Teachers

Teaching With Documents:
FDR's First Inaugural Address

Declaring "War" on the Great Depression

Background

By late winter 1933, the nation had already endured more than three years of economic depression. Statistics revealing the depth of the Great Depression were staggering. More than 11,000 of 24,000 banks had failed, destroying the savings of depositors. Millions of people were out of work and seeking jobs; additional millions were working at jobs that barely provided subsistence. Currency values dropped as the deflationary spiral continued to tighten and farm markets continued to erode.

During the previous summer the Democratic Party had unveiled a generalized plan for economic recovery in its platform. They called their platform a "contract" and set forth in it a series of provisions to remedy the economic disaster. Although frequently lacking specifics, the platform addressed a wide range of issues: among them were agricultural relief, Prohibition, unemployment, and old age insurance. While not followed very closely by Franklin Roosevelt's administration, the platform did indicate that election of the Democratic candidate would result in unprecedented governmental growth to deal with the problems pressing on the nation. Roosevelt set about to prepare the nation to accept expansion of federal power. Roosevelt recognized that the programs he was about to introduce for congressional legislative action to relieve the dire effects of the Great Depression were unprecedented in peacetime.

In his 1933 inaugural address Roosevelt stated: "Our Constitution is so simple and practical that it is possible always to meet extraordinary needs by changes in emphasis and arrangement without loss of essential form. That is why our constitutional system has proved itself the most superbly enduring political mechanism the modern world has produced. It has met every stress of vast expansion of territory, of foreign wars, of bitter internal strife, of world relations." Yet, at the same time, he was prepared to recommend measures that he knew could succeed only with strong public pressure in support of extraordinary federal powers to deal with "extraordinary needs."

The first document featured with this article is the speech given on Inauguration Day in March 1933. It is particularly memorable for its attack on the psychology of the Great Depression. Less memorable but more enduring is the justification that Roosevelt planned to use to expand the power of the federal government to achieve his legislative objectives and thereby ease the effects of the Great Depression. Woven throughout his inaugural address was his plan. He aimed to declare war on the Great Depression and needed all the executive latitude possible in order to wage that war. For in addition to his famous statement "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself," he also said "I shall ask the Congress for the one remaining instrument to meet the crisis -- broad Executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe."

Resources

Graham, Otis L., Jr. An Encore for Reform: The Old Progressives and the New Deal. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967.

Leuchtenburg, William. Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1932-1940. New York: Harper and Row, 1963.

The Documents

First Inaugural Address
Franklin D. Roosevelt's First Inaugural Address
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View Pages: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9

Franklin D. Roosevelt Library
First Carbon Files

1933 - 1945
National Archives Identifier: 197333

 

Sgt. Burke of the US Army Briefs New Replacements on CCC Camp Rules
US Army Sargeant Briefs Replacements at CCC Camp, Tennessee
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National Archives and Records Administration
Records of the Tennessee Valley Authority
Record Group 142
National Archives Identifier: 532776

 

"CCC Boys at Work"
Prince George County, Virginia

CCC Boys at Work, Virginia
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Franklin D. Roosevelt Library
Public Domain Photographs
1882-1962
National Archives Identifier: 195829

 

WPA Sewing Shop, New York City
WPA Sewing Shop, New York City
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National Archives and Records Administration
Works Progress Administration

Record Group 69
National Archives Identifier: 518269

 

"Reunion Day First Campers Join Second Campers"
FERA Camps for Unemployed
Women in Arcola, Pennsylvania
Camper Reunion at FERA Camp for the Unemployed, Pennsylvania
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Franklin D. Roosevelt Library
Public Domain Photographs
1882-1962
National Archives Identifier: 196581

Unemployed Men Eating in Volunteers of America Soup Kitchen, Washington, D.C.
Unemployed Man at Volunteers of America Soup Kitchen, Washington, DC
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Franklin D. Roosevelt Library
Public Domain Photographs
1882-1962
National Archives Identifier: 195824

 

"Stringing rural TVA transmission line."
Rural Electrification Administration (REA) - Tennessee Valley Administration (TVA)

Workmen Stringing Rural TVA Transmission Line
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Franklin D. Roosevelt Library
Public Domain Photographs
1882-1962
National Archives Identifier: 195878

Figures Silhouetted Against a Backdrop of the Constitution,
WPA: Federal Theater Project

WPA Actors Silhouetted Against Constitution Backdrop
Click to Enlarge

Franklin D. Roosevelt Library
Public Domain Photographs
1882-1962
National Archives Identifier: 197267

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