On this date in 1919, Congress overrode Woodrow Wilson's veto to pass the Volstead Act, which set in place the legal mechanisms for enforcing the 18th Amendment -- known universally by a single ominous word: Prohibition.
When it took effect three months later, Rep. Andrew J. Volstead, a Minnesota Republican, felt sure it would make the country a better place. "I am proud that America is leading in this great movement," he said. "The eyes of the world are upon us and from innumerable homes, here and beyond the seas, prayers go up for the success of the cause."
Some Americans were already praying for a glass of beer or a stiff Scotch. They'd have to wait a while. In January 1920, Volstead attended a service at the First Congregational Church in Washington, D.C., where three-time Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan delivered a fire-and-brimstone sermon comparing the passage of the 18th Amendment to deliverance of the baby Jesus and the death of King Herod. "They are dead that sought the young child's life!" Bryan thundered.
The "Great Commoner," as Bryan was known, had nothing on evangelist Billy Sunday. Some 10,000 "drys" came to hear the famous baseball-player-turned-preacher officiate at a mock funeral service for "John Barleycorn" in Norfolk, Va. A peerless showman, the Rev. Sunday arranged for a 20-foot coffin to be brought to the doors of the church. The casket was conveyed by horses and trailed by a dejected-looking man in a devil costume.
"Goodbye, John!" Billy Sunday shouted. "You were God's worst enemy. You were hell's best friend!"
"The reign of tears is over," he added. "The slums will soon be a memory. We will turn our prisons into factories and our jails into storehouses and corncribs. Men will walk upright now, women will smile, and the children will laugh."
As things played out, the only thing laughable was that anyone expected so much goodness and light to flow from this ill-conceived social experiment. Yes, Americans did drink less during the 14 years Prohibition was the law of the land. But it also made criminals of tens of millions of otherwise law-abiding Americans, bred contempt for the law, institutionalized political hypocrisy, and gave organized crime a foothold in most big cities.
When I think of the 18th Amendment, it brings to mind the wisdom of New York's 19th century sage Gideon J. Tucker, who noted wryly in a legal opinion, "No man's life, liberty or property are safe while the Legislature is in session."
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.