Teaching With Documents:
The Volstead Act and Related Prohibition Documents
This lesson correlates to the National History Standards.
- Era 7 -The Emergence of Modern America (1890-1930)
- Standard 3A -Demonstrate understanding of social tensions and their consequences in the postwar era.
This lesson correlates to the National Standards for Civics and Government.
- Standard I.A.3. - Standard III.E.5. --Evaluate, take, and defend positions about the role of public opinion in American politics.
- Standard V.B.1. - Evaluate, take, and defend positions on issues regarding personal rights.
This lesson relates to the power of Congress to amend the Constitution as specified in Article V. It also relates to Amendment 18, which banned the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcoholic beverages, and to Amendment 21 which repealed national Prohibition.
Share this lesson with your history, government, law, and sociology colleagues.
Analyzing the Document
- Read aloud to students the text of the 18th
Amendment . Next, divide students into small groups of 3 or 4 and distribute
a copy of Document 2 (the Volstead Act) and a Document
Analysis Worksheet to each group. Instruct groups to examine the document
and complete the worksheet. Lead the class in a discussion of the document using
the following questions: What type of document is it? What style is it written
in? Why is it written this way? Who wrote the document? Why was the document
written? What is the connection between the 18th Amendment and this document?
For homework, ask students to read the appropriate chapters or pages in their text on temperance societies and the prohibition movement. After they read the text, direct them to generate two lists, one of the reasons why the Volstead Act was passed and one of the arguments against it.
- Divide students into five small groups and distribute documents 3-7 (one to each group). Direct each group to examine their document, determine whether it reflects Prohibition as a success or a failure, and record their conclusions. After a group has finished analyzing their document and recording their conclusions, they should switch documents with another group. Students will repeat this until each group has looked at all five documents. Direct a volunteer from each group to report to the class the group's conclusions. Lead a class discussion about the methods that were used to enforce the act and the public perception of Prohibition.
- Ask for a student volunteer to remind the class of the contents of Document 7, the letter from Harry Truman to Bess Wallace. Next, show the PBS video "Demon Rum." This video gives a personal firsthand account of life during Prohibition and the bootlegging and smuggling that took place. Discuss the various ways people were affected by the Volstead Act. Assign students a role/character and have them write their own letter to a loved one voicing their opinion about Prohibition and how their lives have changed or will change. Possible characters could be a clergyman, restaurant owner, liquor distributor, police officer, saloon owner, factory owner, wealthy socialite, nurse, import-export merchant, and mother.
Create a Political Cartoon
- Review the characteristics that make up a political cartoon. (You may want to provide examples of current political cartoons in order to have students compile a list of characteristics and effective tools in political cartoons.) Next, review the arguments for and against Prohibition that the students listed for homework in Activity 1, the methods that were used to enforce the act, and the public perception of Prohibition as revealed in Documents 3-7. Instruct students to create a political cartoon either in favor of the Volstead Act or against it that incorporates the reviewed information. When students have completed their cartoon, direct them to exchange cartoons with another student and complete a Cartoon Analysis Worksheet for their classmate's cartoon.
Writing a Recommendation
- Lead a class discussion on the objectives of Prohibition and ask students if they think Prohibition met any of these objectives. Next, ask students to pretend that they are a congressional staff person. Instruct students to write a one-page recommendation to the congressperson for whom they work on whether to continue the Volstead Act, to revise it, or to repeal it. They must support their recommendation with evidence provided by their textbooks and by the documents. Ask student volunteers to read their letters to the class. Finally, distribute Document 8, Presidential Proclamation 2065, that announced the repeal of Prohibition. Direct students to read the document and the 21st Amendment; lead a class discussion on the tone of the two documents.
- Ask students to brainstorm a list of social problems that exist today. Instruct
students to form groups with similar concerns (for example, those who are interested
in preventing drunk driving). Each group will propose a new amendment to the
Constitution based on their issue and draft implementing legislation following
the model of the Volstead Act. After each act is written, groups will exchange
acts and list the pros and cons of each amendment and devise a list of questions
based on the questions that they asked when studying Prohibition. For example,
What will be the problems of enforcement? How will you measure its effectiveness?
Will there be unintended consequences?
Allow time for the groups to discuss the new questions and change or elaborate on their acts. Post the acts in the classroom, or photocopy them, and instruct each student to choose one act that they think would be the most effective in correcting a social problem of the United States. Direct them to write an essay explaining the act and defending their opinion with facts from current events or personal primary sources.
Lead a class discussion on the topic of government vs. individual responsibility. Possible discussion questions include the following: When does the government have a right to legislate what citizens do in private? When do private actions become a public matter?
The documents included in this project are from Record Group 11, General Records
of the United States; Record Group 306, Records of the United States Information
Agency; Record Group 56, Records of the Department of Justice, Bureau of Prohibition;
and the records of the Truman Presidential Library. They are available online
through the Online Catalog (OPA), with National Archives
You can perform a keyword, digitized image and location search in NARA's Online Catalog. The online catalog's advanced functionalities also allow you to search by organization, person, or topic.
The online catalog is a searchable database that contains information about a wide variety of NARA holdings across the country. You can use the online catalog to search record descriptions by keywords or topics and retrieve digital copies of selected textual documents, photographs, maps, and sound recordings related to thousands of topics.
Currently, about 80% of NARA's vast holdings have been described in the online catalog. Thousands of digital images can be searched in the online catalog. In keeping with NARA's Strategic Plan, the percentage of holdings described in the online catalog will grow continually.
This article was written by Kerry C. Kelly, a teacher at Hunterdon Central Regional High School in Flemington, NJ.