Study Guide

FDR's First Inaugural Address Historical Context

By Raymond Moley/Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Historical Context

It Was the Best of Times…and Then It Was the Worst of Times

Have you ever called an Uber or played with a drone and thought, "Omg, I'm living in the future"? Well that's also what life was like in the 1920s. (Yeah, "future" is a relative concept.)

In the Roaring Twenties, the world had finally begun healing after the Great War (or World War I, for those with the ability to see into the future), and prosperity began seeping from the large metropolitan areas across the United States. And with prosperity came access to amazing new technologies. Things like cars, radios, and airplanes were no longer only for eccentric millionaires and sci-fi novels.

At the same time, new cultural touchstones were popping up all over; the Harlem Renaissance, the invention of jazz (the first pure American art form), and the appearance of flappers marked the progressive nature of the times. It was awesome. It was freeing.

Then, with the crash of 1929, the good times came screeching to an immediate halt.

The same cities that were the epicenters of innovation now suffered a dramatic backlash. One by one, the industries that had fueled the boom years of the '20s stagnated as optimism faded and people stopped spending money. Construction and manufacturing jobs fell drastically. Young people had difficulties finding first-time employment, and the less qualified were pushed out of the market as people scrambled to get jobs of any type and held on for dear life. The times were so tough they prompted mass migration, either toward new prospects in California or even abroad (as reflected in the cultural touchstone novels The Grapes of Wrath and Angela's Ashes, respectively).

Overhaul Time

Fast forward a few years and the situation was…no better.

In fact, unemployment didn't hit rock bottom until 1932. Into this waking nightmare steps a man seemingly destined for great things—drum roll please—FDR. Not that this awesomeness on FDR's part was evident or even necessary: during the 1932 presidential campaign, sitting president Herbert Hoover was so disliked that on election night someone sent him a message reading "vote for Roosevelt and make it unanimous" (source). Ouch.

But immediately upon taking office, Franklin Delano Roosevelt set to work assuring the public that the banking industry was sound, staving off what could have been a disastrous panic, creating programs to relieve the crushing poverty caused by the depression, and commissioning large-scale infrastructure projects to combat the rampant unemployment. His tenure in office ended an era of Republican dominance and redefined what citizens expected of their government.

But before all this history-making amazingness could begin, FDR needed to give the American people an inaugural address. He needed to make it splashy and down to earth, and uplifting but full of the spirit of hard work, and he needed to coin at least one catchphrase that would outlive him for a long time.

We're pretty sure he nailed it on all counts.

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