Franklin D. Roosevelt: Excerpt From 1933 Inaugural Address (Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself Speech) Primary Source eText

Primary Source

A crowd gathers in front of a bank as customers line up to withdraw all of their money. A crowd gathers in front of a bank as customers line up to withdraw all of their money. "Banks runs" were a common sight in early 1933. UPI/Corbis-Bettmann. Reproduced by permission. Published by Gale Cengage UPI/Corbis-Bettmann. Reproduced by permission

Excerpt from "Inaugural Address, March 4, 1933"

Reprinted from The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt: Volume Two, 1933
Published in 1938

"So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

Franklin D. Roosevelt

" I pledge you—I pledge myself—to a new deal for the American people. Let us all here assembled constitute ourselves prophets of a new order of competence and of courage. This is more than a political campaign; it is a call to arms. Give me your help, not to win votes alone, but to win in this crusade to restore America to its own people." Franklin D. Roosevelt made this speech in acceptance of the nomination to be the Democratic candidate for president in 1932. His words are recorded in The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt: Volume Two, 1933.

Roosevelt was elected to the presidency in November 1932, but he would not be inaugurated until March 1933. The Twentieth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which changed the inauguration date to January, was in the process of ratification (being voted on by the states) and would not take effect until the 1936 presidential election and inauguration. Considering the complexity and array of problems that existed in the United States at the end of 1932, Roosevelt knew he could not wait until March 1933 to tackle them. With more businesses and banks failing daily and people losing their jobs, homes, and farms, Roosevelt assembled a group of brilliant advisers known as the Brain Trust to begin formulating the "new deal." He also created task force groups to deal with specific problems such as those affecting agriculture. Never before had such activity taken place before the inauguration.

President-elect Roosevelt, the Brain Trust, and the task forces defined the areas that demanded attention first, and on inauguration day Roosevelt told the American people his general plan for leading the country back to economic health. The following excerpt from Roosevelt's speech was published as "Inaugural Address, March 4, 1933" in The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt. In this speech Roosevelt spoke honestly about the paralyzing situation of the U.S. economy, and he used perhaps the most famous and most quoted phrase of his entire presidency: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." He briefly reviewed the state of the nation, then scolded bankers who had been reckless or dishonest with people's money.

Turning to his plan for economic relief, Roosevelt noted that the first task was putting people to work. He also spoke of raising farm produce prices and halting the foreclosures of homes (banks taking possession of property when loan payments are not made). Suggesting that private relief agencies were overwhelmed, he proposed centralization of relief activities. Finally, Roosevelt urged courage for the difficult days ahead. He closed by reaffirming his faith in the democratic principles of the United States.

Things to remember while reading the excerpt from "Inaugural Address, March 4, 1933":

  • Bank holidays had been occurring across the United States in 1932 and early 1933. To avoid running out of cash, banks would suspend operation and close for business for a period of time. In the early-morning hours of inauguration day, the banks in Illinois and New York went on "holiday." The U.S. banking system was paralyzed when Roosevelt began his speech.
  • The nation was at the depth of the Depression when Roosevelt took the oath as the thirty-second president of the United States.
  • In contrast to departing president Herbert Hoover's cool mannerisms, Roosevelt always spoke in a warm, confident, and reassuring manner. Americans believed what Roosevelt said and believed that what he proposed to do was in their best interest.

Excerpt from "Inaugural Address, March 4, 1933"

I am certain that my fellow Americans expect that on my induction into the Presidency I will address them with a candor and a decision which the present situation of our Nation impels. This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. 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. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.

In such a spirit on my part and on yours we face our common difficulties. They concern, thank God, only material things. Values [of all assets—stocks, real estate property, material goods] 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.…

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…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 Nation asks for action, and action now.

Our greatest primary task is to put people to work. This is no unsolvable problem if we face it wisely and courageously. 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 [such as dams to control water usage and flooding].…

The task can be helped by definite efforts to raise the values of agricultural products and with this the power to purchase the output of our cities. It can be helped by preventing realistically the tragedy of the growing loss through foreclosure of our small homes and our farms.… It can be helped by the unifying of relief activities which today are often scattered, uneconomical, and unequal. It can be helped by national planning for and supervision of all forms of transportation and of communications and other utilities which have a definitely public character. There are many ways in which it can be helped, but it can never be helped merely by talking about it. We must act and act quickly.

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, so that there will be an end to speculation with other people's money; and there must be provision for an adequate but sound currency.

These are the lines of attack. I shall presently urge upon a new Congress, in special session, detailed measures for their fulfillment, and I shall seek the immediate assistance of the several States.

Through this program of action we address ourselves to putting our own national house in order and making income balance outgo.…

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 cannot 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. We are, I know, ready and willing to submit our lives and property to such discipline, because it makes possible a leadership which aims at a larger good. This I propose to offer, pledging that the larger purposes will bind upon us all as a sacred obligation with a unity of duty hitherto evoked only in time of armed strife.

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.

Action in this image and to this end is feasible under the form of government which we have inherited from our ancestors. Our Constitution is so simple and practical that it is possible always to meet extraordinary needs by changes in emphasis and arrangement without loss of essential form. That is why our constitutional system has proved itself the most superbly enduring political mechanism the modern world has produced. It has met every stress of vast expansion of territory, of foreign wars, of bitter internal strife, or world relations.…

[If need be] 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.

For the trust reposed in me I will return the courage and the devotion that befit the time. I can do no less.

We face the arduous days that lie before us in the warm courage of national unity; with the clear consciousness of seeking old and precious moral values; with the clean satisfaction that comes from the stern performance of duty by old and young alike. We aim at the assurance of a rounded and permanent national life.

We do not distrust the future of essential democracy. The people of the United States have not failed. In their need they have registered a mandate that they want direct, vigorous action. They have asked for discipline and direction under leadership. They have made me the present instrument of their wishes. In the spirit of the gift I take it.

In this dedication of a Nation we humbly ask the blessing of God. May He protect each and every one of us. May He guide me in the days to come. [Roosevelt, pp. 11–16]

What happened next…

Will Rogers (1879–1935), lecturer and humorist, was a master at capturing exactly how Americans felt at certain times, about certain happenings. According to Susan Winslow's 1976 book Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?, immediately following Roosevelt's inauguration speech, Rogers quipped, "America hasn't been as happy in three years as it is today. No money, no banks, no work, no nothing, but they know they got a man in there who is wise to Congress and wise to our so-called big men [wealthy men who had act dishonestly]. The whole country is with him, just so he does something. Even if what he does is wrong they are with him. Just so he does something. If he burned down the capitol, we would cheer and say, 'Well, we at least got a fire started anyhow.'"

Later on inauguration day, in an unprecedented action, Roosevelt called together the people he had chosen for his cabinet and had them sworn in. By evening they were at work. That evening Roosevelt called a special session of Congress to begin March 9. Congress would remain in session until June 16, one hundred days, and enact an amazing amount of legislation. Americans sorely needed help and hope. Their president and Congress did not disappoint.

Did you know…

  • Roosevelt did not attend any of the inaugural balls held around Washington, D.C., on inauguration evening . Instead, Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962), his wife, went alone to represent the new president.
  • By the 1932 election, Americans were ready for a change. Many Republican voters switched parties and voted for the Democrats. Roosevelt, a Democrat, won the presidential election by a landslide, and the Democrats also claimed nearly a two-thirds majority in the Senate and three-fourths of the House of Representatives.
  • Roosevelt had developed polio in 1921 and was paralyzed from the waist down. He could stand only with the help of heavy braces. He refused to let his physical handicap get in the way of his presidency, however, and served until his death in 1945.

Consider the following…

  • When Roosevelt took office, do you think he had a clear vision of what needed to be done to save the nation from the Depression? Why or why not?
  • Roosevelt said, "I shall ask the Congress for … power to wage a war against the emergency." What does his choice of words indicate about his plan for future action?

For More Information


McJimsey, George. The Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 2000.

Roosevelt, Franklin D. The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt: Volume Two, 1933. New York, NY: Random House, 1938.

Winslow, Susan. Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? America from the Wall Street Crash to Pearl Harbor: An Illustrated Documentary. New York, NY: Paddington Press, 1976.