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Chief Justice Melville W. Fuller administering the oath of office to Benjamin Harrison on the east portico of the U.S. Capitol, March 4, 1889

[Detail] Administering the oath of office to Benjamin Harrison, 1889.

Economic Policies

The reduction of taxes and the national debt have been familiar presidential platforms since Thomas Jefferson discussed them in his 1805 inaugural address: “The suppression of unnecessary offices, of useless establishments and expenses, enabled us to discontinue our internal taxes.”

In eras of both prosperity and recession, the economic outlook for the nation has been a familiar part of the inaugural address. For example, James Buchanan expressed dismay at America's wealth in his 1857 inaugural address:

No nation has ever before been embarrassed from too large a surplus in its treasury. This almost necessarily gives birth to extravagant legislation . . . The purity of official agents . . . is suspected, and the character of the government suffers in the estimation of the people. This is in itself a very great evil

President Grant Taking the Oath of Office

President Grant Taking the Oath of Office, Washington, DC, March 4, 1873."

A little over a decade later, Ulysses S. Grant faced the problems of growing debt and inflation in the wake of the Civil War. In his 1869 inaugural address, Grant proposed to redeem the inflated paper money of the war with gold “[t]o protect the national honor.” In his 1873 inaugural address, Grant emphasized the amount of time he had dedicated to economic concerns during his first term: “[T]he past four years, so far as I could control events, have been consumed in the effort to restore harmony, public credit, commerce, and all the arts of peace and progress.”

America's economy was booming during Calvin Coolidge's 1925 inaugural address but he also called for economic reform via tax reduction: “The method of raising revenue ought not to impede the transaction of business. . . . We can not finance the country . . . through any system of injustice, even if we attempt to inflict it upon the rich.” Ronald Reagan echoed this belief in a chillier economic climate in his 1985 inaugural address when he called for freezing government spending and proclaimed, “We must act now to protect future generations from Government's desire to spend its citizens' money and tax them into servitude when the bills come due."

  • How do the presidents' economic policies reflect the economic climate of the time? Using information from the inaugural speeches, create a timeline depicting changes in economic policy.
  • What kinds of arguments do these presidents make to support their economic policies?
  • Why are tax reductions and public debt such popular subjects?
  • Who benefits from a tax reduction?
  • How does Calvin Coolidge's argument about tax reduction differ from Ronald Reagan's claim?