Cullen-Harrison Act: Early Start on National Repeal

The U.S. passed the Cullen-Harrison Act. That was before it repealed National Prohibition of alcohol.

People widely thought that ratifying the proposed 21st Amendment to repeal National Prohibition might take years.


I.   Support for Cullen-Harrison

II.  Political Action

III. Resources

I.  Support for Cullen-Harrison

Yet there was strong support to legalize alcohol with a low alcoholic content. There were several main reason for this.


The 18th Amendment established Prohibition. But many people thought beer and wine would be exempt. Indeed, that was the belief of both brewers and vintners. Then the country ratified that Amendment. Yet its provisions needed definition. What were its penalties?

The National Prohibition Act of 1919 did that. (It’s 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 opposed Prohibition.

Thomas Cullen

Temperance activists had convinced many that Prohibition would bring untold benefits. That 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. It would improve health. Create prosperity. Raise morality. And improve life in general.

But Prohibition did none of these. To the contrary, it made problems worse and created serious new ones. With the passage of time, support for it declined. Opposition to it rose.


The country was suffering a severe economic Depression. A third of the population was unemployed. Prohibition had destroyed a major industry. It had been the fifth largest in the country. In addition, it had destroyed or seriously harmed other related industries. Prohibition had also destroyed a major source of government revenue. That is, taxes on alcohol.

II. Political Action

Many 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 alcohol. 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, Rep. Thomas H. Cullen introduced the proposed law in the House. Sen. 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 beverages with an alcohol content of 3.2% by weight. States could also pass similar laws within their borders. Twenty-one states and DC did so by April 7.

Pat Harrison

The real 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 brewing jobs. It also helped others. They included farmers, truckers, and glassmakers.

Many states chose not to pass such laws. Some actually continued their own state prohibition of all alcohol. 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. It had served its purpose. Today, people celebrate April 7 as National Beer Day.

III. Resources on the Cullen-Harrison Act


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