Franklin D. Roosevelt
January 20, 1941
ON each national day of inauguration since 1789, the people have
renewed their sense of dedication to the United States.
In Washington’s day the task of the people was to create and weld
together a nation.
In Lincoln’s day the task of the people was to preserve that Nation
from disruption from within.
In this day the task of the people is to save that Nation and its
institutions from disruption from without.
To us there has come a time, in the midst of swift happenings, to pause
for a moment and take stock — to recall what our place in history has
been, and to rediscover what we are and what we may be. If we do not,
we risk the real peril of inaction.
Lives of nations are determined not by the count of years, but by the
lifetime of the human spirit. The life of a man is three-score years
and ten: a little more, a little less. The life of a nation is the
fullness of the measure of its will to live.
There are men who doubt this. There are men who believe that democracy,
as a form of Government and a frame of life, is limited or measured by
a kind of mystical and artificial fate that, for some unexplained
reason, tyranny and slavery have become the surging wave of the future
— and that freedom is an ebbing tide.
But we Americans know that this is not true.
Eight years ago, when the life of this Republic seemed frozen by a
fatalistic terror, we proved that this is not true. We were in the
midst of shock — but we acted. We acted quickly, boldly, decisively.
These later years have been living years — fruitful years for the
people of this democracy. For they have brought to us greater security
and, I hope, a better understanding that life’s ideals are to be
measured in other than material things.
Most vital to our present and our future is this experience of a
democracy which successfully survived crisis at home; put away many
evil things; built new structures on enduring lines; and, through it
all, maintained the fact of its democracy.
For action has been taken within the three-way framework of the
Constitution of the United States. The coordinate branches of the
Government continue freely to function. The Bill of Rights remains
inviolate. The freedom of elections is wholly maintained. Prophets of
the downfall of American democracy have seen their dire predictions
come to naught.
Democracy is not dying.
We know it because we have seen it revive — and grow.
We know it cannot die — because it is built on the unhampered
initiative of individual men and women joined together in a common
enterprise — an enterprise undertaken and carried through by the free
expression of a free majority.
We know it because democracy alone, of all forms of government, enlists
the full force of men’s enlightened will.
We know it because democracy alone has constructed an unlimited
civilization capable of infinite progress in the improvement of human
We know it because, if we look below the surface, we sense it still
spreading on every continent — for it is the most humane, the most
advanced, and in the end the most unconquerable of all forms of human
A nation, like a person, has a body — a body that must be fed and
clothed and housed, invigorated and rested, in a manner that measures
up to the objectives of our time.
A nation, like a person, has a mind — a mind that must be kept informed
and alert, that must know itself, that understands the hopes and the
needs of its neighbors — all the other nations that live within the
narrowing circle of the world.
And a nation, like a person, has something deeper, something more
permanent, something larger than the sum of all its parts. It is that
something which matters most to its future — which calls forth the most
sacred guarding of its present.
It is a thing for which we find it difficult — even impossible — to hit
upon a single, simple word.
And yet we all understand what it is — the spirit — the faith of
America. It is the product of centuries. It was born in the multitudes
of those who came from many lands — some of high degree, but mostly
plain people, who sought here, early and late, to find freedom more
The democratic aspiration is no mere recent phase in human history. It
is human history. It permeated the ancient life of early peoples. It
blazed anew in the middle ages. It was written in Magna Charta.
In the Americas its impact has been irresistible. America has been the
New World in all tongues, to all peoples, not because this continent
was a new-found land, but because all those who came here believed they
could create upon this continent a new life — a life that should be new
Its vitality was written into our own Mayflower Compact, into the
Declaration of Independence, into the Constitution of the United
States, into the Gettysburg Address.
Those who first came here to carry out the longings of their spirit,
and the millions who followed, and the stock that sprang from them —
all have moved forward constantly and consistently toward an ideal
which in itself has gained stature and clarity with each generation.
The hopes of the Republic cannot forever tolerate either undeserved
poverty or self-serving wealth.
We know that we still have far to go; that we must more greatly build
the security and the opportunity and the knowledge of every citizen, in
the measure justified by the resources and the capacity of the land.
But it is not enough to achieve these purposes alone. It is not enough
to clothe and feed the body of this Nation, and instruct and inform its
mind. For there is also the spirit. And of the three, the greatest is
Without the body and the mind, as all men know, the Nation could not
But if the spirit of America were killed, even though the Nation’s body
and mind, constricted in an alien world, lived on, the America we know
would have perished.
That spirit — that faith — speaks to us in our daily lives in ways
often unnoticed, because they seem so obvious. It speaks to us here in
the Capital of the Nation. It speaks to us through the processes of
governing in the sovereignties of 48 States. It speaks to us in our
counties, in our cities, in our towns, and in our villages. It speaks
to us from the other nations of the hemisphere, and from those across
the seas — the enslaved, as well as the free. Sometimes we fail to hear
or heed these voices of freedom because to us the privilege of our
freedom is such an old, old story.
The destiny of America was proclaimed in words of prophecy spoken by
our first President in his first inaugural in 1789 — words almost
directed, it would seem, to this year of 1941: “The preservation of the
sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of
government are justly considered … deeply,… finally, staked on the
experiment intrusted to the hands of the American people.”
If we lose that sacred fire — if we let it be smothered with doubt and
fear — then we shall reject the destiny which Washington strove so
valiantly and so triumphantly to establish. The preservation of the
spirit and faith of the Nation does, and will, furnish the highest
justification for every sacrifice that we may make in the cause of
In the face of great perils never before encountered, our strong
purpose is to protect and to perpetuate the integrity of democracy.
For this we muster the spirit of America, and the faith of America.
We do not retreat. We are not content to stand still. As Americans, we
go forward, in the service of our country, by the will of God.