What is the National Prohibition Act?

Venus D.

The National Prohibition Act, also known as the Volstead Act, was legislation passed by the United States Congress in 1919 along with the 18th Amendment. From 1920 to 1933, the act prohibited any beverage with an alcohol content higher than 0.5 percent. In 1933, the 21st Amendment, along with the Blaine Act, repealed the 18th Amendment, giving states the power to monitor the alcohol entering their borders and legalizing beverages with alcohol content of more than 3.2 percent.

Woodrow Wilson was president of the United States when the National Prohibition Act was enacted.
Woodrow Wilson was president of the United States when the National Prohibition Act was enacted.

Temperance Movement

Around the end of the Civil War, the temperance movement began gaining momentum in the U.S. Contemporary literature on alcohol exaggerated its effects. Children reportedly were told stories of how a drunkard exploded with the lighting of a match, and in schools, a brain might be placed in a jar with alcohol so that students could watch the brain turn into a gray mass and thereby comprehend the negative effects of alcohol. From pulpits, religious leaders often preached about illnesses that could result from consuming alcohol, including jaundice and tremors. Women’s groups were particularly active in promoting prohibition, because they felt that alcohol ruined the domestic sphere.

Bootleggers continued to provide alcohol to those who could afford to buy it after the National Prohibition Act was passed.
Bootleggers continued to provide alcohol to those who could afford to buy it after the National Prohibition Act was passed.

Through a publication called The Temperance Education Quarterly, writers taught people about the effects of alcohol, supposedly based on science. They advocated the theory that internal human combustion could result from drinking alcohol. Also, temperance writers described the production of alcohol and its effects on the human body in such a way as to make the substance seem disgusting and to inspire fear about the consequences of consumption.

Bootleggers and Corruption

After the National Prohibition Act was passed, an illegal network of bootleggers began to take hold. Al Capone was one of the people to profit most from this period, making millions of US Dollars (USD) from transporting liquor while the average industrial worker made about $1,000 USD a year. People who could not afford unadulterated liquor had to resort to denatured alcohol, which had some severe side effects, including Jake’s foot, a condition that causes paralysis of the hands and feet. Despite these illnesses and even some deaths, prohibitionists, especially those in the Anti-Salon League, discouraged the government from preventing the trade of such a dangerous substance. On moral grounds, they believed that people who drank alcohol deserved such consequences.

Corruption also was rampant among public officials, because the illegal alcohol trade was extremely lucrative. Soon, because of the ineffectiveness of prohibition, many people began to advocate the repeal of the National Prohibition Act, including some of its strongest supporters, such as John D. Rockefeller. In a letter to The New York Times, Rockefeller wrote that, although he had hoped that prohibition would improve society’s morals, it seemed to have worsened them. Many other people shared Rockefeller’s sentiment that the negative effects of prohibition outweighed its benefits. In a vote of 74 percent to 26 percent, the country voted for the 21st amendment in 1933.

After Prohibition

Even after the repeal of the National Prohibition Act, the prohibitionist movement continued, gaining momentum at the onset of World War II. Advocates wanted to remove alcohol from army bases, but it was concluded that allowing drinking on the bases was conducive to the safety of the drinkers. The increasingly prevalent attitude toward alcohol was that consumption must to be legal in order to be controlled. Modern organizations such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and Students Against Drunk Driving (SADD) serve to remind the public of the consequences that can result from the irresponsible consumption of alcohol.

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Discussion Comments


Many people compare the failure of the Volstead Act to the failure of the current War on Drugs campaign. After it was prohibited, alcohol was eventually used even more frequently than prior to prohibition. I think there were some lessons during this period that America didn't really learn from. Focus should go towards harm reduction and less harsh drug policies, not throwing people in jail for taking something which may even have medicinal benefits.


One of my favorite books of all time is F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby which focuses on prohibition-era America. It's a popular book but if you haven't read it I highly recommend it; it's a quick read, but has deep emotional impact and is written in a flowing lyrical style that makes you want to read it again and again. It touches on the ineffectiveness of prohibition and the widespread corruption amongst the upper class Americans of the time. It even has a character largely based on Arnold Rothstein.


Al Capone is likely to be the most famous of the Prohibition gangsters, but there were plenty of others, like Johnny Torrio who ran bootlegging in Chicago from 1920 to 1924 before his lieutenant Capone took over. He then retired to Italy with 30 million dollars.

Arnold Rothstein was a known gangster and leader of the Jewish mafia of New York. He was heavily involved in bootlegging but was most famous for fixing the 1919 World Series. Gambling was heavily tied into this kind of criminal activity also. "Lucky" Luciano and Meyer Lansky worked under Rothstein but went on to create empires of their own, eventually leading to Las Vegas being transformed into the world's gambling capital.

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