This article is an installment in an 11-part series on the inaugurations of incumbent presidents who were elected to additional terms in office, culminating in an on-the-ground report of Obama’s second inauguration.
Franklin D. Roosevelt (January 20, 1937) and Franklin D. Roosevelt (January 20, 1941)
While Lincoln’s second inaugural may be the greatest of such speeches ever delivered, Roosevelt’s second inaugural gives it a run for its money. Like Lincoln, Roosevelt’s first term oversaw some of the most radical changes ever to occur in American history. In order to fight the Great Depression, Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation transformed the relationship between the state and its people, establishing the idea that the government should provide economic security as well as simply protect basic civil liberties. Although these policies had stirred up enormous controversy among conservatives in both parties during the first four years of Roosevelt’s presidency (as they would during the last eight as well), they were resoundingly endorsed by the American people in the presidential election of 1936, in which more than three-fifths of the voting public cast their ballots for Roosevelt, winning him every state except Maine and Vermont. This historic occasion was more than sufficient cause for Roosevelt to brag during his second inaugural, which, in a distinctly un-Lincolnesque manner, he did. At the same time, he also laid out the logic behind his unprecedented actions in language that liberals would continue to use for generations to come. Instead of running away from the Constitution, he placed progressive economic values as being firmly within the spirit of the founders’ intent:
This year marks the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the Constitutional Convention which made us a nation. At that Convention our forefathers found the way out of the chaos which followed the Revolutionary War; they created a strong government with powers of united action sufficient then and now to solve problems utterly beyond individual or local solution. A century and a half ago they established the Federal Government in order to promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty to the American people.
Today we invoke those same powers of government to achieve the same objectives.
Four years of new experience have not belied our historic instinct. They hold out the clear hope that government within communities, government within the separate States, and government of the United States can do the things the times require, without yielding its democracy. Our tasks in the last four years did not force democracy to take a holiday.
Nearly all of us recognize that as intricacies of human relationships increase, so power to govern them also must increase—power to stop evil; power to do good. The essential democracy of our Nation and the safety of our people depend not upon the absence of power, but upon lodging it with those whom the people can change or continue at stated intervals through an honest and free system of elections. The Constitution of 1787 did not make our democracy impotent.
It is also worth noting that Roosevelt’s inauguration in 1937 was the first one to occur on January 20th instead of March 4th — a decision made by Congress and the states with the ratification of the Twentieth Amendment to prevent dangerous lags between administrations.
On November 5, 1940, Franklin Roosevelt became the first president to be elected to a third term in office. Aside from earning this dubious distinction, Roosevelt also returned to power at a time when events in Europe and Asia were making World War Two an inevitability. The zest for governing that Roosevelt had so transparently displayed during the New Deal era was giving way to the weariness that would mark his tenure during one of history’s defining international conflicts. That the president knew he was about to lead his country through a crisis both inevitable and essential was made clear by the opening words of his third inaugural address:
On each national day of inauguration since 1789, the people have renewed their sense of dedication to the United States.
In Washington’s day the task of the people was to create and weld together a nation.
In Lincoln’s day the task of the people was to preserve that Nation from disruption from within.
In this day the task of the people is to save that Nation and its institutions from disruption from without.
In spite of this ominous hint about the bloody turn that current events were about to take, Roosevelt was not unaware of the broader ideological foundations upon which he wished to rest his presidential legacy. As this strikingly insightful passage reveals, he had his eye squarely placed on where he stood in the larger story of the history of American democracy.
A nation, like a person, has a body—a body that must be fed and clothed and housed, invigorated and rested, in a manner that measures up to the objectives of our time.
A nation, like a person, has a mind—a mind that must be kept informed and alert, that must know itself, that understands the hopes and the needs of its neighbors—all the other nations that live within the narrowing circle of the world.
And a nation, like a person, has something deeper, something more permanent, something larger than the sum of all its parts. It is that something which matters most to its future—which calls forth the most sacred guarding of its present.
It is a thing for which we find it difficult—even impossible—to hit upon a single, simple word.
And yet we all understand what it is—the spirit—the faith of America. It is the product of centuries. It was born in the multitudes of those who came from many lands—some of high degree, but mostly plain people, who sought here, early and late, to find freedom more freely.
The democratic aspiration is no mere recent phase in human history. It is human history. It permeated the ancient life of early peoples. It blazed anew in the middle ages. It was written in Magna Charta.
In the Americas its impact has been irresistible. America has been the New World in all tongues, to all peoples, not because this continent was a new-found land, but because all those who came here believed they could create upon this continent a new life—a life that should be new in freedom.
Its vitality was written into our own Mayflower Compact, into the Declaration of Independence, into the Constitution of the United States, into the Gettysburg Address.
Those who first came here to carry out the longings of their spirit, and the millions who followed, and the stock that sprang from them—all have moved forward constantly and consistently toward an ideal which in itself has gained stature and clarity with each generation.
The hopes of the Republic cannot forever tolerate either undeserved poverty or self-serving wealth.