Thursday, January 17, 2019
One Hundred Years ago yesterday, the Volstead Act, named for the Minnesota representative Andrew Volstead, was ratified by the United States Congress. The 18th Amendment led to the complete prohibition of “intoxicating liquors” in the United States. There were seven states that had not yet ratified the 18th Amendment by that date, but the ¾ majority had been reached. Seven more states would ratify the amendment between 17 January and 25 February 1919 and New Jersey passed it in March 1922. Connecticut and Rhode Island both rejected the amendment.
In October 1919 Congress passed the Volstead Act – named after Judiciary chairman Andrew Volstead who supported the bill – which allowed for Federal enforcement of Prohibition. Having ratified the amendment and introduce the Volstead Act, Congress announced that full Prohibition would be implemented on 17 January 1920.
The 18th Amendment had grown out of decades of temperance activity and lobbying in the US. One of the prominent temperance leaders was Protestant, mid-Western spinsters following Carrie Nation, who became a prominent figure in the movement. She famously led women into saloons and smashed them up with hatchets and hammers while singing hymns and quoting the Bible. It is interesting that Carrie Nation died in 1911, but the movement she becan was driven by many “God fearing men”.
Volstead of course was one but there was also Neal Dow and Wayne Wheeler, the head of the Anti-Saloon League. Then there were political campaigners who saw in the ‘liquor barons’ and companies the pervasive hand of capitalism striving to keep the working man sedated with cheap drink. Remember that the 18th Amendment did not actually ban the consumption of alcohol merely the manufacture, distribution and sale of them, but it was aimed as an effective method to put an end to consumption.
Drinking became an underground network, so it fell under the control of criminal organizations who reaped enormous gains from the Volstead Act. With the increasing power of the mob came a rise in violence, racketeering and bribery. Civil, police, judicial and political corruption filled the veins of the American system with appalling results.
Finally In December 1933 Utah became the 36th state to ratify the 21st Amendment which repealed Prohibition as it would gradually be rolled back across the country. Not every county in every state repealed their own local limitations or prohibitions on drinking but it was no longer a Federal business and the re-ignition of breweries, distilleries and wineries and their various distribution and sales arms brought an incredible windfall in much needed taxes into the nation’s coffers. The 18th Amendment remains the only statute in the history of the US to have ever been repealed.