Study Guide

FDR's First Inaugural Address

By Raymond Moley/Franklin Delano Roosevelt

FDR's First Inaugural Address Introduction

You Say You Want a Revolution?

The word "revolutionary" gets thrown around an awful lot these days. Watch five minutes of YouTube ads, and you'll hear about a revolutionary weight-loss drug, revolutionary body spray, or a revolutionary way to cook eggs. It seems like most revolutionary innovations take place in the world of advertising…and in the fever dreams of whoever came up with the banana slicer.

But apart from the magical apparatus that makes getting banana coins on your morning Raisin Bran so much easier, most of the actually revolutionary moments in history came during, well, revolutions. Once in a blue moon, though, some revolutionary stuff goes down with nary a musket being fired or a member of the aristocracy getting beheaded.

Which brings us to our man FDR.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt rode a massive wave of Republican resentment into the Oval Office in a landslide election. This wasn't even your standard presidential election; FDR's win ended a political era and launched a new chapter in American history.

The country was in the midst of the worst financial disaster of the 20th century, otherwise known as the Great Depression. People were clamoring for the new president's plans. They had been suffering high unemployment, bank failures that sapped entire life savings, and a government that looked unable to stop it. FDR's election was seen as the beginning of something better for the suffering country.

It's safe to say that expectations were high for the 32nd president's inaugural address.

  

Holy Moley

That meant the pressure was on for the inaugural address. Roosevelt was leaning heavily on his advisors to shape policy, as he would do throughout his political career. Known by the nerdiest nickname ever, the "Brain Trust" were professors recruited from Columbia University by supporter and speechwriter Raymond Moley to help with FDR's presidential campaign. Moley wrote a majority of the speeches along the campaign trail including much of the inaugural address, but he broke with the administration and went on to become one of the fiercest critics of the New Deal policies.

Many political campaigns are tight, highly contested affairs with candidates neck and neck in the polls. This was not one of those campaigns. President Hoover's tepid response to the economic crisis frustrated voters on all sides, while Roosevelt's hammering of the banking industry and other populist rhetoric swelled his ranks immensely. In the end, Roosevelt and the Democrats captured both Congress and the White House by motivating a diverse coalition of voters. People wanted change across the board, and FDR was going to bring it.

On March 4, 1933, after taking the oath of office on an old (old, old, incredibly old) family Bible, Roosevelt delivered his speech. The immediate task was to soothe the nation's jangled nerves and get people to put down those (hopefully metaphorical) pitchforks. With banks closed in all 48 states, tensions were high. FDR didn't sugarcoat the situation but boldly proclaimed that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself" (5).

Yes, that's the super famous line you know and love…and have heard parodied a zillion times.

Lights, Camera, Action Now!

He went to great lengths to paint the Great Depression as a moral failure; the American people were placing too much value in wealth and power, and the greedy and corrupt among them had taken advantage.

After putting some perspective on the problems at hand, the newly minted president set to work laying out his plans to move the country forward. It set the tone for the action-packed first 100 days of his presidency, the highlight being the drastic actions taken to fix the floundering banking industry. He chastised both bankers and the public, blaming the economic depression on the moral failings of the "money changers" and society's obsession with greed and power. But a return to better values would not be enough:

Restoration calls, however, not for changes in ethics alone. This Nation asks for action, and action now. (33)

Dang. You tell 'em, FDR.

There was so much call for action you would think FDR was directing a movie. But his predecessor's lack of action in the face of extreme circumstances had the public demanding change. The address mentions time and time again the abundance of natural resources at America's disposal. President Roosevelt used this fact to assure the public that the country was not in quite the dire straits it seemed, and it was only necessary to unlock America's full potential to achieve success.

He came out swinging.

True Blue New Deal

He proposed mobilizing the country as they would in war, funneling resources into large-scale government works projects like transportation and communications. And to mitigate the devastating effects that the economic collapse had had in urban centers, FDR spoke of the need for population redistribution. Shuffling people into rural areas would ease the pressure in cities and allow more contribution to food production on the farms of the West and Midwest.

His comforting address was only the beginning. President Roosevelt launched himself full speed ahead, beginning with the Emergency Banking Act in the days immediately following the inauguration. To combat the rapidly growing panic, he shuttered all of the banks for several days under the much nicer sounding phrase "bank holiday." They were then reopened, but now had a few safeguards in place. Most reassuring was the creation of federal deposit insurance so that if a bank folded, people's savings would be backed up by the government. It's an innovation so essential you're probably asking, "Why didn't they do that already?"

Following the bank holiday came a torrent of new programs. The Federal Emergency Relief Administration, the Public Works Administration, and the Tennessee Valley Authority were all created by Roosevelt's New Deal to—well, there's no better word for it—deal with the problems facing the country. These programs set up soup kitchens and gave out blankets to the homeless, undertook construction projects like bridges and roads, and created dams to harness electricity and improve nearby farming.

Despite relying on appeals to emotion rather than concrete plans, Roosevelt's first inaugural address was an unmitigated success. He convinced the public that the government could and would work to help them in their time of need, and he undertook a number of steps that not just saved the country from economic destruction but put the United States on a path to global supremacy.

Even if FDR did kind of lie…because everyone knows that we have a lot to fear (like spiders, snakes, werewolves, sharks, dying alone, zombies, clowns, heights, big dogs, robots with human brains, etc.) besides fear itself.

What is FDR's First Inaugural Address About and Why Should I Care?

Tears for Fears

Because life is scary, and sometimes it seems like we have way more to fear than just fear itself.

There's no sugarcoating it. Before age 8, you fear things like monsters under the bed, losing a tooth at school, and the scourge of humanity known as broccoli. Between 8 and 18, you fear burpees during P.E., the scorn of your peers, and pop quizzes. Between 18 and 28, you fear becoming an adult.

And after that? You pretty much fear death, nonstop, 24/7.

Them's the breaks. Life is terrifying.

But life is also awesome and literally provides you with all the good stuff. Without life, there would be no videos of odd couple animal friends. Or slushies. Or hope, dignity, passion, beauty, love, exploration…you get the point.

But fear is one of the major things that can ruin all of that good stuff for you. If you fear heartbreak, you might never even try falling in love (which is pretty much held up as the best thing ever). If you fear embarrassing yourself by mispronouncing "gelato," you might never take that trip to Rome. If you fear rejection, you might not ask that person you have a friend-crush on, "Hey, want to go see a movie?"

The Terror of Terror

Also—and we're going to indulge in some real talk here—FDR's quote is more pertinent today than perhaps ever before. Terrorism is a massive, worldwide problem. And it's called "terrorism" for a reason: the top tactic used by terrorists is terror. A.k.a. fear.

When terrorists attack innocent civilians, they do so because they want to instill fear across populations. They want to ruin your fun night out/trip to the park/shopping excursion. They want you to worry about an attack happening right here, right now. They want you to doubt your fellow man. They want to sow the seeds of hatred.

And if you become consumed by that fear, they win.

We're not talking about throwing caution to the wind here—if you see something weird going on, you should totally report it. Check State Department alerts before doing any international travel. Keep alert. Caution is good.

And we're not talking about ignoring grief when a terrorist attack happens—you need to feel your emotions to come to terms with them.

What we're talking about is not letting your life be ruined by terrorism. If you start to feel perpetually afraid of meeting your friends in lively, crowded places, that's terrorism beginning to win. If you start judging a certain demographic because of terrorism, that's terrorism beginning to win.

So we think FDR's words—like pretty much all great quotes—contains both general and era-specific wisdom.

The general wisdom? Suck it up, buttercup: life's scary…but all the good stuff in life is worth that fear. (Even if you mispronounce "gelato," you'll still get served gelato. So: win.)

The era-specific wisdom? Change "fear" to "terror," and it applies to our day and age. If you start to feel terrified of terror around the clock, then step back, take a deep breath, and remember that your total terror = the terrorists' success.

And hey, if you ever need a pick-me-up, watch a few videos about dogs and cats/sloths and donkeys/rhinos and goats becoming friends. That works to dispel fear every time.

FDR's First Inaugural Address Resources

Websites

Inauguration Fever
Your one-stop shop for all things inaugural, this official U.S. Senate website neatly details each presidential inaugural ceremony. You'll find transcripts, trivia, pictures, and videos (for the recent ones, at least).

Presidential Library
A repository for everything you could ever want to learn about our 32nd president. This website for the FDR Presidential Library and Museum offers biographies, primary source documents, and museum information for those looking for something to do with their grandparents.

Movie or TV Productions

The Roosevelts: An Intimate History
True to its name, this Ken Burns miniseries gives viewers a no-holds-barred look inside one of America's political dynasties by focusing on the rise of Teddy Roosevelt followed by his characteristically different but equally talented fifth cousin, Franklin D. Roosevelt.

FDR: American Badass!
The title really says it all here. One of America's most famous men hunts down werewolves. It's like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter…with even less of a basis in history.

Articles and Interviews

Convention-al Wisdom
This might come as a shock to modern-day Americans, but FDR's tenure as one of the best presidents of the 20th century (and possibly all time) was not a foregone conclusion. This article from Slate details how a relatively minor political figure with a famous last name catapulted into the history books at the 1932 Democratic National Convention.

We're the Best Around
U.S. history nerds, rejoice! Thanks to helpful aides and attentive listeners, we're lucky enough to have transcripts of every inaugural address since that of George Washington. And as is custom each time there is a new one, political pundits have to rank 'em. With so many good choices, it speaks volumes that FDR appears on this list twice.

Video

Inaugural Address
Certainly one of the most captivating scenes to be shown on C-SPAN, early video footage of President Roosevelt's entire inaugural address is available online.

Audio

Franklin's First Fireside Chat
Rather than tweeting out dank memes or a well-crafted selfie, FDR used the radio to reach 60 million Americans in the days following his inauguration to explain the drastic actions he was undertaking to fix the country.

Smooth Soundboard Operator
The one-stop shop for the super nerd hoping to create an FDR soundboard, this page from his presidential library has a collection of famous phrases. Hopefully someone starts sampling them soon.

Images

Roosevelt: Behind the Scenes
A diagnosis of polio and paralysis of his lower body did little to slow down Franklin Delano Roosevelt. However, perception mattered, and he took great pains to not be photographed in his wheelchair.

Foreign Affairs
During his 12 years in office, President Roosevelt worked with dozens of high-profile world leaders, but he's most remembered for working with fellow Allied powers Great Britain and the USSR, led by Churchill and Stalin, respectively. Together they drew up plans for what the world would look like after years of war and were immortalized in photos like this one.