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In 1932, the United States confronted a bleak economic landscape. Amid the financial carnage caused by the 1929 stock market crash and the ensuing Great Depression, economic activity had ground to a halt, tax revenues had plunged, and the nation’s debt had soared. The declining government revenues and soaring debt threatened both the viability of American industry and the nation’s credit rating. Congress took bold action that year, enacting a massive tax bill (“the Revenue Act of 1932”) designed to balance the federal budget without further stifling economic growth.
As has been true through nearly a century of tax legislation, Congress included estate and gift taxes as a component of the Revenue Act of 1932. The architects of these estate and gift tax provisions made a number of crucial legislative choices, implicating issues of tax policy that remain as relevant today as they were some eighty years ago. Yet, histories of American taxation typically devote frustratingly little analysis to the specific estate and gift tax provisions included in the Revenue Act of 1932. As such, despite their continued relevance, the details of key decisions, and the motivations of those who made them, effectively have been lost to history.
In this paper, I seek to reclaim this lost history of estate and gift taxation. While the ensuing analysis certainly will enable us to more fully appreciate the events of 1932 and evaluate the actions Congress took in that fateful year, my inquiry is not of mere historical interest. Rather, the choices made in 1932 have helped shape the fundamental structure of U.S. estate and gift taxation for nearly eight decades, including our modern estate and gift tax code. As such, understanding the events of 1932 can help us to understand why our estate and gift taxes operate the way they do as well as help inform future debate about the optimal structure of our wealth transfer tax system.