October 27, 1919: Wilson Vetoes the National Prohibition Act
The crowning achievement of the Prohibition movement that swept America in the early part of the 20th century was the ratification of the 18th Amendment in 1919. What many people don’t know is that the Amendment itself simply banned “intoxicating liquors,” and that the actual regulations regarding Prohibition were set up by the Volstead Act of 1920.
It is natural to assume that since the Prohibition Amendment was passed during Wilson’s presidency that he must have been a staunch supporter. However, on October 27, 1919, Wilson, a casual drinker although never to excess, vetoed the Volstead Act, more commonly known as the National Prohibition Act.
There was immense public interest in the debate over “going dry,” but Wilson and Congress were tasked with making the smart and proper decision, not just giving in to whoever shouted the loudest. In 1918 the War Trade Board Committee, chaired by Herbert Hoover, advised, “no industry should be absolutely prohibited” and recommended a “policy of curtailment, rather than complete prohibition.”
The first curtailing steps were taken on June 30, 1919, when the temporary Wartime Prohibition Act was enacted, declaring all production or sale of substances containing over 2.75% alcohol to be illegal. This Act was not passed to prevent drunkenness or immorality, but was enacted as a way to save grain for the war effort.
You might be asking yourself, wait, wasn’t the war over in 1919?
Actually, in 1919 the United States was technically still at war because Congress rejected the famed Versailles Treaty, which Wilson was so invested in. (The only time the United States has ever rejected a peace treaty.) President Harding would see Congress’ Knox-Porter Resolution finally allow for a formal treaty signing with minimal pomp or circumstance between American and Germany in Berlin on August 25, 1921.
So when the Volstead Act was passed by the House and Senate and set before Wilson in October of 1919, it contained two sections: one that provided for the enforcement of the new Constitutional Amendment, and one that sought to enforce Wartime Prohibition. With conflict at an end, the war was over in the minds of most Americans and the nation was ready to move forward.