By: Andrew Volstead
Date: October 28, 1919
Source: Volstead, Andrew. Volstead Act of 1919. U.S. House. 66th Cong., 1st sess., H.R. 6810.U.S. Statutes at Large 41 (1919): 305–323. Available online at "Documents of American History II." http://tucnak.fsv.cuni.cz/~calda/Documents/1920s/Volstead.h... ; website home page: (accessed January 19, 2003).
About the Author: Andrew Volsted (1860–1947) was a second-generation Norwegian American from Minnesota. In 1903, the Republican was elected to Congress for the first of ten terms. On May 19, 1919, as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, he sponsored the National Prohibition Act—more commonly known as the Volstead Act—prohibiting the manufacture, transportation, or sale of intoxicating beverages.
Public concern over alcohol consumption is almost as old as the country itself. In the early years of the Republic, the consumption of whiskey, rum, and hard cider, which generally were 80 proof, or 40 percent alcohol, was widespread. The annual per capita consumption of pure alcohol by the drinking-age population was 7.1 gallons. This figure does not take into account that many adult men did not drink and that women, children, and slaves did not consume their per capita share. In 1826, the American Temperance Society was established, and in a decade the organization grew to more than 200,000 members. Alcohol consumption fell considerably as the organization pressured stores not to sell "demon rum" and convinced municipalities to issue fewer tavern licenses.
In 1840, a Maine businessman named Neal Dow took the prohibition movement to the next level. Attributing family violence and poverty to excessive drinking, Dow successfully lobbied the legislature to prohibit the manufacture and sale of intoxicating alcohol. In 1851, the "Maine Law" had been enacted in thirteen of the thirty-one states. In 1869, the Prohibition Party was organized in Michigan. The party was concerned with the phenomenal growth of the liquor business, the Whiskey Ring frauds of President Ulysses Grant's (served 1869–1877) administration, and the belief that neither the Democratic nor Republican party would pass and strictly enforce prohibition. In 1884, the Prohibitionist candidate drew enough support from Republican presidential nominee James G. Blaine in New York to ensure that Democrat Grover Cleveland won the state's electoral votes and ultimately the national election. In 1892, the party reached its peak when its presidential nominee received 270,000 votes, or 2.5 percent of the total.
The Prohibition Party had the longstanding support of the National Woman's Christian Temperance Union (NWCTU), founded in 1874 in Cleveland, Ohio. At this time, Americans spent over a billion dollars annually on alcoholic beverages, more than on meat and public education. Frustrated by their inability to vote, these middle-class Protestant women nevertheless flexed their political muscles. The NWCTU urged women to combat drunkenness though prayer, hymn singing, petitions, and mass marches on saloons. Both the Prohibition Party and the NWCTU supported the National Anti-Saloon League (ASL), founded in Washington, D.C., in 1895. The interdenominational Protestant church-based group sought to ban alcoholic beverages on the county level by campaigning for "dry" Republicans and Democrats who supported its cause. In 1913, the ASL changed its focus to national prohibition. By 1916, twenty-one states had banned saloons, and congressional drymembers outnumbered "wets" two to one. Along with the combined power of the Prohibitionist Party, the NWCTU, and the ASL, World War I (1914–1918) tipped the balance in favor of prohibition. Due to the increasing need for grain, Congress passed the Lever Act of 1917, which outlawed the use of grain in the manufacture of alcoholic beverages, primarily as a conservation measure. Further, because most of America's beer brewers were of German ancestry, prohibition was associated with patriotism.
By 1917, state and local laws had combined to ban the sale and manufacture of alcohol across a major portion of the nation. Nevertheless, the prohibitionists rallied enough support for the states to ban alcohol nationally with the Eighteenth Amendment, which was ratified in early 1919. The Volstead Act was passed to implement and enforce the amendment. The new amendment, though, was nearly impossible to enforce, and illegal drinking was extensive. One of the consequences of prohibition was the rise of gangsterism. The increase in criminal behavior, along with a projected tax revenue boon from liquor sales during the Great Depression, caused public opinion to shift, and prohibition was repealed in 1933.
Coffey, Thomas M. The Long Thirst: Prohibition in America, 1920–1933. New York: Norton, 1975.
Rorabaugh, W.J. The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press. 1981.
Timberlake, James H. Prohibition and the Progressive Movement: 1900–1920. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1963.
Rudin, Max. "Democracy's Drink: What Beer Tells Us About America." American Heritage, July 2002, 28–38.
Thornton, Mark. "Alcohol Prohibition Was a Failure." Policy Analysis, July 1991, 1–16.
Shaffer Library of Drug Policy. "History of Alcohol Prohibition." Available online at http://www.druglibrary.org/schaffer/Library/studies/nc/nc2a... ; website home page: http://www.druglibrary.org/schaffer/index.htm (accessed January 19, 2003).