Wilson Act (Helped States Protect Their Alcohol Prohibition)

Congress passed the Wilson Act in 1890. Before that, the U.S. Supreme Court had held that a state could only exclude from its borders two forms of articles. One was those that were not legitimate articles of commerce. The other was those “intrinsically not merchantable.” For example, rotten meat or disease-infected products.

Wilson ActHowever, some states had imposed statewide prohibition against alcohol (“dry” states). To enable dry states to prohibit alcoholic beverages within their borders, Congress passed the Act in 1890.

The law was later upheld by the Supreme Court. It’s in force today.  It states that alcoholic beverages brought into a state are subject to its laws. (Willoughby, 2010) However, later court cases have limited the specific applicability of the Act.

Still Dry (or Want to Be)

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.

National Prohibition (1920-1933) not only failed. It also caused many serious problems. Yet many people today support neo-prohibition ideas. And they strongly defend the many remains of Prohibition that still exist.

In fact, nearly one in five U.S. adults today supports making it illegal for anyone to drink alcohol. That is, anyone of any age for any purpose. However, not even Prohibition outlawed drinking. Therefore, many people legal drank alcohol. Surprised? Visit What did Prohibition Prohibit? It Wasn’t Drinking Alcohol.

Resources on the Wilson Act


Willoughby, W. Principles of the Constitutional Law of the United States. Nabu, 2010.


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