FDR and a Nation in Crisis

March 4, 2013

FDR Speaks to a Nation in Crisis, March 4, 1933

“We must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline.”

Eighty years after its delivery, FDR’s first inaugural speech is often recalled for his rebuke of the psychological paralysis gripping the nation: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Perhaps the more important legacy of the speech was 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. John Moser, Professor of History at Ashland University, places Roosevelt’s address in its historical context.

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.

Franklin Delano RooseveltWhile 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. Nevertheless, progressives continued to look upon the national effort as a great experiment, to be repeated the next time that a similar crisis presented itself. By using the war analogy, therefore, Roosevelt was clearly signaling that his would be an activist administration, committed to imposing discipline upon the nation.

John Moser, Professor of History, Ashland University

Read the complete document:

First Inaugural Address, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, March 4, 1933

Noted Author Steven Hayward on American Statesmen

Steven Hayward

Few scholars have thought – or written – more about statesmanship than Steven Hayward. The author of a two-volume history of The Age of Reagan, Churchill on Leadership, and Greatness: Reagan, Churchill, and the Making of Extraordinary Leaders, Hayward will teach a Live Online course on American Statesmen beginning March 11. He recently talked with TeachingAmericanHistory.org to talk about the importance of the idea of statesmanship for understanding the American political tradition.

  1. What is the difference between studying American Statesmen and, say, American Presidents?It gets people thinking about the question of “What is statesmanship?” We have to ask ourselves, is a statesman a real thing, or just a politician we like? Someone once said — I think it was the late 19th century House Speaker Thomas Reed — that “a statesman is a dead politician who succeeded.” Of course, when we use the word, we’re talking about a higher order of politician, someone above mere partisanship. How does such a person interpret the principles of the nation — or creatively reinterpret them? Not all the statesmen we will read in the course endorse the vision of the Founders. FDR sent the nation in a new, progressive direction. Whatever you think of that direction, you have to admit that what FDR did was quite an achievement.
  2. You’ve written a book on the subject of your course: Greatness: Reagan, Churchill & the Making of Extraordinary Leaders. Prof. Marc Landy, another professor who teaches in the M.A. in American History and Government program, has coauthored a book called Presidential Greatness. Is the focus that your two books bring to the study of statesmen an unusual one?In some intellectual circles today the idea of statesmanship has little meaning, because the idea of human excellence or human superiority has no meaning. That seems to me a mistake that is prevalent in academia. I think other graduate programs do still address statesmanship, but in our program we teach it differently. We teach statesmanship as a blend of history and political philosophy.
  3. When are “extraordinary acts of statesmanship” required in a country’s history? Is it a fault or limit of our system that such acts are needed?Statesmanship is required in times of crisis. Of course, the very beginning of our nation, the Founding itself, was a time of crisis. I don’t think it’s the fault of the system that statesmanship is required; crises will always arise. A political system that’s never had a crisis would be a Utopia, a completely impossible regime. Of course, some wise politicians have had what it took to be statesmen but didn’t have to display this quality. For example, Calvin Coolidge, a very able leader, was lucky enough to govern in a time of quiet and calm.
  4. It is interesting that you begin the course by looking at executive power in our Constitutional framework. Do you think Americans often fail to understand the limits of the executive?We take the executive for granted. Every political system has a chief executive, a person at the top. Yet in a self-governing democratic republic, the people are supposed to rule; government is supposed to depend on the virtue of the citizenry. Still, we try to keep the person at the top bounded within a Constitutional framework. We’re seeing arguments over this today in the issue of the drone strikes Obama is ordering. This is related to the arguments during the Bush presidency over the unitary executive. Generally, the President has larger power during times of national emergency, such as during war.
  5. It doesn’t have to be war, though; it could be, for example, an economic depression.Yes, and in one of his speeches, FDR called for near dictatorial powers to deal with the national emergency of the Great Depression.
  6. Yes — it in the First Inaugural speech, covered in our document introduction this month! Here’s another question: Why is “prudence” a central theme of your course?Well, prudence, or practical wisdom, was the highest attribute of a statesman for Aristotle. This makes sense, since there are always two questions a leader must consider: What is the right thing to do in the abstract? And, how do we do it — how do we get there? It’s the practical application of political philosophy, weighing means against ends. A good example of this (made familiar by Spielberg’s recent movie) is how Abraham Lincoln approached emancipation. Should he have declared, early in the Civil War, that all the slaves were freed? If he had done so, the Union might have fallen apart; he would have lost the allegiance of Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware, and other border states. So he had to wait for the appropriate moment to issue the Emancipation Proclamation and then to carefully prepare the ground for the 13th Amendment. Prudent governance can never be prescribed with rules and simple formulas. It depends on circumstances, and very much on public opinion. That’s why we read so many speeches in this course. We concentrate on the presidents as teachers of the public.
  7. Before the presidents are in a position to teach others, they have to be educated themselves. Is that why the education of statesmen is a critical part of the course?You might say so, but we are really confronting a mystery here. How do great statesmen such as Lincoln or Churchill come to be? Churchill seems to conclude that great military leaders are simply “born that way.” Whether or not that is true for political leaders, at least we are able to reflect on what they read. It’s a rather interesting fact that Abraham Lincoln studied Euclidean geometry and incorporated that into his reasoning about politics. FDR seems to have carefully read Woodrow Wilson’s Constitutional Government in the United Statesand realized that Wilson’s way of educating the public to the meaning of the Constitution was defective. FDR saw the weakness in Wilson’s explanations, even though he fundamentally agreed with Wilson’s views, and he set out to explain things in a way that would win more popular support.
  8. Are you looking forward to introducing your new course in the live online forum?It will be only the second online course I’ve taught. The medium seems to reproduce pretty well the experience of the classroom. I want to encourage students in the course to jump into the discussion as soon as they feel like they have a question or comment. I myself like to use the whiteboard feature of the Webex system to present ideas in charts or other schematic ways. The technology allows students in the course to do that, too.
  9. Can a student share ideas or documents via whiteboard with the class?Sure! In the first course I taught online, students were assigned to analyze and draw conclusions from economics statistics and present them visually using charts. They could type during the session directly onto the whiteboard, or even share a file they create ahead of time.