Franklin D. Roosevelt

Address at Jackson Day Dinner.

January 08, 1940

Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen, Candidates Here and Candidates There:

Once upon a time—and in a campaign year every speech ought to start out that way—once upon a time there was a school teacher, who, after describing Heaven in alluring and golden terms, asked her class of small boys how many of them wanted to go to Heaven. With eyes that sparkled at the thought every small boy in the class held up his hand—except one. Teacher said, "Why Charlie, Charlie McNary" (laughter) "Charlie, you don't want to go to Heaven? Why not?" "Teacher," he said, "—sure I want to go to Heaven, but" pointing to the rest of the boys in the room "—not with that bunch." (Laughter)

A week ago, Homer Cummings invited three distinguished leaders of the opposition to this great Banquet—a $10.00 dinner with all the fixin's free—no cover charge—no $100 check-no tips—"nothin' to sign and nothin' to jine"—and a free ringside seat at a non-political plate-side chat (laughter). Believe-it-or-not—they sent polite regrets. And why?

You know, there are a lot of riddles in the National Capital. I, myself, am supposed to be a self-made riddle (laughter)- in fact, sort of a cross between a riddle and a Santa Claus. Most of the riddles in this town, however, are the ones posed for you in some solemn column. Like cross-word puzzles and hypothetical bridge hands, they come to you morning or evening as a synthetic daily amusement feature, like fairy tales or bedtime stories calculated to keep unsuspecting children awake all night. But occasionally we get a real riddle like this one about the three empty chairs.

Why didn't our guests come? I guess the real reason is that, like the small boy, they did not want to go to Heaven with this bunch. (Laughter)

But maybe there were other reasons. Maybe it was because they figured that we just wanted to fatten up the ducks, and that we were putting on a closed season in January merely in order to get better sport next fall. (Laughter)

Maybe they were holding out for an old-fashioned Jackson Dinner. Someone called my attention the other day to a magazine article setting forth a report of a dinner in February, 1834, in Andrew Jackson's White House, a report that was made by a guest at the dinner. I think it would be interesting to you if I quote from a letter that this man sent home.

The first course was soup in the French style; then beef bouille, next wild turkey boned and dressed with brains. [I always thought, of course, that the Brain Trust was something new. But it isn't.] Then after that fish; then chicken cold and dressed white, interlarded with slices of tongue and garnished with dressed sailed; then canvass back ducks and celery; afterwards partridges with sweet breads; and last pheasants and old Virginia ham. The dishes were placed in succession on the table, so as to give full effect to the appearance, then removed and carved on a side table by the servants. The first dessert was jelly and small tarts in the Turkish style. Then blanche mode and kisses with dried fruits in them. Then preserves of various kinds, after them ice cream and lastly grapes and oranges.

Such a dinner today would cost the full one hundred dollars that we have each and all of us paid; and there would have been nothing left for Jim Farley; and I am afraid that the Democratic Committee would have had to borrow money to provide bicarbonate of soda for all. (Laughter)

I had hoped that our invited guests would come because I had intended to tell them not only about Andrew Jackson but about Abraham Lincoln as well; to tell them how much alike all of our great leaders have been, even to give them free though unsolicited—advice as to how to reconstitute the Republican Party successfully along the lines on which Abraham Lincoln created it. As the leader of the Democratic Party I felt no reluctance to give them good advice, for I was sure that they would not use it—they of little faith.

Seriously, the more I have studied American history and the more clearly I have seen what the problems are, I do believe that the common denominator of our great men in public life has not been mere allegiance to one political party, but the disinterested devotion with which they have tried to serve the whole country, and the relative unimportance that they have ascribed to politics, compared with the paramount importance of Government.

By their motives may ye know them!

The relative importance of politics and Government is something not always easy to see when you are in the frontline trenches of political organization.

In a period of thirty years, during which I have been more or less in public life—in my home county, in Albany, in Washington, in Europe during the World War, in New York City, in national conventions, back in Albany and finally again in Washington—I have come to the conclusion that the closer people are to what may be called the front lines of Government, of all kinds—local and State and Federal—the easier it is to see the immediate underbrush, the individual tree trunks of the moment, and to forget the nobility, the usefulness and the wide extent of the forest itself.

It is because party people in County Court Houses, or City Halls, or State Capitals, or the District of Columbia are, most of them, so close to the picture of party or factional warfare, that they are apt to acquire a false perspective of what the "motives" and the purposes of both parties and their leaders should be for the common good today.

They forget that politics, after all, is only an instrument through which to achieve Government. They forget that back of the jockeying for party position, back of the party generals, hundreds of thousands of men and women—officers and privates, foremen and workmen—have to get a good job done, have to put in day-after-day of honest, sincere work in carrying out the multitudinous functions that the policymakers in modern democracy assign to administrators in modern democracy.

People tell me that I hold to party ties less tenaciously than most of my predecessors in the Presidency, and that I have too many people in my Administration who are not active party Democrats. I must admit the soft impeachment.

My answer is that I do believe in party organization, but only in proportion to its proper place in Government. I believe party organization—the existence of at least two effectively opposing parties—is a sound and necessary part of our American system; and that, effectively organized nationally and by States and by localities, parties are good instruments for the purpose of presenting and explaining issues, of drumming up interest in elections, and, incidentally, of improving the breed of candidates for public office.

But the future lies with those wise political leaders who realize that the great public is interested more in Government than in politics; that the independent vote in this country has been steadily on the increase, at least for the past generation; that vast numbers of people consider themselves normally adherents of one party and still feel perfectly free to vote for one or more candidates of another party, come election day, and on the other hand, sometimes uphold party principles even when precinct captains decide "to take a walk." (Laughter)

The growing independence of voters, after all, has been proven by the votes in every Presidential election since my childhood-and the tendency, frankly, is on the increase. I am too modest, of course, to refer to certain recent elections. Party regulars who want to win must hold their allies and supporters among those independent voters. And do not let us forget it.

There are, of course, some citizens—I hope a decreasing number—with whom I find it difficult to talk rationally on this subject of strict party voting. I have in mind, for example, some of my close friends down Georgia-way, who are under the impression that they would be ostracized in society and in business if it were to appear publicly that they had ever voted for a Republican. I also have in mind some very close friends in northern villages and counties who tell me, quite frankly, that though they would give anything in the world to be able to vote for me, a Democrat, it would hurt their influence and their social position in their own home. town. (Laughter)

I have in mind the predicament of one of the ablest editors of a great paper who some time ago said to me, very frankly:

"I am really in complete sympathy with your program, Mr. President, but I cannot say so publicly because the readers and the advertisers of my paper are ninety per cent Republicans and I simply cannot afford to change its unalterable policy of traditional opposition to anything and everything that comes from Democratic sources. Of course, Mr. President, you understand."

And might I add, that the President understood. (Laughter)

Millions of unnecessary words and explanations and solemn comments are uttered and written year in and year out about the great men of American history—written with ample quotations-to prove what Jefferson or Hamilton, Jackson or Clay, Lincoln or Douglas, Cleveland or Blaine, Theodore Roosevelt or Bryan, would have said or would have done about some specific modern problems of Government if they were alive today. The purpose of all these comments is either to induce the party leaders of today blindly to follow the words of leaders of yesterday; or to justify public acts or policies of today by the utterances of the past, often tortured out of context. Yes, the devil can quote past statesmen as readily as he can quote the Scriptures, in order to prove his purpose.

But most people, who are not on the actual firing line of the moment, have come to attach major importance only to the motives behind the leaders of the past. To them it matters, on the whole, very little what party label American statesmen bore, or what mistakes they made in the smaller things, so long as they did the big job that their times demanded be done.

Alexander Hamilton is a hero to me in spite of his position that the nation would be safer if our leaders were chosen exclusively from persons of higher education and of substantial property ownership; he is a hero because he did the job which then had to be done- to bring stability out of the chaos of currency and banking difficulties.

Thomas Jefferson is a hero to me despite the fact that the theories of the French Revolutionists at times overexcited his practical judgment. He is a hero because, in his many-sided genius, he too did the big job that then had to be done—to establish the new republic as a real democracy based on universal suffrage and the inalienable rights of man, instead of a restricted suffrage in the hands of a small oligarchy. Jefferson realized that if the people were free to get and discourse all the facts, their composite judgment would be better than the judgment of a self-perpetuating few. That is why I think of Jefferson as belonging to the rank and file of both major political parties today.

I do not know which party Lincoln would belong to if he were alive in 1940—and I am not even concerned to speculate on it; a new party had to be created before he could be elected President. I am more interested in the fact that he did the big job which then had to be done—to preserve the Union and make possible, at a later time, the united country that we all live in today. His sympathies and his motives of championship of humanity itself have made him for all centuries to come the legitimate property of all parties—of every man and woman and child in every part of our land.

I feel very much the same way about Andrew Jackson-not Jackson the Democrat, but Jackson the American, who did the big job of his day— to save the economic democracy of the Union for its westward expansion into a great nation, strengthened in the ideals and practice of popular Government.

I have always thought it a magnificent illustration of the public's instinct for the quality of a leader, that the people triumphantly reelected Jackson in spite of the fact that in the meantime, in his fight for economic democracy, Biddle and the Bank had sought to create an economic depression in order to ruin the President himself.

Of all of these great American figures, I like to think—and I know I am right—that their purposes, their objectives, and especially their motives placed the good of the nation always ahead of the good of the party; and while, properly, they used the mechanics of party organization in a thousand ways, they dropped mere partisanship when they considered partisanship to be different from the national interest.

As some of you know, I saw a good deal of the Governorship of New York long before I became Governor, and I saw a good deal of the inside of the White House for many years before I occupied it. Many years ago it had become clear to me that, properly availed of, the Governorship and the Presidency, instead of being merely a party headquarters, could become the most important clearing house for exchange of information and ideas, of facts and ideals, affecting the general welfare.

In practice, as you know, I have tried to follow out that concept. In the White House today we have built up a great mosaic of the state of the union from thousands of bits of information-from one man or woman this thought; from another, data on some event, a scrap here perhaps and a scrap there; from every Congressional district in the Union; from rich and poor; from enthusiast and complainant; from liberal and conservative; from Republican and Democrat.

I like to think that most American Governors or Presidents have seen the same opportunity in their office, and that their motives have been primarily motives of service rather than of party or personal aggrandizement.

Doubtless they have all been irked by the commentators and interpreters of the day who ascribed other motives to them. Doubtless after much experience in the public life of America, with its free speech and its free press, the irksomeness wore off. Doubtless, all of them wore hair shirts when they started; but if they matured in public life most of them discarded those shirts in their earlier days. In other words, they had to drop their hair shirt or else lose their political shirt.

And when you have learned not to worry at all about all of these things, there is really a lot of fun in this job.

For when you reach that point of understanding, there is a deep satisfaction in pursuing the truth through the medley of information that reaches the White House, the overstatement, the half-truth, the glittering generality, the viewing-with-alarm, and, equally, the pointing-with-pride. There is practical satisfaction in sifting a tiny particle of truth from the mass of irrelevancies in which it is hidden. And there is the philosopher's satisfaction of trying to fit that particle of truth into the general scheme of things that are good and things that are bad for the people as a whole.

I said a moment ago that the measure of greatness of any party leadership of a country is the measure in which it gets done in its time the big job that has to be done. By this test I do not think anyone can say that the many people—and a great many of them, I am glad to say, are here tonight—the many people in these last seven years who have given composite leadership have failed in their obligation. People cannot say that. Most of those who call for a wholly different type of leadership must admit the fairly constant progress of these years. Most of those who complain now, let us not forget, were the shouting optimists of 1929.

I do not believe that the American people who swallowed that canned optimism in 1929 will swallow canned pessimism in 1940— particularly if it comes out of the same can.

For the people of this great country of ours recognize two facts today. The first is that the world outside our hemisphere is really in bad shape. This is a matter not for pessimism or for optimism; it is a matter for realism. It is a fact—a fact so big that few people have grasped its meaning—a fact so big in its effect on the future of the world that all of our little partisan squabbles are a bit drab in the light of it.

The second is that we have made great gains at home in our own economic prosperity and in the security of our individual citizens. These gains must not be chipped away; they must be only a foundation on which to build greater gains.

Behind us lies accomplished a really big job. It was the creation out of the pure unadulterated funk of the early thirties, of a new spirit with which we can now face the forties.

A realistic historian of our party has wisely concluded: "We have the intelligence to define our troubles and the physical means with which to meet them. In the end, whether we make America a good or a bad country will depend on what we make, individually, of ourselves. A selfish and greedy people cannot be free."

The enormous task which the Democratic Party has already performed in this generation has been to provide the energy and the confidence to steer Government in the interest and under the direction of those of our people who do not want to be selfish and who do not want to be greedy.

I am convinced that most people in the United States do have a sense—with a real feeling of pleasure in the moralities involved-that we have at least been moving forward these later years in the right direction.

They are really glad that on the whole the farmer is no longer an economic outcast and is getting better prices for his crops.

They are glad that we are slowly working out for labor greater privileges and at the same time greater responsibilities.

They are glad that gamblers and speculators are no longer the most honored element in our economic life.

They are glad that certain opportunities for security, once only available to the rich, like old-age insurance, are becoming available to the poor.

They are glad that we are beginning to conserve the natural resources of our soil, our rivers and our. trees for the good of our children; that we have improved our roads and added to our parks and built hundreds of schools; that we are bringing to every housewife cheap electricity's relief from drudgery; that we have made our banks safe and brought our courts up to date; that we have kept millions of people out of the breadlines.

They are glad that the United States Government is daily becoming more useful, more honest and more decent.

And one of the manifestations of that new spirit is that there are fewer Americans who view with alarm. There are, of course, some people—iv addition to the political viewers-with-alarm who always look on the dark side of life. There are some who complain that things are not as they were once, and who firmly believe that everybody who disagrees with them is a moron or a crook. They belong, it seems to me, to the type of unfortunate individual—and almost every family has one of them- the unfortunate individual of whom it is said "he is enjoying bad health." (Laughter)

Sometimes when I listen and listen to people like that I can . better understand old Uncle Jed.

"Uncle Jed," said Ezra, one day, "Ben't you gittin' a leetle hard of hearin'?"

"Yes," said Uncle Jed, "I'm afraid I'm gittin' a mite deef."

Whereupon Ezra made Uncle Jed go down to Boston, to see an ear doctor.

Uncle Jed came back. And Ezra asked what happened. "Well," said Uncle Jed, "that doctor asked me if I had been drinkin' any. And I said, 'Yes, I been drinkin' a mite.'

"And then that doctor said, 'Well, Jed, I might just as well tell you now that if you don't want to lose your hearin' you've got to give up drinkin'.'

"Well," said Uncle Jed, "I thought it over; and then I said, 'Doc, I like what I've been drinkin' so much better than what I've been a-hearin', that I reckon I'll jest keep on gittin' deef!'" (Laughter)

So you see, just as I promised my three Republican leader friends who ought to have been here tonight, I have talked with you tonight in a vein of old-fashioned country philosophy, with little or no partisanship mixed up with it—even though I think you will know how to apply some of these stories. They are grand fellows, liked by me and by every Democrat in the Congress. Nowadays most everybody in the country knows that sometimes when two Congressmen or two Senators engage in a terrific battle of words, a forensic philippic, a fifteen-round heavyweight championship bout, the two contestants, five minutes later, will be found sitting in the cloakroom with their arms about each other, laughing and joking while they catch their breath.

There are, of course, a few exceptions of men who, stretching political disagreements into personal invective, prove the general rule. But why bring up unpleasant subjects at this dinner at which we are all having such a good time? I am genuinely sorry for those exceptions to the rule. They must find it mighty hard to live with themselves—and with their families and their friends as well.

Motive in the long run is what counts-motive accompanied by good manners. If leaders have good motives and good manners and, at the same time intimate knowledge of the different parts of the country and plenty of experience, you can be fairly safe in assuming that they won't wreck your Government.

But remember, my friends, that they must have other qualities too—the willingness to pay one hundred dollars for a ten dollar dinner, the fortitude to eat the whole of it, and the courage, the sublime courage, to make a half-hour plate-side chat at the end of it.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, Address at Jackson Day Dinner. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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