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Thursday, July 08, 2010

FDR's wisdom: a need to revisit

I've been reading the great new biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt by University of Texas professor, H. W. Brands, Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano RooseveltThe similarities between the 1920s and the 2000s are uncanny and quite a bit unnerving. 

Brands put me on to reading Roosevelt's second inaugural address after his re-election in 1936. 

My dad was 16-years-old when the president offered up these words.  I can't help wondering if he heard the speech with his family gathered around the radio on a cold day in Stonewall County, Texas.  Roosevelt's ideas are important to read and remember.

I've taken the liberty to highlight (bold italic) portions of the speech that struck me as particularly significant. 

Franklin D. Roosevelt, Second Inaugural Address
Wednesday, January 20, 1937

WHEN four years ago we met to inaugurate a President, the Republic, single-minded in anxiety, stood in spirit here. We dedicated ourselves to the fulfillment of a vision—to speed the time when there would be for all the people that security and peace essential to the pursuit of happiness. We of the Republic pledged ourselves to drive from the temple of our ancient faith those who had profaned it; to end by action, tireless and unafraid, the stagnation and despair of that day. We did those first things first.

Our covenant with ourselves did not stop there. Instinctively we recognized a deeper need—the need to find through government the instrument of our united purpose to solve for the individual the ever-rising problems of a complex civilization. Repeated attempts at their solution without the aid of government had left us baffled and bewildered. For, without that aid, we had been unable to create those moral controls over the services of science which are necessary to make science a useful servant instead of a ruthless master of mankind. To do this we knew that we must find practical controls over blind economic forces and blindly selfish men.

We of the Republic sensed the truth that democratic government has innate capacity to protect its people against disasters once considered inevitable, to solve problems once considered unsolvable. We would not admit that we could not find a way to master economic epidemics just as, after centuries of fatalistic suffering, we had found a way to master epidemics of disease. We refused to leave the problems of our common welfare to be solved by the winds of chance and the hurricanes of disaster

In this we Americans were discovering no wholly new truth; we were writing a new chapter in our book of self-government.

This year marks the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the Constitutional Convention which made us a nation. At that Convention our forefathers found the way out of the chaos which followed the Revolutionary War; they created a strong government with powers of united action sufficient then and now to solve problems utterly beyond individual or local solution. A century and a half ago they established the Federal Government in order to promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty to the American people.

Today we invoke those same powers of government to achieve the same objectives.

Four years of new experience have not belied our historic instinct. They hold out the clear hope that government within communities, government within the separate States, and government of the United States can do the things the times require, without yielding its democracy. Our tasks in the last four years did not force democracy to take a holiday.

Nearly all of us recognize that as intricacies of human relationships increase, so power to govern them also must increase—power to stop evil; power to do good. The essential democracy of our Nation and the safety of our people depend not upon the absence of power, but upon lodging it with those whom the people can change or continue at stated intervals through an honest and free system of elections. The Constitution of 1787 did not make our democracy impotent. 

In fact, in these last four years, we have made the exercise of all power more democratic; for we have begun to bring private autocratic powers into their proper subordination to the public's government. The legend that they were invincible—above and beyond the processes of a democracy—has been shattered. They have been challenged and beaten. 

Our progress out of the depression is obvious. But that is not all that you and I mean by the new order of things. Our pledge was not merely to do a patchwork job with secondhand materials. By using the new materials of social justice we have undertaken to erect on the old foundations a more enduring structure for the better use of future generations. 

In that purpose we have been helped by achievements of mind and spirit. Old truths have been relearned; untruths have been unlearned. We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals; we know now that it is bad economics. Out of the collapse of a prosperity whose builders boasted their practicality has come the conviction that in the long run economic morality pays. We are beginning to wipe out the line that divides the practical from the ideal; and in so doing we are fashioning an instrument of unimagined power for the establishment of a morally better world.
This new understanding undermines the old admiration of worldly success as such. We are beginning to abandon our tolerance of the abuse of power by those who betray for profit the elementary decencies of life.

In this process evil things formerly accepted will not be so easily condoned. Hard-headedness will not so easily excuse hardheartedness. We are moving toward an era of good feeling. But we realize that there can be no era of good feeling save among men of good will.

For these reasons I am justified in believing that the greatest change we have witnessed has been the change in the moral climate of America. 

Among men of good will, science and democracy together offer an ever-richer life and ever-larger satisfaction to the individual. With this change in our moral climate and our rediscovered ability to improve our economic order, we have set our feet upon the road of enduring progress. 

Shall we pause now and turn our back upon the road that lies ahead? Shall we call this the promised land? Or, shall we continue on our way? For "each age is a dream that is dying, or one that is coming to birth."

Many voices are heard as we face a great decision. Comfort says, "Tarry a while." Opportunism says, "This is a good spot." Timidity asks, "How difficult is the road ahead?"

True, we have come far from the days of stagnation and despair. Vitality has been preserved. Courage and confidence have been restored. Mental and moral horizons have been extended.

But our present gains were won under the pressure of more than ordinary circumstances. Advance became imperative under the goad of fear and suffering. The times were on the side of progress.

To hold to progress today, however, is more difficult. Dulled conscience, irresponsibility, and ruthless self-interest already reappear. Such symptoms of prosperity may become portents of disaster! Prosperity already tests the persistence of our progressive purpose.

Let us ask again: Have we reached the goal of our vision of that fourth day of March 1933? Have we found our happy valley?

I see a great nation, upon a great continent, blessed with a great wealth of natural resources. Its hundred and thirty million people are at peace among themselves; they are making their country a good neighbor among the nations. I see a United States which can demonstrate that, under democratic methods of government, national wealth can be translated into a spreading volume of human comforts hitherto unknown, and the lowest standard of living can be raised far above the level of mere subsistence.

But here is the challenge to our democracy: In this nation I see tens of millions of its citizens—a substantial part of its whole population—who at this very moment are denied the greater part of what the very lowest standards of today call the necessities of life. 

I see millions of families trying to live on incomes so meager that the pall of family disaster hangs over them day by day.


I see millions whose daily lives in city and on farm continue under conditions labeled indecent by a so-called polite society half a century ago.


I see millions denied education, recreation, and the opportunity to better their lot and the lot of their children.


I see millions lacking the means to buy the products of farm and factory and by their poverty denying work and productiveness to many other millions.

I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.

It is not in despair that I paint you that picture. I paint it for you in hope—because the Nation, seeing and understanding the injustice in it, proposes to paint it out. We are determined to make every American citizen the subject of his country's interest and concern; and we will never regard any faithful law-abiding group within our borders as superfluous. The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.

If I know aught of the spirit and purpose of our Nation, we will not listen to Comfort, Opportunism, and Timidity. We will carry on.

Overwhelmingly, we of the Republic are men and women of good will; men and women who have more than warm hearts of dedication; men and women who have cool heads and willing hands of practical purpose as well. They will insist that every agency of popular government use effective instruments to carry out their will.

Government is competent when all who compose it work as trustees for the whole people. It can make constant progress when it keeps abreast of all the facts. It can obtain justified support and legitimate criticism when the people receive true information of all that government does.

If I know aught of the will of our people, they will demand that these conditions of effective government shall be created and maintained. They will demand a nation uncorrupted by cancers of injustice and, therefore, strong among the nations in its example of the will to peace

Today we reconsecrate our country to long-cherished ideals in a suddenly changed civilization. In every land there are always at work forces that drive men apart and forces that draw men together. In our personal ambitions we are individualists. But in our seeking for economic and political progress as a nation, we all go up, or else we all go down, as one people.

To maintain a democracy of effort requires a vast amount of patience in dealing with differing methods, a vast amount of humility. But out of the confusion of many voices rises an understanding of dominant public need. Then political leadership can voice common ideals, and aid in their realization.

In taking again the oath of office as President of the United States, I assume the solemn obligation of leading the American people forward along the road over which they have chosen to advance.

While this duty rests upon me I shall do my utmost to speak their purpose and to do their will, seeking Divine guidance to help us each and every one to give light to them that sit in darkness and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Much of what Roosevelt says in this speech resonates positively for me. But some of it makes me uneasy.

"...national wealth can be translated into a spreading volume of human comforts hitherto unknown, and the lowest standard of living can be raised far above the level of mere subsistence. ... The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little."

Some noble sentiments. Some worthwhile aspirations. But the speech also starts to sound like a socialist utopian dream. There will always be tension between freedom and equality. Freedom will always include the freedom to fail, which means there can never be anything like actual equality. As usual, the devil's in the details. What is "too little"?
What "human comforts" should we provide everyone regardless of effort?

rcorum said...

My father was born 100 years ago and lived through the Great Depression and fought in WWII. He loved Roosevelt and gave him full credit for saving the country from the Depression and our enemies during the war. He also loved Reagan with a passion. He was a Reagan democrat. I think that for him both men held for him a positive view of the country. They inspired people to believe that things could be better. I love to read biographies and books about presidents. I plan to put it on my list.

Anonymous said...

World War II saved us from the depression and not all of the alphabet programs of FDR.

rcorum said...

Anon 10:18, my point was not to argue reality, but perception. My father and many other perceived Roosevelt to inspire them and give them hope. The same for Reagan. I believe that one thing deeply lacking in the current administration is the ability to really inspire people to hope. My observation was of one many who has been dead since 1997, but I do believe he was representative of many, many others.

Anonymous said...

Which nation has most closely followed Roosevelt's ideals? Do you believe we should emulate that/those countries? What features of this/these societies do you most value?

Larry James said...

Much of what FDR believed and promoted still is part of our national policy, including Social Security and the entire notion of a national health care program. In reading the new bio on FDR it is uncanny just how much the 12 years prior to his coming to office mirror those prior to the arrival of President Obama. FDR took innovative and progressive steps to right the destroyed economy. His understanding of govt allowed him to creatively reshape federal engagement with severe and unjust economic policy. Not sure which nations are closest to his ideals, possibly none. That said, his approach offers us options and a clear direction for rebuilding our national economy and position in the world.

Anonymous said...

Given the condition of social security and medicare programs, and the indicators presently emerging about Obamacare, why would FDR's thinking serve as a model for future direction in the US?

An argument provided by liberals is the untestable claim that more people would have suffered and/or died had FDR's "safety nets" NOT been implemented, much like the Obama administration's claim that their fiscal policies prohibited even higher unemployment and foreclosures. This kind of argument is inherently weak, holding to no objective measurement, and can be used to excuse all sorts of mischief, mediocrity, and failure.

Most liberal thinkers hold philosophically to a "constructivist epistemology" - that truth and knowledge about it are a cognitive contructions. Perception, according to this perspective, is as close to truth as one can get. Cynically, profering falsehood as truth is merely a way of shaping reality for these people.

Use of subjective, untestable arguments is an attempt to leverage constructivism to get what one wants, whether the receiver of these arguments is even aware of constructivism as a concept.

Hard evidence emerges every day that FDR and his adherents are failing the citizens of this once great country. Schools change tests to accomodate ignorance, news editors shape the news to influence popular belief, and legislative leaders manipulate procedures to limit the quality and nature of arguments (limiting access to facts) to ensure their side wins.

But the objective quality of human experience can not be ignored and both now and in the future the price for ignoring facts and truth will be paid in the form of human suffering.

People suffer whenever they interrupt the personal responsiblity circuit hardwired into our cognitive-emotional processing systems. In other words, when you get something for nothing, you're sense of self-worth is reduced.

D. Taggart