The Supreme Court upholds national prohibition, 1920

A primary source by Wayne B. Wheeler

The Supreme Court Decision on National Prohibition, by Wayne B. Wheeler, 1920. (Library of Congress Printed Ephemera Collection)After more than a century of activism, the temperance movement achieved its signal victory with the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment to the US Constitution in 1919. The amendment abolished “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors,” and provided for “concurrent” federal and state authority to enforce the ban. It was controversial from its inception: it did not define “intoxicating liquors,” it did not specifically forbid the purchase of alcohol, it established “concurrent” state and federal enforcement but did not provide any means for enforcement, and its constitutionality was in question.

To provide for enforcement of the amendment, a powerful lobbying group called the Anti-Saloon League, led by its top lawyer, Wayne B. Wheeler, devised the National Prohibition Act, also known as the Volstead Act. Though the law’s wording was confusing, it defined intoxicating liquors as anything over 0.5% alcohol by volume. It also laid the groundwork for federal and state responsibility to prosecute violators. President Woodrow Wilson’s veto of the law was swiftly overridden by Congress in October 1919. The constitutionality of the new law and the amendment itself were challenged in a series of legal cases that were brought before the US Supreme Court as the National Prohibition Cases (1920). In this document, Wheeler reviewed the meaning of the Court’s decision to uphold the law:

The decision will go down in history as one of the great judicial landmarks in the progress of our civilization. There will be an effort in Congress and in the State Legislatures to nullify the law, and we will meet the practical problem of law enforcement for years to come, but this decision will be the judicial foundation upon which prohibition will rest through the ages.

Thirteen years later, the Twenty-first Amendment was ratified, overturning the Eighteenth Amendment and ending national prohibition in 1933.

View images of the entire document here.

Questions for Discussion

You are seeing this page because you are not currently logged into our website. If you would like to access this page and you are not logged in, please login or register for a account, and then visit the link that brought you to this notice. Thanks!

Make Gilder Lehrman your Home for History

Already have an account?

Please click here to login and access this page.

How to subscribe

Click here to get a free subscription if you are a K-12 educator or student, and here for more information on the Affiliate School Program, which provides even more benefits.

Otherwise, click here for information on a paid subscription for those who are not K-12 educators or students.

Make Gilder Lehrman your Home for History

Become an Affiliate School to have free access to the Gilder Lehrman site and all its features.

Click here to start your Affiliate School application today! You will have free access while your application is being processed.

Individual K-12 educators and students can also get a free subscription to the site by making a site account with a school-affiliated email address. Click here to do so now!

Make Gilder Lehrman your Home for History

Why Gilder Lehrman?

Your subscription grants you access to archives of rare historical documents, lectures by top historians, and a wealth of original historical material, while also helping to support history education in schools nationwide. Click here to see the kinds of historical resources to which you'll have access and here to read more about the Institute's educational programs.

Individual subscription: $25

Click here to sign up for an individual subscription to the Gilder Lehrman site.

Make Gilder Lehrman your Home for History

Upgrade your Account

We're sorry, but it looks as though you do not have access to the full Gilder Lehrman site.

All K-12 educators receive free subscriptions to the Gilder Lehrman site, and our Affiliate School members gain even more benefits!

How to Subscribe

K-12 educator or student? Click here to get free access, and here for more information on the Affiliate School Program.

Not a educator or student? Click here for more information on purchasing a subscription to the Gilder Lehrman site.

Add comment

Login or register to post comments