The Wickersham Commission was established in May of 1929 when President Herbert Hoover appointed former U.S. Attorney General George W. Wickersham to head the U.S. National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement, popularly called the Wickersham Commission.
President Hoover did so pursuant to an act of Congress and the 11 members of the Commission were charged with "studying exhaustively the entire problem of the enforcement of our laws and the improvement of our judicial system, including the special problem and abuses growing out of the prohibition laws."
The Wickersham Commission included leading experts on criminal justice as well as such luminaries as Roscoe Pound, dean of Harvard Law School; Newton D. Baker, former Secretary of War; and Ada Comstock, President of Radcliffe College.1
Publication of the report, which was the most comprehensive assessment of criminal justice in the history of the United States to that time, was organized into 14 volumes that were published in 1931:
- Proposals to improve enforcement of criminal laws of the United States
- Report on the enforcement of the prohibition laws of the United States
- Report on criminal statistics
- Report on prosecution
- Report on the enforcement of the deportation laws of the United States
- Report on the child offender in the federal system of justice
- Progress report on the study of the federal courts
- Report on criminal procedure
- Report on penal institutions, probation and parole
- Report on crime and the foreign born
- Report on the cost of crime
- Report on the causes of crime, vol. I
- Report on the causes of crime, vol. II
President Hoover had apparently created the Commission to make recommendation for improving the enforcement of Prohibition in order to counter the rapidly growing Repeal movement. Prohibition was the burning issue of the day and highly divisive, so in spite of the breadth and scope of the Commission's reports, politicians and the public were really most interested in the report on Prohibition.
In its report on Prohibition (The Enforcement of the Prohibition Laws of the United States), most members of the Commission concluded that Prohibition could not be adequately enforced. The Commission found that a large proportion of the population did not support Prohibition and many were contemptuous of it and took pride in violating and flaunting it. On the other hand, there was enormous profit to be made by those who illegally produced and sold alcohol. The large profits led to widespread corruption of law enforcement and elected officials. And Prohibition promoted organized crime, gangsterism and violence, most victims of which were entirely innocent.
Although Prohibition reduced tax revenue, it dramatically increased the costs of more prisons, enforcement agents, judicial costs and other expenses that it created. Attempting to enforce Prohibition cost two-thirds of of the entire amount of money the federal government spent on law enforcement. That did not include the enormous costs faced by state and local governments.
However, the Commission's report on Prohibition lacked consensus. Views ranged from maintaining the status quo to immediately repealing Prohibition. Although a majority of members expressed varying degrees opposition to it, they also opposed its repeal.
This led columnist Frank P. Adams of the New York World to pen his now-famous poem about the Commission's report:
Prohibition is an awful flop.
We like it.
It can't stop what it's meant to stop.
We like it.
It's left a trail of graft and slime,
It don't prohibit worth a dime,
It's filled our land with vice and crime.
Nevertheless, we're for it.
The report also included separate statements by members of the commission, which additionally revealed a broad diversity of individual opinions and disagreements. While some supported Prohibition, member Harry Anderson, a distinguished economist, said that Prohibition violated basic economic laws and that even if complete enforcement were imposed, economic laws would win in the end: "This would inevitably lead to social and political consequences more disastrous than the evils sought to be remedied. Even then the force of social and economic laws would ultimately prevail. These laws cannot be destroyed by governments, but often in the course of human history governments have been destroyed by them."
The highly qualified and inconsistent nature of the Prohibition report permitted both sides to claim victory. Although its report on the issue was indecisive, the American people were clearly not and rejected Prohibition by a very decisive 74%. Repeal of the failed social experiment occurred in 1933.
Surprisingly, in spite of the abysmal and undeniable failure of Prohibition, many people and organizations today support neo-prohibition ideas and strongly defend the many vestiges of Prohibition that continue to remain.
Resources on the Wickersham Commission and Its Reports:
- Berman, Jay S. Prophets Without Honor: The Wickersham Commission and the Development of American Law Enforcement. Thesis. Michigan State University, 1973.
- Blowers, Malcolm E. The Wickersham Commission, 1929-1931. M.A. thesis. Ohio State University, 1964.
- Boehm, Randolph. Records of the Wickersham Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement. Bethesda, MD: University Publications of America, 1996.
- Flythe, William V. Tremendous expense of Prohibition bared by Wickersham Commission. Report to Pres. Hoover reveals dry law costs federal government two-thirds of entire sum spent of law observance and enforcement. Modesto News-Herald, August 21, 1931, p. 1.
- Kim, Deok-Ho. "A House Divided": The Wickersham Commission and National Prohibition. Ph.D. thesis, State University of New York at Stony Brook, 1992.
- MacKay, Alexander W. An Exploratory Study of the Wickersham Commission: From Crisis to Commission to Confusion. Thesis. University of Florida, 1971.
- National Archives. The National Archives. Classification Scheme. Records of the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement (Wickersham Commission). Washington, DC: 1938.
- Thornton, Mark. The Economics of Prohibition. Salt Lake City, UT: University of Utah Press, 1991.
- Vernon, John. The Wickersham Commission and William Monroe Trotter. Negro History Bulletin, 1999 (January-March).
- Voluntary Committee of Lawyers, Inc. Statement of the Board of Managers of the Voluntary Committee of Lawyers, Inc.: Based on and Citing From Report of the Wickersham Commission. NY: Voluntary committee of Lawyers, Inc., 1931.
- Wickersham Commission. U.S. National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement. Complete works. Montclair, NJ: Patterson Smith, 1968.
- Wickersham Commission. The Mooney-Billings Report: Suppressed by the Wickersham Commission.NY: Gotham House, 1932.
- Wickersham, George W. Enforcement of the Prohibition Laws. Official Records of the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement Pertaining to its Investigation of the Facts as to the Enforcement, the Benefits and the Abuses under the Prohibition Laws, both Before and Since the Adoption of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1931.
- 1. In addition to George W. Wickersham, the members of the Wickersham Commission were, listed alphabetically, Henry W. Anderson, Newton D. Baker, Ada L. Comstock, William I. Grubb, William S. Kenyon, Monte M. Lehman, Frank J. Loesch, Kenneth Mackintosh, Paul J. McCormick and Roscoe Pound.
filed under: Prohibition