Cullen-Harrison Act: Early Start on National Repeal

The Cullen-Harrison Act was passed before National Prohibition of alcohol was repealed in the U.S. It was widely thought that ratifying the proposed 21st Amendment to repeal National Prohibition might take years. Yet there was strong support to legalize beverages with a low alcoholic content. There were several main reason for this.

First. 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 18th Amendment was ratified, its provisions needed to be defined. That was done by the National Prohibition Act of 1919. (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 anything illegal. For this reason, millions of people had long opposed Prohibition.

Second. Temperance activists had convinced many that Prohibition would bring untold benefits. It would reduce crime. It would reduce violence. It would reduce poverty. 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.


Thomas Cullen

Third. The country was suffering a severe economic Depression. A third of the population was unemployed. Prohibition had not helped. It had destroyed a major industry. It had also destroyed or seriously harmed other associated industries. Prohibition had also destroyed a major source of government revenue. This is, taxes on alcoholic beverages.

Passage of the Cullen-Harrison Act was seen as 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. After passing both bodies, it was reported by the joint conference committee on March 20. The Senate agreed the same day. The House agreed the following day. It was signed 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 were permitted to pass similar legislation effective within their borders. Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia did so by April 7.


Pat Harrison

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. The New York Times reported that at least 50,000 jobs were created. 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. After Repeal of National Prohibition, 39% of the population lived in dry (prohibition) areas. Today, about 16,000,000 still do.

The Cullen-Harrison Act became null and void when Prohibition was repealed on December 5, 1933. It had served its purpose. Today, April 7 is celebrated as National Beer Day.


Resources  on the   Cullen-Harrison Act

The Constitutional Origins of National Beer Day.

Cumo, C. The Cullen-Harrison Act. In: Martin, S.C. (Ed.)  Sage Encyclopedia of Alcohol. Los Angeles: Sage, 2015.

Kavanagh, J. New Beer’s Eve: Happy Days were Here Again. April 7, 2008.



1 Roosevelt, F.D. Message to Congress on Repeal of the Volstead Act. March 13, 1933.