The U.S. passed the Cullen-Harrison Act before it repealed National Prohibition of alcohol.
I. Support for Cullen- Harrison
II. Political Action
People widely thought that ratifying the proposed 21st Amendment to repeal National Prohibition might take years.
I. Support for Cullen-Harrison
Yet there was strong support to legalize beverages with a low alcoholic content. There were several main reason for this.
When the 18th Amendment established Prohibition, many people thought beer and wine would not be prohibited. Indeed, that was the belief of both brewers and vintners. After the country ratified the 18th Amendment, its provisions needed definition. The National Prohibition Act of 1919 did that. (It’s generally called the Volstead Act.) But the country was in for a surprise. It was temperance activists who wrote the Volstead Act. And the Act defined ‘intoxicating liquor’ very broadly. It made almost anything illegal. For this reason, millions of people had long opposed Prohibition.
Temperance activists had convinced many that Prohibition would bring untold benefits. It would reduce crime. That it would reduce violence. It would reduce poverty. And it would reduce domestic abuse. At the same time, it would increase productivity, improve health, create prosperity, raise morality, and improve life in general.
Unfortunately, Prohibition did none of those things. To the contrary, it made problems worse and created serious new ones. With the passage of time, support for it declined and opposition to it rose.
The country was suffering a severe economic Depression. A third of the population was suffering unemployment. Prohibition had not helped. It had destroyed a major industry. In addition, it had destroyed or seriously harmed other associated industries. Prohibition had also destroyed a major source of government revenue. This is, taxes on alcoholic beverages.
II. Political Action
People viewed passage of the Cullen-Harrison Act was good in two ways. First, it would reduce unemployment. Brewers would be hiring workers. Second, it would provided needed tax revenue. President Roosevelt called for Congress to legalize low proof alcoholic beverages. On March 13, 1933, he said it would provide ‘much-needed revenue for the Government. I deem action at this time to be of the highest importance.’1
The next day, Representative Thomas H. Cullen introduced the proposed legislation in the House. Senator Pat Harrison did the same in the Senate. It passed both bodies. Then the joint conference committee reported it on March 20. The Senate agreed the same day. The House agreed the following day. The President signed it into law on March 22. The Act became effective on April 7, 1933.
The Cullen-Harrison Act permitted states to legalize alcoholic beverages with an alcohol content of 3.2% by weight. States could also pass similar legislation effective within their borders. Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia did so by April 7.
The official name of the Cullen-Harrison bill was “An Act to provide revenue by the taxation of certain nonintoxicating liquor, and for other purposes.” Its main purpose was clearly stated. But the law also helped create jobs. According to the New York Times it created at least 50,000 jobs. It also helped others. They included farmers, truckers, and glassmakers.
Many states chose not to pass such legislation. Some actually continued their own state prohibition of all alcoholic beverages. In fact after Repeal, 39% of the population lived in dry (prohibition) areas. Today, about 16,000,000 still do.
The country passed Repeal on December 5, 1933. At that point the Cullen-Harrison Act became null and void. It had served its purpose. Today, people celebrate April 7 as National Beer Day.
III. Resources on the Cullen-Harrison Act
Cumo, C. The Cullen-Harrison Act. In: Martin, S.C. (Ed.) Sage Encyclopedia of Alcohol. Los Angeles: Sage, 2015.
Millar, R. On this day 1933…beer goes back on sale in US. The Drinks Business, April 7, 2017.
1 Roosevelt, F.D. Message to Congress on Repeal of the Volstead Act. March 13, 1933.