Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) led the United States out of the Great Depression and through World War II, two of the greatest challenges to face the country. Voters reflected his conviction and faith in America by electing him to the White House four separate times. Although his death preceded the end of the war by just a few months, FDR and his legacy would influence American presidents for years to come.
“Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” Franklin D. Roosevelt’s bold declaration at his first inaugural address on March 4, 1933, would set the tone for his first administration. Americans would need to square their jaw against the economic straits of the Great Depression, and unbeknownst to them, continue to do so in the decade to come.
“In these days of difficulty, we Americans everywhere must and shall choose the path of social justice — the only path that will lead us to a permanent bettering of our civilization, the path that our children must tread and their children must tread, the path of faith, the path of hope and the path of love toward our fellow man.” - Campaign Address at Detroit, Michigan, 1932
“Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men.” - First Inaugural Address, 1933
“Our constitutional system has proved itself the most superbly enduring political mechanism the modern world has produced. It has met every stress of vast expansion of territory, of foreign wars, of bitter internal strife, of world relations." - First Inaugural Address, 1933
“We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals; we know now that it is bad economics.” - Second Inaugural Address, 1937
“Human kindness has never weakened the stamina or softened the fiber of a free people. A nation does not have to be cruel to be tough.” - Mobilization for Human Needs radio address, 1940
“In the field of world policy I would dedicate this Nation to the policy of the good neighbor — the neighbor who resolutely respects himself and, because he does so, respects the rights of others — the neighbor who respects his obligations and respects the sanctity of his agreements in and with a world of neighbors.” - First Inaugural Address, 1933
“Small wonder that confidence languishes, for it thrives only on honesty, on honor, on the sacredness of obligations, on faithful protection, on unselfish performance; without them it cannot live.” - First Inaugural Address, 1933
“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.” - “Second Bill of Rights (State of the Union),” 1944
Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal brought Americans out of the depths of poverty and toward a more secure future. He often spoke of the need to move forward and of the dangers of staying put.
“The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.” - Oglethorpe University Address, 1932
“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.” - Second Inaugural Address, 1937
“Many voices are heard as we face a great decision. Comfort says ‘Tarry a while.’ Opportunism says ‘This is a good spot.’ Timidity asks ‘How difficult is the road ahead?’” - Second Inaugural Address, 1937
“No democracy can long survive which does not accept as fundamental to its very existence the recognition of the rights of its minorities.” - Letter to the president of the NAACP, 1938
“In the face of great perils never before encountered, our strong purpose is to protect and to perpetuate the integrity of democracy. For this we muster the spirit of America, and the faith of America. We do not retreat. We are not content to stand still. As Americans, we go forward, in the service of our country, by the will of God.” - Third Inaugural Address, 1941
Two days after the start of World War II in 1939, President Roosevelt addressed the nation in a Fireside Chat: “When peace has been broken anywhere, the peace of all countries everywhere is in danger.” His words would prove to be prescient two years later when the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor gave the U.S. no choice but to enter the war.
“On this tenth day of June, 1940, the hand that held the dagger has struck it into the back of its neighbor.” - Commencement Address at the University of Virginia, 1940, the day that Italy declared war on France
“Yesterday, December 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy, the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.” - “A Date Which Will Live in Infamy” Address to Congress, 1941
“As a nation we may take pride in the fact that we are soft-hearted; but we cannot afford to be soft-headed. We must always be wary of those who with sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal preach the ‘ism’ of appeasement. We must especially beware of that small group of selfish men who would clip the wings of the American eagle in order to feather their own nests.” - “The Four Freedoms” Speech, 1941
“This nation has placed its destiny in the hands and heads and hearts of its millions of free men and women, and its faith in freedom under the guidance of God. Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere. Our support goes to those who struggle to gain those rights and keep them. Our strength is our unity of purpose. To that high concept there can be no end save victory.” - “The Four Freedoms” Speech, 1941
“The act of Japan at Pearl Harbor was intended to stun us — to terrify us to such an extent that we would divert our industrial and military strength to the Pacific area, or even to our own continental defense. The plan has failed in its purpose. We have not been stunned. We have not been terrified or confused … the mood of quiet, grim resolution which here prevails bodes ill for those who conspired and collaborated to murder world peace.” - State of the Union Address, 1942
Franklin Roosevelt faced crises unmatched by a president since perhaps Abraham Lincoln. However, he still had time for a clever quip or two, particularly on the campaign trail.
“Judge me by the enemies I have made.” - Campaign Address in Portland, 1932
“I sometimes think we consider too much the good luck of the early bird and not enough the bad luck of the early worm.” - quoted in Roosevelt and Howe
“Be sincere, be brief, be seated.” - Advice on public speaking, quoted in Basic Public Speaking
“Philosophy? I am a Christian and a Democrat. That's all.” - quoted in The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope
“A Radical is a man with both feet firmly planted — in the air. A Conservative is a man with two perfectly good legs who, however, has never learned to walk forward. A Reactionary is a somnambulist walking backwards. A Liberal is a man who uses his legs and his hands at the behest — at the command — of his head.” - Radio Address to the New York Herald Tribune Forum, 1939
FDR was an imperfect man and president who, when matched to a pivotal moment in history, met the challenge to protect the American people. For more inspirational quotes and facts from this period, check out: