On this day in 1919 the United States Congress passed the National Prohibition Act (more commonly called the Volstead Act). This law provided for the implementation of the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which established National Prohibition of alcoholic beverages.

On this day in 1919 the United States Congress passed the National Prohibition Act (more commonly called the Volstead Act). This law provided for the implementation of the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which established National Prohibition of alcoholic beverages.


The Eighteenth Amendment was a very brief statement of principle. It stated simply that "the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited" and that "Congress and the several States shall have concurrent power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation."


While it was strong in its ideals, the Eighteenth Amendment was short on specific definitions, methods for enforcement and penalties for violation.


Where the Eighteenth Amendment was comprised of a mere 111 words, the Volstead Act ran 25 pages. Congress recognized that more specific enabling legislation would be required to enforce the constitutional amendment.


The Volstead Act was named after Congressman Andrew J. Volstead, who chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee from whence the bill was sponsored; but the text of the bill came mostly at the hand of Wayne Wheeler of the Anti-Saloon League. Even so, the National Prohibition Act turned an otherwise obscure legislator from Minnesota into a household name.


The bill was vetoed by President Woodrow Wilson on both constitutional and ethical grounds, but it was overridden by Congress on the same day, October 28, 1919.


Perhaps the most interesting aspect of both the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act is what they did not prohibit. Nowhere in either document is either the purchase or consumption of alcohol banned. Curiously, individuals could obtain a prescription for alcohol from their doctor. The Volstead Act allowed the purchase of one pint every 10 days.


The opponents of alcohol heralded Prohibition as the dawn of a new age in which productivity would increase and crime would go down. The famous evangelist Billy Sunday even staged a mock funeral for alcoholic beverages where he extolled the benefits of Prohibition. "The rein of tears is over," Sunday boasted. "The slums will soon be only a memory. We will turn our prisons into factories and our jails into storehouses and corncribs."


Swept up in the idealistic furor, some communities even sold their jails.


Pretty much the exact opposite of Sunday’s predictions came true. Crime during Prohibition took a meteoric ascent. Thousands were put out of work as distilleries, distributors, bars, restaurants, stores and other alcohol-related industries closed. The government spent millions of dollars to enforce Prohibition, while having lost hundreds of millions in related tax revenue.


Moreover, common, normally law-abiding citizens were drawn into the web of illegal alcohol sales and distribution, thus actually increasing crime. This also facilitated the rise of mob violence and growing mob strength. Chicago gangster Al Capone is purported to have "earned" over $60 million a year during parts of Prohibition.


Responding to these gross failures, in 1925, journalist, H. L. Mencken wrote, "Five years of prohibition have had, at lest, this one benign effect: They have completely disposed of all the favorite arguments of the Prohibitionists. None of the great boons and usufructs that were to follow the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment has come to pass. There is not less drunkenness in the Republic but more. There is not less crime, but more. There is not less insanity, but more. The cost of government is not smaller, but vastly greater. Respect for law has not increased, but diminished."


Thus we see the chasm between a "good" idea and good government. Just because an idea is popular doesn’t mean its implementation will be positive. As local governments in Arkansas struggle with a related measure on the November ballot — Issue No. 4 — voters would do well to remind them.