Report on the Enforcement of the Prohibition Laws of the United States Primary Source eText

Primary Source

Police confiscate equipment found in an illegal brewery during the prohibition era, Detroit, Michigan. NATIONAL ARCHIVES AND RECORDS ADMINISTRATION. Police confiscate equipment found in an illegal brewery during the prohibition era, Detroit, Michigan. NATIONAL ARCHIVES AND RECORDS ADMINISTRATION. Published by Gale Cengage NATIONAL ARCHIVES AND RECORDS ADMINISTRATION.


By: National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement

Date: January 7, 1931

Source: National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement. Report on the Enforcement of the Prohibition Laws in the United States. Volume 1, No. 2. Washington, D.C.: U. S. Government Printing Office, 1931. Available online at ; website home page: (accessed March 1, 2003).

About the Organization: The National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement, later called the Wickersham Commission, was formed when President Herbert Hoover (1874–1964) proposed, in his inaugural address of 1929, that a federal commission study the problem of crime. The commission was chaired by George W. Wickersham, who had been President William H. Taft's (1857–1930) attorney general. Its members included lawyers, judges, sociologists, and educators. Among these were Newton D. Baker, secretary of war under President Woodrow Wilson, and Roscoe Pound, dean of the Harvard Law School.


Crime was pushed to the forefront as a national issue when the federal government attempted to enforce the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Put into effect on January 1920, the amendment prohibited the manufacture, sale, or transportation of alcohol. In addition, the 1919 National Prohibition Act, also known as the Volstead Act after its sponsor, Congressman Andrew Volstead of Minnesota, provided federal enforcement mechanisms to implement the amendment.

Initially, prohibition laws seemed to be effective in controlling the consumption of alcohol in the country. But by the late 1920s, public opinion had swayed toward favoring the repeal of Prohibition. The public openly disregarded the ban on alcohol. Meanwhile, some federal and local public officials accepted bribes in exchange for ignoring bootlegging (illegal liquor sale), especially among underground criminals. Some businessmen, police officers, and politicians participated in the manufacture, sale, and consumption of alcohol themselves. When organized-crime figures fought for dominance of the thriving bootlegging industry across the country, gang violence reached epidemic proportions.

By the 1930s, federal law enforcement agencies had reduced the effectiveness of bootleggers by jailing some of their more prominent members. Rival gangs had also weakened their own ranks in a wave of murders over the control of illegal activities.

Yet a significant constituency of Americans, especially rural Protestants, still defended Prohibition. Also, it was viewed as politically unwise for leaders to fight for repeal against the powerful interests that made up the constituency of "drys" (those opposed to the sale and consumption of alcohol). However, the Great Depression (1929–1939) changed the priorities of the nation. In 1933, as the country geared up to implement some of the most sweeping social programs in American history under President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, or reform and recovery program, the ineffective prohibition laws were no longer a high priority. In 1933, Prohibition opponents won the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment. By the time prohibition was repealed, organized crime had increasingly turned its focus on other illegal activities, such as drug trafficking, racketeering (illegal money-making from fraud, intimidation, or bribery), gambling, extortion, bank robbery, and prostitution.


President Herbert Hoover's proposal of a national commission to study the crime problem across the nation marked a significant shift in federal policy. The president intended the fighting of crime to become a prominent national issue. In fact, Hoover was one of the first presidents to discuss crime in his inaugural address in 1929. Unfortunately, the start of the Great Depression changed the presidential agenda from fighting crime to overcoming economic crisis.

The Wickersham Commission published fourteen reports that studied everything from Prohibition to the causes of crime, police behavior, and penal institutions. Although the commission made an effort to stay out of the controversy over Prohibition enforcement, it issued harsh criticisms of the criminal justice system by exposing brutality, corruption, and inefficiency. In the end the Wickersham Commission's recommendations had little effect in reforming the criminal justice system.

Interestingly, the Wickersham Commission discovered an evolving public opinion toward Prohibition once the law went into effect. Initially when the enforcement of Prohibition resulted in the abolition of commercialized liquor trade and saloons, the American public applauded the law. However, once the public realized that Prohibition meant abstinence, those who approved and practiced moderate drinking started to look upon Prohibition as a governmental imposition on their individual freedom. The support for the repeal of Prohibition grew as some citizens experienced harassment from overzealous police, who had not received proper training and guidelines in enforcing the law. Corruption among public officials who were on the payroll of bootleggers (illegal liquor sellers) added to the support for the abolition of Prohibition.

Primary Source: Report on the Enforcement of the Prohibition Laws of the United States [excerpt]

SYNOPSIS: In this excerpt, the authors of the Wickersham reports discuss the corruption involved in the enforcement of the Prohibition law. In addition, the report stresses the changes in public opinion toward favoring the repeal of Prohibition, leading to the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1933.


As to corruption it is sufficient to refer to the reported decisions of the courts during the past decade in all parts of the country, which reveal a succession of prosecutions for conspiracies, sometimes involving the police, prosecuting and administrative organizations of whole communities; to the flagrant corruption disclosed in connection with diversions of industrial alcohol and unlawful production of beer; to the record of federal prohibition administration as to which cases of corruption have been continuous and corruption has appeared in services which in the past had been above suspicion; to the records of state police organizations; to the revelations as to police corruption in every type of municipality, large and small, throughout the decade; to the conditions as to prosecution revealed in surveys of criminal justice in many parts of the land; to the evidence of connection between corrupt local politics and gangs and the organized unlawful liquor traffic, and of systematic collection of tribute from that traffic for corrupt political purposes. There have been other eras of corruption. Indeed, such eras are likely to follow wars. Also there was much corruption in connection with the regulation of the liquor traffic before prohibition. But the present regime of corruption in connection with the liquor traffic is operating in a new and larger field and is more extensive.…

The State of Public Opinion

From the beginning ours has been a government of public opinion. We expect legislation to conform to public opinion, not public opinion to yield to legislation. Whether public opinion at a given time and on a given subject is right or wrong is not a question which according to American ideas may be settled by the words, "be it enacted." Hence it is futile to argue what public opinion throughout the land among all classes of the community ought to be in view of the Eighteenth Amendment and the achieved benefits of national prohibition. So long as state cooperation is required to make the amendment and the statute enforcing it effectual, adverse public opinion in some states and lukewarm public opinion with strong hostile elements in other states are obstinate facts which can not be coerced by any measures of enforcement tolerable under our polity. It is therefore a serious impairment of the legal order to have a national law upon the books theoretically governing the whole land and announcing a policy for the whole land which public opinion in many important centers will not enforce and in many others will not suffer to be enforced effectively. The injury to our legal and political institutions from such a situation must be weighed against the gains achieved by national prohibition. Means should be found of conserving the gains while adapting, or making it possible to adapt, legislation under the amendment to conditions and views of particular states.

Improved personnel and better training of federal enforcement agents under the present organization may well effect some change in public opinion, especially in localities where indignation has been aroused by crude or high handed methods formerly in vogue. But much of this indignation is due, to the conduct of state enforcement, which affects opinion as to enforcement generally. A change in the public attitude in such localities should follow an overhauling of state agencies.

We are not now concerned with the various theories as to prohibition, or with public opinion thereon, except as and to the extent that they are existing facts and causes affecting law observance and enforcement.

It is axiomatic that under any system of reasonably free government a law will be observed and may be enforced only where and to the extent that it reflects or is an expression of the general opinion of the normally law-abiding elements of the community. To the extent that this is the case, the law will be observed by the great body of the people

and may reasonably be enforced as to the remainder.

The state of public opinion, certainly in many important portions of the country, presents a serious obstacle to the observance and enforcement of the national prohibition laws.

In view of the fact, however, that the prohibition movement received such large popular support and the Eighteenth Amendment was ratified by such overwhelming legislative majorities, inquiry naturally arises as to the causes of the present state of public opinion. There appear to be many causes, some arising out of the structure of the law the conditions to which it was to be applied, and the methods of its enforcement. Others, inherent in the principle of the act, may now be stated.

The movement against the liquor traffic and the use of intoxicating liquors for beverage purposes was originally a movement for temperance. The organizations which grew out of this movement and were potent in its development, were generally in their inception temperance organizations having as their immediate objectives the promotion of temperance in the use of alcoholic beverages and, as a means to this end, the abolition of the commercialized liquor traffic and the licensed saloon, which were the obvious sources of existing abuses. In many of those states where prohibition laws were adopted and saloons abolished, provision was made for the legal acquisition of limited amounts of alcoholic liquors for beverage purposes. It was only when the Eighteenth Amendment was adopted that total abstinence was sought to be established by fiat of law throughout the territory of the United States or even in many of those states which had adopted limited prohibition laws.

There are obvious differences, both as to individual psychology and legal principle, between temperance and prohibition. Temperance assumes a moderate use of alcoholic beverages but seeks to prevent excess. Even though the ultimate objective may be total abstinence, it seeks to attain that objective by the most effective regulation possible and by the education of the individual to the avoidance of excess and gradual appreciation of the benefits of abstinence. To those holding this view, the field of legitimate governmental control over personal conduct is limited accordingly. Prohibition makes no distinction between moderate and excessive use. It is predicated upon the theory that any use of alcoholic liquors for beverage purposes, however moderate and under any conditions, is antisocial and so injurious to the community as to justify legal restraint. To those who entertain this view, the effort to enforce universal total abstinence by absolute legal mandate is logical. There is, therefore, a fundamental cleavage in principle between those who believe in temperance and those who believe in prohibition which it is difficult to reconcile under the traditional American attitude toward the law already discussed.

When the original temperance movement developed into one for prohibition, the immediate objective was the abolition of the commercialized liquor traffic and the legalized saloon. As between the alternatives of supporting prohibition or the saloon, those who favored the principle of temperance naturally supported prohibition; and, by a combination of the two groups, brought about the adoption of the Eighteenth Amendment and the National Prohibition Act.

When these measures became operative the situation was changed. The legalized liquor traffic and open saloon were abolished, and few desire their return. The question was no longer one between prohibition and the saloon but whether prohibition or the effort to enforce universal total abstinence by legal mandate was sound in principle or was the best and most effective method of dealing with the problem. On this question there was an immediate and inevitable cleavage between those who believed in prohibition and those who believed in temperance. Those who favored prohibition on principle naturally supported the law and demanded the most vigorous measures for its enforcement. Those who favored temperance on principle, while regarding the abolition of the legalized traffic and the saloon as a great and irrevocable step forward, yet looked upon the effort to require and enforce the total abstinence upon all the people, temperate and intemperate alike, by legal mandate, as unsound in principle and an unwarranted extension of governmental control over personal habits and conduct. They recognized and insisted upon the exercise of the right of the government to regulate and control the production, handling, and use of intoxicating liquors to the full extent necessary to prevent excessive use or other conduct which would be injurious to others or the community, but did not approve of the attempt to extend that power to the prevention of temperate use under conditions, not, in their view, injurious or antisocial. The abolition of the commercial traffic and the open saloon were so obviously steps in the right direction that for a time many of those holding this view acquiesced in the law or gave it passive support, but as its operations became more manifest and methods and efforts of enforcement developed, this acquiescence or indifference changed into non-observance or open hostility. Thus an ever widening difference was developed between those groups who by their united efforts for the abolition of the saloon had made possible the adoption of the Amendment and the National Prohibition Act.

Of course, there had been at all times a very substantial portion of the normally law-abiding people who had actively opposed the Eighteenth Amendment on principle. Many of these accepted and observed the law when once it was passed. When it became apparent that the results expected were not being realized, when the effects of the operations of the law and of the methods of enforcement which they deemed invasions of private rights became manifest, their opposition became aroused. This opposition was now, for reasons stated above, largely increased from the ranks of those who had formerly supported the law to get rid of the saloons, but felt that it went too far—who really favored the principle of temperance but did not favor prohibition. The cumulative result of these conditions was that from its inception to the present time the law has been to a constantly increasing degree deprived of that support in public opinion which was and is essential for its general observance or effective enforcement.…

Geo W. Wickersham—Chairman
Henry W. Anderson
Newton D. Baker Ada L. Comstock
William I. Grubb William S. Kenyon
Frank J. Loesch
Paul J. McCormick
Kenneth MacIntosh
Roscoe Pound

Further Resources


Furnas, J.C. The Life and Times of the Late Demon Rum. New York: Putnam, 1965.

Gusfield, Joseph. Symbolic Crusade: Status, Politics, and the American Temperance Movement. Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1963.

Rose, Kenneth D. American Women and the Repeal of Prohibition. New York: New York University Press, 1997.