On this day one of the most visionary presidents in US history passed away while in office. Roosevelt historian David Woolner honors his legacy, and the legacy of the millions of Americans who grieved at his passing.
In his inaugural address on the 4th of March, 1933, Franklin Roosevelt — who passed away 66 years ago today — chastised the forces of wealth and power who, through their greed and avarice, led the United States into the greatest economic crisis of our history, the Great Depression. “Stripped of the lure of profit by which to induce our people to follow their false leadership,” he said, “they have resorted to exhortations, pleading tearfully for restored confidence. They only know the rules of a generation of self-seekers. They have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish.”
Over the next twelve years FDR would articulate a vision for America that was based on the notion that every American deserved not just political rights, but the right to a measure of social and economic security. It was a theme that he returned to again and again, a theme that led to the banking and financial reforms that gave us the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and the Securities and Exchange Commission and which gave us such landmark pieces of legislation as the Social Security Act, the National Labor Relations Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act.
The onset of the Second World War and a conservative backlash against the New Deal in the late 1930s limited FDR’s ability to push through further reform legislation during the course of his unprecedented third and forth terms. But his belief in the link between political and economic freedom intensified, and it was during the war that his articulation of his vision for America and the world reached its greatest height. It was in January 1941, for example, that FDR expressed his view that the great sacrifices the democracies were making in their struggle against fascism were necessary so that humanity could one day establish a world based on “four fundamental human freedoms“: freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. FDR reiterated much of this when he joined Winston Churchill in drafting the Atlantic Charter later that year. He backed up his call for a greater measure of global economic security through his support for the creation of such post-war institutions as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, and the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (which later became the World Bank).
Indeed, near the end of his life, the experiences of depression and war had convinced FDR that “true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence” as “necessitous men are not free men,” but the stuff with which “dictatorships are made.” Moreover, FDR became convinced that in a complex, modern industrial economy, providing such basic economic security is much more than a mere aspiration. It is a necessity, a right, which can and must be protected. Having reached the conclusion that in our own day “these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident,” the President went on to make one of the most important — and least known — speeches of his career when he called for the establishment of “a Second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all [Americans] — regardless of station, race, or creed.”
With tremendous prescience, President Roosevelt then listed what he considered to be these essential rights, among which were included: the right to a useful and remunerative job; the right to earn enough to provide adequate food, clothing, and recreation; the right of every businessman to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies; the right to a decent home, adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health; the right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident and unemployment; and the right to a good education.
As Cass Sunstein has observed in his book “The Second Bill of Rights: FDR’s Unfinished Revolution and Why We Need it More than Ever“, the Second Bill of Rights sought to protect both opportunity and security and to complete the unfulfilled promise of the American revolution, by making sure — in an era of fascism — that every American could enjoy the benefits of liberal, capitalist democracy. At the base of FDR’s vision stood his faith in government as an active instrument of social and economic justice; government that was dedicated not to special interests, but to the common good.
In a world dominated by free-market fundamentalists, the notion of government as an instrument of economic revival and social improvement has almost disappeared from the public consciousness. Yet the problems that FDR sought to address remain with us still — and in recent years have gotten worse. Today, for example, roughly twenty percent of American children live in poverty, the highest rate among any industrialized nation. We still have approximately 13.5 million people officially unemployed and the unofficial rate is estimated to be much higher. With the new health care reform bill there is some hope that the millions of Americans without health insurance will be covered in the future, but given the current political and legal challenges, this is by no means certain. In the meantime, the costs associated with a higher education continue to climb, as does student debt, which for the first time in American history topped a trillion dollars and now exceeds nation-wide credit card debt.
In Roosevelt’s day, GIs returning from fighting overseas could look forward to going to college on the GI Bill (often referred to as “the GI Bill of Rights”), which also provided an array of housing, medical and other benefits. Thanks to the foresightedness of this legislation — which was the first tangible consequence of FDR’s Second Bill of Rights speech — millions of young men attended college for the first time. In doing so, they not only improved their own lives, they also changed the face of America and drastically improved the productivity of the post-war workforce. All this thanks to a government program designed and dedicated to making higher education affordable for millions of middle and lower-income Americans.
Engaging in serious structural reform and fashioning programs that provide both security and economic opportunity for millions of Americans takes money, vision and leadership. As we struggle past one budget crisis and stumble our way toward the next, it appears that we lack all three of these key ingredients — and millions continue to suffer because of it. Worse still, a new generation of “self seekers” has once again lured the American public to follow their false leadership, buying into the specious notion that the Great Recession was caused not by reckless bankers and hedge fund managers but by too much government spending. They claim that cutting government expenditures in an economic downturn will lead to more jobs and that the best way to ensure the long-term health of the economy is to shrink government, strip unions of their collective bargaining rights and make the tax cuts on the rich permanent.
Over six decades ago, in the face of a far greater economic crisis, FDR rose the occasion by convincing millions of Americans to follow his vision and to support the transformation of American society through the establishment of the New Deal. Looking back on the causes of the Great Depression, which are remarkably similar to those that cause our current economic crisis, FDR once observed that for too many Americans,
…the political equality we once had won was meaningless in the face of economic inequality. A small group had concentrated into their own hands an almost complete control over other people’s property, other people’s money, other people’s labor — other people’s lives. For too many of us life was no longer free; liberty no longer real; men could no longer follow the pursuit of happiness.
Against economic tyranny such as this, the American citizen could appeal only to the organized power of government. The collapse of 1929 showed up the despotism for what it was. The election of 1932 was the people’s mandate to end it.
If we are going to reclaim our mandate to end economic domination by the rich and put our nation back on the path to equality, we are going to need much more than endless calls for tax cuts and an end to government intervention in the economy. We are going to need leaders strong enough to take on the forces of wealth and greed; leaders who will not merely trumpet their ability to cut government spending in a recession, but instead defend the right of government to act directly and decisively to put people to work; leaders dedicated to bringing an end to the increasingly unequal distribution of wealth that has robbed Americans of the purchasing power they need to restore the health of the economy and achieve the same standard of living as their parents. In short, we are going to need leaders with vision, for as FDR said all those years ago, “when there is no vision, the people perish.”
David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute.