The Liberal Century: How Progressivism Transformed America by Thomas B. Silver

Chapter 2: 1936

“We must not assume that our democracy in 1789 corresponded to the interpretation of the term in 1933. . . . Social justice is essentially a conception of this century. It was not visualized by the men who founded the nation, and it entered little into the daily life or thought of those who expanded the original thirteen States to the empire stretching all the way to the Pacific.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt, January 24, 1938

A generation of progressive thought reached its highest political articulation in 1936, in the four great jeremiads delivered by Franklin D. Roosevelt against the reactionary forces in American politics. These four speeches—his Annual Message to the Congress (January 3), the acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention—“This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny”—in Philadelphia (June 27), the opening of the presidential campaign at Syracuse (September 29), and the Madison Square Garden address at the close of the campaign (October 31)—comprise the rhetoric which, like Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, was meant to lay the foundation for a new order of things in American political life.

To many of its critics, both from within and without, the New Deal was a hodgepodge of inconsistent ideas and policies. The classic statement of this view was made by Raymond Moley, who had been the head of Roosevelt’s Brains Trust, just after he broke with FDR:

That Roosevelt could look back over the vast aggregation of
policies adopted between March, 1933, and November, 1936,
and see it as the result of a single, predetermined plan was
a tribute to his imagination. . . . But to look upon these
policies as the result of a unified plan was to believe
that the accumulation of stuffed snakes, baseball pictures,
school flags, old tennis shoes, carpenter’s tools,
geometry books, and chemistry sets in a boy’s bedroom
could have been put there by an interior decorator.[1]

Moley was superficially right, but wrong in a deeper sense.[2] Certainly Roosevelt’s openness to innovation in the midst of crisis sometimes created the impression of groping in the dark, and gave the New Deal an experimental or exploratory flavor not dissimilar to that of the first administration of Woodrow Wilson.[3] Yet despite his tactical flexibility, Roosevelt, whose politically formative years coincided with the Progressive Era, throughout his career maneuvered within a consistent framework of progressive principles. In 1936 he set forth those principles with brilliant simplicity and clarity, and devastating effectiveness.

He did so in a highly self-conscious way. Roosevelt believed, and history has borne him out, that 1932 had been a “critical election” like those of 1800 and 1860, elections in which the fundamental principles of the American political order were at stake. In the election of 1936, therefore, he set out to consolidate that victory not only in deed but in speech. Of course he wanted to bury his immediate political opponents in a landslide; but his take-no-prisoners rhetoric was also meant to nail closed the coffin on their arguments and to secure a permanent victory for progressive ideas in the minds of future generations.

*                *                *

On January 3, 1936 Roosevelt spoke to the Congress. He was at that time under fierce partisan attack, much of it meanspirited, ugly, personal, mendacious, and self-interested. He began, on a somber foreign policy note, with a reference to threats from abroad against America’s peace and security:

Peace is jeopardized by the few and not by the many. Peace is
threatened by those who seek selfish power. The world has
witnessed similar eras—as in the days when petty kings and
feudal barons were changing the map of Europe every fortnight
or when great emperors and great kings were engaged in a mad
scramble for colonial empire.[4]

Then, in an extraordinary volte face, especially in front of a bipartisan audience, Roosevelt abruptly wheeled on his domestic political opponents, explicitly comparing them with America’s enemies abroad:

“Within democratic Nations, the chief concern of the people is to
prevent the continuance or the rise of autocratic institutions that
beget slavery at home and aggression abroad. Within our borders,
as in the world at large, popular opinion is at war with a power-
seeking minority.”[5] (Italics mine)

A paragraph later he made the attack more pointed, with explicit reference to the administrations of Harding, Coolidge (who had defeated him for Vice-President in 1920), and Hoover: “In these latter years we have witnessed the domination of government by financial and industrial groups, numerically small but politically dominant in the twelve years that succeeded the World War.”[6]

Roosevelt’s critique of the Republican presidents of the twenties was that their unjust policies, in the service of businessmen, financiers, and the wealthy, had created a widening gap between rich and poor. As the rich got richer and the poor got poorer, an invisible economic crisis necessarily began to unfold. With class warfare as its mainspring, the clock of history was ticking toward the revolutionary crisis of 1929.

FDR hammered away at this theme from the beginning of 1936 until the very end of the fall campaign. On October 31, he delivered at Madison Square Garden his masterful fighting peroration to the presidential campaign.

For twelve years this nation was afflicted with hear-nothing, see-nothing, do-nothing government. The Nation looked to Government but the Government looked away. Nine mocking years with the golden calf and three long years of the scourge! Nine crazy years at the ticker and three long years in the breadlines! Nine mad years of mirage and three long years of despair! Powerful influences strive today to restore that kind of government with its doctrine that that Government is best which is most indifferent.[7]

Despite the rhetoric of class warfare, it is important to understand that Roosevelt did not identify himself unreservedly with “the many.” FDR understood himself—as the progressive movement understood itself from the beginning—as the via media, the middle way, between the few and the many, the rich and the poor, between reaction and revolution.

There is an illuminating passage in Professor Arthur Schlesinger’s The Vital Center in which he says that at moments of crisis (e.g., a depression), when capitalists and workers alike are bewildered, the democratic politician-intellectual can often outwit the logic of the class struggle:

The experience of a century has shown that
neither the capitalists nor the workers are so
tough and purposeful as Marx anticipated; that
their mutual bewilderment and inertia leave the
way open for some other group to serve as the
instrument of change; that when the politician-
manager-intellectual type is intelligent and
decisive, he can usually get society to move fast
enough to escape breaking up under the weight
of its own contradictions; but that, when no one
provides intellectual leadership within the frame-
work of gradualism, then the professional
revolutionist will fill the vacuum and establish a
harder and more ruthless regime than the decadent
one he displaces.[8]

The New Deal, then, with its Harvard-Washington axis, was the mating of advanced academic ideas and enhanced federal power, under the supervision of the democratic statesman, Franklin Roosevelt. In the 1930s, this breeding of ideas and power had a certain spontaneous, or haphazard character, as the New Deal evolved out of crisis; but as the federal government grew, it became more routinized under the tutelage of what Schlesinger calls the “manager,” or the civil servant. Thus the creation of large bureaucracies and powerful regulatory agencies within a strong central government is liberalism’s attempt to institutionalize the revolutionary’s passion for social justice within a democratic framework. This seems to have been what H. G. Wells meant when he said that Roosevelt was “continuously revolutionary   . . . without ever provoking a stark revolutionary crisis.”

The reference above to the “manager” ties together a number of themes in the self-understanding of liberalism, and in the philosophy of pragmatism that underlies it. The appearance of these themes, at least embryonically, can be mentioned here, by way of the best known example of the importance of the manager in the life of the nation: the “managed economy.” This idea emerged in its mature, contemporary form only after the New Dealers had assimilated fully the teaching of the British economist, John Maynard Keynes, but it was from the beginning an element of progressivism.

The managed economy is the pragmatic and humane middle way between the rigidly ideological—and inhumane—extremes of laisse-faire capitalism and the centralized planning of Marxist totalitarian regimes. The brutal indifference of the former and the indifferent brutality of the latter stem from ideologies that have this in common: both claim to have a comprehensive and final understanding of the world. The particular affliction of American government was laissez-faire individualism, of which Coolidge and Hoover were only the latest in a long line of advocates. The problem with laissez-faire was not simply that it was a mask for vicious class interest and a rationale for ignoring the common good, but that its fixed and final principles—its credal inflexibility—rendered it incapable of coping with a changing world.

By contrast, a “pragmatic” approach is suited to a world of rapid change. As FDR himself said, “Our Republican leaders tell us economic laws—sacred, inviolable, unchangeable—cause panics which no one could prevent. But while they prate of economic laws, men and women are starving. We must lay hold of the fact that economic laws are not made by nature. They are made by human beings.”[9]

A managed economy is one in which the expertise of economists is applied to monetary, fiscal and regulatory policy to adjust economic activity in response to particular circumstances. Obviously, a necessary condition for successful management is power. Toothless regulatory agencies, a monetary policy in the hands of private bankers, and a federal budget so small that changes in its spending levels do not affect economic output are inadequate tools to get the job done. Public purposes require public power.

Here then we have two key themes of progressivism: the need for public policy to be liberated from ideology and interest; and the pragmatic blending of expertise, power and democracy.

*                *                *

Of course, many of Roosevelt’s enemies portrayed the New Deal as the stalking horse of socialism, or even communism. FDR met this charge head on at Syracuse, at the official opening of his presidential campaign.

Desperate in mood, angry at failure, cunning in purpose, individuals
and groups are seeking to make Communism an issue in an election
where Communism is not a controversy between the two major
parties. . . . I have not sought, I do not seek, I repudiate the support of any
advocate of Communism or of any other alien ‘ism’ which would
by fair means or foul change our American democracy.

But, he continued, “Communism is a manifestation of that social unrest which always comes with widespread maladjustment.”

Conditions congenial to Communism were being bred and fostered
throughout this Nation up to the very day of March 4, 1933. Hunger
was breeding it, loss of homes and farms was breeding it, closing
banks were breeding it, a ruinous price level was breeding it.
Discontent and fear were spreading through the land. The previous
national Administration, bewildered, did nothing.” [10]

Reaction was feeding the death spiral of democracy. Representing a narrow, selfish class interest, indifferent to injustice and inequality, frozen in a rigid, do-nothing, laissez faire ideology, the old regime was engaging in a policy of self-destruction. The capitalists had sown the wind, and the communists were preparing to reap the whirlwind. And yet the crisis of capitalism, Marx and Lenin to the contrary notwithstanding, did not result in the destruction of capitalism.

Why did that crisis of 1929 to 1933 pass without disaster? The answer is to be found in the record of what we did. Early in the campaign of 1932 I said: “To meet by reaction that danger of radicalism is to invite disaster. Reaction is no barrier to the radical, it is a challenge, a provocation.” . . . We went to the roots of the problem, and attacked the cause of the crisis. We were against revolution. Therefore, we waged war against those conditions which make revolutions—against the inequalities and resentments which breed them. In America in 1933 the people did not attempt to remedy wrongs by overthrowing their institutions. Americans were made to realize that wrongs could and would be set right within their institutions. We proved that democracy can work.[11]

Roosevelt parted company with the Marxists of his day not only in his denial of the necessity of revolution but also in his denial of its desirability. He disavowed the means that Marxists advocated—revolution—and the ends they sought, i.e., the wholesale destruction of the capitalist order. Again, as Arthur Schlesinger has said, “A Marxist is one who extends the acceptance of the class struggle to the acceptance of the dictatorship of the proletariat. It is precisely this extension which American radicalism has refused to make.”[12] In this sense, the New Deal made a plausible appeal to an enlightened conservatism.

“The true conservative seeks to protect the system of private property
and free enterprise by correcting such injustices and inequalities as
arise from it. The most serious threat to our institutions comes from
those who refuse to face the need for change. Liberalism becomes
the protection for the far sighted conservative.”[13] (Italics mine)

The reactionary, in denying aspirations for social justice, is defying history itself. His ideology, an extension of class interests posing as eternal verities, becomes a rigid dam constructed right across the river of history. As the pressure builds inexorably behind the dam, the radical exults at the coming burst that will wash everything away, but thoughtful conservatives and liberals alike understand the need to make an accommodation to change that will preserve what is worth preserving from the past.

*                *                *

In his 1936 argument for the deep changes that were necessary to save America, Roosevelt explicitly traced his intellectual lineage back to the Progressive Era, when he was a young man just entering politics.

“Starting in 1911, a Democratic leadership came into power,
and with it a new philosophy of government. I had the good
fortune to come into public office at that time. I found other
young men in the Legislature—men who held the same
philosophy; one of them was Bob Wagner; another was Al
Smith. We were all joined in a common cause. We did not
look on government as something apart from the people. We
thought of it as something to be used by the people for their
own good.”[14] (Italics mine)

The “new philosophy of government” that progressives brought with them into public office was an improvement on the old philosophy of government held by the Founding Fathers. As Roosevelt had explained in explicit detail during his acceptance speech (where he also spoke of “our new understanding of our government,”) history has revealed to us that the work of the Founders was incomplete. It was incomplete because it secured a beachhead for political liberties but failed to do the same for economic liberties, and the former without the latter are meaningless. The Founders did not foresee that the economic system they bequeathed to us would, as a result of the industrial revolution, permit the emergence of economic inequality as dangerous to our liberties as were the kings and aristocrats of the past.

“And so it was to win freedom from the tyranny
of political autocracy that the American Revolution
was fought. . . . Political tyranny was wiped out at
Philadelphia on July 4, 1776.

Since that struggle, however, man’s inventive
genius released new forces in our land which
reordered the lives of our people. The age of
machinery, of railroads; of steam and electricity;
the telegraph and the radio; mass production,
mass distribution—all of these combined to
bring forward a new civilization and with it a
new problem for those who sought to remain

For out of this modern civilization economic
royalists carved new dynasties. New kingdoms
were built upon concentration of control over
material things. Through new uses of corpora-
tions, banks and securities, new machinery of
industry and agriculture, of labor and capital—
all undreamed of by the fathers—the whole
structure of modern life was impressed into
this royal service.

There was no place among this royalty for
our many thousands of small business men and
merchants. . . . They were no more free than the
worker or the farmer.”[15] (Italics mine)

Freedom had been extinguished by “the privileged princes of these new economic dynasties” who had established a “new industrial dictatorship . . . economic tyranny . . . despotism.” In the light of new historical circumstances that the fathers could not have dreamed of, we can see that their work in overthrowing political tyranny was not just incomplete but was in fact hollow because “For too many of us the political equality we once had won was meaningless in the face of economic inequality.” (Italics mine) How so? Because, as “[a]n old English judge once said, ‘Necessitous men are not free men.’” The government under the Republican Presidents, Harding, Coolidge and Hoover, “frozen in the ice of its own indifference,” stood in the same relation to the American people of this generation as King George III stood in relation to the American people 200 years ago. Both represented “a dictatorship by . . . the overprivileged.”[16]

*                *                *

Raymond Moley, writing in 1937, shortly after he left Roosevelt’s service, was appalled by FDR’s “sophomoric” rhetoric in 1936, which he refused to take seriously. It is clear from that remark that he simply did not understand the New Deal as it was understood by the New Dealers themselves—Roosevelt included. That the rhetoric of 1936 was not an isolated, one time campaign tactic is confirmed by a re-reading of one of his major formal addresses in the 1932 campaign, the famous speech to the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco on September 23. This speech, one of the great state papers of American progressivism, takes on added significance because it was delivered at a moment when Roosevelt was under strict oratorical self- discipline for fear of seeming too far to the left and playing into Hoover’s characterization of him as a dangerous radical. Yet the thesis of the Commonwealth Club speech is identical to the themes of the 1936 campaign.

Governor Roosevelt’s thesis in San Francisco was that the historical process (nation building) that culminated in political democracy (the American Revolution) was superseded by a historical process (the industrial revolution) that would culminate in economic democracy (the New Deal). The principles of the American Revolution, adequate for their time but inadequate for changing times, needed to be redefined in light of radically new circumstances. The doctrine of infinite progress or continuous revolution comes naturally to the pragmatist such as Roosevelt but is anathema to those who seek fixity and finality, whether in the past or the future. Speaking just half a dozen years before, on the sesquicentennial of the Declaration of Independence, President Coolidge had said:

“If we are to maintain the great heritage which has
been bequeathed to us, we must be like-minded as
the fathers who created it…We must follow the
spiritual and moral leadership which they showed.
We must keep replenished, that they may glow
with a more compelling flame, the altar fires
before which they worshipped.”[17]

But Roosevelt, before the Commonwealth Club, took a different view of democracy:

The final word belongs to no man; yet we can still
believe in change and in progress. Democracy, as a
dear old friend of mine in Indiana, Meredith Nicholson,
has called it, is a quest, a never-ending seeking for better
things. . . . [18]

The modern quest began, according to Roosevelt’s account, with the emergence of the European nation state, a beneficial process attended with many evils.

The creators of national Government were perforce
ruthless men. They were often cruel in their methods,
but they did strive steadily toward something that society
needed and very much wanted, a strong central state able
to keep the peace, to stamp out civil war, to put the unruly
nobleman in his place, and to permit the bulk of individual
to live safely.[19]

This is obviously a foreshortened historical version of the growth of the modern leviathan out of a state of nature, in which every nobleman’s hand was raised against every other’s, and the life of most men was solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. Over time, however, the arbitrary centralized power of ruthless men was brought under popular control. The American Revolution was an episode in that process.

The American Revolution, however, was followed by the Industrial Revolution, the settling of the west, and the closing of the frontier. These were the great forces that forged our national economy in the nineteenth century. But for Roosevelt there was “a shadow over the dream” of creating a national economy, “the dream of an economic machine, able…to annihilate distance by steam power and later by electricity”:

To be made real, it required use of the talents of
men of tremendous will and tremendous ambition,
since by no other force could the problems of financing
and engineering the new developments be brought to
a consummation. . . .

. . . The history of the last half century is accordingly in
large measure a history of a group of financial Titans,
whose methods were not scrutinized with too much care,
and who were honored in proportion as they produced
the results, irrespective of the means they used. The
financiers who pushed the railroads to the Pacific were
always ruthless, often wasteful, and frequently corrupt;
but they did build railroads, and we have them today.[20]

In other words, the men who built our national economy, like the men who built the modern nation state, were ruthless, but they got the job done. Once the job is done, however, it becomes the preeminent task of statesmanship to bring the national economy under popular control:

Just as in older times the central Government was
first a haven, and then a threat, so now in a closer
economic system the central and ambitious financial
unit is no longer a servant of national desire, but a
danger. I would draw the parallel one step further.
We did not think because national Government had
become a threat in the 18th century that therefore we
should abandon the principle of national Government.
Nor today should we abandon the principle of strong
economic units called corporations, merely because their
power is susceptible of easy abuse. In other times we
dealt with the problem of an unduly ambitious central
Government by modifying it gradually into a constitutional
democratic Government. So today we are modifying and
controlling our economic units.

As I see it, the task of Government in its relation to
business is to assist the development of an economic
declaration of rights, an economic constitutional
order.[21] (Italics mine)

Here then is Roosevelt’s explicit refounding of America: to the political rights sanctified in the Declaration and secured in the Constitution he will add economic rights. If Roosevelt was correct that political rights are meaningless without economic rights, then the protection of those rights becomes at least as important, if not more important, than free speech, the right to vote, the right to assemble, etc. Our most fundamental political rights of course are guaranteed in the Constitution and hence are beyond transient popular majorities. Economic rights perforce ought to enjoy the same status. This is the origin of the concept of entitlements.

The implication of what Roosevelt called “the new economic order” is that

“the responsible heads of finance and industry, instead of acting each for himself, must work together to achieve the common end. They must, where necessary, sacrifice this or that private advantage; and in reciprocal self-denial must seek a general advantage. It is here that formal Government—political Government, if you choose—comes in. Whenever in the pursuit of this objective the lone wolf, the unethical competitor, the reckless promoter, the Ishmael or Insull whose hand is against every man’s, declines to join in achieving an end recognized as being for the public welfare, and threatens to drag the industry back to a state of anarchy, the Government may properly be asked to apply restraint. Likewise, should the group ever use its collective power contrary to the public welfare, the Government must be swift to enter and protect the public interest.”[22] (Italics mine)

Roosevelt did not accept the 18th century Lockean contract theory based on a-temporal, immutable natural rights, because it violated his historical sense. Nevertheless, he adapted it, arguendo, to his own purposes. In the contract theory, men in the “state of nature” find that the rights they have by nature are insecure. To secure those rights they leave the state of nature and enter into civil society via a voluntary contract with other men. Under the terms of the contract they surrender the full exercise of their rights, delegating to government the power necessary to protect them from threats to their life and liberty. Grant this to be true, says Roosevelt, why does the argument not apply analogously to the economic state of nature? Under laissez faire capitalism every man pursues his own economic interest and the devil take the hindmost. This creates tremendous insecurity and puts economic opportunity and indeed the very livelihood of people at risk.[23] Why should men not emerge from the economic state of nature, surrender the untrammeled exercise of their economic rights, and cede to the Government the power to protect threats to their well being? Thus Roosevelt redefined America’s fundamental principles by spelling out “the new terms of the old social contract.” Such a transformation—to return to his historical sense—is the heart and soul of progressive statesmanship.

“The task of statesmanship has always been the
re-definition of these rights in terms of a changing
and growing social order. New conditions impose
new requirements upon the Government and those
who conduct Government.”[24]

Roosevelt’s “economic declaration of rights” was later spelled out in more detail and became the basis of what we now refer to as entitlements. But how were such rights to be secured? What did Roosevelt envision as the “economic constitutional order,” which would secure economic rights in the way that the U. S. Constitution secures the rights in the Declaration of Independence? The answer is bureaucracy, or, to use the term that FDR himself used in the perhaps most quoted (and misunderstood) passage of the Commonwealth Club Address, “adminstration”:

“The day of the great promoter or the financial
Titan, to whom we granted anything if only he
would build, or develop, is over. Our task now
is not discovery or exploitation of natural resources,
or necessarily producing more goods. It is the
soberer, less dramatic business of administering
resources and plants already in hand, of seeking to
reestablish foreign markets for our surplus
production, of meeting the problem of under-
consumption, of adjusting production to consump-
tion, of distributing wealth and products more
equitably, of adapting existing economic organizations
to the service of the people. The day of enlightened
administration has come.”[25] (Italics mine)

I have said that this passage has been misunderstood. Roosevelt was not so simple-minded as to believe that economic growth would never again be an issue or that no new discoveries would be made. His point was that the technical problem of production had been solved, in principle, by the discovery of modern science and technology and their exploitation by large economic units called corporations; but the moral problem of economic inequality had not yet been addressed.

The moral problem of economic injustice and inequality should be solved, first, by creating a government strong enough to regulate and check large concentrations of private power,[26] and, second, by establishing a civil service whose expertise would be directed to public purposes such as managing the economy, redistributing wealth, conserving our natural resources, protecting the environment, and implementing projects to benefit the nation. These two concepts—economic rights, and the centralized, unified administrative state—were the crucial elements in Roosevelt’s brilliant synthesis known as the New Deal, which combined the progressive passion for social justice with John Dewey’s vision for applying scientific method to the solution of social problems.

At the beginning of this section I contrasted the spirit of American liberalism, as articulated by President Roosevelt in his Commonwealth Club address, with the spirit of American conservatism, as articulated by President Coolidge in his Sesquicentennial address. The essential difference is that Coolidge appealed to nature as the ground of our rights while Roosevelt appealed to history. Liberalism acknowledges that on this issue Coolidge is closer to the thought of the Founders, and indeed, liberalism sees the nineteen twenties as the culmination of the principles of the regime taken to their logical conclusion.

William Allen White, for example, believed that Calvin Coolidge was the perfect embodiment of the spirit of the age. Coolidge, born on the Fourth of July, was the quintessential American, and America was the quintessence of the modern commercial age. During the twenties, America, as the preeminent modern commercial republic, had largely discarded the baggage of moral and religious sentiments with which it had begun its journey and had not yet acquired Rooseveltian idealism.

Understood in this way, America was a product of modern Enlightenment political philosophy, in particular the political philosophy of Hobbes and Locke.[27] The purpose of that philosophy was to create modern man: individualistic, materialistic, bourgeois. According to Locke, man is radically selfish. Civil society comes into being to protect property and the rights of individuals to acquire property. Civil society is a deduction from individual selfishness.

In the Lockean scheme, selfishness replaces virtue or piety as the ordering principle of the human soul, or rather, the meaning of virtue is transformed. Good character is no longer an end but a means. Virtue, whether moral or intellectual, becomes instrumental. Wealth is no longer an occasion for the practice of virtue; virtue is a tool for acquiring wealth. Virtue, in short, has been demoted to bourgeois virtue. If virtue is no longer the ordering principle of the soul, neither is it the ordering principle of society. The parts being prior to the whole, justice, or the common good, is merely the serendipitous by-product of individual self-seeking, or the benevolent dispensation of an invisible hand. The common good is collective selfishness. Calvin Coolidge, the man who exalted the bourgeois virtues and pronounced that the business of America is business, represents the epitome of America’s Lockean principles. Coolidge—and America in the twenties—was the reductio ad absurdum of Locke’s joyless quest for joy.

[Here Silver intended to “insert a famous historian’s account of the stampede to make money” during the latter decades of the 19th and first decades of the 20th century.]

From Roosevelt’s point of view, the national stampede to make money was not only degrading but disastrous, as the stampede led America over the cliff and into the economic abyss known as the Great Depression. The principles of classical economics, the correlates of Locke’s political principles, had led to a catastrophe. The Lockean project to make man secure had ended in the greatest possible insecurity and had turned men’s minds to the possibility of a second American revolution to secure their economic security.

In his penultimate annual message to Congress (actually delivered by radio) Roosevelt returned once more to the great theme of his political career, the need to reform and correct the principles of the American founding:

This Republic has its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights . . . .

As our nation has grown in size and stature, however – as our industrial economy expanded – these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.

We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. ‘Necessitous men are not free men.’ People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.

In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights[28] under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all – regardless of station, race, or creed. (Italics mine)[29]

In his annual message to Congress in 1936, with which I began this chapter, Roosevelt laid out his new “economic constitutional order” and identified the domestic opponents of this new order with America’s enemies abroad. With perfect consistency, Roosevelt in his 1944 message laid out his “economic bill of rights” and identified his domestic opponents with America’s foreign enemies.

“One of the great American industrialists of our day – a
man who has rendered yeoman service to his country in
this crisis – recently emphasized the grave dangers of
‘rightist reaction’ in this Nation. All clear-thinking
businessmen share his concern. Indeed, if such reaction
should develop – if history were to repeat itself and we
were to return to the so-called ‘normalcy’ of the 1920’s –
then it is certain that even though we shall have conquered
our enemies on the battlefields abroad, we shall have
yielded to the spirit of Fascism here at home.”[30]

Conservatives are un-American because they are enemies of America’s re-Founding. In their yearning for the original, flawed Founding, they are reactionary. That is, they reject the verdict and judgment of History, which has convicted and condemned them. Like the Founders themselves, they fail to understand that justice is not a static but an evolving concept. Their greatest moral failing is that they represent a class interest; but their greatest intellectual failing is their ideological fixation on justice as the expression of an enduring moral order.

Roosevelt spoke for a new understanding. “We must not assume,” he wrote on January 24, 1938,

“that our democracy in 1789 corresponded to the interpretation of the term in 1933. . . . Social justice is essentially a conception of this century. It was not visualized by the men who founded the nation, and it entered little into the daily life or thought of those who expanded the original thirteen States to the empire stretching all the way to the Pacific.”[31]

The decisive introduction of the historical sense into the American political tradition was the work of Franklin Roosevelt and it constitutes the core of his greatness as a political leader. But Roosevelt of course was not the originator of the historical sense. That was the work of his teachers, and their teachers. Roosevelt was the builder, but they were the true architects of the liberal century. To their work we now turn.


Read more of The Liberal Century by Thomas B. Silver:

Table of Contents & Introduction

Chapter 1: Natural Right and History, A Preview

Chapter 2: 1936


[1] Raymond Moley, After Seven Years (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1939), pp. 365, 369.

[2] Although he was correct in pointing to contradictions within the first New Deal, Moley was fashioning a straw man when he claimed that FDR was oblivious to them. See, for example, Roosevelt’s Introduction to his Public Papers (January 24, 1938): “In these volumes those who seek inconsistencies will find them. There were inconsistencies of methods, inconsistencies caused by ceaseless efforts to find ways to solve problems for the future as well as for the present. There were inconsistencies born of insufficient knowledge. There were inconsistencies springing from the need of experimentation. But through them all, I trust that there will also be found a consistency and continuity of broad purpose.” (Italics mine) Franklin D. Roosevelt, The Genesis of the New Deal, 1928-1932, Volume I in The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt, ed. Samuel I. Rosenman (New York: Random House, 1938), p. xiii.

[3] It is instructive to compare Moley’s harsh criticism of FDR’s first term with Arthur Link’s even harsher criticism of Woodrow Wilson’s first term. See particularly Chapter 3, “The New Freedom and the Progressive Movement, 1913-16,” in his classic study, Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive Era (New York: Harper & Row, 1954).

[4] Franklin D. Roosevelt, Annual Message to Congress, January 3, 1936. In The People Approve, Volume 5 of The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt, ed. Samuel I. Rosenman (New York: Random House, 1938), p. 12. Available online from: John Woolley and Gerhard Peters, The American Presidency Project.

[5] Roosevelt, Annual Message, The People Approve, p. 12. Also available from:

[6] Roosevelt, Annual Message, The People Approve, p.13. Also available from:

[7] Roosevelt, Address at Madison Square Garden, October 31, 1936. In The People Approve, p. 568. Available online from: John Woolley and Gerhard Peters, The American Presidency Project.

[8] Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., The Vital Center (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1962), p. 155.

[9] Address Accepting the Presidential Nomination at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, July 2, 1932. Available online from: John Woolley and Gerhard Peters, The American Presidency Project.

[10] Address at the Democratic State Convention, Syracuse, NY, September 29, 1936. In The People Approve, p. 384, 386. Available online from: John Woolley and Gerhard Peters, The American Presidency Project.

[11] Address at the Democratic State Convention, Syracuse, NY. September 29, 1936. In The People Approve, p. 385-86. Also available from:

[12] Schlesinger, The Vital Center, p. 172-173.

[13] Address at the Democratic State Convention, Syracuse, NY. September 29, 1936. In The People Approve, p. 389. Also available from:

[14] Address at the Democratic State Convention, Syracuse, NY, September 29, 1936. In The People Approve, p. 387. Also available from:

[15] Address at the Democratic State Convention, Syracuse, NY, September 29, 1936. In The People Approve, p. 232. Also available from:

[16] Address at the Democratic State Convention, September 29, 1936. In The People Approve, p. 233-234. Also available from:

[17] Coolidge, Foundations of the Republic, p. 454.

[18] Franklin D. Roosevelt, Campaign Address on Progressive Government at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, California,September 23, 1932. In The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Volume 1, “The Genesis of the New Deal, 1928-1932,” ed. Samuel I. Rosenman (New York: Random House, 1938), p. 744. Available online from: John Woolley and Gerhard Peters, The American Presidency Project.

[19] Commonwealth Club Address, Rosenman ed., p. 744. Also available from:

[20] Commonwealth Club Address, Rosenman ed., p. 747. Also available from:

[21] Commonwealth Club Address, Rosenman ed., p 752. Also available from:

[22] Commonwealth Club Address, Rosenman ed., p. 754-55. Also available from:

[23] In Locke, when men believe that the exercise of their rights is not secure, they may make an “appeal to heaven,” a euphemism for revolution or taking matters into their own hands. Likewise, Roosevelt believed that the failure by governments to secure economic rights for their people created a moral justification for revolution against such regimes. Hence the qualified liberal sympathy for revolutionary movements throughout the world. Of course, the purpose of the liberal state is in part to make such an appeal to heaven unnecessary by incorporating economic rights into the very framework of the political order.

[24] Commonwealth Club Address, Rosenman ed., p 753. Also available from:

[25] Commonwealth Club Address, Rosenman ed., p. 751-2. Also available from:

[26] “…private economic power is, to enlarge an old phrase, a public trust as well.” Commonwealth Club Address, Rosenman ed., p. 753. Also available from:

[27] For an excellent synopsis of this view see Richard Hofstadter, The American Political Tradition and the Men who Made It (1948; reissued by Knoft Doubleday, 1989). [Editors’ note: Silver did not provide page numbers for this citation.]

[28] [Editors’ note: Roosevelt enumerated the new rights as follows:

“The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the Nation;

The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;

The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;

The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;

The right of every family to a decent home;

The right to 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; The right to a good education.”]

[29] Franklin D. Roosevelt, State of the Union Message to Congress, January 11, 1944, Victory and the Threshold of Peace, 1944-45, Public Papers, Volume Thirteen, p. 40-41. Available online from:

[30] State of the Union Message to Congress, January 11, 1944, Rosenman ed., p. 41-42. Available online from:

[31] Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: F.D. Roosevelt, 1940, Volume 9, p. xv.

About The Peoria Project

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