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Volstead Act

National Prohibition Act
Great Seal of the United States
Long title An 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
Nicknames Volstead Act
Enacted by the 66th United States Congress
Effective October 28, 1919 and January 16, 1920[1]
Public Law Pub.L. 66–66
Statutes at Large ch. 83, 41 Stat. 305–323
Legislative history
  • Introduced in the House as 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 (287–100, 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 (175–55, 3 Present[7])
  • Overridden by the Senate and became law on October 28, 1919 (65–20[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 Eighteenth Amendment, 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.


  • Procedure 1
  • Enforcement and impact 2
  • Repeal 3
  • See also 4
  • References 5


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 Later this act was repealed by the Twenty-first amendment.

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 28, 1919, and by the Senate one day later.[9] The three distinct purposes of the Act were:

  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 use 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.

Enforcement and impact

The production, importation, and distribution of alcoholic beverages — once the province of legitimate business — were 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.

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. In fact, 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.[11] 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."[12]

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.[13] Initially "intoxicating" was defined as anything more than 0.5%,[14] but the Bureau of Internal Revenue soon struck that down[15] and this effectively legalized home wine-making.[13] 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.[16] The thick skins of Alicante Bouschet were less susceptible to rot, so this and similar varieties were widely planted for the home wine-making market.[16][17]

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 questioning the ability of a legislature to determine the therapeutic value of any substance.[18]

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 Mullan-Gage 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.[19]


Prohibition lost advocates as ignoring the law gained increasing social acceptance and as 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.

Congress passed the Blaine Act, a proposed constitutional amendment to repeal Prohibition, in February. On December 5, 1933, Utah became the 36th state to ratify the Twenty-first Amendment, which repealed the Eighteenth Amendment, rendered the Volstead Act unconstitutional, 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.

See also


  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, p. 6697–6698
  7. ^ 1919 Congressional Record, Vol. 65, p. 7610–7611
  8. ^ 1919 Congressional Record, Vol. 65, p. 7633–7634
  9. ^ David Pietrusza, 1920: The Year of Six Presidents (NY: Carroll & Graf, 2007), 160
  10. ^ Subtitle of the Act, 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. ^ Kobler, John. Capone: The Life and World of Al Capone. Da Capo Press, 2003, p. 68.
  12. ^ Kobler, John. “Capone: The Life and World of Al Capone”. Da Capo Press, 2003, p. 69.
  13. ^ a b Pinney, Thomas (July 2005). A History of Wine in America From Prohibition to the Present.   p. 2. Chapter 1
  14. ^ Fizz Water Time 6 August 1928.
  15. ^ ALLOWS HOME BREW OVER HALF PER CENT.; 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. New York Times 25 July 1920.
  16. ^ a b Pinney p. 26.
  17. ^ H. Johnson Vintage: The Story of Wine p. 444. Simon and Schuster 1989 ISBN 0-671-68702-6.
  18. ^ "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).
  19. ^ Okrent, Daniel. Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, Scribners, 2010, p. 253.
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