Guest Essayist: Tony Williams, Program Director of the Washington-Jefferson-Madison Institute

On June 27, 1936, Franklin D. Roosevelt accepted the Democratic nomination for the presidency.  Despite all of the success in getting Congress to pass New Deal legislation during his first administration and his excellent chances for re-election, FDR felt beleaguered.  Republicans in Congress and conservatives such as Herbert Hoover and the Liberty League continued to oppose the legislation he believed would solve the economic crisis and transform America.  Populist radicals such as Huey Long and Charles Townshend went even further than FDR in seeking to provide a guaranteed income for Americans and won some of his support.  The Supreme Court declared some of the centerpieces of the New Deal, such as the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) and the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA), among others, unconstitutional because they blatantly violated the Constitution by regulating intrastate trade and delegated legislative authority to newly-created executive agencies.  Finally, almost every interest group representing big business, small business, farmers, workers, and consumers was frustrated by the New Deal and its administrative broker state that tried to navigate among various conflicting interests.

FDR could not abide the opposition to his attempt to create economic recovery and restructure American capitalism.  As he stated in his acceptance speech, FDR promised that 1936 would be as historic in laying down a foundation for America as did 1776 — but the foundation would be built of different principles and purposes than those of the founding fathers.

FDR’s view of the founding was rooted upon a presentist and Progressive understanding of history.  According to FDR, the founding stripped political power from the privileged interests and granted the power of governing to the common man.  The industrial revolution, however, created new privilege by the “economic royalists” who built their kingdoms upon concentrated economic power.  In this highly moralist view, the “privileged princes” of the corporations created a “new despotism” by creating their “industrial dictatorship[s].”  The men who ran the great corporations did not create wealth or jobs in FDR’s estimation but instead perpetrated great evil.  They destroyed equal opportunity, got rich off the backs of the workers, and took advantage of the common man in the pursuit of greed.  In short, the economic royalists put private gain and profit ahead of FDR’s preference that they pursue the public interest.  Indeed, he strangely states that, “Private enterprise . . . became too private.”

FDR’s solution would not have surprised anyone familiar with his Commonwealth Club Address from his 1932 campaign, or with the policies of his first administration.  Governing according to the principle that “Necessitous men are not free men,” FDR wanted to use the government to ensure that no American would be needy.  It would be responsible to guarantee that all would receive “a living decent according to the standard of the time.”  He believed that his first election (in 1932) was a people’s mandate for the government to act, and to act to solve problems, not follow constitutional niceties or the founding purposes of government.  “The defeats and victories of these years,” FDR tells his fellow Democrats, “have given to us as a people a new understanding of our Government and ourselves.”  1932 America had evolved and progressed much beyond the simple 1776 founding.

FDR unsurprisingly endorsed the Democratic platform adopted by the convention, which “sets forth that Government in a modern civilization has certain inescapable obligations.”  FDR (mis)used the Christian virtues of hope, love, and charity to explain what those obligations were.  After relating each one vaguely, he states more definitively that, “We seek not merely to make Government a mechanical implement, but to give it a vibrant personal character that is the very embodiment of human charity.”  FDR was ascribing to government the tasks of a vibrant civil society embodied in churches, civic associations, charities, local communities, and local government.  But, the charitable Christian work and thriving localism of these groups and institutions were swept aside for increasing the size and power of the national government to manage the economy and destroy the power of the economic royalists.

FDR knew that many Americans were wary of strengthening the national government.  He attempted to head off opposition by averring that he would rather have the “occasional faults of a Government that lives in a spirit of charity,” than the “consistent omissions” of a limited government and self-governing people who took care of their own.  FDR believed in the quasi-providential nature of his presidency.  He told the Americans that they had a “rendezvous with destiny” and that in waging his war against want and destitution, “I am enlisted for the duration of the war.”

FDR nearly fulfilled his promise by running successfully for the president four times, breaking with the moral precedent of surrendering power after two terms that George Washington had established and followed by every subsequent president.  FDR, who criticized the economic royalists so severely for their concentration of power, refused surrender power due to his hubris and arrogant belief that the country simply could not survive in the hands of any other president.  And, he concentrated power in the hands of the national government and the executive arguably more than any other twentieth-century president.  No wonder that he in turn was charged with royalism and dictatorship.   If he wasn’t those things, he was certainly a Progressive who broke with the founding vision of the purposes of American self-government.

Read Franklin Roosevelt’s Democratic Convention Address here:

Tony Williams is the Program Director of the Washington-Jefferson-Madison Institute in Charlottesville, VA, which teaches teachers American founding principles.  Free downloads of its recently published WJMI Guide to the Constitution are available at    He is the author of four books including American Beginnings: The Dramatic Events that Shaped a Nation’s Character.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

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