The Eighteenth Amendment was very short, but the law designed to enforce it was over 25 pages long. It was complex, confusing, difficult to interpret and – although this is sure hard to ascertain – probably one of the most disregarded laws in the history of the United States. So I hear.
The National Prohibition Enforcement Act, better known as the Volstead Act from Andrew Volstead, who presented it to Congress, was vetoed by President Woodrow Wilson on October 28, 1919 on the ground of moral and constitutional objections. That veto was overrun by Congress the same day.
Although Volstead denied it on several occasions, it is widely believed that the actual author of the act was Wayne Wheeler – the ‘spirit’ of the act was certainly his.
In none of his six election to Congress which Volstead won did he run on a prohibition platform. Twice, in fact, he opposed prohibitions candidates. It was as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee that the final preparation of the Wheeler-drafted act fell on him, and he shouldered the task in the spirit of his Yellow Medicine County prosecutions as a moral obligation to arm the law rather than a personal commitment to Prohibition.
– Ardent Spirits by John Kobler
There seem to have been one general misunderstanding about the Volstead Act: the Government seemed to think that people would willingly abide to it for moral reasons, so the money appropriated for the enforcement of this law was always ridiculously small.
Result: people, especially in the big cities, didn’t abide at all and the Volstead Act was broken right and left at any given second. Bootleggers of course didn’t abide to it and prohibition agents, even when they happened to be at the right place at the right time (which required remarkable luck considering how much territory every single agent was supposed to patrol) often let bootleggers bribe them, because they didn’t have the moral nor the economic drive to oppose (they were poorly paid and they often didn’t’ believe in Prohibition to be that good an idea).
Same thing seemed to think a whole lot of administration officials. Same thing seems to think all the people who regularly patronised speakeasies. Same thing seemed to think young people who couldn’t careless about Prohibition.
I’m actually at a loss at who did care. If you have an idea, give me a shout.
Behr, Edward, Prohibition. The Thirteen Years That Changed America. Penguin Group & BBC Enterprises, London, 1997
Coffey, Thomas M., The Long Thirst Prohibition in America: 1920-1933. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York, 1975
Kobler, John, Ardent Spirits. The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. Da Capo Press, New York, 1973
Okrent, Daniel, Last Call. The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. Scribner, New York, 2010