We Have Nothing to Fear But the Fear of Fear

Tuesday, November 16, AD 2010

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. 

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7 Responses to We Have Nothing to Fear But the Fear of Fear

  • Excellent post Paul!

    I think another admirable event and action in this nation’s founding was how the Bill of Rights came into existence. Borne out of the fear you speak of, it was a great compromise to bring the parties into agreement and it has proved to be very beneficial to our nation (and perhaps other parts of the world by the standard it set). I doubt we’ll ever see another win-win compromise like that again.

  • Thank you, Rich. In the paper that I alluded to and which I borrowed some of the ideas for this post from, I brought up the Bill of Rights. It was perhaps the major contribution of the Anti-Federalists and a great compromise, as you mention.

  • Fantastic article, Paul. Your connections to Federalist 51 and 55 were extremely impressive. The point about the sublime brilliance of checks and balances was also quite insightful. Thanks very much for citing my article.

    By the way, your title was hysterical!

  • I appreciate that, Keith. I’m happy that I discovered your blog.

  • Um, Paul, their was a context you neglected, which was the banking panic which erupted in November 1932. It ran on for four months and resulted in the closure of some 4,000 banks. Fractional reserve banking requires confidence and the loss of it can generate a most unsalutary feedback loop. Roosevelt was addressing this very phenomenon.

  • Art, I’ll concede not knowing the background of this speech as well as, say, Lincoln’s inaugural, but it seems the context of the paragraph and speech in total refers to general policy matters. That said, your point does emphasize the distinction we ought to make between the type of irrational fear that cripples us and can lead to bad results vs the sort of rational fear that motivates genuine opposition to policy.

  • “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.” This speech was (and continues to be) offensive to Catholics and Protestants who believe that Fear of the Lord is a gift of the Holy Ghost and that “our help is in the name of the Lord Who made heaven and earth” (Psalm 124:8). The Anti-Federalists were right; Roosevelt continued the centralization of power started by Lincoln.