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Franklin D. Roosevelt, First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1933

Use this primary source text to explore key historical events.

Suggested Sequencing


When the newly elected president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, addressed the nation on his first inauguration day, March 4, 1933, the economic collapse of the Great Depression had left many Americans afraid. About one-fourth of the industrial work force was out of a job, and many of the rest were working only part-time or for lower wages. Agriculture, which employed one-third of the nation’s work force, was stricken. Cotton and wheat farmers found themselves with huge surpluses that sold well below the cost of production. Other farmers were plagued by drought that destroyed crops. Everywhere, indebted farmers lost their farms when they could not pay their taxes or repay mortgages. In the cities, 1,000 homeowners a day were losing their homes. Despite the efforts of Roosevelt’s predecessor, President Hoover, many Americans blamed him for the crisis. Roosevelt had promised a “new deal for the American people” when he accepted the Democratic nomination for president in 1932. He pledged to act and experiment with the economy but was short on details. On his inauguration day, he spoke to the American people about how he planned to address the crisis. His first inaugural address was broadcast nationwide on several radio stations, allowing millions of Americans to listen to their new president’s vision for the country.

Sourcing Questions

  1. Who was the audience for this speech?
  2. Briefly explain the context for this speech.

Vocabulary Text
candor(n): frankness or honesty

preeminently(adv): above all; chiefly
I am certain that my fellow Americans expect that on my induction into the Presidency I will address them with a candor and a decision which the present situation of our Nation impels. This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. 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. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.
In such a spirit on my part and on yours we face our common difficulties. They concern, thank God, only material things. Values have shrunken to fantastic levels; taxes have risen; our ability to pay has fallen; government of all kinds is faced by serious curtailment of income; the means of exchange are frozen in the currents of trade; the withered leaves of industrial enterprise lie on every side; farmers find no markets for their produce; the savings of many years in thousands of families are gone.
More important, a host of unemployed citizens face the grim problem of existence, and an equally great number toil with little return. Only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment.
unscrupulous(adj): devious or corrupt Yet our distress comes from no failure of substance. We are stricken by no plague of locusts. Compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered because they believed and were not afraid, we have still much to be thankful for. Nature still offers her bounty and human efforts have multiplied it. Plenty is at our doorstep, but a generous use of it languishes in the very sight of the supply. Primarily this is because the rulers of the exchange of mankind’s goods have failed, through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and abdicated. Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men.
True they have tried, but their efforts have been cast in the pattern of an outworn tradition. Faced by failure of credit they have proposed only the lending of more money. Stripped of the lure of profit by which to induce our people to follow their false leadership, they have resorted to exhortations, pleading tearfully for restored confidence. They know only the rules of a generation of self-seekers. . . .
Our greatest primary task is to put people to work. This is no unsolvable problem if we face it wisely and courageously. It can be accomplished in part by direct recruiting by the Government itself, treating the task as we would treat the emergency of a war, but at the same time, through this employment, accomplishing greatly needed projects to stimulate and reorganize the use of our natural resources.
Hand in hand with this we must frankly recognize the overbalance of population in our industrial centers and, by engaging on a national scale in a redistribution, endeavor to provide a better use of the land for those best fitted for the land. The task can be helped by definite efforts to raise the values of agricultural products and with this the power to purchase the output of our cities. It can be helped by preventing realistically the tragedy of the growing loss through foreclosure of our small homes and our farms. It can be helped by insistence that the Federal, State, and local governments act forthwith on the demand that their cost be drastically reduced. It can be helped by the unifying of relief activities which today are often scattered, uneconomical, and unequal. It can be helped by national planning for and supervision of all forms of transportation and of communications and other utilities which have a definitely public character. There are many ways in which it can be helped, but it can never be helped merely by talking about it. We must act and act quickly.
Finally, in our progress toward a resumption of work we require two safeguards against a return of the evils of the old order; there must be a strict supervision of all banking and credits and investments; there must be an end to speculation with other people’s money, and there must be provision for an adequate but sound currency.
There are the lines of attack. I shall presently urge upon a new Congress in special session detailed measures for their fulfillment, and I shall seek the immediate assistance of the several States. . . .
If I read the temper of our people correctly, we now realize as we have never realized before our interdependence on each other; that we can not merely take but we must give as well; that if we are to go forward, we must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline, because without such discipline no progress is made, no leadership becomes effective. We are, I know, ready and willing to submit our lives and property to such discipline, because it makes possible a leadership which aims at a larger good. This I propose to offer, pledging that the larger purposes will bind upon us all as a sacred obligation with a unity of duty hitherto evoked only in time of armed strife.
With this pledge taken, I assume unhesitatingly the leadership of this great army of our people dedicated to a disciplined attack upon our common problems.
Action in this image and to this end is feasible under the form of government which we have inherited from our ancestors. 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.
It is to be hoped that the normal balance of executive and legislative authority may be wholly adequate to meet the unprecedented task before us. But it may be that an unprecedented demand and need for un delayed action may call for temporary departure from that normal balance of public procedure.
I am prepared under my constitutional duty to recommend the measures that a stricken nation in the midst of a stricken world may require. These measures, or such other measures as the Congress may build out of its experience and wisdom, I shall seek, within my constitutional authority, to bring to speedy adoption.
But in the event that the Congress shall fail to take one of these two courses, and in the event that the national emergency is still critical, I shall not evade the clear course of duty that will then confront me. 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.. . .
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.
In this dedication of a Nation we humbly ask the blessing of God. May He protect each and every one of us. May He guide me in the days to come.

Comprehension Questions

  1. According to Roosevelt, what is essential to solve the current crisis?
  2. What are the “common difficulties” faced by the American people, according to Roosevelt?
  3. Who is Roosevelt referring to when he uses the phrase “unscrupulous money changers”? What have they done to deserve censure, according to Roosevelt?
  4. What is Roosevelt’s priority for addressing the crisis? What image does he invoke to convey the emergency of the situation? How does he propose doing this?
  5. What actions does Roosevelt propose to help address the crisis in this paragraph?
  6. What regulations or safeguards must be put in place to prevent another crisis, according to Roosevelt?
  7. Why does Roosevelt say the U.S. constitutional system “has proved itself the most superbly enduring political mechanism the modern world has produced”?
  8. What would justify a “temporary departure” from the Constitutional principles of separation of powers and checks and balances, according to Roosevelt?
  9. What does Roosevelt say he will ask of Congress to address the crisis?
  10. How does Roosevelt interpret his election?

Historical Reasoning Questions

  1. Throughout his speech, Roosevelt uses the imagery of an army and war. How does this imagery support his message?
  2. Roosevelt proposed an active role for the government to meet the crisis of the depression. How does he justify his propositions within the framework of the Constitution? How might Roosevelt’s critics respond to his argument?

Franklin D. Roosevelt, First Inaugural Address