Commentary / History

FDR: Leadership in a Time of Crisis

In Memoriam

By Nancy Spannaus

April 12, 2020—It was 75 years ago today that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt departed this life. His relatively early death at the age of 63 meant that much of his vision for bringing the United States and the world into a new era of prosperity and cooperation went unrealized. But to this very day, FDR represents a model of leadership in a time of crisis, one which we urgently need to revive today.

FDR: Leadership in a Time of Crisis

FDR giving his 1944 State of the Union Address

As I argue in my book Hamilton Versus Wall Street, FDR was successful in bringing the nation out of the Depression and setting the stage for victory in World War II and unprecedented prosperity in its wake because he chose to implement, in his own way, Alexander Hamilton’s American System of Economics. He used the powers embedded in the Federal government and the U.S. Constitution to do this.

You can find many articles detailing FDR’s economic approach and accomplishments on this blog, but on this occasion, I want to share a portion of one of my favorite FDR speeches, his Inaugural Address of 1937. It begins as follows:

Inaugural Address of 1937

My fellow countrymen. 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 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. For, without that aid, we had been unable to create those moral controls over the services of science which are necessary to make science a useful servant instead of a ruthless master of mankind. To do this 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 has innate capacity to protect its people against disasters once considered inevitable, to solve problems once considered unsolvable. We would not admit that we could not find a way to master economic epidemics just as, after centuries of fatalistic suffering, we had found a way to master epidemics of disease. 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.

The Signing of the Constitution, an oil painting by Thomas Rossiter. Courtesy of the New York Historical Society

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.

Four years of new experience have not belied our historic instinct. They hold out the clear hope that government within communities, government within the separate States, and 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.

Nearly all of us recognize that as intricacies of human relationships increase, so power to govern them also must increase—power to stop evil; power to do good. The essential democracy of our nation and the safety of our people depend not upon the absence of power, but upon lodging it with those whom the people can change or continue at stated intervals through an honest and free system of elections. The Constitution of 1787 did not make our democracy impotent.

In fact, in these last four years, we have made the exercise of all power more democratic; for we have begun to bring private autocratic powers into their proper subordination to the public’s government. The legend that they were invincible—above and beyond the processes of a democracy—has been shattered. They have been challenged and beaten.

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 we have undertaken to erect on the old foundations a more enduring structure for the better use of future generations. … (emphasis added)

Building a Better Future

An eloquent statement you might agree – and noting progress made. But, as he made absolutely clear as he went on, President Roosevelt was not patting himself on the back. To the contrary. For this is the speech in which FDR did not hesitate to present the stark truth to the U.S. public as well. I quote:

FDR: Leadership in a Time of Crisis

Poor children in the U.S. during the Depression

… 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.

But 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 law-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. …

Numerous subsequent New Deal programs did address the massive poverty FDR described, including the establishment of Social Security, the Rural Electrification, and myriad public works programs which created many of the water systems, parks, bridges, and other infrastructure we still use today. But, as is often pointed out today, many of those programs compromised with prevailing racial prejudices, as well as the fiscal constraints imposed by the still-too-powerful Wall Street. Indeed, his poignant description could be mistaken for a description of too much of our economy today.

New York City’s Triborough Bridge, built during the 1930s.

FDR himself outlined how he wished to finish the job in his January 1944 Message to Congress. It was in that speech that he presented his concept of an Economic Bill of Rights, which he conceived as providing the economic, social, and moral security required for a world at peace. He died before he could concentrate on that agenda.

While FDR’s vision for such prosperity did not die with him, our subsequent national leadership did not prove up to the task of fulfilling it. And the next inspirational leader who fought to implement it, John F. Kennedy, was cut down before he got much of a chance.

In our present crisis, politicians and pundits, some from the most surprising places, are invoking the name and leadership of FDR. But it will be up to those who have read and studied his leadership in implementing the American System, to ensure that his true model of Constitutional leadership prevails.

 

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