Volstead Act

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National Prohibition Act
Great Seal of the United States (obverse).svg
Other short titlesWar Prohibition Act
Long titleAn 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 ensure an ample supply of alcohol and promote its use in scientific research and in the development of fuel, dye, and other lawful industries
Acronyms (colloquial)NPA
NicknamesValentine act
Enacted bythe 66th United States Congress
EffectiveOctober 28, 1919 and January 16, 1920 [1]
Public law 66-66
Statutes at Large 41  Stat.   305–323, ch. 85
Legislative history
  • Introduced in the Houseas H.R. 6810 by Andrew Volstead (RMN) on June 27, 1919 [2]
  • Committee consideration by House Judiciary Committee
  • Passed the House on July 22, 1919 (295-105, 3 Present [3] )
  • Passed the Senate with amendment on September 5, 1919 (Voice vote [4] )
  • Reported by the joint conference committee on October 6, 1919; agreed to by the Senate on October 8, 1919 (Voice vote [5] ) and by the House on October 10, 1919 (230-69, 1 Present [6] )
  • Vetoed by President Woodrow Wilson on October 27, 1919
  • Overridden by the House on October 27, 1919 (210-73, 3 Present [7] )
  • Overridden by the Senate and became law on October 28, 1919 (69-20 [8] )
United States Supreme Court cases
Jacob Ruppert v. Caffey, 251 U.S. 264 (1920)

The National Prohibition Act, known informally as the Volstead Act, was enacted to carry out the intent of the 18th Amendment (ratified January 1919), which established prohibition in the United States. The Anti-Saloon League's Wayne Wheeler conceived and drafted the bill, which was named for Andrew Volstead, Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who managed the legislation.

Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution Amendment establishing Prohibition in the United States of America

The Eighteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution established the prohibition of "intoxicating liquors" in the United States. The amendment was proposed by Congress on December 18, 1917, and was ratified by the requisite number of states on January 16, 1919. The Eighteenth Amendment was repealed by the Twenty-first Amendment on December 5, 1933.

Prohibition in the United States constitutional ban on alcoholic beverages

Prohibition in the United States was a nationwide constitutional ban on the production, importation, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages from 1920 to 1933.

Anti-Saloon League American organization lobbying for prohibition

The Anti-Saloon League was the leading organization lobbying for prohibition in the United States in the early 20th century.



While the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibited the production, sale, and transport of "intoxicating liquors," it did not define "intoxicating liquors" or provide penalties. It granted both the federal government and the states the power to enforce the ban by "appropriate legislation." A bill to do so was introduced in Congress in 1919. Later this act was voided by the Twenty-first amendment.

United States Congress Legislature of the United States

The United States Congress is the bicameral legislature of the Federal Government of the United States. The legislature consists of two chambers: the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Twenty-first Amendment to the United States Constitution United States constitutional amendment abolishing Prohibition

The Twenty-first Amendment to the United States Constitution repealed the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which had mandated nationwide Prohibition on alcohol. The Twenty-first Amendment was proposed by Congress on February 20, 1933, and was ratified by the requisite number of states on December 5, 1933. It is unique among the 27 amendments of the U.S. Constitution for being the only one to repeal a prior amendment, as well as being the only amendment to have been ratified by state ratifying conventions.

The bill was vetoed by President Woodrow Wilson, largely on technical grounds because it also covered wartime prohibition, but his veto was overridden by the House on the same day, October 27, 1919, and by the Senate one day later. [9] The three distinct purposes of the Act were:

Woodrow Wilson 28th President of the United States

Thomas Woodrow Wilson was an American statesman and academic who served as the 28th president of the United States from 1913 to 1921. A member of the Democratic Party, Wilson served as the president of Princeton University and as the 34th governor of New Jersey before winning the 1912 presidential election. As president, he oversaw the passage of progressive legislative policies unparalleled until the New Deal in 1933. He also led the United States during World War I, establishing an activist foreign policy known as "Wilsonianism."

  1. to prohibit intoxicating beverages,
  2. to regulate the manufacture, sale, or transport of intoxicating liquor (but not consumption), and
  3. to ensure an ample supply of alcohol and promote its use in scientific research and in the development of fuel, dye, and other lawful industries and practices, such as religious rituals. [10]

It provided further that "no person shall manufacture, sell, barter, transport, import, export, deliver, or furnish any intoxicating liquor except as authorized by this act." It did not specifically prohibit the purchase or consumption of intoxicating liquors. The act defined intoxicating liquor as any beverage containing more than 0.5% alcohol by volume and superseded all existing prohibition laws in effect in states that had such legislation. This extremely low limit on allowed alcohol content, banning wine and beer, took many around the country by surprise, even Prohibition supporters. [11]

Enforcement and impact

The production, importation, and distribution of alcoholic beverages — once the province of legitimate business — was taken over by criminal gangs, which fought each other for market control in violent confrontations, including murder. Major gangsters, such as Omaha's Tom Dennison and Chicago's Al Capone, became rich and were admired locally and nationally. Enforcement was difficult because the gangs became so rich they were often able to bribe underpaid and understaffed law enforcement personnel and pay for expensive lawyers. Many citizens were sympathetic to bootleggers, and respectable citizens were lured by the romance of illegal speakeasies, also called "blind tigers." The loosening of social morals during the 1920s included popularizing the cocktail and the cocktail party among higher socio-economic groups. Those inclined to help authorities were often intimidated, even murdered. In several major cities — notably those that served as major points of liquor importation (including Chicago and Detroit) — gangs wielded significant political power. A Michigan State Police raid on Detroit's Deutsches Haus once netted the mayor, the sheriff, and the local congressman. [12]

Tom Dennison, aka Pickhandle, Old Grey Wolf, was the early 20th century political boss and racketeer of Omaha, Nebraska. A politically savvy, culturally astute gambler, Dennison was in charge of the city's wide crime rings, including prostitution, gambling and bootlegging in the 1920s. Dennison is credited with electing "Cowboy" James Dahlman mayor of Omaha eight times, and when losing an election, inciting the Omaha Race Riot of 1919 in retribution against the candidate who won.

Chicago City in Illinois, United States

Chicago, officially the City of Chicago, is the most populous city in Illinois and the third most populous city in the United States. As of the 2017 census-estimate, it has a population of 2,716,450, which makes it the most populous city in the Midwestern United States. Chicago is the county seat of Cook County, the second most populous county in the United States, and the principal city of the Chicago metropolitan area, which is often referred to as "Chicagoland." The Chicago metropolitan area, at nearly 10 million people, is the third-largest in the United States, the fourth largest in North America, and the third largest metropolitan area in the world by land area.

Al Capone American gangster

Alphonse Gabriel Capone, sometimes known by the nickname "Scarface", was an American gangster and businessman who attained notoriety during the Prohibition era as the co-founder and boss of the Chicago Outfit. His seven-year reign as crime boss ended when he was 33.

Prohibition came into force at midnight on January 17, 1920, and the first documented infringement of the Volstead Act occurred in Chicago on January 17 at 12:59 a.m. According to police reports, six armed men stole $100,000 worth of "medicinal" whiskey from two freight train cars. This trend in bootlegging liquor created a domino effect with criminals across the United States. Some gang leaders were stashing liquor months before the Volstead Act was enforced. The ability to sustain a lucrative business in bootlegging liquor was largely helped by the minimal police surveillance at the time. There were only 134 agents designated by the Prohibition Unit to cover all of Illinois, Iowa, and parts of Wisconsin. [13] According to Charles C. Fitzmorris, Chicago's Chief of Police during the beginning of the Prohibition period: "Sixty percent of my police [were] in the bootleg business." [14]

Illinois State of the United States of America

Illinois is a state in the Midwestern region of the United States. It has the 5th largest Gross Domestic Product by state, is the 6th-most populous U.S. state and 25th-largest state in terms of land area. Illinois is often noted as a microcosm of the entire United States. With Chicago in the northeast, small industrial cities and great agricultural productivity in northern and central Illinois, and natural resources such as coal, timber, and petroleum in the south, Illinois has a diverse economic base, and is a major transportation hub. Chicagoland, Chicago's metropolitan area, contains over 65% of the state's population. The Port of Chicago connects the state to other global ports around the world from the Great Lakes, via the Saint Lawrence Seaway, to the Atlantic Ocean; as well as the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River, via the Illinois Waterway on the Illinois River. The Mississippi River, the Ohio River, and the Wabash River form parts of the boundaries of Illinois. For decades, Chicago's O'Hare International Airport has been ranked as one of the world's busiest airports. Illinois has long had a reputation as a bellwether both in social and cultural terms and, through the 1980s, in politics.

Iowa State of the United States of America

Iowa is a state in the Midwestern United States, bordered by the Mississippi River to the east and the Missouri River and Big Sioux River to the west. It is bordered by six states; Wisconsin to the northeast, Illinois to the east, Missouri to the south, Nebraska to the west, South Dakota to the northwest and Minnesota to the north.

Wisconsin A north-central state of the United States of America

Wisconsin is a U.S. state located in the north-central United States, in the Midwest and Great Lakes regions. It is bordered by Minnesota to the west, Iowa to the southwest, Illinois to the south, Lake Michigan to the east, Michigan to the northeast, and Lake Superior to the north. Wisconsin is the 23rd largest state by total area and the 20th most populous. The state capital is Madison, and its largest city is Milwaukee, which is located on the western shore of Lake Michigan. The state is divided into 72 counties.

Section 29 of the Act allowed 200  gallons (the equivalent of about 1000 750  ml bottles) of "non-intoxicating cider and fruit juice" to be made each year at home. [15] Initially "intoxicating" was defined as anything more than 0.5%, [16] but the Bureau of Internal Revenue soon struck that down [17] and this effectively legalized home wine-making. [15] For beer, however, the 0.5% limit remained until 1933. Some vineyards embraced the sale of grapes for making wine at home; Zinfandel grapes were popular among home winemakers living near the vineyards, but its tight bunches left their thin skins vulnerable to rot, due to rubbing and abrasion, on the long journey to East Coast markets. [18] The thick skins of Alicante Bouschet were less susceptible to rot, so this and similar varieties were widely planted for the home winemaking market. [18] [19]

The Act contained a number of exceptions and exemptions. Many of these were used to evade the law's intended purpose. For example, the Act allowed a physician to prescribe whiskey for his patients but limited the amount that could be prescribed. Subsequently, the House of Delegates of the American Medical Association voted to submit to Congress a bill to remove the limit on the amount of whiskey that could be prescribed and questioned the ability of a legislature to determine the therapeutic value of any substance. [20]

According to Neely, "The Act called for trials for anyone charged with an alcohol-related offense, and juries often failed to convict. Under the state of New York's MullanGage Act, a short-lived local version of the Volstead Act, the first 4,000 arrests led to just six convictions and not one jail sentence". [21]


Prohibition lost advocates as ignoring the law gained increasing social acceptance and as organized crime violence increased. By 1933, public opposition to prohibition had become overwhelming. In March of that year, Congress passed the Cullen–Harrison Act, which legalized "3.2 beer" (i.e., beer containing 3.2% alcohol by weight or 4% by volume) and wines of similarly low alcohol content, rather than the 0.5% limit defined by the original Volstead Act. [22]

Congress passed the Blaine Act, a proposed constitutional amendment to repeal the Eighteenth Amendment to end prohibition, in February. On December 5, 1933, Utah became the 36th state to ratify the Twenty-first Amendment, which repealed the Eighteenth Amendment, voiding the Volstead Act, and restored control of alcohol to the states. The creation of the Federal Alcohol Administration in 1935 defined a modest role for the federal government with respect to alcohol and its taxation.[ citation needed ]

See also

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Blaine Act

The Blaine Act, formally titled Joint Resolution Proposing the Twenty-First Amendment to the United States Constitution, is a joint resolution adopted by the United States Congress on February 20, 1933, initiating repeal of the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which established Prohibition in the United States. Repeal was finalized when the 21st Amendment to the Constitution was ratified by the required minimum number of states on December 5, 1933.

Bureau of Prohibition

The Bureau of Prohibition was the federal law enforcement agency formed to enforce the National Prohibition Act of 1919, commonly known as the Volstead Act, which elaborated upon the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution regarding the prohibition of the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcoholic beverages. When it was first established in 1920, it was a unit of the Bureau of Internal Revenue. On April 1, 1927, it became an independent entity within the Department of the Treasury, changing its name from the Prohibition Unit to the Bureau of Prohibition. In 1930, it became part of the Department of Justice. By 1933, with the Repeal of Prohibition imminent, it was briefly absorbed into the FBI, or "Bureau of Investigation" as it was then called, and became the Bureau's "Alcohol Beverage Unit," though, for practical purposes it continued to operate as a separate agency. Very shortly after that, once Repeal became a reality, and the only federal laws regarding alcoholic beverages being their taxation, it was switched back to Treasury, where it was renamed the Alcohol Tax Unit.

Rum-running illegal business of smuggling alcoholic beverages

Rum-running, or bootlegging, is the illegal business of transporting (smuggling) alcoholic beverages where such transportation is forbidden by law. Smuggling usually takes place to circumvent taxation or prohibition laws within a particular jurisdiction. The term rum-running is more commonly applied to smuggling over water; bootlegging is applied to smuggling over land.

The Untouchables were special agents of the U.S. Bureau of Prohibition led by Eliot Ness, who, from 1930 to 1932, worked to end Al Capone's illegal activities by aggressively enforcing Prohibition laws against his organization. Legendary for being fearless and incorruptible, they earned the nickname "The Untouchables" after several agents refused large bribes from members of the Chicago Outfit.

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Wayne Wheeler American temperance activist

Wayne Bidwell Wheeler a veritable father of the prohibitionist movement was an American attorney and longtime leader of the Anti-Saloon League, and played a major role in the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which outlawed the manufacture, distribution, and sale of alcoholic beverages.

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Cullen–Harrison Act

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Oklahoma Beer Act of 1933

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Medicinal Liquor Prescriptions Act of 1933

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  1. Titles I, Title II sections 1, 27, 37, 38, and Title III were effective immediately. The remaining sections of Title II were effective when the 18th Amendment became effective.
  2. 1919 Congressional Record , Vol. 65, p. 1944
  3. 1919 Congressional Record, Vol. 65, p. 3005
  4. 1919 Congressional Record, Vol. 65, p. 4908
  5. 1919 Congressional Record, Vol. 65, p. 6552
  6. 1919 Congressional Record, Vol. 65, pp. 6697–6698
  7. 1919 Congressional Record, Vol. 65, pp. 7610–7611
  8. 1919 Congressional Record, Vol. 65, pp. 7633–7634
  9. David Pietrusza, 1920: The Year of Six Presidents (NY: Carroll & Graf, 2007), 160
  10. Subtitle of the Act, http://www.druglibrary.org/schaffer/Library/studies/wick/wick1.html National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement Report on the Enforcement of the Prohibition Laws of the United States Dated January 7, 1931 National Prohibition.
  11. Winski, Sarah (January 16, 2012). "'Intoxicating Liquors': How the Volstead Act Led to Prohibition Corruption". www.constitutioncenter.org. Retrieved December 26, 2018.
  12. "German American Cultural Center Online". www.germanamericanmetrodetroit.org. Retrieved September 11, 2016.
  13. Kobler, John. Capone: The Life and World of Al Capone. Da Capo Press, 2003, p. 68.
  14. Kobler, John. "Capone: The Life and World of Al Capone". Da Capo Press, 2003, p. 69.
  15. 1 2 Pinney, Thomas (July 2005). A History of Wine in America From Prohibition to the Present. ISBN   978-0-520-24176-3. p. 2. Chapter 1 Archived February 16, 2008, at the Wayback Machine
  16. Fizz Water Time August 6, 1928.
  17. ALLOWS HOME BREW OVER HALF percent.; Internal Revenue Ruling Applies Only to Beverages Consumed in Domiciles. MUST BE NON-INTOXICATING Beer Not Included, and Only Cider and Fruit Juices May Be Sold. The New York Times July 25, 1920.
  18. 1 2 Pinney p. 26.
  19. H. Johnson Vintage: The Story of Wine p. 444. Simon and Schuster 1989 ISBN   0-671-68702-6.
  20. "The A.M.A. and the Volstead Act", California and Western Medicine, 26:808 (1927). See also "Resolution in Regard to Volstead Act", Bull N Y Acad Med. 3(9):598-9 (1927).
  21. Okrent, Daniel. Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, Scribners, 2010, p. 253.
  22. Peters, Gerhard; Woolley, John T. "Franklin D. Roosevelt: "Message to Congress on Repeal of the Volstead Act.," March 13, 1933". The American Presidency Project. University of California – Santa Barbara.