Every candidate running for office this year is offering change. But what kind of change? Is it change that appeals to the interests of small and narrow groups, or change that appeals to the broader interests of the nation and the world?
President Roosevelt addressed these questions on March 23, 1936 when he and Mrs. Roosevelt travelled to Winter Park, Florida. Both were likely happy for their brief sojourn to warmer climes. The president had been invited to receive an honorary degree from Rollins College, where he began his speech by thanking Rollins President Hamilton Holt. The two had been friends for many years. Before entering academia, Holt had been an important figure in progressive politics as a crusading journalist, a founding member of the NAACP, and the (unsuccessful) Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate in Connecticut in 1924.
The president praised Holt for his educational reforms, moving from dry lectures to more interaction between faculty and students. Such changes were to be welcomed since, according to FDR, "In education, as in politics, and in economics and social relationships, we hold fast to the old ideals, and all we change is our method of approach to the attainment of those ideals. I have often thought that stagnation always follows standing still. Continued growth is the only evidence that we have of life."
As necessary as such changes might be, he added, "growth and progress invariably and inevitably are opposed -- opposed at every step, opposed bitterly and falsely and blindly." As an example, the president spoke of how he had recently seen a motion picture of the life of French scientific pioneer Louis Pasteur. In the film, when Pasteur was being attacked for his claims, a fellow scientist told him, "My dear Pasteur, every great benefit to the human race in every field of its activity has been bitterly fought in every stage leading up to its final acceptance."
The president added that not only was this true of science, "it is true of everything else that enters into our lives -- true of agriculture, true of living conditions, true of labor, true of business and industry, and true of politics."
Roosevelt's own experience surely confirmed that it was true of politics. His New Deal programs had sought to reform the nation's political and economic system. Like Holt's education reforms, Roosevelt saw the New Deal not as a rejection of American ideals such as freedom, liberty, and democracy, but as a new method of attaining those enduring values.
Despite the benefits the New Deal brought to Americans suffering from the Great Depression, it had been opposed by many, often "bitterly and falsely and blindly." Roosevelt's opponents charged that he was leading the nation down the path to socialism and dictatorship. The Supreme Court, relying on an interpretation of the Constitution's commerce clause drawn from what FDR called the "horse and buggy" days, had overturned many early New Deal programs, such as the National Recovery Administration and the Agricultural Adjustment Act. The same fate seemed likely for more recent measures, such as Social Security and the Wagner Labor Relations Act.
The answer, Roosevelt believed, was for a new approach to balancing interests in politics. To illustrate this, the president related the following anecdote:
Not long ago two nationally known gentlemen visited me, one in the morning, the other in the afternoon. I asked the opinion of each of them in regard to a suggested new tax to replace a former tax which had been declared unconstitutional. My friend of the morning replied, "I could not approve of that kind of tax. It would cost me many thousands of dollars." My friend of the afternoon said, "Why, a tax like that would, it is true, cost me many thousands of dollars, but I am inclined to think, Mr. President, that it is a fair tax, a tax equitable for the people of the Nation, the people as a whole, and, therefore, I would favor it."
For the president, the latter individual, the person who thought of the nation rather than just a narrow individual or group interest, represented the type of thinking that the nation needed and was indeed "growing by leaps and bounds throughout the country."
Roosevelt concluded by pointing out that this rise of public spiritedness was not important just to America, but to the world as well. Despite the claims of his critics, the president abhorred dictatorships and he grew increasingly worried as authoritarian regimes grew more numerous and more powerful. Just a few weeks before, Nazi Germany had destroyed the last vestige of the Treaty of Versailles by marching its troops into the demilitarized area of the Rhineland.
Roosevelt understood that United States stood as the great bulwark against the ultimate success of such regimes. But America could only undertake this role if it rejected narrow and selfish thinking and was instead guided by the most broad and inclusive concerns. If it did, this thinking "will in the long run assert itself so strongly, so victoriously, that it will spread to other peoples and other lands throughout the world."
Roosevelt's words are still instructive today. We must always remember that progress will always engender opposition from those with narrow and parochial concerns. Nonetheless, progress in all endeavors, from education to science to politics, is necessary and the mark of a vital healthy society. Most importantly, an America that understands the necessity of positive change and thinks both broadly and boldly is still the best hope for the world.
Philip Klinkner is the James S. Sherman Professor of Government at Hamilton College. He is the author (with Rogers Smith) of The Unsteady March: The Rise and Decline of Racial Equality in America and he is currently writing a book on the 1936 election.