The Volstead Act was the National Prohibition Act of 1919. Congress passedas enabling legislation for National Prohibition. The Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution called for Prohibition of alcoholic beverages.
I. Need for the Volstead Act
II. The Volstead Act
V. The Legacy
The Volstead Act was needed in order to implement the Eighteenth Amendment. Otherwise, the criminal justice system couldn’t enforce National Prohibition.
I. Need for the Volstead Act
The 18th Amendment was very brief and general. It stated 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 “intoxicating liquors” and other terms meant needed definitions. Penalties for violations also needed to be specified.
The law is called the Volstead Act after Congressman Andrew J. Volstead. He chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee and sponsored it. But its author was largely Wayne Wheeler of the Anti-Saloon League. Wheeler drafted the bill. Nevertheless, Prohibition transformed the name of an otherwise obscure legislator into a household word. Some people cursed his name, others praised it, but everyone knew it.
President Woodrow Wilson vetoed the bill.. He cited both constitutional and ethical grounds. But Congress overrode his veto on the same day, October 28, 1919.
You can read both the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act at the bottom of the page.
II. The Volstead Act
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, the title of the Volstead Act identified its three distinct purposes. (1) To “prohibit intoxicating beverages.” (2) “[T]o regulate the manufacture, production, use and sale of high proof spirits for other than beverage purposes.” (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.”
Provisions of the Act
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.
It 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 drink them.
The Act Interpreted
The 18th Amendment has only 111 words. The Volstead Act was over 25 pages long. It was confusing. The day before it went into effect the New York Daily News interpreted the law for its readers.
It said you may legally
- Drink liquor in your own home or in the home of a friend when you are a guest.
- Buy intoxicating liquor on a bona fide medical prescription of a doctor. You can buy a pint every ten days.
- 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.
- Keep liquor in any storage area if it’s for the exclusive use of your family or guests.
- Get a permit to move liquor when you change your residence.
- Manufacture, sell or transport liquor for non-beverage or sacramental purposes provided you obtain a Government permit.
It said you may not legally
- Carry a hip flask.
- Give or receive a bottle of liquor as a gift.
- Take liquor to hotels or restaurants and drink it in the public dining room.
- Buy or sell formulas or recipes for homemade liquors.
- Ship liquor for beverage use.
- Store liquor in any place except your own home.
- Manufacture anything above one half of one percent (liquor strength) in your home.
- Display liquor signs or advertisements on your premises.
- Remove reserve stocks from storage.1
In spite of its thousands of words, the Volstead Act could obscure rather than clarify. People asked the U.S. Attorney General a number of questions. Was it illegal to publish a photo of George Washington’s recipe for making beer 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. Confusion reigned.
Within a week after the Prohibition 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. It was 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 country.6 Organized smuggling of alcohol from Canada and elsewhere quickly developed. “Rum rows” existed off the coasts of large cities. 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.
Bootlegging led to massive and widespread corruption of politicians and law enforcement agencies. It helped finance powerful crime syndicates. The widespread corruption of public officials became a national scandal. Several typical cases reported by the New York Times in a short period illustrate the problem.
Fort Lauderdale, Florida
Law enforcement arrested officials on charges of conspiracy. They were the sheriff, assistant chief of police, and seventeen others. The seventeen others included policemen and deputy sheriffs, .
Morris County, New Jersey
A court found the former county prosecutor guilty of accepting bribes from liquor-law violators.
A city magistrate received six years in prison. He accepted $87,993 in liquor graft during his ten months in office.
Edgewater, New Jersey
A court convicted a number of officials of conspiracy. They were the mayor, chief of police, , federal customs inspector, police sergeant, two detectives and eight others. A rum-runner confessed that he had paid them $61,000 to help land liquor worth one million dollars.
South Jacksonville, Florida
A federal grand jury indicted almost the entire city administration. It was the mayor, chief of police, president of the city council, city commissioner, and the fire chief.7
Harmful Bootleg Alcohol
A common cause of death and disability was bootleg alcohol. Bootleggers made their products carelessly. They were sometimes toxic. Some people had paralysis, blindness, or even painful death from drinking bootleg.
Public support for the law and its enforcement eroded sharply. It became very difficult to convict those who violated Prohibition. For example, there were 7,000 arrests in New York between 1921 and 1923. Only 27 resulted in convictions.8 That was a conviction rate of only one for every 260 arrests.
Prohibition was Counterproductive
In addition to being ineffective, Prohibition was counterproductive. It led to rapid, heavy drinking in secretive, non-socially 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 for intoxication.”9
The problems caused by Prohibition and its enforcement imposed enormous financial burdens on the nation. The treasury lost much-needed revenue because it couldn’t tax illegal bootleg. A Congressional investigation (the Wickersham Commission report) investigated. It found that two-thirds of the federal budget for law enforcement went to trying to police Prohibition.
Tens of millions of Americans viewed National Prohibition as the solution to the nation’s poverty, crime, violence, and other ills. So they eagerly embraced it.
On the eve of the Noble Experiment, famous evangelist Billy Sunday staged a mock funeral for “John Barleycorn.” He 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 The country was banning alcohol. And alcohol was the cause of crime. So some communities sold their jails because there would be no more alcohol.11
Unfortunately, Prohibition failed. Even worse, it caused serious problems. This led to an increasing disillusionment by millions of Americans. Journalist H. L. Mencken wrote this in 1925.
“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. And 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
Role Played by Women
Women, led by the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), had been central in bringing about National Prohibition. Their interest had been a moral one. It was protecting the family, women and children from the effects of alcohol abuse.
With the passage of time it became women who proved to be central in repealing it. Their interest was again a moral one. Prohibition was undermining the family. It was corrupting the morals of women and children. The Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform (WONPR) and other women’s groups called for change.
Disillusionment and dissatisfaction spread. The number of Repeal organizations and their membership grew and the demand for Repeal became louder and louder. They included these.
- Association Against the Prohibition Amendment
- The Crusaders
- Labor’s National Committee for the Modification of the Volstead Act.
- Moderation League of New York
- Molly Pitcher Club
- Republican Citizen’s Committee Against National Prohibition.
- United Repeal Council
- Voluntary Committee of Lawyers
- Women’s Moderation Union
- Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform.
Repeal was Popular
The Democratic Party platform in the 1932 election included an anti-Prohibition plank. Franklin Roosevelt ran for the presidency promising Repeal. It occurred on December 5, 1933.
The popular vote for repeal of Prohibition was 74% for and 26% against.13 By a three to one vote, the American people rejected Prohibition. The 18th is the only U.S. Constitutional Amendment ever repealed.
The U.S. Supreme Court held that the Volstead Act had become null and unenforceable upon repeal of the 18th Amendment. So courts had to dismiss prosecutions in progress on the date of Repeal.
The country repealed National Prohibition. But many states continued their own state-wide prohibition for decades. Even today the U.S. has hundreds of hundreds of dry counties across the country. About 18,000,000 people live in dry areas. Many other vestiges of prohibition continue to exist across the entire country.
Happy throngs sang “Happy Days are Here Again!” President Roosevelt would soon look back to what he called “The damnable affliction of Prohibition.”14 But not everyone was happy. Temperance activists vowed to continue the fight.15
V. The Legacy
The temperance movement never really died. It was relatively dormant for several decades after World War II. But it has re-emerged with a new identity and modified ideology. People describe it as “neo-prohibition.”16 As the “new temperance.”17 The “new Sobriety.”18 The “new Victorianism.”19 And the “new paternalism.”20
The population has been consuming less and less alcohol over the last one-third 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 assumes that individuals can’t make the right 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 laws in the U.S. are among the most stringent in the world.
Neo-prohibitionists believe that laws should be used to reduce drinking. They should further restricts its availability. Public policy should reduce the acceptability of drinking. Neo-prohibitionists believe that we should stigmatize alcohol. And that we should discourage and “de-normalize” drinking.
Opponents argue that drinking in moderation leads to better health and greater longevity than abstaining.
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 hoped to restore Prohibition. He was working to organize “The Eighteenth Amendment Rescue Association.” He believed that Prohibition would eventually return. Only time will tell if he was correct.
Almost one in five U.S. adults thinks drinking should be illegal. In addition, tens of millions more are neo-prohibitionists.
The debate continues.
VI. Resources: Volstead Act
Popular Books on Prohibition
Barry, J. The Noble Experiment, 1919-1933. NY:Watts, 1972 (Juv)
Behr, E. Prohibition: Thirteen Years that Changed America. NY: Arcade, 1996.
Burns, K., et al. Prohibition. DVD video. Culver City: PBS, 2011.
Dunn, J. Prohibition. Detroit: Lucent, 2010. (Juv)
Engdahl, S. Amendments XVIII and XXI. Detroit: Greenhaven, 2009.
Merz, C. The Dry Decade. Seattle: U. Washington Press, 1969.
Nishi, D. Prohibition. San Diego: Greenhaven, 2004.
Hintz, M. Farewell, John Barleycorn. Minneapolis: Lerner, 1996. (Juv)
Lerner, M. Dry Manhattan. Cambridge, MA: Harvard U Press, 2008.
Orr, T. Prohibition. San Diego: Blackbirch, 2004.
Bio sketches of major figure (Juv)
Sinclair, A. Prohibition. London: Four Square, 1965.
Historical Readings on the Volstead Act
A.M.A. and the Volstead Act. Calif West Med, 1927, 26(6), 808
AF of L. Report of the First National Conference (of) Labor’s National Committee for Modification of the Volstead Act. Wash: AF of L, 1931.
Battaglia, J. Why the Volstead Act is Unconstitutional. NY: s.n., 1932.
Behr, E. Prohibition: Thirteen Years that Changed America. NY: Arcade, 1996.
Berger, V. Modify the Volstead Act in the Interest of True Temperance. Wash: GPO, 1924.
Blakemore, A. The Volstead Act Annotated. Albany, NY: Bender, 1927.
Chisolm, B. The Volstead Act. Some Truths Regarding Prohibition. Danbury, CT: Hamilton, 192-.
Criminal Law. Double Jeopardy. Convention under State Statute No Bar to Proceedings under the Volstead Act. Harvard Law Rev, 1923, 36(5), 619-620.
Edge, W. The non-effectiveness of the Volstead Act. Ann Am Acad Polit Soc Sci, 1923, 109, 67-84.
Engelmann, L. Intemperance: The Lost War Against Liquor. NY: Free Press, 1979.
Fox, A. Enforcement of the Volstead Act. NY: Moderation League, 1925.
Hobart, G. The Volstead Act. Ann Am Acad Polit Soc Sci, 1923,124, 85-101.
Horst, E. Plenty Causes for Complaint: Four Articles Relative to Volstead Act. San Francisco: Horst, 1923.
Hunsberger, A. The Practice of Pharmacy under the Volstead Act. Ann Am Acad Polit Soc Sci, 1923, 109, 179-192.
Interpretation of the Volstead Act. Harvard Law Rev, 1921, 34(4), 437.
Violation of the Volstead Act as a Crime involving “Moral Turpitude.” Yale Law J, 1925, 35(2), 237.
Volstead Act. Right to Transport. Colum Law Rev, 1922, 22(5), 480-481.
Volstead Act. Right to Keep in Warehouse. Vir Law Rev, 1921, 7(5), 400-401.
Local Self-Gov’t League. Plan to Amend National Prohibition without Repealing Either the Eighteenth Amendment or the Volstead Act. Baltimore: The League, 1931.
Resolution in Regard to Volstead Act. Bull NY Acad Med, 1927, 3(9), 598-599.
Shaw, E. and Wheeler, W. Prohibition: Facts versus Fallacies. Berwyn, IL: Shaw, 1924.
Sherwood, C. Plain Facts on the Prohibition Enforcement. Boston: Const Defense Comm, 1929-1931.
Towne, C. The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. The Human Side. NY: Macmillan, 1923.
Volstead Act. Prosecution of Purchaser of Liquor. Colum Law Rev, 1929, 29(8), 1166-1167.
Vraalstad, E. The Passage of the Volstead Act. Minnesota Hist Soc., 1962
Wheeler, W. Search and Seizure under the National Prohibition Law (Volstead Act). Westerville, OH: Am Issue, 1920.
Wickersham Commission. U.S. National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement. Montclair, NJ: Patterson Smith, 1968.
1. Behr, E. Prohibition. Boston: Little, Brown., 1996, pp. 78-79.
2. New York Times. The Association Against the Prohibition Amendment submitted to the Attorney General this question. Does it constitute a violation of the Volstead law to publish or circulate George Washington’s recipe for making beer? New York Times, Feb 20, 1926, p. 5.
3. Asbury, H. The Great Illusion. NY: Greenwood, 1977, p. 157.
4. Feldman, H. Prohibition. NY: Appleton, 1928, pp. 278-281.
5. Aaron, P. and Musto, D. Temperance and Prohibition in America. In: Moore, M. and Gerstein, D. (Eds.) Alcohol and Public Policy. Washington, DC: Nat Acad Press, 1981, p. 159.
6. Asbury, id. p. 235.
7. Asbury, id., p. 187.
8. Lender, M. and Martin, J. Drinking in America. NY: Free Press, 1982, p. 154.
9. Zinberg, N. and Fraser, K. The Role of Social Setting in the Prevention and Treatment of Alcoholism. In: Mendelson, J. and Mello, N. (Eds.) The Diagnosis and Treatment of Alcoholism. NY: McGraw-Hill, 1985, pp. 457-483. P. 468.
10. Asbury, id., pp. 144-145.
11. Anti-Saloon League of America Yearbook. Westerville OH: Am Issue, 1920, p. 28.
12. Kyvig, D. Repealing National Prohibition. Chicago: U. Chicago Press, 1979.
Making Repeal Work
13. Childs, R. Making Repeal Work. Philadelphia: Penn Alco Bev Study, 1947, pp. 260-261.
14. Blocker, J. Retreat from Reform. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1976, p. 242.
15. Hanson, D. Alcohol Education. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1996, p. 28.
16. Pittman, D. Primary Prevention of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. St. Louis: Wash U., Soc Sci Inst, 1980.
17. Beauchamp, D. Alcohol-Abuse Prevention. In: Holder, H. (Ed.) Advances in Substance Abuse, Supp. 1. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press, 1987. Pp. 53-63. And Heath, D. The new temperance movement. Drugs Soc, 1989, 3, 143-168. Also Blocker, J. American Temperance Movements. Boston: Twayne, 1989, p. 158.
18. Page, C. The new sobriety’s thirst for virtue. Washington Times, January 9, 1991.
19. Heath, ibid.
20. Gusfield, J. Alcohol Problems. In: von Wartburg, J.-P., et al. (Eds.) Currents in Alcohol Research. Berne, Switzerland: Hans Huber, 1985. Pp. 71-81, p. 76.
21. Beauchamp, id. p 62.
22. Mendelson and Mello, id., p. 68.
23. Engs, R. Resurgence of a new “clean living” movement. J School Hlth, 1991, 61, 155-159, p. 156.
After one year from the ratification of this article 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.
The Congress and the several States shall have concurrent power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the legislatures of the several States, as provided in the Constitution, within seven years from the date of the submission hereof to the States by the Congress.
The Volstead Act is 25 pages long. But just two of its provisions illustrate the complexity of the Act.
Section 1014 of the Revised Statutes of the United States is hereby made applicable in the enforcement of this Act. Officers mentioned in said section 1014 are authorized to issue search warrants under the limitations provided in Title XI of the Act approved June 15, 1917 (Fortieth Statutes at Large, page 217, et seq.).
Sec. 9. Industrial alcohol plants and bonded warehouses established under the provisions of this title shall be exempt from the provisions of sections 3154, 3244, 3258, 3259, 3260, 3263, 3264, 3266, 3267, 3268, 3269, 3271, 3273, 3274, 3275, 3279, 3280, 3283, 3284, 3285, 3286, 3287, 3288, 3289, 3290, 3291, 3292, 3293, 3294, 3295, 3302, 3303, 3307, 3308, 3309, 3310, 3311, 3312, 3313, 3314, and 3327, of the Revised Statutes; sections 48 to 60, inclusive, and sections 62 and 67 of the Act of August 27, 1894 (Twenty-eighth Statutes, pages 563 to 568), and from such other provisions of existing laws relating to distilleries and bonded warehouses as may, by regulations, be declared inapplicable to industrial alcohol plants and bonded warehouses established under this Act.