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The Wickersham Commission Report on Alcohol Prohibition - 1930



(a) Original Organization

 The Amendment and the National Prohibition Act inaugurated one of the most extensive and sweeping efforts to change the social habits of an entire nation recorded in history. It 'Would naturally have been assumed that the enforcement of such a novel and sweeping reform in a democracy would have been undertaken cautiously, with a carefully selected and specially trained force adequately organized and compensated, accompanied by efforts to arouse to its support public sympathy and aid. No opportunity for such a course was allowed.

As already noted, it was necessary to leave the definition of intoxicating liquor to the legislature, and also necessary for the legislature to fix a somewhat arbitrary standard. Considerable public sentiment, was however, antagonized by the legislative fixing of the permissible content of alcohol at a percentage substantially below the possibility of intoxication. This gave offense to a number of people who perhaps did not give adequate consideration to the administrative difficulties which might be involved by permitting a larger alcoholic content. Instant compliance was necessarily required from the date the amendment became effective. Scant opportunity was allowed for the organization of a force to carry out the Congressional mandates. There was no time or opportunity for careful selection of personnel. The officials charged with the execution of the law realized grave difficulties in the task thus imposed upon them.

The Commissioner of Internal Revenue, in his Annual Report to the Secretary of the Treasury for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1919 made while the National Prohibition Act was pending in Congress, referred to the fact that that bill placed the responsibility for the enforcement of its provisions upon the Bureau of Internal Revenue of the Treasury Department, which already was burdened with the fiscal and revenue problems of the government. "Not to enforce prohibition thoroughly and effectively," said the Commissioner, "4 would reflect upon our form of government, and would bring into disrepute the reputation of the American people as law abiding citizens. No law can be effectively enforced except with the assistance and cooperation of the law-abiding element. The Bureau will accordingly put into operation at once the necessary organization to cooperate with the states and the public in the rigid enforcement of the prohibition law, and appeals to every law-abiding citizen for support. This contemplated end requires the closest cooperation between the Federal officers and all other law-enforcing officers, state, county, and municipal."

"The Bureau naturally expects unreserved cooperation also from those moral agencies which are so vitally interested in the proper administration of this law. Such agencies include churches, civic organizations, educational societies, charitable and philanthropic societies. and other welfare bodies. The Bureau further expects cooperation and support from the law-abiding citizens of the United States who may have been opposed to the adoption of the Constitutional amendment and the law, which in pursuance of that amendment makes unlawful certain acts and privileges which were formerly not unlawful. Thus, it is the right of the Government officers charged with the enforcement of this law to expect the assistance and moral support of every citizen, in upholding the law, regardless of personal conviction. 

If the cooperation thus referred to had been cordially given and the Bureau had been adequately and efficiently organized for the purpose of discharging the responsibilities laid upon it by the National Prohibition Act, it is probable that many problems of the

character existing at the present time, would not have risen. As a matter of fact, very little cooperation was given by the agencies referred to and the organized bodies which had been instrumental in procuring the adoption of prohibition apparently abandoned all effort to convince the public of its advantages and placed all their reliance upon the power of the national government to enforce the law. The proponents of the law paid no heed to the admonition that "no law can be effectively enforced except with the assistance and cooperation of the law-abiding element." On the contrary, the passage of the act and its enforcement were urged with a spirit of intolerant zeal that awakened an equally intolerant opposition and the difficulties now being experienced in rallying public sentiment in support of the Eighteenth Amendment result largely from that spirit of intolerance.

On the passage of the law, the Bureau of Internal Revenue proceeded to organize departments under supervising Federal prohibition agents for the enforcement work and to create in each state an organization under a Federal prohibition director for the regulation and control of the nonbeverage traffic in alcohol by a system of permits. The appointment of prohibition directors and agents was not subject to the Civil Service laws. The salaries of prohibition agents were too low to be attractive. There has been much criticism of the character, intelligence and ability of many of the force originally appointed and many of their successors, and it is probably true that to their reputation for general unfitness may be ascribed in large measure the public disfavor into which prohibition fell. Allegations of corruption were freely made, and, in fact, a substantial number of prohibition agents and employees actually were indicted and convicted of various crimes. The facts are given more in detail by the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in his testimony before the Senate Committee hereinafter referred to.

When the new national administration came in, in 1921, a committee was appointed, consisting of two members of the cabinet and an assistant secretary, who made a study of the subject, and recommended the transfer of certain activities from one department to the other where they appropriately belonged, including the transfer of the prohibition enforcement unit to the Department of Justice. That transfer, which also was recommended by this Commission in its preliminary report in November 1929, was authorized by Congress and carried out in this present year, 1930.

The organization set up under the Bureau of Internal Revenue was headed by a Commissioner of Prohibition. The original appointee, served from November 17. 1919, to June 11, 1921. His successor served until May 20, 1927, but the latter's authority was curtailed on November 1. 19257 by the appointment of a Director of Prohibition with equal power, who also served until May 20, 1927. On that (late the offices were reconsolidated and a new Commissioner appointed who served until July 1, 1930.


tional Prohibition Act,


The Bureau of Internal Revenue charged with the enforcement of prohibition as well as the Customs Bureau and the Coast Guard, were directly under the supervision of an Assistant Secretary of the Treasury. Five persons held that office between January 1920 and April 1925, and for eight months there was a vacancy in the office and no Assistant Secretary appears to have been especially charged with the supervision of the prohibition forces or the coordination of the three services.

During the period prior to July, 1921, the enforcement and permissive features of the law were administered separately, with supervising federal prohibition agents in charge of the former and state directors, who were permitted to choose their own personnel, in charge of the latter. During the short life of this system, an unusually large number of supervising agents saw service as heads of the twelve departments into which-the-country was divided. In July, 1921, the office of supervising federal prohibition agent was abolished, and enforcement placed under the state directors, 48 in number. The occupants of these positions were constantly changing, and 184 men were in and out of these 48 positions during the years 1921 to 1925, when the office was abolished. The enforcement agents, inspectors and attorneys, as -was authorized in section 38 of the National Prohibition Act, were appointed without regard to the Civil Service rules. A force so constituted presented a situation conducive to bribery and official indifference to enforcement. It is common knowledge that large amounts of liquor were imported into the country or manufactured and sold, despite the law, with the connivance of agents of the law.

 April 1, 1925, General Lincoln C. Andrews, a retired army officer was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Treasury and ascended to the supervision of Customs, Coast Guard and Prohibition. He reorganized the whole prohibition enforcement machinery, using the federal judicial district as the geographical unit, and grouping those units into districts. making in all twenty-four prohibition districts in each of which was placed an administrator, who was given the authority and was to be held responsible for the law's enforcement.

General Andrews, in a letter dated March 31, 1926, which was put in evidence at the hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, stated that 875 employees had been separated from the service for cause, from the commencement of prohibition to February 1, 19267 and of that number 658 separations had been effected since June 11, 1921. During substantially the same period, January 16, 19207 to March 30, 19261 148 officers and employees, including enforcement agents, inspectors, attorneys, clerks, etc., except-narcotic officers, were convicted on charges of criminality, including drunkenness and disorderly conduct.

While the number of convictions had in the federal courts for violation of provisions of the act, increased from 17,962 in the fiscal year ending June 30, 1921, to 37,018 in the fiscal year ending June 30, 1926, there was growing dissatisfaction with the results of the ad' ministration of the law, and an increasing volume of complaints against the service. These led to the introduction in Congress of a  large variety of bills proposing amendments to the Eighteenth Amendment or to the National Prohibition Act and finally to demands for an investigation into the workings of the law. 

(b) Senatorial Investigation, 1926 

In April, 1926, an inquiry was opened before a subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee of the United States Senate, charged with the duty of Investigating and making a report to the full Judiciary Committee on all of these proposals. The report of the hearings before that committee fills two volumes, aggregating about 1,650 pages. The hearings lasted from April 5 to 24, 1926. It appeared from the evidence adduced that, despite the prosecutions referred to, and seizures of a large amount of liquor, a very great deal of industrial alcohol was being diverted and sold illicitly for unlawful purposes. General Andrews testified that the sources of illicit liquor at that time were smuggling, the diversion of medicinal spirits, the diversion of industrial alcohol, (which was the principal source or the backbone of bootleg liquor that was then sold), and in the south and middle west moonshine liquor.

General Andrews further testified that his assignment as Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in April, 1925, was to take charge of customs coast guard, and the prohibition unit and try to bring about cooperation between the three-for the purpose of enforcement of the prohibition laws, it being naturally the function of Customs to stop smuggling on the land and of the Coast Guard to stop smuggling by the sea. He found only about 170 patrolmen in the customs service; a very insufficient-, number. He needed more patrolmen than he could possibly supply. His entire border patrol force was 170 customs men on both land borders, Canada and Mexico, and 110 prohibition enforcement agents, making 280 in all. With certain contemplated additions, be expected his total force to be something like fifteen or sixteen hundred to patrol the whole of the Canadian border from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and the whole of the Mexican border from the Gulf to the Pacific. He thought that would stop the smuggling of liquor, although it would not materially reduce the supply in the country, because, as he had stated, the greater source of supply was from diverted alcohol and medicinal spirits.

In March, 1927, General Andrews resigned and Mr. Seymour Lowman, the present incumbent of the office, was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Treasurer to succeed him, effective April 1, 1927.  

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