While reading FDR’s first inaugural recently, I was struck by just how forceful it is. Most of the time when I see quotes from FDR’s speeches they’re statements about specific events: “date that will live in infamy”; universal statements: “only thing to fear is fear itself,” or the four freedoms; or evocative descriptions of the conditions of the Depression: “one third of a nation.” But I rarely see people bring up statements like the following, from just after the “fear itself” quote:
In such a spirit on my part and on yours we face our common difficulties. They concern, thank God, only material things. Values have shrunken to fantastic levels; taxes have risen; our ability to pay has fallen; government of all kinds is faced by serious curtailment of income; the means of exchange are frozen in the currents of trade; the withered leaves of industrial enterprise lie on every side; farmers find no markets for their produce; the savings of many years in thousands of families are gone.
More important, a host of unemployed citizens face the grim problem of existence, and an equally great number toil with little return. Only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment.
Yet our distress comes from no failure of substance. We are stricken by no plague of locusts. Compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered because they believed and were not afraid, we have still much to be thankful for. Nature still offers her bounty and human efforts have multiplied it. Plenty is at our doorstep, but a generous use of it languishes in the very sight of the supply. Primarily this is because rulers of the exchange of mankind’s goods have failed through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and have abdicated. Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men.
True they have tried, but their efforts have been cast in the pattern of an outworn tradition. Faced by failure of credit they have proposed only the lending of more money. 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. They know only the rules of a generation of self-seekers. They have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish.
The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.
This isn’t FDR at his most left or populist or radical or progressive or whatever the term should be – especially not when compared with his 1936 speech at Madison Square Garden (familiar quote: “For twelve years this Nation was afflicted with hear-nothing, see-nothing, do-nothing Government”).* But of course Roosevelt, under pressure from groups on the left, from people like Huey Long, and from the effect of slowly improving but still difficult economic conditions shifted leftward from 1932 to 1936. (At least I think that’s still the current accepted interpretation.)
What’s surprising is how left (or whatever) he already was – at least that’s how it appears to me, reading him today – when he was sworn in. I suppose that’s a sign both of how dire the emergency then was, and also of how much the political spectrum has shifted the other way in more recent years.
*However, near the end of the 1933 inaugural he does say:
But in the event that the Congress shall fail to take one of these two courses, and in the event that the national emergency is still critical, I shall not evade the clear course of duty that will then confront me. 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.
Which is pretty ominous-sounding, and though a dramatic increase in executive power isn’t clearly a right or left shift – it depends on what’s done with the power – it certainly is radical.