A couple of weeks ago, I read a passage in a book about the Great Depression that contained a quote from Franklin Delano Roosevelt that I had never heard before. My eyes lingered on the passage for a while, reading it over and over again, because I couldn’t believe it had been spoken almost 100 years ago.
The passage in question, from Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945. was this:
“The problems of the world, Roosevelt concluded, were ’caused as much by those who fear change as by those who seek revolution…In government, in science, in industry, in the arts, inaction and apathy are the most potent foes.’ Two obstacles, perversely complementary in their asymmetry, impeded progress. One was ‘the lack of cohesion on the part of the liberal thinkers themselves,’ who shared a common vision but disagreed on the methods of realizing it. The other was ‘the solidarity of the opposition to a new outlook, [which] welds together the satisfied and and the fearful.'”
The phrase “welds together the satisfied and the fearful” echoed through my brain for days afterwards. How better to describe the odd alliance within the Republican party today? And ‘the lack of cohesion on the part of the liberal thinkers themselves’ nails the infighting among progressives that makes a united front against the Right and for a better future so difficult despite its popular majority.
Surprisingly, this bit was not from a campaign speech or fireside chat. The speech was given on May 8, 1926 at the prestigious Milton Academy outside Boston. Back then, Roosevelt was a little-known politician—the program identifies him only as a former Assistant Secretary to the Navy—who had been largely outside the public eye for years after contracting polio. What else did Roosevelt say that day, I wondered? What other insights might it have from one of the most keen observers of American politics in the country’s history?
Unfortunately, these were harder questions to answer than I’d hoped. Unlike most speeches FDR gave in his life, this one can be maddeningly hard to find, a paradox for one of the most quoted Americans who ever lived. The speech is not available on Google or in any academic database. It is not listed among the FDR Presidential Library’s digital speech collection. So far as I can tell, there are only 350 copies of this speech in existence, published by the Houghton Mifflin Company a month after the speech was given, all under copyright protection by the Trustees of the Milton Academy. In order to read the speech during non-COVID times, you must go to the Milton Academy library and view a hard copy. Otherwise, you can purchase one of the other 349 copies floating around used book sites for upwards of $100, although it’ll run you more like $150 if you want one that hasn’t been chewed by rats.
However, because visiting libraries in-person is not possible during COVID, I was able to obtain a copy of the speech by requesting the entire pamphlet be scanned via interlibrary loan, which someone at Princeton University was kind enough to do (I also contacted Syracuse University linguistics professor Amos Kiewe, who wrote a paper on the speech and graciously mailed me a copy he had from a previous visit to the Milton archives).
Only after acquiring the speech did I realize how ironic it was that I had so much trouble finding it. Most of the speech is dedicated to the unyielding march of scientific and social progress, from ease of transportation to the evolution of modern science to the promise (?) of synthetically produced food alleviating world hunger. “Every trend of modern science,” Roosevelt said, quite ironically given how he would later greenlight the most destructive scientific project in human history, “is toward the greater unification of mankind.” He quoted an unnamed “well-known biochemist” who said “We are working toward a condition when any two persons on earth will be able to be completely present to one another in not more than one twenty-fourth of a second.”
To be honest, I was pretty disappointed reading the entire speech. It was not one of FDR’s best. He meandered, his powerful ability to inspire was in its infancy, and he glossed over thousands of years of human history in a few paragraphs to make a vague point that doesn’t quite land. In sum, I spent many hours of my life tracking down a mediocre speech given by a then-nobody to a bunch of children in Boston 94 years ago.
But, just because it was a bad speech doesn’t mean it was not an important one. Some historians argue it represented a major turning point in FDR’s personal philosophy and optimistic brand of liberalism that eventually sparked the New Deal, giving us social security and the National Labor Relations Board among many other largely good things. Much of the speech is about scientific progress in medicine, something he surely thought much about while paralyzed and bedridden with polio (there’s even an aside about a small town in Georgia accepting a typhoid epidemic as an uncontrollable act of God before one citizen used science to locate the source of the outbreak). Most importantly for us today, he also elucidated why progress is hard, not just in 1926 or 1934, but always in the United States.
Roosevelt understood that, even in the good times like 1926, more people want progressive change than not. “Probably on any given problem of modern life, if a count or classification could be made, the out-and-out conservatives would be found to be in a distinct minority,” he said, an indictment that rings true today. Most Americans agree, for instance, our healthcare system is shitty, our foreign policy is a mess, our immigration system is unfair and incoherent, and college is too damn expensive. “Yet,” Roosevelt continued, “the majority would be so divided over the means by which to gain their ends that they could not present sufficient unity to obtain action. This,” he warns, “has been the history of progress.”
Despite the techno-futurism, the speech is fundamentally one about why the United States will always be behind. We are, macho bravado and flag-waving notwithstanding, a scared people, afraid of losing what we have even if we have very little and hold steady to the belief that no matter what we’ve lost we can get it back. This 1926 speech has the seeds of “We have nothing to fear but fear itself” embedded in it, because even at this early stage of his political career, FDR knew that fear was our biggest impediment.
Roosevelt—who more than any other president in our history would go on recognize the false choice between stasis and change and ushered in new, experimental ideas to make people’s lives better whether they liked it or not—said in the face of the “great problems” of the day “we may adopt one of two attitudes. Some among us,” he warned, “would stop the clock, call a halt in all this change, and then in some well-thought-out way bring back an orderly, defined method of life. Old standards and customs would revive to meet the new conditions, classic dicta would again govern—the ‘good old days’ restored.”
Yes, FDR knew all about Make America Great Again. He had heard it already in his own lifetime and would hear it again in the 1930s. “It is an attractive picture,” Roosevelt conceded, “but it is a painting of the imagination—not a photograph of the living facts.”
If that is one attitude, what is the other? On this, FDR only said, “Let us wait till we look into the days to come.”