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What Was the Volstead Act?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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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 In 1933, this act and other Prohibition-related laws were repealed in response to popular outcry.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.

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.

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 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.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

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

Discussion Comments
By anon155574 — On Feb 23, 2011

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.

By anon126435 — On Nov 12, 2010

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!

By anon112124 — On Sep 19, 2010

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.

By anon18391 — On Sep 22, 2008

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.

By anon3969 — On Sep 26, 2007

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....

By anon3882 — On Sep 22, 2007

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.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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