FDR Speaks to a Nation in Economic Depression at his First Inaugural

On February 18, 2014

Last week we reprinted Professor John Moser‘s comment on Hoover’s letter to FDR of February , 1933, in which he asked the incoming president to make a pre-inaugural statement to reassure a worried public. Roosevelt ignored Hoover’s “cheeky” advice, waiting for his inaugural address to make a statement promising measures that would bring economic recovery.  FDR’s first inaugural speech is famous for his rebuke of the psychological paralysis gripping the nation: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” But perhaps the more important announcement of the speech came in the president’s call for “broad executive powers to address the emergency,” the equivalent of powers normally granted to the presidency only during war. Again we reprint a document introduction by Professor John Moser, co-chair of the Master of American History and Government at Ashland University:

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s First Inaugural Address, delivered on March 4, 1933, in the midst of the worst economic crisis ever experienced by the United States, is one of the most famous speeches of its kind in American history.  This is likely due to Roosevelt’s tremendous oratorical skills, although it is important to note that most of the speech was written not by the president-elect, but by Columbia University Law professor Raymond Moley. (Interestingly, only a few years later Moley became a conservative Republican and one of Roosevelt’s staunchest critics.)  However, Roosevelt’s delivery was masterful, and the speech’s most famous phrase, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” was his own invention.

While the “nothing to fear” line is perhaps the most memorable line of the speech, it is probably not the most noteworthy. There was nothing new or original about the suggestion that the Great Depression was primarily a psychological phenomenon; FDR’s predecessor, Herbert Hoover, had argued this many times, although never with Roosevelt’s elegant turn of phrase.  More interesting is the president’s frequent invocation of war.  The government, he claims, must deal with the economic crisis “as we would treat the emergency of a war.”  To address it, Americans “must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline.”  Moreover, he warns that if Congress does not take the steps he believes are necessary, he would demand “broad Executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.”

Roosevelt’s martial rhetoric is a clear product of America’s involvement in the First World War. In waging that war, another Progressive president, Woodrow Wilson, presided over a massive expansion in the scope and power of the federal government.  Progressives such as John Dewey had recognized what he called “the social possibilities of war”—that in time of grave national crisis people would gladly submit to discipline, surrendering traditional rights and freedoms in the name of victory.  And, in fact, during the war the lives of Americans were regulated and regimented to an unprecedented extent.  After the fighting stopped, most of the regulations, and the government bureaus which crafted and enforced them, disappeared.

— John Moser, Professor of history at Ashland University and Co-Chair of the Ashbrook Center’s Master of American History and Government


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