Study Guide

First Fireside Chat Analysis

By Franklin Delano Roosevelt

  • Rhetoric

    Tons o' Ethos, Some Logos, and a Smidge of Pathos

    "First Fireside Chat" has a bit of everything going on in it, rhetoric-wise. (FDR was good like that.)

    Ethos is the strongest type of rhetoric at play in this speech…probably due to the fact that the speech is meant to address community concerns for the country, and emphasize patriotism and proper behavior in society. FDR frequently drops references to America being strong and able, such as when he says "it has been wonderful to me to catch the note of confidence from all over the country" (66), or "together we cannot fail" (74).

    (Suddenly we're filled with the impulse to have a red, white, and blue Rocket Pop and go light a sparkler…)

    He also focuses on the patriotism of American citizens as well as the government. And we're not just talking about the "Hello friends" part of the speech. Ol' Delano also says "the success of our whole national program depends, of course, on the cooperation of the public—on its intelligent support and its use of a reliable system" (49), or "the national Congress—Republicans and Democrats alike—showed by this action a devotion to public welfare […] that it is difficult to match in all our history" (21).

    The logos aspect of "First Fireside Chat" is mostly in Roosevelt's rational explanation of the banking system, and what Americans should do. He calmly tells us how banks work (tl;dr: money in the bank is much better for the economy than money hidden under your bed), and that America will move forward once people act with reason and don't hoard their cash.

    He also mentions that "it is my belief that hoarding during the past week has become an exceedingly unfashionable pastime in every part of our nation" (45). Here, FDR appeals to our sense of reason and judgment by following up with "when the people find that they can get their money—that they can get it when they want it for all legitimate purposes—the phantom of fear will soon be laid" (46)

    But because FDR knew that things are better in three's, there's also a small bit of pathos going on in "First Fireside Chat."

    Pathos typically deals with pity or sadness, and Roosevelt uses a small portion of the speech to get the American public to empathize with him, as he empathizes with his subjects. He says "I can never be sufficiently grateful to the people for the loyal support that they have given me in their acceptance of the judgment that has dictated our course, even though all our processes may not have seemed clear to them" (67). He also says that the financial crisis is "your problem no less than it is mine" (73), implying that he's going through a rough spot as well.

    The truth of that statement is a wee bit dubious—Franky D was in the White House getting his breakfast delivered in bed, while hungry people were standing in bread lines. But it's the thought that counts, right? Right?

  • Structure

    Speech

    There are speeches, and then there are speeches.

    Some speeches are given in person to great roaring, cheering audiences—peep Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" for a great example. These kinds of speeches are generally meant to inspire, to energize, and to rally.

    But the "First Fireside Chat," (which is neither a) a literal chat nor b) told around a s'mores-ready campfire), was motivated by the same thing that motivates the telling of a bedtime story. It was meant to make people feel safe, secure, and cozy-wozy.

    After all, it was read into a microphone and sent to the nation over the airwaves to be received by quiet, intently listening families. While the audience for FDR's radio speech was incredibly large (almost 90% of Americans owned a radio in 1933), it wouldn't have felt like you were part of a large crowd while listening with your siblings and parents in your living room.

    The "First Fireside Chat" wasn't meant to get people on their feet yelling and screaming, but it was still quite definitely powerful. After listening to FDR for fourteen minutes, millions of Americans looked at their precious family members and smiled, and perhaps started life the next day with a new sense of hope.

    Good speechwriting includes short, powerful statements. It includes clear, simple to understand language. It includes frequent pauses, and a tone of voice meant for conveying information. "First Fireside Chat" has all of these, and more. FDR invokes powerful imagery through his word choice ("phantom of fear" [46] and "epidemic of bank failures" [32] are some examples), and backs up his conviction with a tone of voice that makes his words more vivid and real to the listener.

    Also, FDR's speech was a novel experience in the early 30s. People had just experienced the boom of new mass produced technology, and being able to hear your president through a wooden box in your living room must have been pretty exhilarating for everyone involved.

    How it Breaks Down

    Banking 101

    Roosevelt begins his speech with a handy-dandy econ lesson. Sure, it's may not be the most thrilling subject for most people, but during the Great Depression people were hungry for knowledge of what was going on with their hard-earned cash.

    He calmly and logically explains how people's money in the banks is used for investment, which grows the economy…meaning it's better to keep your money in the bank than under your mattress at home.

    What Happened

    Americans were mad that their banks had unexpectedly closed. After all, credit cards and ATMs didn't exist back then so the only way to get money—the only way—was to go to an open bank. FDR explains that the "bank holiday" (he made it sound so fun) was to allow the government to get some money, and then restock the banks with cash.

    The Plan

    Now that the prez has calmed the public and explained what happened, he launches into his plan.

    Banks will begin to open over a series of days, cautiously and with heavy government oversight. He explains which cities and areas will open first…and reminds the public that rushing the bank and hoarding money are steps backwards, not forwards.

    FDR's Final Points

    To end his speech, Roosevelt provides words of confidence and a feeling of self-assuredness. He proclaims his faith in the American people, and asks for their faith in him. He's honest, saying that the country has experienced extreme difficulties, but that by working together and trusting in each other, America can push forward.

  • Tone

    Confident, Calm, Reassuring

    The name of the game in "First Fireside Chat" is building confidence.

    FDR's central goal is to create a sense of trust among the American people, so that the country can begin to stabilize and heal. Roosevelt speaks in a calm manner, and uses choice phrases like "my friends" (1, 73) and "together we cannot fail" (74) to connect with his listeners. He confidently claims that we will "banish fear" (71) and makes promises about the future.

    Importantly, FDR also admits that things have gone wrong, and that mistakes have been made. Big time.

    Such admissions help with the reassuring tone, because the people admire him for acknowledging faults…as well as (obviously) putting forth a plan for fix those issues.

  • Writing Style

    Clear, Straightforward, Honest, Engaging, Powerful

    FDR's message to the public was basically about one thing: creating a calm, rational society. And you don't usually get that by, say, screaming incoherently or saying something like "We closed the banks, everybody! No money for three days—hope you have a lot of canned food stored up!"

    No. You have to get your Mr. Rogers on and be as soothing as a fleece onesie in January.

    The president speaks over the radio in a calm, medium-paced tone without any hint of fear or nervousness. Since this speech was delivered over the radio to millions of Americans, he uses a straightforward, simple to understand writing style that doesn't get too wordy or difficult on the vocabulary scale. It's not pandering; it just uses straightforward language.

    Since the majority of his topics concern economics and banking, he keeps it quick and to the point, so that his audience doesn't feel bogged down in subjects that make even experts in the field get a case of the cold sweats.

    Roosevelt is surprisingly honest with his writing style—he even admits mistakes and calling out certain citizens ("the banks will take care of all needs, except, of course, the hysterical demands of hoarders" [45]). By being honest and straightforward he comes across as engaging and less political, more friendly-like.

    The effect is a powerful writing style that keeps the audience's attention the whole time, and ends with confidence and hope for the future. (Mr. Rogers would be proud.)

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fireside Chat

    Technically, FDR's "First Fireside Chat" is named "On The Bank Crisis." But you know, since that name could provoke an epidemic of yawns to rival the epidemic of bank failures (and since the media immediately realized the significance and strength of the speech), it quickly became known as the "Fireside Chat."

    It also has a bonus pithy name: the speech has also been called "More Important than Gold," after a famous line found at the end of the chat.

    The name came from Robert Trout, a radio broadcaster who used it on-air, although he gives credit to Harry Butcher, a CBS vice president for the name's original conception.

    Once FDR started stringing together his radio speeches, "On The Bank Crisis" became known as the "First Fireside Chat." There were thirty total speeches, stretching from 1933 to 1944, covering everything from daily economic conditions to capitalism to drought conditions to progress in World War II. The talks were very popular, and part of Roosevelt being so well liked by the public can be attributed to these Fireside Chats.

    Truly, FDR was the original Mr. Rogers. So soothing. Such nice sweaters.

    While in total there were thirty of these speeches, the first became the most important and well remembered. In fact, other Fireside Chats aren't really know as Fireside Chats 1-30—only the first one gets the benefit of this cozy, cocoa-scented moniker.

    Why? A couple of reasons.

    First, this speech launched the series of subsequent speeches that would follow the same theme of informative plus personal. Also, "First Fireside Chat" came at a crucial time for the president and his people: FDR had just been elected, the banks had been closed, and people were demanding answers. Roosevelt set the tone with his first speech, and people instantly began to believe in him and in their government.

    Aww. That still gives us warm, fuzzy, fireside feelings.

  • What's Up With the Opening Lines?

    FDR really knew how to hook his listeners—er, friends.

    Starting off with "my friends" (1) is pretty direct way to establish a personal connection with your audience. It might seem a little cheeseball today, but back when "First Fireside Chat" was given, it was something completely different—FDR made an attempt to connect with and relate to the people he leads.

    By saying "my friends" Roosevelt levels the playing field, putting himself among the American people, sharing their struggles and their depression. Listeners saw the president less as an aloof politician, and more of a human being who was working to help because he understands and cares for his buds.

    The second line is important as well, but in a different way. FDR gets his speech going the same way a good academic essay is written—by making it very clear what he is about to say.

    He says that he's going to talk for a few minutes about banking: less about the "mechanics of banking" (2) but more about the basics of keeping money in the bank, and pulling it out. While lines like these might sound boring, as an audience member people no doubt appreciated hearing what this talk was going to be about, and their interest was certainly piqued with the subject of money.

    Remember: with the banks closed for the past few days, no one had been able to get any cash, and there were no such things as credit cards or ATMs. People were all ears.

  • What's Up With the Closing Lines?

    This ending isn't quite as epic as, say, The Usual Suspects or Rockybut it's up there in terms of drama. FDR knows how to end on a strong note.

    The theme of his finale is uniting as a people and overcoming the problems that have been facing the nation. He's got some clutch lines such as "let us unite in banishing fear" (71) and "together we cannot fail" (74).

    He throws in his effective "my friends" (73) as well, reminding everyone that he's struggling along with them. One of the most important sticking points of the whole speech is how the nation will succeed as part of a team effort, with people working together to trust the system and not revert back to dangerous practices that caused the issues in the first place (namely, bank runs). Roosevelt's word choice hammers this point home.

    An interesting point to note is that Roosevelt chose to not end his speech by saying "Thank you, and goodnight" as one might expect given the context of these radio fireside chats. Using such language would have been a completely acceptable and formal send-off, but by leaving words like those out and ending with the finality and punch of "together we cannot fail" (74), FDR leaves us with nothing but confidence and a strong sense of purpose.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (2) Sea Level

    President Roosevelt was writing so that anyone listening could fully understand what he was trying to say. Not to say that Americans had poor vocabulary skills (although, the literacy level in the 30s was lower than it is today), but FDR's intent was to explain the banking industry in terms anyone could understand…so that they could grok his plan to turn the country around.

    There are a few words here and there that might make you stumble, but the general message of the speech is clear and straightforward—no MBA or finance background required.

  • Shout-Outs

    In-Text References

    Government References

    Washington D.C. (4, 6)
    Congress (4, 19, 21)
    Treasury (4, 27, 42)
    Federal Reserve (26, 33, 40)
    Bank Holiday (5, 18, 19, 23)
    Bank Reopenings (26, 29, 33, 34, 36, 38, 39, 44, 48, 55, 63, 65)

    Historical References

    "History of the past few years" (31)

    References to This Text

    Historical and Political References

    Franklin D. Roosevelt ("Outlining the New Deal")
    Barack H. Obama ("Fireside Hangouts")
    Harvard Business Review ("What FDR Knew About Managing Fear In Times of Change"

  • Trivia

    The Star Spangled Banner was played at the end of each of Roosevelt's Fireside Chats. Because of course it was. (Source)

    Sorry to break it to you: during this speech FDR was not located next to a fireside—he was sitting at a large desk in the White House, with recording equipment surrounding him. (Source)

    While Roosevelt did work with speech writers, he also liked to ad lib his speeches. This is why the actual speech often differs from the written transcript. (It must have driven his speech-writer insane.) (Source)

    The very first bank run in the U.S.A. was in Nashville, Tennessee. They were not chilling like Nashvillains that day. (Source)

    FDR is the only president who held office for four consecutive terms. After his presidency, Congress passed the 22nd Amendment, limiting the position to two elected terms. Give a mouse a cookie…and he'll run for president as much as you let him. (Source)