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What Was the Volstead Act?

The Volstead Act, passed in 1919, was the legal muscle behind Prohibition, enforcing the 18th Amendment's ban on alcohol in the United States. It defined what constituted an intoxicating liquor and set the parameters for enforcement. As we explore the Act's impact on society, consider how such legislation reshaped America's social landscape. What echoes of Prohibition might we still hear today?
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The Volstead Act was a piece of legislation passed in 1919. It enabled the United States government to enforce the 18th Amendment to the Constitution and is formally known as the National Prohibition Act. In combination with the 18th Amendment and other supporting legislature, it is included under the blanket term “Prohibition.” In 1933, this act and other Prohibition-related laws were repealed in response to popular outcry.

The 18th Amendment was introduced into the Senate in 1917, and it was successfully ratified by 1919, when the need for the Volstead Act to enable its enforcement became clear. Under the 18th Amendment, “intoxicating liquor” was essentially prohibited within the United States. The law was passed in response to the temperance movement, which had gathered large numbers of followers. Adherents to the movement believed that the consumption of alcohol was harmful, and that society in general would benefit if alcohol was banned.

Citizens flocked to underground speakeasies to obtain alcohol after the Volstead Act, which prohibited "intoxicating liquor," was passed in 1919.
Citizens flocked to underground speakeasies to obtain alcohol after the Volstead Act, which prohibited "intoxicating liquor," was passed in 1919.

The wording of the act specifically defined “intoxicating liquor,” stating that any beverage that contained 0.5% alcohol by volume or higher would be covered. It also clarified that transport, sale, barter, trade, manufacture, delivery, processing, and possessing alcohol would all be considered illegal. Criminal penalties for lawbreaking were additionally defined under the Volstead Act, which was authored by Wayne Wheeler and sponsored by Andrew Volstead.

The Volstead Act was passed to enforce the 18th Amendment.
The Volstead Act was passed to enforce the 18th Amendment.

Although the temperance movement lobbied to ban alcohol because they thought society would improve as a result, the consequences of the 18th Amendment proved to be opposite of what had been expected. Crime and lawlessness rose in the United States in response, as gangs rose up to provide alcohol to the masses clamoring for it. Much of the success of underground economies, and the mafia that facilitated them, is a direct result of prohibition. Bootleggers sold alcohol of varying strengths and qualities, and citizens flocked to underground speakeasies where they could obtain alcohol, listen to jazz, and dance the night away. Much of the culture of the 1920s in America was linked to Prohibition, but the nation certainly did not become more staid or temperate as a result of the passage of the law.

President Woodrow Wilson attempted to veto the Volstead Act but was overridden by the U.S. Senate.
President Woodrow Wilson attempted to veto the Volstead Act but was overridden by the U.S. Senate.

President Woodrow Wilson actually attempted to veto the act, but the Senate overrode the veto. As the 1920s progressed, it became readily apparent that Prohibition was not working out as planned. In response, the motions to dismantle it were begun in 1933, and the 18th Amendment was officially repealed on 5 December by the 21st Amendment. The Volstead Act was rendered obsolete when the amendment was repealed.

Frequently Asked Questions

What was the purpose of the Volstead Act?

The Volstead Act, officially known as the National Prohibition Act, was designed to enforce the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which prohibited the manufacture, sale, and transportation of intoxicating liquors. Enacted on October 28, 1919, the act defined what constituted an intoxicating liquor and outlined the legal framework for prohibition enforcement, aiming to curb alcohol consumption across the nation.

How did the Volstead Act define "intoxicating liquor"?

The Volstead Act defined "intoxicating liquor" as any beverage containing more than 0.5% alcohol by volume. This strict definition encompassed virtually all beers, wines, and spirits, effectively banning their legal production and sale. The act also provided regulations for the use of alcohol in religious ceremonies, medical treatments, and industrial applications, which were still permitted under certain conditions.

What were the consequences of the Volstead Act on American society?

The Volstead Act had profound and complex effects on American society. While it aimed to reduce crime and corruption, improve health, and strengthen families by eliminating alcohol consumption, it often had the opposite effect. The act gave rise to a black market for alcohol, leading to an increase in organized crime. Speakeasies, or illicit liquor stores and nightclubs, flourished, and the government faced challenges in enforcing prohibition laws. According to the National Archives, by 1925, there were anywhere from 30,000 to 100,000 speakeasies in New York City alone.

When was the Volstead Act repealed and why?

The Volstead Act was effectively repealed on December 5, 1933, with the ratification of the 21st Amendment, which overturned the 18th Amendment. The repeal was motivated by a combination of factors, including widespread noncompliance, the realization that prohibition was unenforceable, and the need for increased tax revenue during the Great Depression. Legalizing alcohol allowed the government to tax it, providing a much-needed source of income.

Did the Volstead Act have any lasting impacts on American laws or society?

Despite its repeal, the Volstead Act had lasting impacts on American laws and society. It influenced the development of law enforcement agencies, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and led to changes in social attitudes towards drinking. The act also contributed to the growth of state regulation over alcohol, which persists today in the form of state-controlled liquor stores and varying state laws regarding the sale and consumption of alcohol.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a UnitedStatesNow researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a UnitedStatesNow researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

anon155574

I quit drinking, it was killing me. I've found marijuana to be a less harmful substitute. It's how I relax and it helps me sleep. Why is it anybody else's business? And to think of the cash wasted and lives ruined of people who feel as I do is infuriating. Get with it America, it is a better choice than drinking.

anon126435

The restriction of alcohol by the Volstead Act obviously didn't work! Why? Because the citizens wanted, and were willing to fight for it! The same holds true for the use of various drugs, marijuana in particular.

Mexican cartels are slaughtering thousands of people on both sides of the border in an attempt to intimidate both governments. Due to false rumors and innuendo (many initiated by legalized drug companies)the American people have been duped into believing ridiculous falsehoods. If those "illegal" drugs were legalized and regulated in the proper fashion, the drug cartels would be out of business! The killings would stop! Think about it!

anon112124

Marijuana use by citizens will be legalized. It's not a question of if, but when. It's ridiculous how our tax dollars are being wasted on prosecution of individuals possessing mediocre amounts of cannabis. The public wants it and will eventually get it.

anon18391

All this talk about legalizing drugs, but would you honestly have the government use your hard earned tax money on creating a safe system in which to sell dangerous substances? Illegal drug use is clearly not as widespread and popular as drinking alcohol, and most can have seriously damaging results. And even if you argue that small doses aren't harmful how could you possibly regulate how much people take? You couldn't, they could buy more illegally anyway.

I for one wouldn't pay my tax.

anon3969

It also is amazing that most illegal drugs have not been legalized because their current status has not discouraged the appetite for it; users go underground; the ones whom are benefiting the most are the gangs/mafia's or whatever you would like to name organized crime (sounds familiar....). Instead of pouring millions/if not billions into "crime" fighting and incarcerating these "criminals", how about diverting the funds into rehabilitation? I have a feeling that legalization of "illicit" drugs would seriously cut into SOMEONE's profit.... so please readers enlighten me....

anon3882

I was wondering why the USA government has not learned from this. The Veto banning embryonic stem cell research will not retard scientists from carrying out research on it, of course, it will definitely make them.

Even though I believe that adult stem cell, especially, cord blood stem cell research, has more to offer in terms of actual transplantation and cure, I still feel that embryonic stem cell research should not be vetoed.

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    • Citizens flocked to underground speakeasies to obtain alcohol after the Volstead Act, which prohibited "intoxicating liquor," was passed in 1919.
      By: iofoto
      Citizens flocked to underground speakeasies to obtain alcohol after the Volstead Act, which prohibited "intoxicating liquor," was passed in 1919.
    • The Volstead Act was passed to enforce the 18th Amendment.
      By: Stephanie Frey
      The Volstead Act was passed to enforce the 18th Amendment.
    • President Woodrow Wilson attempted to veto the Volstead Act but was overridden by the U.S. Senate.
      By: Blue Moon
      President Woodrow Wilson attempted to veto the Volstead Act but was overridden by the U.S. Senate.