A great president responds to a call to action

Paul Schwietering
At noon on March 4, 1933 a new President would take the oath of office. A few hours before, every bank in America had locked its doors. A quarter of the workforce was unemployed. The national income was less than half what it had been four years before. In the months leading up to the inauguration, hunger marchers were parading the streets in New York and Chicago.

In the countryside, unrest had already erupted in violence. Farmers “halted mortgage sales, ran the men from the banks and insurance companies out of town, intimidated courts and judges, demanded a moratorium on debts. When a sales company in Nebraska invaded a farm and seized two trucks, the farmers in the Newman Grove district organized a posse, called it The Red Army‚ and took the trucks back,” (Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger).

In February, 1933 the Senate Finance Committee summoned a number of business leaders to solicit their ideas on solving the crisis. They didn’t have any. “Our entire banking system,” said William Gibbs McAdoo, “does credit to a collection of imbeciles.” Such was the state of affairs in the United States of America as the noon hour approached.

Saturday, March 4 was a grey, cloudy day. Nearly a hundred thousand people assembled in quiet groups on the grounds of the Capitol. “What are those things that look like little cages,” asked one. “Machine guns,” replied another. In the Capitol, the President-Elect waited in the Military Affairs Committee Room. He silently glanced at the manuscript of his inaugural address. When the moment arrived, he was to ride in his wheelchair to the east door; then walk 35 yards to the speaker’s stand.

There was a slight delay in waiting for all of the dignitaries to walk from the Senate Chamber, where Vice-President Garner had been sworn in, to the platform. Then the bugle sounded; and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, leaning on the arm of his son James, walked up the maroon-carpeted ramp.

Across the nation millions gathered around their radios. The great crowd quieted down. After taking the oath of office, Roosevelt said, in ringing tones, “This is a day of national consecration.” He said the moment had come to speak the truth, the whole truth frankly and boldly.

“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.” He continued, “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.” He pointed out that the bounty of nature is undiminished. “Plenty is at our doorstep, but a generous use of it languishes in the very sight of the supply.” Why? 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 have abdicated – they have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish. The moneychangers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization.”

The crowd gave its first great applause. He continued, “There must be an end to a conduct in banking and in business which too often has given to a sacred trust the likeness of callous and selfish wrongdoing.” The crowd erupted again. “This nation asks for action, and action now – we must act and act quickly – 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.” He continued, “It may be that an unprecedented demand and need for undelayed action may call for temporary departure from that normal balance of public procedure.” Should Congress fail to act, if the emergency was still critical, “I shall ask 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.” The crowd “thundered approval in a long, continuing demonstration – the loudest applause of the day,” (Schlesinger). Roosevelt, “his face so grim,” reported Arthur Krock, “as to seem unfamiliar to those who have long known him” did not acknowledge the applause.

“We do not distrust the future of essential democracy,” he said in summation. “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.”

The cavalry bugles announced the inaugural parade. Franklin Roosevelt, in the presidential car, waved greetings to the crowd along the way. The horsemen wheeled into line, and the parade began.

That evening, Roosevelt went to his bed, leaning on the arm of his son James. After FDR was in bed, James said, “You will either be the greatest American President or the worst.” FDR asked, “What do you mean?” James said, “If you succeed, you will be the greatest American President, but if you fail, you will be the worst American President.” FDR replied, “If I fail, I will be the last American President.”

Paul Schwietering is a resident of Union Township.