This Day in the Law
October 28

Congress Passes Volstead Act to Enforce Prohibition (1919)

On October 28, 1919, Congress passed the Volstead Act to enforce the Eighteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, known as the Prohibition Amendment. The Volstead Act filled in the gaps of the Eighteenth Amendment that banned the "manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors" in the United States by defining "intoxicating liquors."

The temperance movement to ban alcohol began in the early to mid 1800s. Many Americans were concerned with the adverse effects of alcohol abuse. Over time, temperance organizations grew in power and persuasion in lobbying Congress to make a law to outlaw alcohol. In fact, many states had already passed prohibition laws on alcohol by the early 1900s, and a National Prohibition Party formed and elected a member to Congress.

In January 1919, Congress passed the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, known as the Prohibition Amendment, which prohibited the "manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors." However, the Eighteenth Amendment failed to define "intoxicating liquors." So, after further debate in Congress led by Andrew Volstead, an act was presented for passage called the Volstead Act.

On October 28, 1919, President Woodrow Wilson vetoed the Volstead Act – but Congress overrode his veto – and the Volstead Act became law. The Volstead Act defined "intoxicating liquors" which banned the vast majority of liquors and alcohol for consumption (but did allow certain low alcoholic beverages for consumption), and upheld the restrictions imposed by the 18th Amendment on the "manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors."

Shortly after the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act the production and distribution of alcoholic beverages became a criminal business run by gangsters, bootleggers, moonshiners, and others. By the 1930s, Americans lost respect for prohibition and in 1933 Congress passed the 21st Amendment to overturn the 18th Amendment (which made the Volstead Act unconstitutional) and gave the control of alcohol back to the states.