The state of the country had improved during FDR’s first four years, but the weather for his second inaugural had not. The first January inauguration was greeted by rain and sleet, driven through the city by high winds. The crowd of thousands that gathered to watch the president renew his oath of office found themselves in mud to their ankles. “If they can take it, I can take it,” Roosevelt said. Twice he would have to pause to wipe the rain from his eyes as he read. He had marked up the speech more than any other in his time in the White House, aide Samuel Rosenman later recalled. Rosenman and Tom Corcoran—who four years earlier had been struck by the “blast” of Roosevelt’s “horn”—were FDR’s principle collaborators on the address.
Four years into the great experiment of the New Deal, Roosevelt’s second inaugural was both a spur to further progress and a bold philosophical statement of activist government.
“Old truths have been relearned; untruths have been unlearned,” he said. “We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals; we know now that it is bad economics.” The nation had “come far from the days of stagnation and despair,” FDR told his audience, but warned that “our present gains were won under the pressure of more than ordinary circumstance.” But the hard-won advances could lead to complacence, he warned: “Prosperity already tests the persistence of our progressive purpose.”
And there was still work to be done. He described a country still struggling to recover from economic disaster. “I see millions of families trying to live on incomes so meager that the pall of family disaster hangs over them day by day.” He, repeated the “I see” formulation three more times before uttering his famous encapsulation: “I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.” Roosevelt had penciled that summation himself. He continued: “It is not in despair that I paint you that picture,” he said. “I paint it for you in hope—because the nation, seeing and understanding the injustice in it, proposes to paint it out. … 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.”
It was a “uniquely radical speech,” says Cohen. “It’s an amazingly self-confident speech, but also one that represents a real shift in governing philosophy.”
The speech, adds Shesol, whose book Supreme Power recounts Roosevelt’s second-term, court-packing fight, is “in many ways the equal of the first [inaugural] in the clarity of the argument and the beauty of the language. … It’s not just a series of lines, but it says so much about who he was and what he did.”
Next: John F. Kennedy’s, 1961