, according to The New York Times, the colony of Maryland passed a law in 1642 “punishing drunkards by a fine of 100 pounds of tobacco,” while Virginia passed a law two years later banning ministers from excess drinking.

For the most part, however, colonies—and later states—saw alcohol as something that should be regulated. It was also an obvious source of tax revenue; that created a dilemma for politicians when it came to taking action to curb drinking.

The roots of Prohibition trace back to the early 19th century, when a temperance movement attracted Christian evangelicals across the nation. In 1826, the American Temperance Society was founded to advance the cause against alcohol.

In 1874, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union was founded by women who believed that alcohol destroyed marriages and families. It was joined in 1893 by the Anti-Saloon League, which gained enormous political clout. In the early 20th century, the temperance movement was successful in persuading many state and local governments to pass prohibition laws.

The proposal of an amendment to ban alcohol, passed by Congress in December 1917, was ratified by the necessary three-quarters of states in just 13 months.

The Path to Prohibition’s Repeal

Prohibitionists envisioned that the ban on alcohol would lower crime. “So convinced were they that alcohol was the cause of virtually all crime that, on the eve of Prohibition, some towns actually sold their jails,’ says the State University of New York, Potsdam.

However, crime increased because “neither federal nor local authorities would commit the resources necessary to enforce the Volstead Act,” according to the National Archives.

“Not only did the number of serious crimes increase,” says the University at Albany, “but crime became organized. Criminal groups organize around the steady source of income provided by laws against victimless crimes such as consuming alcohol or drugs, gambling and prostitution.”

Bootleggers and organized crime organizations were able to transport and sell alcohol with ease, and tens of thousands of speakeasy clubs—places where alcohol was sold illegally—were created, as Americans openly disregarded the rule of law.

“The prestige of government has undoubtedly been lowered considerably by the prohibition law,” said Albert Einstein in 1921. “For nothing is more destructive of respect for the government and the law of the land than passing laws which cannot be enforced. It is an open secret that the dangerous increase of crime in this country is closely connected with this.”

In December 1932, an Amendment proposal to repeal the 18th Amendment was brought before Congress. Less than a year later, it had been passed and signed by President Franklin Roosevelt. What President Herbert Hoover called the “great social and economic experiment, noble in motive and far reaching in purpose,” had ended.

Summarizing the failure of Prohibition, Mark Thornton of the Cato Institute writes, “Alcohol became more dangerous to consume; crime increased and became ‘organized’; the court and prison systems were stretched to the breaking point; and corruption of public officials was rampant. No measurable gains were made in productivity or reduced absenteeism. Prohibition removed a significant source of tax revenue and greatly increased government spending.”
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