Wilson Act

Before the passage of the Wilson Act in 1890, the United States Supreme Court had held that a state could only exclude from its borders products that were "intrinsically not merchantable" (for example, rotten meat or disease-infected products) or that were not legitimate articles of commerce.

As constitutional scholar Westel Willoughby explained, states could not prohibit the introduction within their borders of "such articles as have directly or impliedly been recognized by Congress as legitimate articles of interstate commerce. And, furthermore, it is an established principle that as to articles legitimately the subjects of commerce, the silence of Congress as to them is to be construed as equivalent to a declaration that interstate trade as to them is to be unrestricted."

However, some states had imposed statewide prohibition against alcohol (popularly known as "dry" states). To enable dry states to prohibit alcoholic beverages within their borders, Congress passed the Wilson Act in 1890. The law, which was subsequently upheld by the Supreme Court and remains in force today, states

That all fermented, distilled or other intoxicating liquors or liquids transported into any State or Territory or remaining therein for use, consumption, sale or storage therein, shall, upon arrival in such State or Territory be subject to the operation and effect of the laws of such State or Territory, enacted in the exercise of its police power to the same extent and in the same manner as though such liquids or liquors had been produced in such State or Territory and shall not be exempt therefrom by reason of being introduced therein in original packages or otherwise.

Still Dry?

There are hundreds of dry counties across the United States. About 18,000,000 people live in the 10% of the area of the US that is dry.

Subsequent court cases have limited the specific applicability of the Wilson Act.

In spite of the failure of National Prohibition and the serious problems it created, many people and organizations today support neo-prohibition ideas and strongly defend the many vestiges of Prohibition that still continue to exist.


  • Willoughby, Westel W. The Constitutional Law of the United States. Albany, NY: W.W. Willoughby, 1910.

Readings on the Wilson Act:

  • Bruce, Andrew A. The Wilson Act and the Constitution. Green Bag, 1909(May), 21, 211-223.
  • Intoxicating liquors. Wilson Act. Applicability to foreign commerce. Harvard Law Review, 1913 (April), 26(6), 554-555.
  • Intoxicating Liquors. "Wilson Act." Ex parte Edgerton, 59, Fed. Rep. 115. Yale Law Journal, 1894 (May), 3(5), 181-182.
  • "Police power" under the Wilson Act of 1890. Harvard Law Review, 1905 (November), 19(1), 53-54.
  • Rooney, John J. The Panic of 1893; exposes again the fallacy that the Wilson Act occasioned it. New York Times, October 19, 1911, p. 6.

Filed Under: Prohibition