The Wickersham Commission Report on Prohibition and Crime Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In the summer of 1929, the eleven-member National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement, also known as the Wickersham Commission, began studying various aspects of the nation’s criminal justice system–particularly enforcement of the laws then in place prohibiting the production and sale of alcohol. The commission ultimately produced fourteen reports, the final versions of which were published in 1931. The second of these reports dealt with the effectiveness of enforcing the Prohibition laws. The commission concluded that the laws were being inadequately enforced and argued that additional federal funding and overhaul of the relevant enforcement agencies was necessary. Although the commission was not in full agreement as to whether the laws should be revised, it did agree that Congress needed to better empower law enforcement agents to combat illegal activity.

Summary Overview

In the summer of 1929, the eleven-member National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement, also known as the Wickersham Commission, began studying various aspects of the nation’s criminal justice system–particularly enforcement of the laws then in place prohibiting the production and sale of alcohol. The commission ultimately produced fourteen reports, the final versions of which were published in 1931. The second of these reports dealt with the effectiveness of enforcing the Prohibition laws. The commission concluded that the laws were being inadequately enforced and argued that additional federal funding and overhaul of the relevant enforcement agencies was necessary. Although the commission was not in full agreement as to whether the laws should be revised, it did agree that Congress needed to better empower law enforcement agents to combat illegal activity.

Defining Moment

The Eighteenth Amendment, which prohibited “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors” in the United States, was ratified on January 16, 1919. The enabling legislation, known as the National Prohibition Act or the Volstead Act, took effect starting in 1920. This era of US history, which lasted until the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1933, is commonly known as Prohibition. Proponents welcomed this new era, arguing that it would promote a morally upright way of life in America, lowering crime rates and reducing alcohol abuse.

In some ways, prohibitionists received some validation once the laws were in place. Statistics from the early 1920s showed fewer deaths from alcohol. A number of hospital wings dedicated to the treatment of alcoholism closed, which in turn saved budget dollars that could be used for other health programs. Prison populations also declined briefly, attributable to a lower number of alcohol-related crimes. Many prohibitionists felt vindicated by these early trends.

However, the good news prohibitionists received was short-lived. Bootleggers (people who produced and sold alcohol illegally) began to organize, aided by increasingly powerful organized crime networks. Gangsters, like Al Capone, profited immensely from the illegal importation of liquor and liquor ingredients. Capone and others enjoyed great influence over political leaders and law enforcement. The only threat to these gangsters’ success came from each other, as territorial disputes led to widespread violence, including murder, kidnapping, and other criminal activity.

Meanwhile, a culture of commonplace defiance of the Volstead Act and the Eighteenth Amendment arose in American society. Instead of purchasing alcohol, citizens often made it themselves. Tens of thousands of speakeasies, secret venues in which people could drink, cropped up in New York City alone. Even President Warren Harding was known to drink with his inner circle of advisers, many of whom were linked to alcohol-related criminal activity.

Across the country, there existed a sentiment that the Volstead Act was unenforceable, in large part because Americans simply did not want to comply with the law. Particularly in light of the severe gang violence occurring in the streets, President Herbert Hoover declared, in May 1929, that it was time to give greater scrutiny to the law and its enforcement. To this end he convened the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement, headed by former Attorney General George Wickersham. Known as the Wickersham Commission, it consisted of eleven members, including: Harvard Law School dean Roscoe Pound; federal judge Paul McCormick; former secretary of war Newton Baker; Radcliffe College president and sociologist Ada L. Comstock; circuit judge and former senator William S. Kenyon; federal judge William Grubb; Chicago judge Frank J. Loesch; former Washington Supreme Court chief justice Kenneth Mackintosh; Virginia lawyer Henry W. Anderson; and New Orleans lawyer Monte M. Lemann.

The Wickersham Commission came together as the product of a number of often divergent motivations. Some hoped the commission would recommend revision and improvement of the Volstead Act so that Prohibition would be strengthened. Others hoped the commission would determine that the law was simply unenforceable and recommend ending Prohibition. Consistent with the pragmatic, analytical approach he had demonstrated throughout his career, President Herbert Hoover simply wanted some of the leading minds of the era to provide substantive answers to a murky and politically-charged controversy.

Document Analysis

The Wickersham Commission generated fourteen reports, published in fourteen separate volumes in July 1931. Most of these reports received little attention, with the exception of the second volume, Report on the Enforcement of the Prohibition Laws of the United States. The commission began the second volume by asserting that it would not call for a repeal of either the Eighteenth Amendment or the Volstead Act. Even proposed changes to the law, such as exempting the sale of beer and wine from the act’s provisions, were not matters of interest to the commission, the report read. Instead, the commission focused on the effectiveness of local, state, and federal law enforcement in enforcing the law’s provisions.

In this arena, the commission–comprised of people with differing backgrounds and points of view–determined that police and federal agents were both poorly organized and inadequate to the task of enforcing the law and shutting down the criminal enterprises that arose as a result of it. The report acknowledged the differing points of view of its members–some seeking changes to the law to make enforcement possible, others seeking repeal due to the law’s perceived inherent unenforceability. Commission members, regardless of their points of view, agreed that police and federal agencies needed major monetary investment in order to combat liquor-related crime, the report read.

The commission’s report further offered suggestions to make certain parts of the Volstead Act more agreeable and foster public compliance. For example, the members suggested loosening reporting regulations on doctors who prescribed alcohol for their patients. The commission also recommended clarifying confusing regulatory language, such as that which applied to the manufacture of apple cider, and giving greater enforcement capabilities to police and federal investigators (although the members specifically argued against giving increased latitude to officers when conducting raids and seizing evidence). Furthermore, the commission called for legislative action to make prosecution more transparent and efficient.

The commission’s conclusions reflected its members’ different opinions on the law and its enforceability. Still, the suggestions it offered would at least address a number of confusing and challenging aspects of the law for those who would enforce it, the report read. Wickersham and his fellow commissioners took careful steps to refrain opening a debate on the law’s viability, focusing instead on a number of issues and inconsistencies that would make the law, already passed, as manageable as possible in its application.

Essential Themes

The Wickersham Commission was comprised of eleven members, each of whom was experienced and knowledgeable. It was a diverse group, representing different attitudes on the subject of law enforcement and, in particular, Prohibition. The comprehensive report the commission subsequently issued was reflective of this diversity and careful not to step into the issue any further than was necessary. The commission focused not on the merits of Prohibition itself but on the enforceability of the Volstead Act.

The conclusion of the second section was seen as particularly important because it concluded that the Volstead Act was, in its present state, unenforceable. Such a statement, however subtle in its language, was bold, and the commission understood the potential public firestorm it would create. The commission’s report, therefore, took great pains to distance itself from the idea of repealing the law or the Eighteenth Amendment. The law, the commission stated, should remain in place, even if members of the commission (along with elected officials and, indeed, the general public) might use the statements contained in the report as evidence of the necessity for repeal.

The Wickersham Commission instead focused on the issues that made the law unenforceable. Chief among these issues was money–police, federal agents, and other officials responsible for enforcement simply lacked the financial backing from state and federal budgets to combat the activities of criminals, like Al Capone, who had garnered millions of dollars from the liquor trade and spent such money to protect their interests. Police and investigators also lacked organization, the report said; they simply could not combine their efforts to defeat bootlegging, speakeasies, and the violence that the law produced.

Declining to advocate a full repeal of the law, the commission instead offered pragmatic and focused policy suggestions to remedy what it saw as a law that was unenforceable in its current state. The proposals spoke to organizational improvements, bureaucratic efficiency, regulatory reform, and greater financial investment. Most of the Wickersham Commission’s proposed solutions would require legislative action, placing the onus for rectifying the wide range of the law’s shortcomings squarely on the shoulders of Congress. Instead, just two years after the commission’s report, declining public support for Prohibition led to the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1933.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Behr, Edward. Prohibition: Thirteen Years That Changed America. New York: Skyhorse, 2011. Print.
  • Blumenthal, Karen. Bootleg: Murder, Moonshine, and the Lawless Years of Prohibition. New York: MacMillan, 2011. Print.
  • Calder, James D. “Between Brain and State: Herbert C. Hoover, George W. Wickersham, and the Commission That Grounded Social Scientific Investigations of American Crime and Justice, 1929–1931 and Beyond.” Marquette Law Review 96.4 (2013): 1035–1108. Print.
  • Okrent, Daniel. Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. New York: Simon, 2010. Print.
  • Walker, Samuel. “The Engineer as Progressive: The Wickersham Commission in the Arc of Herbert Hoover’s Life and Work.” Marquette Law Review 96.4 (2013): 1165–97. Print.
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