One of the most famous speeches in American history is FDR’s First Inaugural. The most memorable quote from this address occurs early on when he intones, “we have nothing to fear, but fear itself.” It is one of the most oft-quoted bits of political rhetoric. It is also one of the most profoundly silly.
Even if one grants that the line is not to be taken literally, it is wrong. Here is the entire first paragraph of the speech to provide some context.
I AM certain that my fellow Americans expect that on my induction into the Presidency I will address them with a candor and a decision which the present situation of our Nation impels. This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, 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. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.
For a rundown of why this is an absurd sentiment, see this excellent blogpost by Keith Spillet. Keith delves into some of the philosophical problems with this line, and I largely concur with his assessment. Beyond that, I also find the line to be, somewhat ironically considering the subject matter, demagogic. Though it is ostensibly a call for optimism in the midst of dark economic times, it is a fairly cynical attempt to brush back criticisms of his program. It is a rhetorical device that is employed today, and it is one that I find highly insulting. Continue reading
My friend & colleague Donald McClarey has proposed that we celebrate the 4th of July with a reading of the Declaration of Independence — a custom I also share, and which I think every citizen of the United States should cultivate.
And to those scornful cranks so quick to dismiss such an appreciation of the principles of our founding as “worshipping at the temple of Enlightenment liberalism,” I would remind them of the example set by none other than Pope Benedict XVI and his predecessor, John Paul II:
In my family each year we have a group reading of the Declaration of Independence. The kids enjoy it and so do Mom and Dad. Each year I am struck by a timeless quality of the words.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”