National Prohibition Act (1919)

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National Prohibition Act (1919)

David E. Kyvig

The National Prohibition Act (P.L. 66-66, 41 Stat. 305), also known as the Volstead Act, was adopted by Congress in 1919 to implement the recently ratified Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. For nearly a century, temperance crusaders had attempted to impose abstinence from alcohol on American society, and the Volstead Act became the fullest expression of their effort. The act became as well known as the constitutional amendment on which it rested. In April 1933 Congress relaxed the terms of the Volstead Act, and for many Americans this represented the end of National Prohibition even before states completed the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment eight months later.

The Eighteenth Amendment approved by Congress in December 1917 and eventually ratified by well over three-fourths of the states declared a national ban on the manufacture, sale, transportation, importation, and exportation of intoxicating liquors for beverage purposes to take effect one year after the amendment's ratification. A definition of intoxicating beverages as well as arrangements for enforcing their prohibition remained for Congress to establish. Because of the amendment's rapid ratification, completed January 16, 1919, federal legislators had reason to believe that the American public would welcome strong provisions for enforcement of Prohibition.


Representative Andrew J. Volstead, a Minnesota Republican and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, proposed that Congress adopt a Prohibition enforcement act. Both Volstead and Wayne Wheeler, legal counsel for the Anti-Saloon League of America, later claimed authorship of the act. Many of the act's provisions reflected standard Anti-Saloon League thinking. The first section of the act continued temporary wartime prohibition until the Eighteenth Amendment could go into effect. Preventing an orgy of drinking as soldiers returned from World War I was a prime Anti-Saloon League concern. The third section of the act regulated industrial and scientific use of alcohol. To prevent its diversion to drinkers, industrial alcohol was to be denatured, a process that renders it unfit for human consumption. The second section of the Volstead Act focused directly on implementing the constitutional beverage liquor ban.

The Volstead Act's central section concentrated on preventing the manufacture, sale, and distribution of beverage alcohol. Violations were to be punished by fines of up to $1,000 (at time about two-thirds of median annual family income), imprisonment for up to six months, and forfeiture of vehicles used in the commission of the crime. However, the law did not directly forbid the consumption of intoxicating beverages. In fact, the Volstead Act specifically exempted wine used for religious sacraments and liquor prescribed by a physician as medicine. Over Anti-Saloon League objections, Congress also permitted continued private possession of alcoholic beverages purchased before Prohibition took effect as well as the home fermentation of fruit juices to produce cider or wine for personal use.

The Eighteenth Amendment granted states concurrent power with the federal government to enforce the so-called "dry law," which meant that states could independently enforce an equivalent or more strict Prohibition but could not relax the terms of the law within their borders. Many Prohibition sympathizers thought it desirable to limit expansion of federal enforcement authority. Congress, therefore, entrusted to state and local police much of the responsibility for upholding the liquor ban. Federal enforcement authority was delegated primarily to the Treasury Department's Internal Revenue Service because of its experience in dealing with the liquor industry. Although the Volstead Act established only a small federal policing unit, the 1,500-member Prohibition Bureau was at the time the largest federal law-enforcement agency ever created. The bureau's modest $2 million budget as well as the $100,000 set aside for the Justice Department to prosecute violations reflected congressional assumptions that states would embrace their concurrent power and implementing national Prohibition would not greatly burden the federal government.


The most notable feature of the Volstead Act was its definition of intoxicating liquor. During the long campaign for the Eighteenth Amendment much attention had focused on "demon rum," an umbrella term for all varieties of distilled spirits (such as whiskey, gin, rum, and vodka) with high alcoholic content. Distilled spirits were also known as "hard liquor," as opposed to fermented beverages such as wine and beer, which have a much lower alcohol content. Producers of fermented beverages, in particular commercial brewers and wine makers, thought they might escape the ban and even prosper from the elimination of competition from hard liquor.

Andrew Volstead's measure, however, defined as intoxicating any beverage containing more than 0.5 percent alcohol. President Woodrow Wilson, who thought that the public would be more willing to give up distilled liquor if permitted to continue drinking beer, regarded the standard as too severe. He vetoed the National Prohibition Act, objecting in particular to the continuation of wartime prohibition after hostilities had ended. But Congress was determined to enforce a total ban on even mildly intoxicating beverages. By a vote of 175 to 55 in the House on October 27, 1919, and 65 to 20 in the Senate on the following day, Congress overrode the presidential veto. The Volstead Act took effect immediately, even before the Eighteenth Amendment went into force on January 17, 1920.


In the National Prohibition Cases (1920), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that, because the Eighteenth Amendment granted the states concurrent power of enforcement, it also required states to adhere to the federal definition of intoxicating beverage. However, the amendment did not require states to take any particular enforcement action. With the exception of Maryland, states did at first participate in the policing effort, but the burden of Prohibition enforcement increasingly fell upon the federal government much more than the creators of the Volstead Act had anticipated. Resistance to the liquor ban grew, particularly in urban areas where recent immigrants as well as middle- and upper-class drinkers proved unwilling to abandon alcohol. Especially as some state enforcement efforts slackened, obtaining compliance with the Volstead Act became increasingly difficult.

By the late 1920s neither the Prohibition Bureau nor cooperating state and local law enforcement officials proved able to cope with the volume of Volstead Act violations. By 1929 over 500,000 federal arrests had been made under the Volstead Act. Overall, the annual volume of federal criminal cases had quadrupled since 1916, and nearly two-thirds of new prosecutions involved Volstead Act violations. Federal courts found themselves unequipped to deal with the number of slow and costly jury trials and so provided "bargain days" on which defendants agreed to plead guilty in exchange for a light fine or short sentence. While two-thirds of convicted Volstead Act violators were merely fined, by 1930 federal prisons were filled to nearly twice their capacity, and the overflow crowded state prisons and county jails.

With violation of the Volstead Act becoming more commonplace, Congress in 1929 adopted the so-called Jones Five-and-Ten Law, increasing penalties for first offenses to five years in prison, a $10,000 fine, or both. Even these severe consequences did not induce compliance with the law, and thus pressures on the judicial and prison systems increased. As the nation entered the Great Depression, Volstead Act enforcement began to drop off.


In 1932 the Democratic Party platform endorsed the repeal of Prohibition. In February of 1933, following a sweeping Democratic victory the previous November, a bipartisan two-thirds majority of the outgoing Congress proposed a repeal amendment. Before any states had acted to ratify the amendment, the new Seventy-Third Congress overwhelmingly endorsed a proposal by the Franklin Roosevelt administration to change the Volstead Act definition of intoxicating beverage to allow manufacture and sale of beer at a low 3.2 percent alcohol. Put into effect on April 7, 1933, the Beer Bill was celebrated as the end of the Volstead Act's heavy-handed "bone dry" Prohibition. On December 5, 1933, the Twenty-First Amendment was ratified, finishing the dismantling of the National Prohibition Act.

See also: Mann Act.


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Hallwas, John E. The Bootlegger: A Story of Small Town America. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998.

Hamm, Richard F. Shaping the Eighteenth Amendment: Temperance Reform Legal Culture, and the Polity, 18801920. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.

Hamm, Richard F. "Short Euphorias Followed by Long Hangovers: Unintended Consequences of the Eighteenth and Twenty-first Amendments." Unintended Consequences of Constitutional Amendment. Ed. David E. Kyvig. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2000.

Kyvig, David E. Repealing National Prohibition, 2d ed. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2000.

Murchison, Kenneth M. Federal Criminal Law Doctrines: The Forgotten Influence of National Prohibition. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994.

Pegram, Thomas R. Battling Demon Rum: The Struggle for a Dry America. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1998.

Solomon, Rayman L. "Regulating the Regulators: Prohibition Enforcement in the Seventh Circuit." In Law, Alcohol, and Order: Perspectives on National Prohibition., ed. David E. Kyvig. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1985.

Al Capone

During Prohibition, the bootleg distribution of "demon rum" became a multimillion-dollar business, making notorious gangsters into very rich men. The most famous of these was Al Capone, a ruthless criminal whose larger-than-life persona and generosity toward those in need nevertheless endeared him to the public. Based in Chicago, Capone commanded a powerful organization that stretched as far as New York, dominating the bootleg liquor trade by bribing politicians and police and murdering rivals. He was the acknowledged mastermind behind the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, in which his partner, Jack McGurn, took revenge on a rival who had tried to kill him. Disguising his men as police officers, McGurn staged a raid on the rival's bootleg operation and slaughtered seven members of the rival's gang, who had thought they were being arrested. The resulting notoriety brought attention from the administration of President Herbert Hoover and the Justice Department, which selected Eliot Ness to bring Capone to justice. As Ness made strides against Capone, the gangster counterattacked with more bribery and violence. By the time Ness had secured indictments against Capone and his associates for Prohibition violations, the Treasury Department had also obtained indictments for tax evasion, and it was on the latter charge that Capone was eventually convicted and sentenced to eleven years in prison. When he was released, after serving eight years of his sentence, Capone's organization and health were both in ruins, and he died of syphilis in 1947. The power of his image remained undiminished, however, and he was immortalized in books, movies, and comic strips as the iconic American gangster.

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National Prohibition Act (1919)

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National Prohibition Act (1919)