Excerpt from "Second Inaugural Address of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Wednesday, January 20, 1937"
Reprinted from The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt: Volume Two, 1937
Published in 1941
"I see a great nation, upon a great continent, blessed with a great wealth of natural resources. Its … people are at peace among themselves; they are making their country a good neighbor among the nations."
Franklin D. Roosevelt
In his "Second Inaugural Address," delivered on January 20, 1937, Franklin D. Roosevelt reminded Americans how "a new chapter in our book of self-government" was written during his first term of office. Instead of leaving solutions for the economic crisis to the "winds of chance and the hurricanes of disaster," Roosevelt chose to put the federal government at the forefront of the war on the Depression. In his speech Roosevelt pointed out that the country had progressed a long way from the depths of the Depression in 1933. However, he also made this famous statement: "I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad [poorly clothed], ill-nourished." Believing there was much still to be done, Roosevelt pledged to lead Americans forward in pursuit of full economic recovery.
Things to remember while reading the excerpt from "Second Inaugural Address of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Wednesday, January 20, 1937":
- The Second New Deal legislation and programs of 1935 and 1936, which focused on workers, small farmers, artists, and young Americans, proved extremely popular with a majority of Americans.
- Roosevelt, a Democrat, won the 1936 election by the largest margin of victory ever in a U.S. presidential race. Democrats also continued to dominate the Senate and House of Representatives.
- Diverse groups of voters came together to support Roosevelt in the 1936 election. They included laborers, Catholics, Jews, big-city political organizations, Southerners, and a majority of black Americans. This was the first presidential election in which the Democratic candidate won a majority of black American votes. These various groups became known as the Democratic Coalition.
Excerpt from "Second Inaugural Address of Franklin D. Roosevelt, 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 enlist the help of government] 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 … 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 had innate capacity to protect its people against disasters once considered inevitable, to solve problems once considered unsolvable.… 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.…
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.…
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 [such as the ideas in the Social Security Act of 1935] 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 [Americans recognized more than ever that they had to work for what they earned]; untruths have been unlearned [the public realized that stock market profits would not continue forever]. We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals; we know now that it is bad economics [greed hurts people and the economy] .…
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?"
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 all-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. [Roosevelt, pp. 1–6]
What happened next…
After Roosevelt's reelection, Americans had anticipated with excitement more New Deal legislation. This excitement was short-lived. Riding the wave of public support, Roosevelt decided to introduce in 1937 bold new legislation to reform the U.S. Supreme Court. Roosevelt had been greatly angered when the sitting Court struck down two key pieces of New Deal legislation: the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) in 1935 and the Agricultural Adjustment Act in 1936. Roosevelt proposed increasing the number of Supreme Court justices so he could appoint new judges who would be friendly to his programs. This bill was known as Roosevelt's "court-packing plan." The bill was debated in Congress for six months but failed to pass. Legislators and the general public both saw it as a power grab. As a result, momentum for more New Deal legislation was lost.
Another setback for Roosevelt was the economic downturn of 1937. In spring 1937 the economy had made substantial progress in recovering from the depths of the Depression, so Roosevelt and Congress began reducing funds for relief programs. By fall the recovery had stopped; industrial production fell, farm prices fell, and unemployment increased. Still, one new piece of New Deal legislation made it through Congress: The Wagner-Steagall Housing Act passed on September 1, 1937, and provided funds for housing for the needy. Two other important pieces of New Deal legislation, enacted in 1938, were the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (a consumer protection bill) and the Fair Labor Standards Act. The Fair Labor Standards Act replaced some of the standards set by the no-longer-valid NIRA and added new ones. Most important, it set a minimum hourly wage and maximum weekly hours and banned most child labor. Under the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, the processing and labeling of foods, drugs, and cosmetics came under federal control.
The 1938 elections for the U.S. Senate and House marked the end of any new New Deal legislation. The public, increasingly concerned by the substantial growth of government, high government spending, and government regulation of business, elected a greater number of conservative politicians opposed to New Deal programs. Roosevelt, by necessity, turned his attention increasingly to the conflicts building in Europe. Although passage of new New Deal programs halted, many of the already established programs became cornerstones for government programs that lasted into the twenty-first century.
Did you know…
- Roosevelt's "Second Inaugural Address" was given on January 20, 1937, not in March as his first inaugural address was. The Twentieth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution had been ratified (approved) by the states so that a president-elect could take office in January rather than waiting until March.
- The economy had shown signs of recovery from the Depression, but it suffered setbacks in fall 1937. Roosevelt, trying to keep the public's morale up, coined a new term to describe the latest downturn: "recession." He desperately wanted to avoid the word "depression." Thus the period of reduced economic activity was labeled the Recession of 1937. By the start of the twenty-first century, the term "depression" had never again been used to describe an economic downturn.
Consider the following…
- In the "Second Inaugural Address," Roosevelt stated, "To maintain a democracy … 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." Do you think these words still hold true? Give reasons why or why not.
- Why did Roosevelt's "court-packing plan" scare away many of his supporters and keep Congress from considering other New Deal initiatives?
For More Information
Edsforth, Ronald. The New Deal: America's Response to the Great Depression. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2000.
Leuchtenberg, William E. Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1932–1940. New York, NY: Harper &Row, 1963.
Roosevelt, Franklin D. The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt: Volume Two, 1937. New York, NY: Macmillan, 1941.
Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr. The Coming of the New Deal: The Age of Roosevelt. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1988.