Address at the Democratic Victory Dinner. Washington, D.C.
ON THIS fourth of March, 1937, in millions of homes, the thoughts of American families are reverting to the March 4th of another year. That day in 1933 represented the death of one era and the birth of another.
At that time we faced and met a grave national crisis. Now we face another crisis—of a different kind but fundamentally even more grave than that of four years ago. Tonight I want to begin with you a discussion of that crisis. I shall continue that discussion on Tuesday night in a nation-wide broadcast and thereafter, from time to time, as may be necessary. For I propose to follow my Custom of speaking frankly to the Nation concerning our common problems.
I speak at this Victory Dinner not only as the head of the Democratic Party but as the representative of all Americans who have faith in political and economic democracy.
Our victory was not sectional. It did not come from compromises and bargains. It was the voice of twenty-seven million voters-from every part of the land.
The Democratic Party, once a minority party, is today the majority party by the greatest majority any party ever had.
It will remain the majority party so long as it continues to justify the faith of millions who had almost lost faith—so long as it continues to make modern democracy work—so long and no longer. We are celebrating the 1936 victory. That was not a final victory. It was a victory whereby our party won further opportunity to lead in the solution of the pressing problems that perplex our generation. Whether we shall celebrate in 1938, 1940, and in 1944, as we celebrate tonight, will deservedly depend upon whether the party continues on its course and solves those problems.
And if I have aught to say it will continue on its course and it will solve those problems.
After election day in 1936, some of our supporters were uneasy lest. we grasp the excuse of a false era of good feeling to evade our obligations. They were worried by the evil symptom that the propaganda and the epithets of last Summer and Fall had died down.
Today, however, those who placed their confidence in us are reassured. For the tumult and the shouting have broken forth anew—and from substantially the same elements of opposition. This new roar is the best evidence in the world that we have begun to keep our promises, that we have begun to move against conditions under which one-third of this Nation is still ill-nourished, ill-clad, ill-housed.
We gave warning last November that we had only just begun to fight. Did some people really believe we did not mean it? Well—I meant it, and you meant it.
A few days ago, a distinguished member of the Congress came to see me to talk about national problems in general and about the problem of the Judiciary in particular.
I said to him:
"John, I want to tell you something that is very personal to me- something that you have a right to hear from my own lips. I have a great ambition in life."
My friend pricked up his ears.
I went on: "I am by no means satisfied with having twice been elected President of the United States by very large majorities. I have an even greater ambition."
By this time, my friend was sitting on the edge of his chair.
I continued: "John, my ambition relates to January 20, 1941." I could feel just what horrid thoughts my friend was thinking. So in order to relieve his anxiety, I went on to say: "My great ambition on January 20, 1941, is to turn over this desk and chair in the White House to my successor, whoever he may be, with the assurance that I am at the same time turning over to him as President, a Nation intact, a Nation at peace, a Nation prosperous, a Nation clear in its knowledge of what powers it has to serve its own citizens, a Nation that is in a position to use those powers to the full in order to move forward steadily to meet the modern needs of humanity—a Nation which has thus proved that the democratic form and methods of national government can and will succeed.
"In these coming years I want to provide such assurance. I want to get the nation as far along the road of progress as I can. I do not want to leave it to my successor in the condition in which Buchanan left it to Lincoln."
My friends, that ambition of mine for my successor can well be the serious ambition of every citizen who wants his United States to be handed down intact to his children and grandchildren.
I spoke in the dead earnestness of anxiety. I speak to you tonight in the same earnestness. For no one who sees as a whole today's picture of this Nation and the world can help but feel concern for the future.
To the President of the United States there come every day thousands of messages of appeal, of protest, of support, of information and advice, messages from rich and poor, from business man and farmer, from factory employee and relief worker, messages from every corner of our wide domain.
Those messages reflect the most striking feature of the life of this generation—the feature which men who live mentally in another generation can least understand—the ever-accelerating speed with which social forces now gather headway.
The issue of slavery, for example, took at least forty years-two generations—of argument, discussion and futile compromise, before it came to a head in the tragic war between the States.
But economic freedom for the wage earner and the farmer and the small business man will not wait, like emancipation, for forty years. It will not wait for four years. It will not wait at all.
After the World War, there arose everywhere insistent demands upon government that human needs be met. The unthinking, or those who dwell in the past, have tried to block them. The wise who live in the present have recognized their innate justice and irresistible pressure—and have sought to guide them.
In some countries, a royalist form of government failed to meet these demands—and fell. In other countries, a parliamentary form of government failed to meet these demands—and fell. In still other countries, governments have managed to hold on, but civil strife has flared or threats of upheaval persist.
Democracy in many lands has failed for the time being to meet human needs. People have become so fed up with futile debate and party bickerings over methods that they have been willing to surrender democratic processes and principles in order to get things done. They have forgotten the lessons of history that the ultimate failures of dictatorships cost humanity far more than any temporary failures of democracy.
In the United States democracy has not yet failed and does not need to fail. And we propose not to let it fail!
Nevertheless, I cannot tell you with complete candor that in these past few years democracy in the United States has fully succeeded. Nor can I tell you, under present circumstances, just where American democracy is headed nor just what it is permitted to do in order to insure its continued success and survival. I can only hope.
For as yet there is no definite assurance that the three horse team of the American system of government will pull together. If three well-matched horses are put to the task of ploughing up a field where the going is heavy, and the team of three pull as one, the field will be ploughed. If one horse lies down in the traces or plunges off in another direction, the field will not be ploughed.
What you and I call the principles of the New Deal did not originate on the fourth of March, 1933. We think of that date as their beginning, because it was not until then that the social demands they represented broke through the inertia of many years of failure to improve our political and economic processes.
What were those demands and needs? How far did we succeed in meeting them? What about them today?
Ever since the World War the farmers of America had been beating off ever-mounting disasters. This Administration tried to help them effectively where no other Administration had dared to take that risk.
The Agricultural Adjustment Act testified to our full faith and confidence that the very nature of our major crops makes them articles of commerce between the States.
The A.A.A. testified also to our full faith and confidence that the preservation of sound agriculture is essential to the general welfare—that the Congress of the United States had full constitutional authority to solve the national economic problems of the Nation's agriculture. By overwhelming votes, the Congress thought so too!
You know who assumed the power to veto, and did veto that program.
In the campaign of 1936, I said: "Of course we will continue our efforts in behalf of the farmers of America. With their continued cooperation we will do all in our power to end the piling up of huge surpluses which spelled ruinous prices for their crops. We will persist in successful action for better land use, for reforestation . . . for better marketing facilities for farm commodities, for a definite reduction of farm tenancy, for encouragement of farmer cooperatives, for crop insurance and a stable food supply. For all these things we have only just begun to fight."
Neither individually nor as a party can we postpone and run from that fight on advice of defeatist lawyers. But I defy anyone to read the majority opinion invalidating of the A.A.A. and tell us what we can do for agriculture in this session of the Congress with any reasonable certainty that what we do will not be nullified as unconstitutional.
The farmers were not the only people in distress in 1932. There were millions of workers in industry and in commerce who had lost their jobs, young people who had never been able to find their first job, and more millions whose jobs did not return them and their families enough to live on decently.
The Democratic Administration and the Congress made a gallant, sincere effort to raise wages, to reduce hours, to abolish child labor, to eliminate unfair trade practices.
We tried to establish machinery to adjust the relations between the employer and employee.
And what happened?
You know who assumed the power to veto, and did veto that program.
The Railroad Retirement Act, the National Recovery Act and the Guffey Coal Act were successively outlawed as the Child Labor Statute had been outlawed twenty years before.
Soon thereafter the Nation was told by a judicial pronunciamento that although the Federal Government had thus been rendered powerless to touch the problem of hour and wages, the States were equally helpless; and that it pleased the "personal economic predilections" of a majority of the Court that we live in a Nation where there is no legal power anywhere to deal with its most difficult practical problems—a No Man's Land of final futility.
Furthermore, court injunctions have paralyzed the machinery which we created by the National Labor Relations Act to settle great disputes raging in the industrial field, and, indeed, to prevent them from ever arising. We hope that this Act may yet escape final condemnation in the highest court. But so far the attitude and language of the courts in relation to many other laws have made the legality of this Act also uncertain, and have encouraged corporations to defy rather than obey it.
In the campaign of 1936, you and I promised this to working men and women:
"Of course we will continue to seek to improve working conditions for the workers of America—to reduce hours over-long, to increase wages that spell starvation, to end the labor of children, to wipe out sweatshops. . . . We will provide useful work for the needy unemployed. For all these things we have only just begun to fight."
And here again we cannot afford, either individually or as a party, to postpone or run from that fight on the advice of defeatist lawyers.
But I defy anyone to read the opinions concerning A.A.A., the Railroad Retirement Act, the National Recovery Act, the Guffey Coal Act and the New York Minimum Wage Law, and tell us exactly what, if anything, we can do for the industrial worker in this session of the Congress with any reasonable certainty that what we do will not be nullified as unconstitutional.
During the course of the past four years the Nation has been overwhelmed by disasters of flood and drought.
Modern science knows how to protect our land and our people from the recurrence of such catastrophes, and knows how to produce as a by-product the blessing of cheaper electric power. With the Tennessee Valley Authority we made a beginning of that kind of protection on an intelligent regional basis. With only two of its nine projected dams completed there was no flood damage in the valley of the Tennessee this winter.
But how can we confidently complete that Tennessee Valley project or extend the idea to the Ohio and other valleys while the lowest courts have not hesitated to paralyze its operations by sweeping injunctions?
The Ohio River and the Dust Bowl are not conversant with the habits of the Interstate Commerce Clause. But we shall never be safe in our lives, in our property, or in the heritage of our soil, until we have somehow made the Interstate Commerce Clause conversant with the habits of the Ohio River and the Dust Bowl.
In the campaign of 1936, you and I and all who supported us did take cognizance of the Ohio River and the Dust Bowl. We said: "Of course we will continue our efforts . . . for drought and flood control . . . For these things we have only just begun to fight.
"Here, too, we cannot afford, either individually or as a party, to postpone or run away from that fight on advice of defeatist lawyers. Let them try that advice on sweating men piling sandbags on the levees at Cairo.
But I defy anyone to read the opinions in the T.V.A. case, the Duke Power case and the A.A.A. case and tell us exactly what we can do as a National Government in this session of the Congress to control flood and drought and generate cheap power with any · reasonable certainty that what we do will not be nullified as un. constitutional.
The language of the decisions already rendered and the widespread refusal to obey law incited by the attitude of the courts, create doubts and difficulties for almost everything else for which we have. promised to fight—help for the crippled, for the blind, for the mothers-insurance for the unemployed—security for the aged—protection of the consumer against monopoly and speculation—protection of the investor—the wiping out of slums—cheaper electricity for the homes and on the farms of America. You and I owe it to ourselves individually, as a party, and as a Nation to remove those doubts and difficulties.
In this fight, as the lawyers themselves say, time is of the essence. In three elections during the past five years great majorities have approved what we are trying to do. To me, and I am sure to you, those majorities mean that the people themselves realize the increasing urgency that we meet their needs now. Every delay creates risks of intervening events which make more and more difficult an intelligent, speedy, and democratic solution of our difficulties.
As Chief Executive and as the head of the Democratic Party, I am unwilling to take those risks—to the country and to the party—of postponing one moment beyond absolute necessity the time when we can free from legal doubt those policies which offer a progressive solution of our problems.
Floods and droughts and agricultural surpluses, strikes and industrial confusion and disorder, cannot be handled forever on a catch-as-catch-can basis.
I have another ambition—not so great an ambition as that which I have for the country, but an ambition which as a lifelong Democrat, I do not believe unworthy. It is an ambition for the Democratic Party.
The Party, and its associates, have had the imagination to perceive essential unity below the surface of apparent diversity. We can, therefore, long remain a natural rallying point for the cooperative effort of all of those who truly believe in political and economic democracy.
It will take courage to let our minds be bold and find the ways to meet the needs of the Nation. But for our Party, now as always, the counsel of courage is the counsel of wisdom.
If we do not have the courage to lead the American people where they want to go, someone else will.
Here is one-third of a Nation ill-nourished, ill-clad, ill-housed —now!
Here are thousands upon thousands of farmers wondering whether next year's prices will meet their mortgage interest—NOW!
Here are thousands upon thousands of men and women laboring for long hours in factories for inadequate pay—NOW!
Here are thousands upon thousands of children who should be at school, working in mines and mills—Now!
Here are strikes more far-reaching than we have ever known, costing millions of dollars- NOW!
Here are Spring floods threatening to roll again down our river valleys—NOW!Here is the Dust Bowl beginning to blow again- NOW!
If we would keep faith with those who had faith in us, if we would make democracy succeed, I say we must act—NOW!
Franklin D. Roosevelt, Address at the Democratic Victory Dinner. Washington, D.C. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/209418