Democracy & Government

The Year FDR Sought to Make America ‘Fairly Radical’

At this year’s Democratic convention, we’re not likely to hear a version of FDR’s 1936 acceptance speech, but even 80 years later we still can act on his revolutionary words.

The Year FDR Sought to Make America [...]

June 27, 1936: President Franklin D. Roosevelt declares war on "Princes of Privilege" during his speech accepting the Democratic presidential nomination at Franklin Field in Philadelphia before an audience of more than 100,000. Roosevelt pledged a battle to the finish to wrestle the freedom of the nation from "royalists of the economic dynasties."

Accepting the Democratic nomination for a second presidential term 80 years ago this summer in Philadelphia, President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered the most radical speech ever given by an American president.

He called for nothing less than a new American revolution — a political and economic revolution against the power and privilege of the 1 percent and conservative politicians of his day.

We are unlikely to hear such a speech at this July’s Democratic convention in Philadelphia. But that does not mean we cannot hear FDR’s words and take up again the progressive challenge he advanced.

In the midst of the Great Depression, the worst economic and social catastrophe in American history, Roosevelt had written, “It is time for the country to become fairly radical for a generation,” and when he became president in 1933 he rallied the American people to do just that. In the course of his first term, president and people would not only reject authoritarianism, but also — by way of both FDR’s New Deal initiatives and diverse popular struggles — begin to redeem the nation’s historic purpose and promise, extending and deepening American democratic life.

By 1936 we were well on the way to subjecting big business to public account and regulation, raising taxes on corporations and the rich, empowering the federal government to address the needs of working people, mobilizing and organizing labor unions, establishing a social security system, expanding the nation’s public infrastructure, improving the environment, cultivating the arts and imbuing ourselves with fresh democratic convictions, hopes and aspirations, broadening the “We” in “We the People.”

Naturally, FDR made enemies. Corporate bosses hated “that man in the White House” for taxing them, telling them how to run their businesses and empowering labor. White supremacists despised him for opening up public works projects and employment to African-Americans. And populists and opportunists right and left professed outrage that FDR wasn’t doing enough, fast enough, to revive the economy and combat unemployment. But the overwhelming majority of Americans not only backed the president and his New Deal, they also gave him and his party even greater congressional majorities in the 1934 midterm elections.

All of which made Roosevelt’s antagonists hate him even more — and drove them to mobilize in the hope of bringing down his presidency and electing a conservative in 1936 to take his place. Corporate executives organized the American Liberty League and spent millions of dollars accusing Roosevelt of not just setting up a personal dictatorship, but of promoting either fascism or communism. White supremacists lambasted FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt for their apparent affection for blacks and Jews (and Catholics). And the movements of the “Pied Piper” populists — Huey Long, Francis Townsend and Father Charles Coughlin — united to create a third party with its own presidential candidate.

The business elite also had a powerful ally in the Supreme Court. In 1935, the justices found key elements of FDR’s industrial and agricultural recovery acts unconstitutional. The president feared the Court might also find his new Social Security and labor relations acts unconstitutional.

Nonetheless, FDR remained the most popular choice in 1936. To vote for a second Roosevelt term would mean casting a ballot for continuing the New Deal. To vote otherwise — for the Republican nominee or for a third-party candidate — would repudiate progressivism. Most Americans knew what they wanted.

But Roosevelt wanted to do more than win. His antagonists were right: He wanted a political revolution — though not the kind they were asserting. He hated both fascism and communism, and by no means did he want to destroy capitalism. He wanted to expand the New Deal and move the nation ever more progressively toward social and industrial democracy.

To do that, FDR needed not just to win, but to win big, especially given the Supreme Court’s constitutional conservatism. He envisioned building a new Democratic Party coalition of urban working people, Catholic and Jewish immigrants and ethnics, including African-Americans, while somehow holding on to traditional Southern Democrats — a coalition that indeed would allow him, as he had envisioned, to make the United States “fairly radical for a generation.”

With confidence in his fellow citizens’ commitment to this vision of democracy, Roosevelt first set the stage in his 1936 State of the Union address. Referring to the rise of fascist dictators and the suppression of political and religious freedom in Europe and Asia, he observed that tyranny threatened Americans at home as well. “Within our borders, as in the world at large, popular opinion is at war with a power-seeking minority… an economic autocracy,” he declared. He had come to office seeking to “restore power to those to whom it rightfully belonged” but warned that those “financial and industrial groups” that had “abdicated” in 1933 were now seeking a “restoration of their selfish power… Give them their way and they will take the course of every autocracy of the past — power for themselves, enslavement for the public.”

But that was just the start. The Democratic National Convention was being held in Philadelphia and FDR made the most of it.

If the average citizen is guaranteed equal opportunity in the polling place, he must have equal opportunity in the marketplace.

— President Franklin D. Roosevelt

The Democratic platform itself echoed the Declaration of Independence and on the evening of June 27 — with July 4 just a week away — Roosevelt went before 100,000 conventioneers and supporters gathered at Franklin Field, a football stadium, and millions more listening via radio, to deliver the most radical remarks ever given by an American president.

Reflecting that “Philadelphia is a good city in which to write American history,” he said, “This is fitting ground on which to reaffirm the faith of our fathers; to pledge to ourselves to restore to the people a wider freedom; to give to 1936 as the founders gave to 1776 — an American way of life.”

Such a reaffirmation required more than restoration. “In 1776,” Roosevelt said, “we sought freedom from the tyranny of a political autocracy — from the 18th-century royalists who held special privileges from the crown.” Yet industrialization and the advance of “modern civilization,” FDR continued, had engendered a “new despotism” of “economic dynasties” and “industrial dictatorship,” an “economic tyranny” ruled by a class of “economic royalists” who “sought to regiment the people, their labor, and their property” and now “reached out for control over government itself.” To defend democratic life, he averred, Americans had to enlarge it: “Today we stand committed to the proposition that freedom is no half-and-half affair. If the average citizen is guaranteed equal opportunity in the polling place, he must have equal opportunity in the marketplace.”

“These economic royalists,” Roosevelt continued, “complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America.” He retorted, “What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power,” but he confessed that indeed, “Our allegiance to American institutions requires the overthrow of this kind of power.”

The president added, “In vain they seek to hide behind the flag and the Constitution. In their blindness they forget what the flag and Constitution stand for. Now, as always, they stand for a democracy, not tyranny; for freedom, not subjection; and against a dictatorship by mob rule and the overprivileged alike.”

Roosevelt then delivered his famous challenge: “To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.”

That November, Americans gave FDR and the Democrats a resounding election victory.

Today, in the wake of the Great Recession and in the face of continuing political and economic crises, we have not witnessed the kind of mobilizations that marked the 1930s. As often as we were led to chant, “Yes we can,” we have seen neither a new New Deal nor organizing drives to compare with those our parents and grandparents launched. And though Republican leaders leapt to embrace tea partiers in 2009, in 2011 we did not see President Obama or other nationally prominent Democrats make the causes of Wisconsin workers and Occupy Wall Streeters their own.

Nonetheless, Americans continue to assert themselves — by way of the Moral Monday movement, environmental and anti-fracking campaigns, Fight for $15, the Chicago teachers struggle, the immigration rights movement and Black Lives Matter — not to mention turning out in massive numbers to support the social democratic presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders.

We Americans are stirring, in both beautiful and, at times, ugly ways…

In fact, we Americans are stirring. In both beautiful and, at times ugly ways, we demand action against the party political establishments — action to counter 40 years of pursuing policies, both Republican and Democratic, that have made the rich richer, working people poorer and empowered plutocracy to subvert democracy. We want to tax the corporate rich and enhance the public good, rebuild the public infrastructure and reduce student debt. We want to make Americans and our families more secure. And we want to restore power to the people.

It is time to redeem FDR’s call for a revolution. This generation, too, has a rendezvous with destiny. We cannot re-reelect FDR. We cannot send him to Philadelphia to remind us that “Our allegiance to American institutions requires the overthrow of this kind of power.” Nor will the Democrats nominate his surrogate, Bernie Sanders.

As things stand now, the Democrats will nominate and send to the White House Hillary Clinton, who, for all of her commitments to liberal social causes, has pursued a career cultivating “economic royalists” and backing legislative initiatives in the 1990s that actually made the lives of so many Americans all the more precarious.

Political miracles do occur. Who expected that when Vice President Lyndon Johnson assumed the presidency after John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, he would become a champion of civil rights, a war on poverty, national health care for the elderly and poor, environmental protection and immigration reform? So, yes, we can hope for and work toward creating a truly progressive presidential administration — and more power to Clinton and to us if she is prepared to break with her recent Democratic presidential predecessors and defy Wall Street.

Either way, FDR’s challenge stands.

Harvey J. Kaye

Harvey J. Kaye is the Ben & Joyce Rosenberg Professor of Democracy and Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and author of Thomas Paine and the Promise of America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) and The Fight for the Four Freedoms: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great (Simon & Schuster). He is currently writing Radicals at Heart: Why Americans Should Embrace their Radical History (The New Press).  Drawn from work on his new book project, these words were delivered as the Keynote Address at the 2017 Annual Meeting of the Wisconsin League of Women Voters. Follow him on Twitter: @harveyjkaye