Seventy-five years ago, our nation was in the midst of one of the most dangerous and troubled periods in its history.
In March 1933, about 15 million Americans -- 1 in 4 workers -- were unemployed. Five million American families -- 1 in 7 -- were barely surviving on an inadequate patchwork of private charity and public relief.
In the little more than three years since the stock market crash of October 1929, more than 4,600 banks had failed. On March 3, 1933, a "bank holiday" was declared across the country and every remaining bank was either closed or about to be. The American economy was at a complete standstill.
When Franklin D. Roosevelt stood on the steps of the Capitol at noon, 75 years ago today, to take the oath of office as the 33rd President of the United States, a nation -- and the world -- was hanging on his every word. Never before or since had so much been riding on an inaugural address.
"This great nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper," Roosevelt began. "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."
With those words, Roosevelt calmly outlined the depths of the crisis facing America and appealed to Americans not to lose faith in themselves or their nation.
"Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money," he said. "It lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men."
Roosevelt called for a greater role for government than had ever been seen before, and for more collective effort than had ever been seen before in peacetime in America. At a time when some openly speculated whether our nation would be better off under communism or fascism, Roosevelt never lost his faith in democracy.
"If I read the temper of our people correctly, we now realize as we have never realized before our interdependence on each other," he said. "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."
"Millions of his countrymen were anxious, and hungry, and afraid," wrote Harry Hopkins, one of Roosevelt's key advisors, in 1946. "With that one speech, and in those few minutes, the appalling anxiety and fears were lifted, and the people of the United States knew that they were going into a safe harbor under the leadership of a man who never knew the meaning of fear."
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But words always need to be followed by deeds.
What followed Roosevelt's words were 100 days of the most intense legislative effort ever seen in Congress.
Within 36 hours of his inauguration, Roosevelt took control of the nation's currency and banking system and called Congress into a special session to deal with the many crises -- shuttered factories, abandoned farms and millions of broke, unemployed Americans who could not find work anywhere.
Much of what came to be known as the New Deal was forged in those 100 days that followed Roosevelt's inaugural speech. There was a whirlwind of activity and not every program was successful. But when something didn't work, he tried something else. Through it all, he spoke honestly and directly to the American people and let them know what was happening and why.
The New Deal could be seen as the backlash to the rampant speculation of the 1920s and the conservative belief that a free market will always do the right thing. Experience tells us that it rarely happens that way. Roosevelt saved capitalism from itself, but the capitalists always resented him for it. Conservatives still scoff at the idea of the common good.
For the past 30 years, conservatives have tried to discredit Roosevelt's idea that government should act as a countervailing force to protect ordinary people from the harsh extremes of capitalism.
Now, as we watch rapacious free marketeers engage in behavior that would make the robber barons of the 19th century envious and watch the economy sink toward recession, we can see that the balance between public purpose and private gain needs to be restored.
"The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have too much," Roosevelt said in his second inaugural address. "It is whether we provide enough for those who have too little."
That approach to government was Roosevelt's greatest legacy, and even after 75 years of attacks from conservatives, that legacy still shines brightly.
As historian Henry Steele Commager wrote after Roosevelt's death, "Under the New Deal, the noble term 'commonwealth' was given a more realistic meaning than ever before in our history."
© 2008 Reformer