March 4th Words to Remember From FDR, Lincoln
March 4 was once a date etched into Americans’ quadrennial expectations as Inauguration Day. Franklin D. Roosevelt was the last U.S. president to take the oath of office on this day. The interminable wait, as the Depression worsened between his election and swearing-in, is one reason it was changed.
When he finally assumed office on March 4, 1933, Roosevelt did so with a dramatic flair typical of the man. “First of all,” FDR said, “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.”
These were some of the most evocative presidential words in American history, all the more rare because inaugural addresses are not a usual venue for political eloquence. Another notable exception, of course, came on March 4, 1861, when Abraham Lincoln took the oath of office for the first time.
As I’ve pointed out previously, Franklin Roosevelt’s notion about the paralyzing effects of being afraid wasn’t new, even in 1933. Cicero, Francis Bacon, Edmund Burke, and William James had all given expressions to the sentiment -- as had FDR’s fellow Harvard man Henry David Thoreau. “Nothing,” Thoreau wrote in the mid-19th century, “is so much to be feared as fear.”
But Roosevelt’s first inaugural address contained more than a memorable line, and much of the ground he covered that morning is relevant today. FDR was assuming office at a time of great economic uncertainty. To meet this challenge, the new president served notice of his intention to invoke extraordinary, if unspecific, executive authority.
The relevant, and stark, contrast is to Abraham Lincoln. Speaking less than six weeks before South Carolina would open fire on the American flag flying over Fort Sumter, Lincoln spoke as a strict constitutionalist. He had neither the power nor the inclination to restrict slavery in the Southern states, Lincoln told the nation. This was half-true: Lincoln did believe the Constitution precluded him from ending slavery. As for his heart, his abhorrence of slavery was known by friends as well as opponents.
Yet, in his hope to forestall disunion and civil war, Lincoln took pains not only to emphasize the limitations of the power of his office but also to appeal to Southerners’ common history with their Northern brethren by alluding to shared blood that was shed from Bunker Hill to Yorktown.
“I am loath to close,” Lincoln said as he ended. “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
Seventy-two years later, with the nation facing another kind of crucible, Franklin Roosevelt was not so fussy. Although FDR’s inaugural address paid lip service to his “constitutional duty to recommend” a plan of action to Congress, he pivoted quickly to suggest that what he really had in mind was to circumvent rival branches of government, if necessary, in pursuit of “a larger good.”
Like Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt employed biblical references in his first inaugural address. But in Roosevelt’s allegories, FDR assumed the role of Jesus himself, chastising “unscrupulous money changers [who] have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilizations.” Moreover, despite Roosevelt’s religious imagery and in contrast to Lincoln’s pacifying appeal, the message at the end of his 1933 speech was bolstered by a martial metaphor.
“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,” Roosevelt said. “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.”
Little did he know that before his presidency would end, FDR would be leading this country against not one but two foreign foes.
“It will not only be a long war, it will be a hard war,” Roosevelt told his fellow Americans two days after Pearl Harbor. “We are all in it -- all the way,” he added. “Every single man, woman and child is a partner in the most tremendous undertaking of our American history.”
Are we still that same people, the country that produced a generation that prevailed in a two-ocean war against murderous dictatorships dedicated to our destruction and then rebuilt the world economically in the aftermath? I think so; I only pray it doesn’t take another military attack, or economic Depression -- or, God forbid, a Civil War -- to remind us who we’ve been, and can be again.