October 27, 1919: Wilson Vetoes the National Prohibition Act
In October 1919, President Wilson was slowly recovering from a massive stroke he had suffered not a month prior, but felt motivated to take a position against the Volstead Act. He took issue with the second part of the Act that called for enforcement of Wartime measures, which he felt were now unnecessary by definition as hostilities in Europe had ended.
In his official veto of the Volstead Act, Wilson warned that when dealing with matters that affected the “personal habits and customs of large numbers of our people” it was more essential than ever that legal procedure be taken most seriously.
However, Wilson’s largely technical civil liberties argument was of no matter to the House of Representatives, who overrode his veto just two hours after receiving it. The Senate agreed and the Volstead Act became law on October 28, 1919, certifying “intoxicating liquors” to be any substance that contained over 0.5% alcohol.
This law, designed to regulate even the lightest beers, technically also made naturally fermenting recipes like sauerkraut and German chocolate cake illegal; a rule that documentarian Ken Burns dubbed “draconian.”
Wilson was never an outspoken supporter of either the “wet” or “dry” positions, and even took care to avoid the polarizing debate in his 1916 election campaign. While he garnered support from both sides of the issue, he was no teetotaler and was known to take the occasional glass of scotch in the evening. Before he left office Congress even passed a special law so he could transport his wine collection from the White House to his new home in 1921.
However, Wilson was a firm believer in progressive action and lawmaking, and was an outspoken supporter of civil liberties. His veto attempt was ultimately informed not by the size of his wine cellar, but by his desire to protect the rights of citizens from improper legislation.
The Prohibition Amendment, the only addition to the United States Constitution to inhibit a freedom rather than expand one, did decrease alcohol consumption, but also created a boom in organized crime and corruption. Thirteen years after Wilson’s veto the failed “noble experiment” known as Prohibition was repealed by the 21st Amendment, on December 5, 1933. Once again German chocolate cake and sauerkraut were recognized as fully legal foods.