The Great Depression began when the U.S. stock market crashed in 1929. By the time Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president in 1932, Americans had already lost millions of jobs and most of their savings due to nearly half of the nation's banks closing. In his first inaugural address in 1933, Roosevelt sought to ease the public's concerns over the economy, reaffirm his strength as a leader and solicit congress for greater executive power to enact his legislative agenda.
The Historical Context
Within the first year of his only presidential term, Herbert Hoover was confronted with the stock market crash of 1929. During the four years of his Republican administration, millions of Americans became unemployed, 11,000 of the nation's 24,000 banks closed, the farming industry eroded and the national currency was dramatically devalued. When Americans elected Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt to the White House in 1932, it was partly a rebuking of the Republican's laissez-faire economic policies, but even more, it was a desperate yet optimistic plea for strong leadership and a new way forward out of those dark economic times, which Roosevelt looked to answer in his first inaugural address in 1933.
In his inaugural address, Roosevelt sought to allay the American public's concerns over the economy. With national unemployment reaching as high as 30 percent, Roosevelt looked to ease public anxieties by promising to find a way "to put people to work," while reassuring his audience that the stock market crash was the fault of irresponsible banks, not the public. Furthermore, Roosevelt sought to inspire public optimism in his strength as a national leader by declaring that under his administration, America would emerge from the Great Depression as a stronger and more capable country. It was to these points that Roosevelt directed the most well-known phrase in his address: "the only thing we have to fear, is fear itself."
Roosevelt's self-portrayal as a strong leader in his first inaugural address also had an immediate political purpose. Roosevelt knew that implementing his economic reform programs, known as the New Deal, would require significant latitude in the extent of his executive power. His address therefore had the added purpose of slowly preparing the nation to accept the idea that an expansion of federal power was required to end the Great Depression. Roosevelt directly appealed to Congress for "broad Executive power to wage a war against the emergency," which was equally an indirect appeal for public support for his legislative agenda in the face of Republican opposition.
The legislative policies contained in Roosevelt's inaugural address were based on a rethinking of capitalism to emphasize social values over monetary profits. He promoted a new economic system that benefited the working classes through economic relief programs while reprimanding banking elites for exploitative methods, such as unfair credit lending and speculative investments with public savings. Roosevelt proposed stricter government oversight of banking institutions and an end to speculation with other people's money. He also called for government planning in the transportation and communications sectors and for the establishment of a sounder national currency. Additionally, Roosevelt looked to revitalize America's farming sector by preventing foreclosures on farms and raising the value of agricultural products.
- U.S. National Archives: Teaching With Documents: FDR's First Inaugural Address: Declaring "War" on the Great Depression
- University of Missouri, Kansas City: A New Deal for the American People: A Marxist Analysis of FDR's First Inaugural Address; Lindy Hockersmith
- George Mason University: “Only Thing We Have to Fear Is Fear Itself”: FDR’s First Inaugural Address
- Hemera Technologies/PhotoObjects.net/Getty Images