“The Only Thing We Have to Fear Is Fear Itself”: FDR’s First Inaugural Address

A little academics for you in the morning.


On the cold and gray morning of Saturday, March 4, 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt stepped onto a platform on the East Rotunda of the Capitol in Washington, DC, and became the 32nd President of the United States.  Although this morning was not at all what the press called “Roosevelt Weather,” a reference to the sunshine that had seemed to bless each of his campaign stops the previous fall, a large crowd waited eagerly.  They waited for direction, for answers.  It was now a matter of seeing whether a representative democracy could conquer economic collapse, and Roosevelt was stepping into the forefront of it all. It was a matter of staving off violence, some even thought revolution.  Roosevelt’s natural air of confidence and optimism did much to reassure the nation.  His famous first inaugural address, often known by the famous phrase “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” came at a time when fear and panic had paralyzed the nation. Roosevelt’s inauguration occurred in the middle of a bank panic that began four years prior in 1929, and had continued to fall since, sweeping the nation.  Of course, we now know this as The Great Depression.

The official day began at 10:15 a.m. with a short private prayer at St. John’s Episcopal Church, known as the “Church of Presidents” across Lafayette Square from the White House.

Shortly before 11:00 am, Franklin and Eleanor arrived at the North Portico of the White House, where they remained in their open touring car until greeted by outgoing president, Herbert Hoover and his wife, Lou Henry Hoover.

Traditionally, the outgoing and incoming presidents were seated side by side, a symbol for the world of the peaceful transfer of power that had prevailed for nearly 150 years. But this time the traditional ride to the Capitol was more than awkward.  In the months leading up to this day, the dislike between Hoover and Roosevelt had increased and the automobile ride they made to the Capitol building, with the two men seated next to each other, was mostly a quiet one.  This tension could be readily seen by any observant onlooker: Roosevelt acknowledged the crowds of people lining the street by waving his top hat at them while Hoover sat rigidly still beside him.

Inaugural arrangements in 1933 were different from previous ceremonies. Historically, the custom was to hold it on the East Rotunda of the Capitol, with many, many steps to climb. The organizers knew that Roosevelt could not maneuver steps, so they had a series of ramps and wooden barriers constructed to create a private passageway to within thirty feet of the podium. To manage the last part of the way, Roosevelt was able walk with the assistance of his son James to the podium. The handicap accessibility system made for Roosevelt was a precursor of the accessibility systems of today.

As Roosevelt sat inside the Capitol before the event started, he had time to review his speech and decided to rewrite the first sentence. What he planned to say, “I am certain that my fellow Americans expect that on my induction into the presidency I will address them with a candor and decision which the present situation of our nation impels,” didn’t seem to convey the sanctity or incisiveness he wanted for the occasion. Roosevelt thoughtfully then wrote the inspiring words we know today: “This is a day of consecration.”

Finally the ceremony began and Roosevelt proceeded down the ramp and rose to make the slow, difficult walk to the podium. Watchers were amazed as Roosevelt drew on what one eyewitness called “bottomless reserves of physical and mental strength to make the short journey to the platform and the Presidency.”  As Roosevelt gathered his strength and pushed onward, he simultaneously gathered the strength of a struggling nation.

Roosevelt’s main theme throughout his 1933 inaugural speech was: “This nation is asking for action, and action now.”  His response was that “We must act, and we must act quickly;” the people want “direct, vigorous action.”  The action Roosevelt proposed was clear and direct: put people to work, raise farm prices, boost purchasing power, prevent foreclosures, national planning, strict supervision of all banking, credits, and investment, and an end to speculation with other people’s money.

Roosevelt knew that he would have to do more than urge action, however eloquently; he must also act, and act soon.  And act soon he did.  The very next day he declared the very first federal bank holiday, closing all United States banks and freezing all financial transactions.  The holiday ended eight days later on March 13.  Just two days after that, on March 15, The Dow Jones Industrial Average rose from 53.84 to 62.10. The day’s gain of 15.34%, achieved during the depths of the Great Depression, remains to date as the largest one-day percentage gain in history.

Roosevelt saw his inauguration as a time to “preeminently speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly,” in a time that Americans should not “shrink from honestly facing conditions” in the country.  He spoke with confidence that “this great nation [would] endure as it [had] endured.”  He honestly believed that it would revive, and prosper, just as it once had.  And then spoke those famous words: “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,” and changed our nation forever.


~ by Mary Christa on March 21, 2011.

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