The weather welcoming Franklin Roosevelt to the presidency reflected the state of the union he was taking charge of. One later account recalled “the great mass before the Capitol, huddling in the mist and wind under the sullen March sky.” One-fourth of the nation’s workers were jobless; nearly half of the nation’s banks—more than 11,000 of 24,000 in the country—had failed; the stock market had lost 75 percent of its value since 1929. Supported by his son James, Roosevelt approached the rostrum to take the oath of office for the first time. While tradition dictated that Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes would read the presidential oath, and Roosevelt should affirm it with a simple, “I do,” FDR set a new tradition by repeating each phrase of the oath.
Wearing nothing more than his formal morning coat against the biting wind, Roosevelt told his fellow countrymen that, “This is a day of national consecration.” This was a last minute addition to the speech, which he had jotted onto his reading text shortly before delivering the speech.
Roosevelt had first started discussing an inaugural address with aide Raymond Moley the previous September. But while Moley would collaborate with Roosevelt to write the bulk of the speech, the most famous line was proffered by another aide, Louis Howe. Editing a near final draft, Howe had inserted the assertion that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Moley later suggested that Howe had gotten the phrase from a department store ad, but if true the advertisement has been lost to history.
The portions of the speech that drew the most crowd reaction were FDR’s calls for “action, and action now.” (The single biggest applause of the day, disturbingly, came when Roosevelt promised that if Congress would not act, he would request wartime executive powers to deal with the crisis on his own.) The address was aimed at reviving a nation which was not only reeling, but had been reeling for years. He “sought to be honest and optimistic at the same time, a challenging combination he had developed when counseling polio patients at Warm Springs,” Jonathan Alter wrote in The Defining Moment, his book on Roosevelt’s first 100 days.
In a moment of Lincoln-like symbolism, the sun finally poked through the gray clouds just after Roosevelt ended his address. The national reaction to the speech was instantaneous. Nearly half a million people wrote to the new president. “This fellow talked as if he were 300 percent sure,” Tommy Corcoran, a lawyer who would go on to become a close Roosevelt aide, recalled. “That blast of the horn was worth 1,000 men.”