First Inaugural Address

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First Inaugural Address

by Franklin D. Roosevelt

THE LITERARY WORK

A presidential inaugural speech delivered on March 4, 1933.

SYNOPSIS

Franklin D. Roosevelt rallied the spirit of the nation during a time of severe financial crisis, declaring that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Events in History at the Time of the Speech

The Speech in Focus

For More Information

Born in Hyde Park, New York, in 1882, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) grew up in a family that enjoyed both wealth and political power. (President Theodore Roosevelt was a fifth cousin.) After beginning a promising political career of his own, FDR was stricken by polio in 1921. His condition left him unable to walk, but he nevertheless pursued an active political life. In 1932, as the Democratic nominee for president, FDR defeated Herbert Hoover, under whom the nation had plunged into the Great Depression. Taking office in a time of national crisis, Roosevelt saw that one of his first tasks was to restore American morale and faith in democratic government. He set out to achieve this aim in his first inaugural address.

Events in History at the Time of the Speech

The Great Depression

The Great Depression struck in 1929 and lasted until World War II. Its causes were complex, including the economic aftereffects of World War I, free-wheeling stock market speculation, and easy credit. Policies enacted by a series of Republican administrations exacerbated an already bad situation. Industrial production grew at a far more rapid rate than people’s ability to buy consumer goods, and protectionist trade measures limited the foreign market for U.S. exports. Farm prices dropped sharply. Between 1914 and 1933, for example, the price of wheat declined from approximately 88¢ to 32¢ per bushel. At the same time, farmers’ tax burdens doubled, and the cost of farming escalated. Farmers could no longer afford to buy the goods they needed to continue running their farms. Ultimately thousands of farmers lost their lands to insurance and banking institutions.

The stock market crash

On October 24, 1929, prices on the New York Stock Exchange dropped dramatically, triggering a dismal economic situation. Stockholders panicked and tried to sell their stock for whatever price they could get, but many stocks became worthless. Millions could not be sold at all. By mid-November people had lost a total of more than $26 billion in financial assets.

Fear swept through Wall Street. Frightened investors flocked to their banks to withdraw their money. In response, banks closed to protect their dwindling assets. Several banks failed entirely, and 9 million savings accounts vanished. Close to 700 banks failed in 1929, with some 2,300 more collapsing over the next two years. By the time Roosevelt took office, bank failures had eroded public confidence to such a degree that he felt compelled to address the issue directly in his inaugural speech. Such a direct reference on this ceremonial occasion was unusual, indicating the severity of the problem. The same day, March 4, 1933, in one of his first acts as president, Roosevelt declared an extended “bank holiday.” All banks would remain closed until March 13 while Congress prepared for their reopening under stricter government supervision than before.

Poverty in America

The Great Depression deeply affected families and individuals across America. Unemployment, poverty, and hunger became a way of life for many as businesses and factories closed and workers were laid off. By 1932, the year before FDR took office, unemployment had risen to nearly 13 million, with nearly one in four people out of work. Nearly two-thirds of the people were living in poverty; meanwhile, a tiny fraction, one percent of the population, owned over a third of the nation’s assets.

Roosevelt’s predecessor, Herbert Hoover, had refused to institute government aid to the poor and unemployed, believing that aid programs would threaten America’s ethic of rugged individualism. Instead, Hoover maintained that the Depression, like an illness, simply had to run its course; only then would prosperity return. Meanwhile, bread lines and soup kitchens sprang up in every major city; hunger was so widespread that many soup kitchens ran out of food and had to turn people away. One Chicago reporter observed fifty men, women, and children fighting over the garbage left outside a restaurant.

Homelessness

By 1932 more than a million people were homeless. Roaming the country in search of work, they slept in flophouses, fields, caves, and parks. Communities of shacks arose; these became known as “Hoovervilles,” named derisively after President Hoover. Even New York’s Central Park was the site of a shanty town. In 1931 one rail company’s officials discovered nearly 200,000 people hiding in its boxcars. Street corners filled with people selling apples or begging for money. “Brother, can you spare a dime?” asked Al Jolson in a popular song of the day (Jolson in Kirkendall, p. 10). An unprecedented despair spread throughout the nation; given this atmosphere of hopelessness, FDR’s optimistic 1932 presidential campaign provided a welcome relief.

The election

Hoover’s refusal to take action was perceived as cold, heartless, and stubborn, and his dour passiveness contrasted sharply with Roosevelt’s active, buoyant good cheer. An energetic campaigner, Roosevelt kept up a rigorous schedule, giving the lie to charges that his health was too frail for the job. The election’s outcome was never seriously in doubt, so closely was Hoover identified with the national malaise. As commentator Joseph Alsop reported, “Poor Hoover... could hardly appear on the streets without being booed” (Alsop, p. 108). Meanwhile, Roosevelt’s trademark grin and jaunty manner charmed crowds across the country. Roosevelt won by a landslide, receiving 472 electoral votes against Hoover’s paltry total of 59.

Roosevelt’s public image

While Roosevelt’s image as an active, confident man was not an in-accurate reflection of his personality, at the same time that image was carefully and consciously controlled. The polio attack he had suffered in 1921 left him paralyzed from the waist down. He spent nearly all his time in a wheelchair. Roosevelt became the only national leader in American history with such a disability—and the only man to serve more than two terms as president, winning an unparalleled four elections.

In private, Roosevelt merely deemphasized his disability, rarely mentioning it even to those closest to him. In public, he struggled painfully to minimize it as much as possible. Wearing steel and leather leg braces that could be straightened and locked at the knee, and supported at the elbow by a strong companion, Roosevelt could “walk” short distances in a way that appeared almost natural. He could not stand up by himself, but with his braces locked and with the support of a podium, cane, or crutches he could remain standing for a short time. At his first inauguration, Roosevelt “walked” the thirty-seven paces to the podium—built with a special ramp instead of stairs—holding his son James’s arm, then stood grasping the podium for support as he delivered his address. With such careful control of public moments, most Americans gained only a hazy idea of Roosevelt’s condition. They supposed he was perhaps a bit lame if they thought about it at all.

Both before and after his election, Roosevelt enjoyed the tacit cooperation of the press in concealing the extent of his disability. Out of over 35,000 photos of FDR in the Presidential Library, only two show him in his wheelchair. Newsreels, the short films that featured the news in this age before television became popular, showed him only standing or seated, never being lifted, pushed, or carried from one position to another. In the thousands of political cartoons of Roosevelt during his political career, he was never portrayed as disabled. Many cartoons, in fact, show him as vigorously active—running, jumping, even boxing, for example. After his election, Roosevelt held twice-weekly news conferences in which his informal, friendly manner won the affection of reporters. At the same time, he kept tight control over the information they were given.

FDR as public speaker

Roosevelt’s superb oratorical skills had not come easily. At twenty-eight, when he had run for the New York State Senate, his wife, Eleanor, said that in speeches delivered then the words had rolled so slowly off his tongue and he had paused for so long that she worried that he would never go on (Freedman, p. 32). During his month-long campaign for state senate, FDR gave an average of ten speeches a day and quickly improved his speaking style. He soon began to open each speech with the warm phrase, “My friends”—a phrase he would later use to begin radio addresses during his presidency.

FDR GREETS THE PRESS

Beginning on March 8, 1933, Roosevelt met with the press twice a week and continued to do so for 998 times over the course of his next twelve years in office. Roosevelt loved to joke with reporters. Unlike prior presidents who required reporters to submit all their questions in writing, Roosevelt spoke with them directly, freely, and easily. This informal style made him very popular with the press.

Radio was America’s most popular form of in-formation and entertainment at the time of Roosevelt’s inauguration. The first commercial radio stations appeared in 1920, and within a few years millions of households owned their own sets. The first president to take full advantage of the medium, Roosevelt had begun regular broadcasts while he was New York’s governor. As president, Roosevelt broadcast his speeches to the American public to gain support for his policies.

Roosevelt’s 1933 inaugural address was the first presidential inaugural speech ever broadcast on radio. A few days after taking office, he began his “fireside chats,” a series of radio talks to everyday citizens. Millions of listeners tuned in regularly to hear Roosevelt’s clear and reassuring explanations of the political issues facing the day.

The New Deal

In campaign speeches, Roosevelt had promised a “new deal” for America and for economic recovery. In his first inaugural address, he pledged “action, and action now” (Roosevelt, Inaugural Address, p. 12). What began as a promise soon grew into a patchwork of government programs and reforms. Though the Depression ended only with the stimulation to American industry produced by World War II defense spending, FDR’s New Deal succeeded in restoring the nation’s confidence and provided relief for its poorest citizens.

FOLKSONGS IN THE NEW DEAL ERA

Song lyrics from the early 1930s reflected the distinct experiences of a hopeful nation emerging from years of economic turmoil. Renowned folksinger Woody Guthrie described New Deal era songs as “the songs that the people sung when they heard the mighty good sounding promises of a reshuffle, an honest deck, and a brand new deal from the big shots” (Guthrie in Susman, p. 128).

Soon after his election, Roosevelt recruited a group of college professors and other intellectuals, known as the Brain Trust, to formulate the New Deal policies. Over the next few years FDR submitted a series of bills that easily passed through Congress. The New Deal would create federal agencies to aid farmers, homeowners, workers, and the unemployed. One of the first New Deal agencies, the National Labor Relations Board, was established in 1933 to enforce the National Labor Relations Act, which guaranteed the rights of workers to bargain as a collective group and to strike. Future programs would include the Social Security System, established in 1935 to prevent abject poverty during unemployment and old age.

To regulate the banks and businesses, the Roosevelt administration would create agencies such as the Securities Exchange Commission and the Federal Communications Commission. Minimum wage laws were to be instituted, and the tax system would be overhauled. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) would provide jobs to 8 million of the unemployed. Under its direction, workers would erect schools, parks and bridges; bring electricity to rural areas; clean slums; plant forests; and repair roads. All these achievements, however, lay in the future as the untested and newly sworn-in president faced the inaugural crowd on March 4, 1933.

The Speech in Focus

The contents

Declaring that the American people could count on him for directness and honesty, Roosevelt opened his speech with an appeal for courage. This is the time, began Roosevelt, “to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly” (Inaugural Address, p. 11). We need not be afraid of the country’s condition, Roosevelt declared. This great nation will endure despite the uncertainties of the day. We need not shrink away from the challenge before us—”the only thing we have to fear is fear itself’ (Inaugural Address, p. 11).

Taxes, income, and farm production were among the pressing concerns of the day. “Values have risen; our ability to pay has fallen … farmers find no markets for their produce; the savings of many years in thousands of families are gone” (Inaugural Address, p. 11). The most urgent task, said Roosevelt, was to put people back to work and restore the economy. Roosevelt pledged to regulate the business community while extending federal assistance to those in need.

Fortunately, Roosevelt declared, economic issues concern only material things. “Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort” (Inaugural Address, p. 12). Foreshadowing the New Deal’s job-oriented assistance programs, Roosevelt spoke of a moral reward in work that goes beyond “the mad chase for evanescent profits” (Inaugural Address, p. 12). The government itself should put people to work; at the same time it must provide cohesive, unifying management for the national economy. Above all, it must take charge. “There are many ways in which it [the economy] can be helped, but it can never be helped merely by talking about it. We must act and act quickly” (Inaugural Address, p. 13).

Stressing that such changes are allowed for within the flexible framework of the Constitution, Roosevelt affirmed his commitment to democratic principles. Yet, he warned, the “need for undelayed action may call for temporary departure from the normal balance” between branches of government (Inaugural Address, p. 15). In a passage that drew cheers from the crowd, Roosevelt said that if he felt it were necessary, he would “ask Congress for... broad Executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great a power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe” (Inaugural Address, p. 15).

Roosevelt’s optimism

Roosevelt’s happy, secure childhood, along with his own personality, combined to give him an invaluable gift: the absolute inner conviction that things would work out. On the occasion of his first inaugural address, Roosevelt sought above all to communicate this optimism to his audience—a deeply demoralized audience, whose faith in the future had been severely eroded, and whose fear of the future had ballooned out of all proportion.

Most of this first inaugural address is rhetorically straightforward and matter of fact in tone, even unmemorable. One phrase, however, stands out as the single quotation that most people know, remember, and forever associate with FDR: “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself’ (Inaugural Address, p. 11). This stirring call to courage captures the paradox that both fear and courage feed on themselves. As Roosevelt well understood, both fear and faith have a capacity to help fulfill the very expectations they arouse. Fear, Roosevelt sees, has power: it “paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance” (Inaugural Address, p. 11). Courage, or the faith to challenge fear, removes that paralysis.

Roosevelt’s own physical condition had a bearing on his attitude to the connected traits of courage and optimism. Those who knew him said that in the years following his attack of polio, Roosevelt persisted tenaciously in the conviction that he would walk normally again. Even when it became clear that he would not, Roosevelt refused to accept the limitations that such a disability would normally have placed on his life. Though it was unthinkable for a man virtu-ally confined to a wheelchair to entertain presidential aspirations, Roosevelt not only had them, but made them come true.

The optimism encapsulated so well in Roosevelt’s first inaugural address endowed him with unique stature not only as a national leader, but as a world leader as well. The Depression was worldwide, and the economic threat to capitalism that it represented was matched by political threats to democracy itself. On the left, Soviet communism seemed to many in America and the world to offer a new and viable alternative to democratic capitalism’s excesses. And on the right, fascism had arisen in Europe to offer another vision of state power, seducing many on that continent. Against this challenge to democracy Roosevelt stood virtually alone among world leaders. The English historian Sir Isaiah Berlin explains his uniqueness:

The most insistent propaganda in those days declared that … democratic forces were played out, and that the choice now lay between two bleak extremes, communism and Fascism—the red and the black. To those who were not carried away by this patter, the only light left in the darkness was the administration of Roosevelt and the New Deal in the United States. At a time of weakness and mounting despair in the democratic world Roosevelt radiated confidence and strength. He was the leader of the democratic world, and upon him alone, of all the statesmen of the 1930s, no cloud rested.

(Berlin, p. 24)

Roosevelt, Berlin continues, “was one of the few statesmen in the twentieth or any other century who seemed to have absolutely no fear at all of the future” (Berlin, p. 26). Berlin pinpoints the courage engendered by Roosevelt’s optimism as the essential quality that gave him broad symbolic appeal: “He believed in his own strength and ability to manage, and succeed, whatever happened.... It was this, perhaps, more than any other quality, that drew men of very different outlooks to him” (Berlin, p. 26).

Sources

In composing his first inaugural address, Roosevelt drew on his own ideas and on the words of his close advisors Louis Howe and Raymond Moley. Moley wrote early drafts of the speech based on notes he had taken during conversations with the president-elect about FDR’s wishes for its content.

The speech’s most famous phrase (“the only thing we have to fear is fear itself) was probably inserted into one of these early drafts by Louis Howe. Until his death after a long illness in 1936, Howe was Roosevelt’s long-time friend, campaign manager, and his closest advisor. While Howe said that he had seen the phrase in a news-paper ad, Eleanor Roosevelt disagreed with this explanation. She believed that the phrase was adapted from a famous sentence in the writings of the American transcendentalist author Henry David Thoreau. Mrs. Roosevelt said that a friend had given her a book of Thoreau’s that she had left on FDR’s bedside table the day before the inaugural ceremony. Thoreau’s sentence reads “Nothing is so much to be feared as fear” (Thoreau, Writings, p. 468).

As published in Roosevelt’s official papers, his inaugural speech opens with the rather ponderous sentence, “I am certain that my fellow Americans expect that on my induction into the Presidency I will address them with a candor and a decision which the present situation of our Nation impels.” On the morning of Inauguration Day, as he looked the speech over, Roosevelt decided that he needed a shorter, simpler opening. “This is a day of consecration,” he wrote at the top. Preparing to speak, he added one word to underscore the solemnity of the occasion, so that as delivered the speech opened with the sentence, “This is a day of national consecration.”

Reception

Standing without a hat or overcoat in the cold wind, Roosevelt spoke for twenty minutes, during which the large inaugural crowd stood mostly silent. At the end of the speech, however, the steady applause lasted for long minutes. Millions more must have cheered at home after listening to the speech on radio. FDR’s strong, confident voice and vigorous optimism succeeded almost within the twenty minutes of the speech in working a deep change in the national mood. And as Roosevelt had promised, the speech’s impact was reinforced by immediate action when he closed down the banks. Roosevelt’s famous fireside chats and press conferences, begun within days of his taking office, also followed up the Inaugural Address’s message of hope and courage.

Press and public alike generally welcomed the message. Some questioned Roosevelt’s ability to make good on the promises of change and renewed prosperity. Edmund Wilson, the well-known critic, wrote that Roosevelt’s words held “echoes of Woodrow Wilson’s eloquence without Wilson’s glow of life behind them” (Wilson in Davis, p. 32).

The most surprising reservations, though, were expressed by none other than Eleanor Roosevelt, the new First Lady. A strong supporter of democratic principles, Mrs. Roosevelt was deeply uncomfortable with the part of the speech in which her husband mentioned asking Congress for special powers to fight the Depression. Most disturbing of all, she said later that day, were the cheers, which were loudest at that part of the speech. Within two days, a group of thirteen powerful citizens, including Roosevelt’s political mentor Al Smith and the influential journalist Walter Lippmann, had produced a signed demand that the new president be given exactly the sort of special powers he had mentioned in the address. During the coming administration, and indeed for the rest of her life, Eleanor Roosevelt devoted herself to protecting the rights that such powers would have threatened.

For More Information

Alsop, Joseph. FDR: A Centenary Remembrance. New York: Viking, 1982.

Berlin, Isaiah. Personal Impressions. New York: Penguin, 1982.

Davis, Kenneth S. FDR: The New Deal Years 1933-1937. New York: Random House, 1979.

Freedman, Russell. Franklin Delano Roosevelt. New York: Clarion, 1990.

Kirkendall, Richard S. The United States, 1929-1945: Years of Crisis and Change. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974.

Roosevelt, Franklin Delano. Inaugural Address. In The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Volume 2: The Year of Crisis 1933. New York: Random House, 1938.

Susman, Warren, ed. Culture and Commitment, 1929-1945. New York: George Braziller, 1973.

Thoreau, Henry David. The Writings of Henry David Thoreau: The Walden Edition. Edited by Bradford Torrey. Vol. 8. New York: Houghton-Mifflin, 1906.