Summers in Washington, DC, are always hot, but the dog days of 1919 were particularly heated as Congress held ongoing debates over how best to enforce a ban on the sale and transportation of alcohol in a sweeping new policy known as prohibition.
During the tail end of the Progressive Era—a formative period in American government in which Congress and the executive branch expanded their powers to cover more and more areas of everyday life—temperance organizations such as the Anti-Saloon League celebrated a major victory in January 1919 when more than 40 states ratified the Eighteenth Amendment outlawing the manufacture and shipment of intoxicating beverages, otherwise known as prohibition. But the constitutional amendment was toothless until Congress passed legislation to implement it. Among other issues, the House and Senate still needed to define what beverages would be considered intoxicating, as well as how to administer such a broad new law.
In early July 1919 Republican Andrew Volstead of Minnesota, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, introduced H.R. 6810 to enforce the provisions of the Eighteenth Amendment. Expecting an arduous discussion on the bill, the House set aside 12 hours for general debate—by comparison the Sixteenth Amendment authorizing a federal income tax, and which had passed a decade earlier, had taken only four hours of debate in the House.
Early on, opponents of prohibition—the “Wets”—attempted to muddle and delay consideration by having the Clerk read the entire 40-page bill out loud. They questioned the presence of a quorum in the chamber and demanded that the Members be counted. By the time the Clerk had finished reading the bill, opponents had interrupted him four times. For many wet Members, prohibition gave the government too much power. Said James Gallivan of Massachusetts, “I am speaking for the average American citizen who wants to have a drink when he wants it, and who does not think that Congress has the right to say to him, ‘No.’”
On the other side, Volstead led the “Drys” in the House who supported prohibition. Volstead argued that since the states had approved the Eighteenth Amendment, Congress had a duty to enforce it. “The great industrial forces of this country,” Volstead declared, “will hold you responsible for a refusal to carry . . . the mandate that was written into the Constitution of the United States.”
Different levels of enthusiasm existed among those who supported prohibition. Moderate prohibitionists preferred to outlaw only liquor, and debate ensued over what exactly the word “intoxicating” meant as it appeared in the Eighteenth Amendment. Only half joking, it seemed, Democratic Leader Champ Clark of Missouri offered an interesting proposal. “Send every Member of the House a quart of 2.75 per cent beer and require him to drink it in 30 minutes, then he can tell whether it is intoxicating or not,” Clark declared.
Ultimately, Volstead won. The final version of the bill—which made it illegal to produce any beverage with an alcohol content greater than half a percent—passed the House in late July. The Senate cleared Volstead’s bill soon afterward. President Woodrow Wilson, however, vetoed the act since he believed people should at least be able to drink beer. Congress overrode his veto two days later and the Volstead Act became law October 28, 1919.
While the Eighteenth Amendment was not set to take effect until January 1920, certain provisions in the Volstead Act had an immediate impact. At the time of passage, the production of alcohol was already forbidden due to wartime prohibition; a separate law restricted the distillation and sale of beverages over 2.75 percent alcohol by volume as a means to ration grain during World War I. The Volstead Act amended the Wartime Prohibition Act so that its restrictive definition of intoxicating liquor went into effect right away. By the close of 1919, there was hope among the Wets that the President would declare the war over, which would end wartime prohibition and allow for a brief window for people to procure a drink. That didn’t happen and disgruntled beverage manufacturers saw wartime prohibition as unconstitutional and took their case to the Supreme Court. When the Court upheld the act as constitutional, all hopes for a “wet Christmas” were dashed.
While the new prohibition laws were strict, it was never illegal to drink alcohol, only to produce, transport, and possess it. Prohibition also declared that the possession of alcoholic beverages inside one’s own home was legal, so long as it was for private use, and so long as the owner could prove that the alcohol had been acquired before prohibition. Ultimately, Representative Frederick Zihlman of Maryland lamented, there were “lots of ways” to drink without violating the Volstead Act.
Other Members echoed Zilhman’s concern. “The man of means who has bought whiskey enough to last a lifetime and has it stored away in his cellar may go on drinking. He can not be touched by this law,” Edward Pou of North Carolina argued during the Volstead Act debate. In opposing the bill, he took a stand against the provisions of the law which were “in favor of the rich and against the poor.” Gallivan of Massachusetts reiterated that point. “I have heard,” Gallivan revealed, “of members of this House who have said that they have in their private wine cellars enough liquor . . . for 20 years.”
As Zilhman predicted, drinking never stopped during prohibition, which lasted from 1920 to 1933. Moreover, the government applied the law unevenly; prohibition agents disproportionately targeted the poor, immigrant communities, and racial minorities while a flourishing illicit market continued to meet demand.
Less than two years after prohibition went into effect, William Upshaw of Georgia, a fanatical dry, delivered an impassioned speech on the House Floor calling attention to the “flagrant violation” of the law, particularly by those in high levels of government. Upshaw called for all top officials to “lift their hands before high heaven and take a new oath of allegiance to the whole Constitution.”
Some Members, like Upshaw, backed prohibition out of personal conviction, while others, who may have had little personal sympathy for the policy, voted for it anyway because their constituents supported it. For others still, prohibition was a means to exert control over a country undergoing profound changes: immigration, industrialization, and urbanization were just a few of the forces at work. And not all House Members who supported the politics of prohibition abstained from drinking—collectively, this last group was known as the “drinking Drys.”
Some Members engaged in serious infractions of the law. In 1924 John Langley of Kentucky was sentenced to two years in prison for his involvement in a whiskey transaction conspiracy. Later that year, while released on bond, Langley was arrested for public intoxication in Kentucky. Law enforcement officials also indicted Edward Denison of Illinois—who had voted in favor of every prohibition bill during his time in office—on liquor charges after they discovered a suitcase leaking whiskey at Union Station in 1929. The luggage was addressed to Denison’s office in the House Office Building, where agents also found a case containing another 18 bottles of liquor. The resulting scandal cost Denison re-election. In fact, several dry Members lost re-election to the 72nd Congress (1931–1933) for controversies surrounding alcohol possession. In addition to Denison, authorities caught Magne Michaelson of Illinois and William Morgan of Ohio transporting cases filled with illicit bottles. Following their arrests, the Chicago Tribune referred to the three as the “leaky trunk” Congressmen.
Not only did scandals erupt over the conduct of Members off the Hill, such transgressions allegedly made their way onto the House Floor. Without naming names, Emanuel Celler of New York charged that a dry Member of the House showed up to the House Chamber drunk in the “fullest sense of that term.” Manuel Herrick of Oklahoma said he “saw so much drinking around Congress without looking for it.” And in 1929, former Speaker and then-Senator Frederick Gillett of Massachusetts, told colleagues at a dinner event that he frequently saw Representatives legislating while under the influence during his three terms as House Speaker. “It was obvious to those who were there,” he said, “but to the great American public . . . it was secret.”
Indeed, many Members who drank in the Capitol during prohibition were never publicly exposed. Gillett remarked that if the House had decided to censure all the Members who were drinking in the Capitol it would have taken up most of the legislative calendar.
In contrast, at least one Member openly challenged the law. John Hill of Maryland threw a cider party at his Baltimore home protesting the inconsistencies he saw in the Volstead Act, such the exception that allowed for “nonintoxicating” cider to be brewed in private homes. Though he was arrested, he was cleared of any wrongdoing at his trial.
In the end, prohibition failed in its original purpose. Throughout the 1920s, both the general public and Members of Congress had little difficulty finding a drink if they wanted one. Part of the problem was that the Eighteenth Amendment gave the federal government and the states “concurrent power” to enforce prohibition. Lawmakers had expected the states to take on the majority of enforcement duties, but many states did little to carry out the law’s provisions, which strained the federal judicial and prison systems.
Prohibition became increasingly unpopular as organized crime came to dominate, often violently, the illicit market in booze. In 1931 a commission appointed by President Herbert Hoover revealed a decade of severe police brutality during the 1920s, which generated additional opposition to the ban on alcohol. The crippling effects of the Great Depression further weakened the policy, especially when Franklin Roosevelt made the repeal of prohibition part of his 1932 presidential platform, suggesting that tax revenue from liquor could help the economy.
Ultimately, the agitation for repeal swayed Congress. Fiorello La Guardia of New York summarized the widespread change of heart toward prohibition in 1933. La Guardia said he supported the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment “not because I believe that liquor is good but because I know that prohibition is bad.” That year the states ratified the Twenty-first Amendment, formally repealing the policy of prohibition, making the Eighteenth Amendment the only constitutional amendment to have ever been repealed.
Sources: Los Angeles Times, 11 August 1931; Atlanta Constitution, 25 June 1919, 5 November 1929; Washington Post, 16 December 1919, 7 March 1923, 14 May and 16 December 1924, 9 August 1928, 20 November 1929; New York Times, 2 and 3 May 1924, and 12 November 1932; Chicago Daily Tribune, 2 July 1919 and 6 November 1930; Louisville Courier-Journal, 16 December 1919; Congressional Record, House, 61st Cong., 1st sess. (12 July 1909): 4390; Congressional Record, House, 66th Cong., 1st sess. (8 July 1919): 2281–2302; Congressional Record, House, 66th Cong., 1st sess. (14 July 1919): 2572; Congressional Record, House, 66th Cong., 1st sess. (17 July 1919): 2791; Congressional Record, House, 66th Cong., 1st sess. (19 July 1919): 2869; Congressional Record, House, 66th Cong., 1st sess. (22 July 1919): 3004–3005; Congressional Record, House, 66th Cong., 1st sess. (27 October 1919): 7607–7611; Congressional Record, House, 67th Cong., 4th sess. (20 December 1922): 786; Congressional Record, House, 72nd Cong., 2nd sess. (20 February 1933): 4514; Brian K. Landsberg, Major Acts of Congress, vol. 3 (New York: MacMillan Reference USA, 2003); Leonard W. Levy and Louis Fisher, Encyclopedia of the American Presidency (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994); Lisa McGirr, The War on Alcohol (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2016); Thomas R. Pegram, “Prohibition," in The American Congress, ed. Julian E. Zelizer (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004): 411–427; Joint Resolution Terminating the State of War between the Imperial German Government and the United States of America and between the Imperial and Royal Austro-Hungarian Government and the United States of America, 42 Stat. 105 (1921).Follow @USHouseHistory