Study Guide

FDR's First Inaugural Address Analysis

By Raymond Moley/Franklin Delano Roosevelt

  • Rhetoric

    Ethos

    When you bring ethos to the rhetorical table, you're basically doing two things: letting everyone know that you know what you're talking about and showing the audience that you guys share a common moral playing field.

    Basically, FDR is to ethos what Fred Astaire was to tap dancing. This guy is good.

    He starts off with this ethos-laden nugget:

    I am certain that my fellow Americans expect that on my induction into the Presidency I will address them with a candor and a decision which the present situation of our Nation impels. (1)

    This sentence is saying two things:

    1. I'm the POTUS, y'all.
    2. We all know that candor is the name of the game right now.

    This is classic ethos. He's offering his CV to the audience—or at least a card that says "Mr. Prez" in block letters—and he's assuring people that he's speaking on their level. Everyone knows it's time to speak frankly…because America is having a rough time of it.

    FDR also paints the struggle against unseen economic forces as a moral one. He rips into the financial fat cats getting rich at the expense of others, but he also has some critiques of the American public.

    They also had a hand in the crisis, Roosevelt cries, by supporting a culture that values money and power above everything else. Maybe the depression could also serve as a reason to return to the traditional values that made America great. By painting himself as the man with the plan, FDR gains instant credibility…and a bit of moral superiority.

  • Structure

    Inaugural Address

    Being elected president is a pretty big deal. It's a life-changing duty, one with innumerable responsibilities and a guaranteed place in history. Or, at least a place in trivia (looking at you, William Henry Harrison).

    The inaugural address has grown from a hastily given speech to an elaborate ceremony clouded with aspirations and hopes for the years ahead. In that time of great uncertainty, the American people had many needs; food, clothing, and shelter were by no means guaranteed.

    But maybe most of all, they needed reassurance.

    President Roosevelt provided a calm, methodical plan to combat the economic turmoil wreaking havoc across the country, helping people buy into the idea that their futures would soon be better. Never doubt the possibilities of positive thought, y'all.

    How It Breaks Down

    Opener

    As with the start of most great speeches, FDR says that, as you know, this is America, we're great, and there's nothing to worry about.

    But then, he levels with the people: trade is low, industries are in a slump, and thousands are poor and without jobs. So, clearly, something has to be done.

    War Plans

    After building up and then breaking down confidence in the country, Roosevelt moves on to his grand plans for success. There are three basic categories: how to get people working, how to start regulating the banks, and how to deal with other countries.

    Closer

    In the closer, FDR emphasizes that he's a manifestation of the people's will. That is to say, it might look like he's doing a lot of crazy, unprecedented things, but that's because the people want him to do crazy, unprecedented things. He ends finally by reassuring everyone that they will make it through together.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    The title of this speech is a snoozefest. "FDR's First Inaugural Address"? Not exactly a catchy one.

    But what it lacks in pizzazz, it makes up for in sheer presidential power. Savvy readers of history know that this is just the first of four (!) inaugurations for the 32nd president, an unprecedented and unrepeated run.

    However, the stakes in the 1932 election were beyond anything that had faced the United States since Lincoln's (literally) divisive win in the election of 1860. The country was in the grip of a terrible economic depression that touched every level of society. The people were demanding change.

    And President Roosevelt delivered.

    After witnessing the crowd's reaction to the speech, Brain Trust leader Raymond Moley exclaimed, "Well, he's taken the ship of state and turned it right around" (source).

  • What's Up With the Opening Lines?

    I am certain that my fellow Americans expect that on my induction into the Presidency I will address them with a candor and a decision which the present situation of our Nation impels. This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days. (1-7)

    You've gotta credit FDR with getting directly to the point. And rightly so.

    The "present situation of our Nation" was pretty much catastrophic; to say that the previous administration hadn't handled the Great Depression well enough was an understatement—along the lines of saying the Titanic had a rough sea voyage.

    Unemployment had reached more than 20 percent, and shantytowns nicknamed "Hoovervilles"—in snide reference to incumbent president Herbert Hoover—popped up across the nation.

    So Roosevelt gets to the point and states that he intends to be direct and open with the American people. Good call, FDR. In one move, he looks to calm those frustrated by their worsening conditions and show his intention to act swiftly and decisively.

    The most memorable phrase in the 80-plus-line speech is right in the first five lines (go figure): "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

    Assuring the American people is essential as the only thing worse than an economic downturn would be to add a genuine panic to the mix. Not only is this opener meant to calm the millions who heard it, it hints at the hands-on approach FDR plans to take with the mess he'd inherited.

  • What's Up With the Closing Lines?

    We do not distrust the future of essential democracy. The people of the United States have not failed. In their need they have registered a mandate that they want direct, vigorous action. They have asked for discipline and direction under leadership. They have made me the present instrument of their wishes. In the spirit of the gift I take it.

    In this dedication of a Nation we humbly ask the blessing of God. May He protect each and every one of us. May He guide me in the days to come. (75-83)

    FDR's speech is chock full of assurances that change is coming, and nowhere is this clearer than in the final paragraph. First, he dismisses the un-American notion that the citizens of the United States are to blame for their current predicament. Then, like a new boss at a failing company, Roosevelt promises that there are going to be some real changes around here now that he's in charge.

    It's clear that the American people bought into the adage "desperate times call for desperate measures." Many leaders are comfortable simply nudging the ship of state and making minor changes during their term(s), but FDR was different.

    As he mentions, the overwhelming victory that propelled him to the presidency gives him a mandate for "direct, vigorous action" (77). And FDR was nothing if not direct, vigorous, and active.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (3) Base Camp

    FDR's trademark style was his directness with the public. Dude did not mince words. He wasn't about flowery speeches and dropping "thees" and "thous." He shot from the hip.

    He was about to undertake some of the biggest projects in the history of the United States, and he needed the public to go along with them. So his inaugural address is structured in a straightforward, businesslike fashion. The opening lines seek to calm the millions of anxious, listening citizens before FDR launches into his to-do list.

    It's not an overly complex speech, though it is written in a way we don't really see from our leaders in the 21st century. It gains a few difficulty points from its sheer length; Roosevelt's address clocks in at 20 minutes when read (which actually is pretty brief when compared to the other contenders).

  • Shout-Outs

    In-Text References

    Historical and Political References

    • Herbert Hoover, though not referenced by name (12)

    Biblical References

    • Plague of locusts from the Book of Exodus (14)
    • Money changers in the temple (19)

    References to This Text

    Literary and Philosophical References

    • We've got you covered on this one. Head over here.

    Historical and Political References

    Pop Culture References

  • Trivia

    Despite penning a majority of the inaugural address, speechwriter Raymond Moley isn't mentioned at all in the note FDR attached to the handwritten original, proving that people were stealing credit even before the internet. (Source)

    As if he needed to drive home his Americanness even further, President Roosevelt used for his swearing-in Bible a family heirloom printed back in 1686, which clocks in as the oldest Bible used for an inauguration. It was also in Dutch. (Source)

    If you're ever watching an inaugural ceremony on TV, you can thank FDR for making it just a bit longer. He started the trend of repeating the words of the oath in affirmation rather than saying a simple "I do." (Source)

    Unlike your wedding (probably), the sitting president went to the Roosevelts' ceremony; Teddy Roosevelt gave Eleanor away as her own father had died several years earlier. (Source)