Study Guide

FDR's First Inaugural Address Quotes

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  • Warfare

    It can be accomplished in part by direct recruiting by the Government itself, treating the task as we would treat the emergency of a war, but at the same time, through this employment, accomplishing greatly needed projects to stimulate and reorganize the use of our natural resources. (36)

    By "treating the task as we would treat the emergency of a war," Roosevelt means throwing everything but the kitchen sink at the problem. Like an actual war, this is a problem that needs money, manpower, and improved transportation to ensure supplies are adequate. Convincing the citizenry that the sacrifices and efforts necessary to wage this economic war are worth the costs is a crucial task. But after years of inaction, an all-out mobilization sounds like a fine plan.

    There are the lines of attack. (46)

    Again, like a general briefing his troops, FDR paints his policies as plans of attack. The decisive and straightforward way he addresses the problems facing America gives the people a duty to perform, and morale improved almost immediately.

    If I read the temper of our people correctly, we now realize as we have never realized before our interdependence on each other; that we can not merely take but we must give as well; that if we are to go forward, we must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline, because without such discipline no progress is made, no leadership becomes effective. (58)

    Sacrifice is never easy. But it's easier to take when you know everyone is doing so for some bigger purpose. FDR used his idealism and the people's desperation to channel their power into countrywide progress. His New Deal legislation created millions of jobs by investing in infrastructure, improving roads and bridges and even dams. This had profound effects on the country; not only was America modernized, but in many ways these programs redefined the government's purpose to its people.

    With this pledge taken, I assume unhesitatingly the leadership of this great army of our people dedicated to a disciplined attack upon our common problems. (61)

    Even reading this line decades in the future, you'd be forgiven for thinking Roosevelt was about to initiate a coup, with all this talk of executive action and combative rhetoric. Even contemporaries were worried. To deal with a crisis of epic proportions, FDR was given powers far beyond most previous presidents, and certainly more than any president in a time of peace. The words "tyrant" and "dictator" were whispered by his detractors. But these were only whispers. As he states in his address, the overwhelming election victory gave President Roosevelt a mandate from the people to act as he saw fit to fix the country. And that's exactly what he did.

    I shall ask the Congress for the one remaining instrument to meet the crisis—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. (71)

    This is Roosevelt's fail-safe. Plan Z. The one you hope you never have to use. And probably the primary reason for all of the war rhetoric to begin with. Speechwriter Raymond Moley was smart enough to realize that framing the struggle to fix the country as a war was the only way to get people on board. There is no overstating just how wild it would be to give a president these kinds of powers without real conflict.

  • Greed

    Primarily this is because the rulers of the exchange of mankind's goods have failed, through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and abdicated. (18)

    The opening of Roosevelt's first inaugural address is meant to reassure people that despite the country's current predicament, it is still in good shape. Specifically, he speaks of America's richness in natural resources. There is plenty for us to use and improve, he says, but "the rulers of the exchange" had let these go to waste for the sake of profit.

    Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men. (19)

    Of course, this is the only court that really matters to Roosevelt at this point. The indictment by the public paved the way for FDR to take drastic and dramatic action against the banks. He reined in their ability to speculate and enacted federal deposit insurance so that banking runs would be a thing of the past.

    Stripped of the lure of profit by which to induce our people to follow their false leadership, they have resorted to exhortations, pleading tearfully for restored confidence. (22)

    Now that Roosevelt has his target, he refuses to let go. The banks had led the American public astray and were hopelessly begging for people and their money to return. FDR (accurately) paints himself as the only one with the capabilities to lead them to safety.

    Recognition of the falsity of material wealth as the standard of success goes hand in hand with the abandonment of the false belief that public office and high political position are to be valued only by the standards of pride of place and personal profit; and there must be an end to a conduct in banking and in business which too often has given to a sacred trust the likeness of callous and selfish wrongdoing. (31)

    On the surface, Roosevelt's statement looks simple: being rich or powerful isn't something to be valued in and of itself. However, it is surprising how often people seem to defer to those with money and power just because they have money and power. In fact, FDR was born into a life where both were gifted to him. But he warns Americans that bankers should not be treated as above others just because they deal with money. It is this deference to wealth that Roosevelt tries to break by highlighting the morality of the American people.

    Finally, in our progress toward a resumption of work we require two safeguards against a return of the evils of the old order; there must be a strict supervision of all banking and credits and investments; there must be an end to speculation with other people's money, and there must be provision for an adequate but sound currency. (45)

    Here's where President Roosevelt unveils his master plan to fix the banks: stop speculating and provide cash protection. He killed two birds with one stone with the Glass-Steagall Act, a piece of legislation that limited interaction between commercial banks and securities firms while also ensuring accounts were insured for up to $2,500. This eliminated bank runs almost entirely and helped ease public panic.

  • American Exceptionalism

    This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. (4)

    Those were dark days for America. Many were homeless, the unemployment rate was hovering at about 25 percent, and the future looked bleak. So although Roosevelt states that the number one priority of the United States is getting people back to work, it is equally about reassuring the country that they aren't doomed.

    Compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered because they believed and were not afraid, we have still much to be thankful for. (15)

    This isn't just FDR's way of saying that it could always be worse. By invoking the struggles of the American Revolution, Roosevelt suggests that like those early Americans, we still have the grit and determination to make it through these trying times. And what exactly do we have to be thankful for? The natural bounty that the country was only just beginning to fully harness.

    It is the insistence, as a first consideration, upon the interdependence of the various elements in all parts of the United States—a recognition of the old and permanently important manifestation of the American spirit of the pioneer. (53)

    Although the country had run out of land to settle after thousands forged the Oregon Trail decades earlier, the "spirit of the pioneer" lived on in the American psyche. It is this spirit, Roosevelt argues, that the public has to adopt to set the nation right again. Overcoming the stagnant economy requires new thinking and ingenuity, as well as the use of all the country's lands and resources to further development.

    The people of the United States have not failed. (76)

    Simple, elegant, and exactly what people needed to hear. In 1932, it sure might have felt like America had failed. There was a real sense that unless something was done quick to ease the suffering, the country might unravel completely. President Roosevelt's pep talk and plan of action is like aloe on a sunburn: immediate relief.

  • Man and the Natural World

    Nature still offers her bounty and human efforts have multiplied it. (16)

    The country expanded by leaps and bounds during the 19th century, thanks to the Louisiana Purchase and later sentiments of Manifest Destiny. Roosevelt hoped to reinvigorate the country's economy by unlocking the vast potential profits in the form of America's natural resources. In addition to the naturally occurring bounty, there was money to be made from humans modifying it.

    Plenty is at our doorstep, but a generous use of it languishes in the very sight of the supply. (17)

    The frustration President Roosevelt must have felt at this line is palpable. The United States was gifted with a hardworking, industrious population, and a huge territory ripe with resources for the plucking. So the fact that the country was suffering with so much still available was devastating. At the same time, it meant that there was still a reason to hope for the future since there were still so many possibilities.

    Hand in hand with this we must frankly recognize the overbalance of population in our industrial centers and, by engaging on a national scale in a redistribution, endeavor to provide a better use of the land for those best fitted for the land. (37)

    During the Industrial Revolution, urban center populations exploded with impoverished rural transplants and new immigrants seeking jobs in the rapidly expanding manufacturing industries and services that supported them. This movement, however, came at a price. When the depression hit, farms were especially hurt, and little can cripple a nation faster than problems with its food supply. Roosevelt's solution to this was the pretty drastic step of redistributing the population.

  • Fear

    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. (5)

    Here, President Roosevelt doesn't say that people shouldn't be afraid or that it's cowardly to feel afraid, but he instead focuses on a fear that is common to all people: the fear of fear itself. That feeling of seizing up entirely for no reason. By labeling this fear what it is, he implores Americans everywhere to work to overcome it and avoid getting bogged down right when the country most needs to act.

    Compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered because they believed and were not afraid, we have still much to be thankful for. (15)

    Yup, even 150 years later, these guys still held a lot of sway over the American people. It's as though FDR is reminding the public of their cool grandparents who were never scared and had to walk to school in the snow uphill—both ways. He's saying, "Yes, it's rough now, but remember our country went through something much scarier, and we made it out okay."

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