Wickersham Commission: Pro- or Anti-Repeal? You Decide

President Herbert Hoover established the Wickersham Commission in May of 1929. He appointed former U.S. Attorney General George W. Wickersham to head it. It was really the U.S. National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement. But people called it the Wickersham Commission.


I.    Purpose

II.  The Report

III. Prohibition

IV.  No Consensus

V.   Separate Statements

VI.  Resources

Wickersham Commission

I. Purpose of the Commission

President Hoover formed the Commission after an act of Congress. The 11 members of the Commission were to study the enforcment of laws and the improvement of the judicial system. They were also to study the special problem and abuses caused by National Prohibition.

The Wickersham Commission included leading experts on criminal justice. It also had such luminaries as Roscoe Pound, dean of Harvard Law School. There was Newton D. Baker, former Secretary of War. And also Ada Comstock, President of Radcliffe College.1

II. The Report

The Wickersham Commission report was the most comprehensive assessment of criminal justice in the U.S. to that time. It published its reports in 14 volumes during 1930 and 1931.

    1. Proposals to Improve Enforcement of Criminal Laws.
    2. Enforcement of the Prohibition Laws.
    3. Criminal Statistics.
    4. Prosecution.
    5. Enforcement of the Deportation Laws.
    6. The Child Offender in the Federal System of Justice.
    7. Progress Report on the Study of the Federal Courts.
    8. Criminal Procedure.
    9. Penal Institutions, Probation and Parole.
    10. Crime and the Foreign Born.
    11. Lawlessness in Law Enforcement.
    12. Cost of Crime.
    13. Causes of Crime.
    14. Police

III. Prohibition

Wickersham Commission
Herbert Hoover

President Hoover had apparently created the Commission to make recommendation for improving Prohibition. This was to counter the rapidly growing Repeal movement. Prohibition was the burning issue of the day and highly divisive. The breadth and scope of the Commission’s reports were impressive. But most peoples’ interest was really only in the report on Prohibition

Most members of the Commission concluded that it was impossible to enforce Prohibition enough. The Commission found that a large proportion of the population did not support Prohibition. Also, many hated it and took pride in violating it.

Moonshiners and bootleggers made enormous profits. The large profits led to widespread corruption of police and politicians. And Prohibition promoted organized crime, gangsterism, and violence. But most victims of which were entirely innocent.

Prohibition reduced tax revenue. Yet it greatly increased government expenses. It caused the need for more prisons, police, court expenses, and other costs. Attempting to enforce Prohibition cost two-thirds of of the entire federal budget for law enforcement. That didn’t include the costs faced by states and localities.

IV. No Consensus

Yet the Commission’s report on Prohibition lacked consensus. Views ranged from maintaining the status quo to immediately repealing Prohibition. Although a majority of members expressed varying degrees opposition to it, they also opposed its repeal.

This led columnist Frank P. Adams of the New York World to write his now-famous poem about the Commission’s report.

Prohibition is an awful flop.
We like it.
It can’t stop what it’s meant to stop.
We like it.
It’s left a trail of graft and slime,
It don’t prohibit worth a dime,
It’s filled our land with vice and crime.
Nevertheless, we’re for it.2

V. Separate Statements

The report also included separate statements by members of the Commission. These showed a broad diversity of opinions and disagreements. While some supported Prohibition, others didn’t.

Member Harry Anderson, a distinguished economist, said that Prohibition violated basic economic laws. He asserted that even if complete enforcement were possible, economic laws would win in the end. “This would inevitably lead to social and political consequences more disastrous than the evils sought to be remedied. Even then the force of social and economic laws would ultimately prevail. Governments cannot destroy these laws. But often in the course of human history they have destroyed.”

The Prohibition report was highly qualified and inconsistent. This permitted both sides to claim victory. Although its report on the issue was indecisive, the American people were clearly not. They rejected Prohibition by a very decisive 74%. Repeal of the failed social experiment occurred in 1933.

wikersham commissionProhibition failed. It created rather than solved problems. Yet today, almost one in five U.S. adults favors making drinking any alcohol illegal for everyone. But not even National Prohibition outlawed drinking alcohol.

Many more people support neo-prohibition ideas. They also strongly defend the many vestiges of Prohibition that continue.

VI. Resources


1. In addition to George W. Wickersham, these were the members of the Wickersham Commission. Henry W. Anderson. Newton D. Baker. Ada L. Comstock. William I. Grubb. William S. Kenyon. Monte M. Lehman. Frank J. Loesch. Kenneth Mackintosh. Paul J. McCormick. Roscoe Pound.

2. Adams’ poem.