FDR's Call for an End to Selfishness Echoes in Today's Debates

Mar 23, 2012Philip Klinkner

fdr-profile-serious-150FDR knew that in order to create positive, lasting change, we had to look beyond our own interests and work to make the country and the world better for everyone.

fdr-profile-serious-150FDR knew that in order to create positive, lasting change, we had to look beyond our own interests and work to make the country and the world better for everyone.

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.

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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.

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FDR Knew Public Education is Vital to a Prosperous Nation

Feb 22, 2012Philip Klinkner

fdrmain-150At a time when government support for education is under attack, a reminder in FDR's own words that the progress of our nation depends on a well-educated citizenry.

fdrmain-150At a time when government support for education is under attack, a reminder in FDR's own words that the progress of our nation depends on a well-educated citizenry.

Today, many argue that the government can't afford some of its most fundamental tasks, including support for education. Some politicians have even gone so far as to question the very idea of public education. But President Franklin Roosevelt knew that mass education requires government support and that cutting such support in times of economic need is penny wise and pound foolish, since a prosperous economy and decent society require widespread education.

On February 22, 1936, President Roosevelt traveled to Philadelphia, PA, where he received an honorary degree from Temple University. Roosevelt used the occasion to emphasize the critical role of government in advancing education. He pointed out that it was altogether fitting that the day was George Washington's birthday, since "What President Washington pointed out on many occasions and in many practical ways was that a broad and cosmopolitan education in every stratum of society is a necessary factor in any free Nation governed through a democratic system."

Roosevelt went on to add that the progress of a nation cannot and should not be measured solely in material terms. Instead, a nation must also look to progress in "the things of the mind." He pointed to the great advances in education over the previous 50 years and how his administration had worked to ensure that the burden of the Great Depression "should not include the denial of educational opportunities for those who were willing and ready to use them to advantage."

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Increasing levels of education, according to Roosevelt, "has given to this country a population more literate, more cultured, in the best sense of the word, more aware of the complexities of modern civilized life than ever before in our history."

Roosevelt then described the timeless qualities of a true education. First is "a sense of fair play among men. As education grows, men come to recognize their essential dependence one upon the other." Second, true education instills "a sense of equality among men when they are dealing with the things of the mind. Inequality may linger in the world of material things, but great music, great literature, great art and the wonders of science are, and should be, open to all."

Finally, and most importantly, true education requires the unfettered pursuit of knowledge and the truth. At a time when Nazi storm troopers burned books and banned "degenerate" art, and Stalinist commissars sought to bend biology to the will of the state, Roosevelt declared, "No group and no Government can properly prescribe precisely what should constitute the body of knowledge with which true education is concerned. The truth is found when men are free to pursue it."

Though spoken over 75 years ago, Roosevelt's words still hold true. Today we must also confront challenges to sound education, as some still seek to impose their own agendas on the pursuit of knowledge. Most importantly, Roosevelt understood that the essence of democracy is a free people engaged in the search for truth and understanding in an effort to make a better world for themselves and their children. As Roosevelt said, quoting Kipling, "On your own heads, in your own hands, the sin and the saving lies!"

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.

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FDR Wants You to Combat Misinformation About Progressive Policies

Jan 11, 2012Philip Klinkner

fdr-we-need-you-150As he kicked off his reelection campaign in 1936, FDR knew that, then as today, it takes an informed and active public to fight back against anti-New Deal attacks.

fdr-we-need-you-150As he kicked off his reelection campaign in 1936, FDR knew that, then as today, it takes an informed and active public to fight back against anti-New Deal attacks.

The 2012 election promises to be one of the most crucial moments in modern American politics. It's clear that it will be a referendum not just on President Obama and the state of the economy, but also on the New Deal and its legacy of government efforts to ensure security and opportunity for all Americans. Because of this, it's important to look back to America's first referendum on the New Deal, the 1936 election.

Then as today, progressive values were under attack. The New Deal was blamed for continuing unemployment and denounced as un-American, unconstitutional. Roosevelt was portrayed as a socialist, a communist, and a fascist, often in the same breath.

To confront this tide of misinformation, the president kicked off the 1936 election campaign 76 years ago Sunday. On January 8, Roosevelt addressed the Democratic Party's annual Jackson Day dinner at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C. In addition, thousands more listened in at similar dinners around the country through a special radio hookup. In his speech, Roosevelt began by pointing out how fitting it was to honor Andrew Jackson since the issue of the day, "the right of the average man and woman to lead a finer, a better and a happier life... was the same issue, more than a hundred years ago, that confronted Andrew Jackson."

But the purpose of Roosevelt's speech was not merely to offer up paeans to Old Hickory. The president understood that the success of his reelection effort, and indeed of the New Deal and progressive, humane government, required an informed and active American public. For this reason he praised Jackson for his efforts to educate and to include average Americans in the great issues of the day. And to do this, Jackson did not rely on the "luxurious propaganda" wielded by his political enemies. Instead, "the man on the street and the man on the farm believed in his ideas, believed in his ideals and his honesty, went out and dug up the facts and spread them abroad throughout the land."

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Roosevelt told his listeners that same problem remained -- the need to get out the truth "in the face of an opposition bent on hiding and distorting facts." Accomplishing this required that all those who believed in progressive causes must constitute a "committee of one" that would

run down statements made to you by others which you may believe to be false. You will need to analyze the motives of those who make assertions to you. You will need to make an inventory in your own community, in order that you may check and recheck for yourself and thereby be in a position to answer those who have been misled or those who would mislead.

Such education and information was vitally necessary since, as Roosevelt put it, "A Government can be no better than the public opinion which sustains it."

The same is true today. Those who share the values and spirit of the New Deal need to educate and inform their fellow citizens so that this election will reflect the true voice of the people, not the distortions of an echo chamber created by narrow and selfish interests. In the words of FDR, "The people of America know the heart and know the purpose of their Government. They and we will not retreat."

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.

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