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Why the Candidates Still Use FDR as Their Measure
It’s not surprising that Democrats seek to wrap themselves in the Roosevelt cloak; what’s harder to understand is why so many Republicans do too. A distinguished historian explains.
February 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 1
An A.P. correspondent said the President “was funny, he was gloomy. He was exciting. He was human. He was copy.”
As one aspect of his function as chief legislator, Roosevelt broke all records in making use of the veto power. By the end of his second term, his vetoes already represented more than 30 percent of all the measures disallowed by Presidents since 1792. According to one credible tale, FDR used to ask his aides to look out for a piece of legislation he could veto, in order to remind Congress that it was being watched.
So far did Roosevelt plumb the potentialities of the chief executive as legislative leader that by the end of his first term, the columnist Raymond Clapper was writing, “It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that the President, although not a member of Congress, has become almost the equivalent of the prime minister of the British system, because he is both executive and the guiding hand of the legislative branch.”
In 1938, in his annual message to Congress, Roosevelt made his philosophy about the duty of the state still more explicit: “Government has a final responsibility for the well-being of its citizenship. If private co-operative endeavor fails to provide work for willing hands and relief for the unfortunate, those suffering hardship from no fault of their own have a right to call upon the Government for aid; and a government worthy of its name must make fitting response.”
Starting in the electrifying First Hundred Days of 1933, Roosevelt brought the welfare state to America, years after it had come to other lands. He moved beyond the notion that “rights” embodied only guarantees against denial of freedom, to the conception that government also has an obligation to assure certain economic essentials. In his State of the Union message of January 1944, he declared: “This Republic had its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights—among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures....
“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 under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all—regardless of station, race, or creed.”
In expanding the realm of the state, Roosevelt demanded that business recognize the superior authority of the government in Washington. At the time, that was shocking doctrine. In the pre-New Deal period, government often had been the handmaiden of business, and many Presidents had shared the values of businessmen. But FDR clearly did not. Consequently the national government in the 1930s came to supervise the stock market, establish a central banking system monitored from Washington, and regulate a range of business activities that had hitherto been regarded as private.
As a result of these measures, Roosevelt was frequently referred to as the “great economic emancipator” (or, conversely, as a traitor to his class), but his real contributions, as the historian James MacGregor Burns has said, were “a willingness to take charge, a faith in the people, and an acceptance of the responsibility of the federal government to act.”
After a historic confrontation with the Supreme Court (see “The Case of the Chambermaid and the Nine Old Men,” December 1986 issue), Roosevelt secured the legitimization of this enormous increase in the growth of the state. As a consequence, not once since 1936 has the Court invalidated any significant statute regulating the economy.