The backdrop for President Reagan’s inaugural on January 20, 1981 was unforgettable. The United States had endured a decade of decline in our economy at home and our prestige abroad. Some Americans feared our best days were behind us as they had struggled through years of staggeringly high inflation, persistent unemployment, and shrinking incomes. The gears of American industry were slowed by an ever-expanding barrage of high-handed bureaucracies and policies established by administrations dating back to the New Deal.
But on that cold January day, a special man and a big moment came together. In his inaugural address the new president offered a new direction, but one based on the clear, foundational principles of the U.S. Constitution.
In the address, Reagan described the nation’s severe economic challenges, what he called “this present crisis,” as well as his administration’s objective – “a healthy, vigorous, growing economy.” He then used some of the sharpest language of any modern president to underscore the Constitution’s spirit of limited power guided by the people’s approval. “We are a nation that has a government, not the other way around,” he said. “Our government has no power except that granted it by the people. It is time to check and reverse the growth of government which shows signs of having grown beyond the consent of the governed.”
At the time of this address, I was a young, small businessman in the plastics and packaging industry. Like many Americans, I was dealing with the effects of out-of-control taxation and regulation. To me, government was killing the goose that laid the golden egg.
To this day, the simplicity of Reagan’s speech and his strong admonitions guides my work in the House of Representatives. He wanted government “to stand by our side, not ride on our back.” He established as “first priorities” the reawakening of America’s manufacturing base and the reduction of punitive taxes.
The latter goal was accomplished seven months after his inauguration and five months after an assassination attempt. On August 13, 1981, President Reagan signed the Kemp-Roth tax cuts, which slashed tax rates for individuals and businesses, rates which had grown to as high as 70 percent. These tax cuts and other initiatives during Reagan’s two terms led to an economic resurgence.
During the 1980s the economy grew by one-third. Seventeen million new workers were working longer hours per day. Household incomes rose. Unemployment dipped to the 5 percent range. Productivity and manufacturing surged, as did the savings rate. Inflation, once at double-digit levels, stabilized and decreased significantly. And interest rates, which had climbed to more than 18 percent in 1981, steadily fell during the Reagan era. It was, as described in the famous 1984 campaign ad, “morning in America.”
But this economic rebound grew from a clear recognition that federal power is constitutionally limited and that ultimately the people make the wisest economic decisions, not bureaucracies in Washington. President Reagan faced his administration’s challenges with this basic truth in mind. His first inaugural address made a transformational impact still remembered” and relevant” today as our nation faces big government power grabs such as ObamaCare.
If America’s long tradition of enlightened self-government is to survive, the people must not only be acquainted with our founding documents; they must also understand the thinking that produced them. The Constitution is not only the starting point of the American republic, as President Reagan made clear; it is the culmination of several centuries of serious thinking about the role of individuals in relation to each other and the Creator, and the most helpful way for each of us to secure our God-given liberties. I want to thank Janine Turner and Cathy Gillespie. I am humbled by their invitation to appear as a guest essayist. Let me also thank everyone at Constituting America for their hard work to, as they put it, “make the Constitution cool” for kids and adults and accurately teach the history of our great nation.
Read Ronald Reagan’s First Inaugural Speech here.
The Honorable John Boehner represents the 8th Congressional District of Ohio, and is serving in the 113th Congress as the 53rd Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.