Not since Abraham Lincoln’s 1861 inauguration had an incoming U.S. president faced so comprehensive a crisis as Franklin D. Roosevelt did in early 1933. The U.S. banking system was crumbling, millions of Americans were unemployed, international relations were strained, and efforts to reverse the Great Depression’s effects had floundered.
In mid-February, the president-elect survived an assassination attempt in Miami. Five people where hit, including Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak, who died three weeks later. Two weeks after the shooting, Roosevelt's nominee for attorney general, Senator Thomas Walsh of Montana, died suddenly aboard a train. Not good omens for the new administration.
Even so, on Saturday, March 4, Roosevelt and President Herbert Hoover rode in an open car from the White House to the Capitol’s East Portico. There, Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes administered the oath of office, and the U.S.'s 32nd chief executive turned to address the nation. More than 175 radio stations broadcast his words globally.
The address proved a touchstone for many Americans.
This is pre-eminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. 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.
Roosevelt then turned to those he judged responsible for the U.S.'s unfolding economic disaster:
Plenty is at our doorstep, but a generous use of it languishes in the very sight of the supply. Primarily this is because the rulers of the exchange of mankind's goods have failed, through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure and 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. . . . 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.
Looking forward, his agenda was clear: getting the U.S. economy moving again.
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.
Public response was immediate and positive. The Chattanooga (Tennessee) Times wrote, "President Roosevelt’s inaugural address marked him as a man of vision and purpose, who understands the seriousness of the existing situation and knows what he wants to do about it."
The St. Paul (Minnesota) Dispatch added: "His address was a courageous call for action, based on a robust confidence in the fundamental strength of the country and in his own powers."
Plainly, the central task for the new administration was to realize the promise of his words by enacting policies in the months ahead.
(Philip Scranton is a Board of Governors professor of the history of industry and technology at Rutgers University, Camden, and the editor-in-chief of Enterprise and Society. He writes "This Week in the Great Depression" for the Echoes blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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