When Franklin Delano Roosevelt was sworn in as the 32nd president of the United States on March 4, 1933, the nation was in the midst of an economic crisis unmatched in its history. Nearly four years into the Great Depression and with unemployment hovering near 25%, Americans faced not only a depression of the economy, but also a depression of the spirit. Roosevelt recognized that the former was intrinsically linked to the latter, and tasked himself with reviving the country’s soul as well as its industry.
Throughout his campaign, Roosevelt alluded to this crisis of spirit, offering a wide grin, optimistic rhetoric, and a campaign song that declared “happy days are here again” as an antidote to the country’s anemic psyche. After defeating the incumbent Republican candidate, Herbert Hoover, in the landslide 1932 election, FDR knew that dragging the country out of its dire predicament was a Herculean task that would require the full might of the federal government. On the day of his inauguration, though, Roosevelt aimed to do one thing specifically: indicate to the citizens of the United States that a New Deal for America’s workers had arrived.
After taking the oath of office, Roosevelt delivered the first of one of his many memorable speeches as president. Within the opening minutes of his 1,883 word-long, 20-minute address, he uttered a line that, for many Americans, would encapsulate FDR’s twelve years in the oval office: “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.”
While conceding that “only a foolish optimist [could] deny the dark realities of the moment,” Roosevelt nevertheless laid blame not with average Americans who were wanting for food, shelter, and work, but with powerful forces in government and finance that failed to uphold their end of the bargain in the American experiment. FDR pledged to instate a “program of action” aimed at the restoration of American prosperity, and implored Americans to move forward with “the warm courage of…national unity.”
By the time of Roosevelt’s second inauguration on January 20, 1937, the plans outlined in his first inaugural address had contributed to the unemployment rate dropping to just over 14% nationally. While that number would fluctuate until World War II delivered the United States from the hardships of the Depression in earnest, it was clear that FDR’s first term in office had turned the tide with regards to not only the economy, but the national spirit as well.
Four years later, in his 1941 State of the Union address, Roosevelt harkened back to his first inaugural address, stating that a goal of Allied victory in the war would be “freedom from fear…everywhere in the world.” Citizens around the globe today would do well to heed FDR’s advice by approaching current issues with bravery and courage, and with fear for nothing but fear itself.