Franklin D. Roosevelt

Address at the Jackson Day Dinner.

January 07, 1939

Chairman Farley, Mr. Vice President, Mr. Speaker, ladies and gentlemen:

Last night I was thinking about this gathering, about our Democratic Party, and what we ought to do to help it. I decided to go right to headquarters—not to Jim Farley's headquarters, but something much further back. So I put in a radio call for General Andrew Jackson.

"Young fellow," he said to me, "I don't know what's bothering you."

I said, "General, it's about the Democratic Party. I'm very fond of it myself, but the Republicans are saying that it's rotting away like a pollywog's tail, and some of our fellows are worried. Is there anything that we ought to do about it?"

"Son," replied the General, "my eyes are getting old and I'm some distance away, but from what I can see from here the only trouble with your fellows is that they've been feeding too well and they scare easily.

"Young fellow, do you realize that if you live out the term you now have, you'll be the only President of any party who's had two full terms with a majority of his own party in both the House and the Senate all the time, the only President since who do you suppose?—why, son, since James Monroe-and he left the White House nearly one hundred and fourteen years ago!

"Woodrow Wilson didn't have majorities as safe as you have now when he first came into office.

"And as for me, son, my Democrats licked old Nick Biddle when we didn't even have a majority in the Senate and had few votes to spare in the House. Tell your fellows to learn to count. Some of you Democrats today get scared and let the other fellows tell you you've lost an election just because you don't have majorities so big that you can go to sleep without sentries.

"Why, there is nothing wrong with your fellows. Tell them to learn how to count and get to shooting at the enemy again and they will be all right."

I am passing on that advice of Old Hickory.

But despite the General's optimism, I think this is a good time for the Democratic Party to "examine its conscience," to think over most seriously what we have done that we should not have done and what we have left undone that we should have done.

Let us start by being realistic.

From 1920 on, the Republican Party fed too well and got fat and lazy. It gave the American people a "do-nothing" government for which they suffered through the terrible days. That was one reason why in 1932 they turned to the Democratic Party. The other reason was that the Democratic Party, during that summer and autumn, had a program of action and sounded sincere.

Four years went by, and in the election of 1936 the Republican Party looked like one of those straddle-bugs I used to see on the pond at Hyde Park. The Democratic Party, however, was carrying out its pledges of 1932 and was still fighting. Hence the overwhelming victory of 1936.

Millions who had never been Democrats gave us the power in 1932, and again in 1936, to get certain things done. And our party can continue in power only so long as it can, as a party, get those things done which non-Democrats, as well as Democrats, put it in power to do.

I have been looking back through some of the history books. In 1834, when Jackson was President, a shrewd observer wrote a letter which I think we ought to read and take to heart today. He said in it:

"There are two parties here—one which would do anything to put down Jackson, and the other anything to sustain him. But there is a third party—and a very large one—which cares not a straw about who is President but who anxiously desire to see some measure of relief for the country, let it operate against or in favor of whom it may."

Today, as in Jackson's day, a majority of the people want only a President who honestly cares for them and a party anxiously and unitedly seeking a way to serve them without regard to personal or political fortunes.

Less than half of the voters of America are Democrats. Less than half are Republicans. But more than half of the voters are for the Democratic Party whenever the Democratic Party is for the majority of the people.

I welcome the return of the Republican Party to a position where it can no longer excuse itself for not having a program on the ground that it has too few votes.

During recent years, Republican impotence has caused powerful interests, opposed to genuine democracy, to push their way into the Democratic Party, hoping to paralyze it by dividing its councils.

The first effect of the gains made by the Republican Party in the recent elections should be to restore to it the open allegiance of those who entered our primaries and party councils with deliberate intent to destroy our party's unity and effectiveness.

The second effect of these gains should be to bring us real Democrats together and to line up with us those from other parties, those who belong to no party at all, who also preach the liberal gospel, so that, firmly allied, we may continue a common constructive service to the people of the country.

For if these independent voters have the conviction that the Democratic Party will remain a liberal party, they will be the first to perceive what I here and now prophesy: that the Republican leadership, conservative at heart, will still seek to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds, talking of balanced budgets out of one side of its mouth and in favor of opportunist raids on the Treasury out of the other.

Yes, opportunists they have been—opportunists they still are: see how they have tried to shuffle New Deal cards.

The Republican first New Deal joyfully went along with our New Deal while we were getting them off the spot and keeping them out of bankruptcy—or worse.

The Republican second New Deal said to its members, "Support New Deal objectives but oppose legislation to put them into effect."

The Republican third New Deal—1938 model-issued this order: "Get for the voters of your district all the New Deal benefits, promise them bigger and better benefits—any old kind of benefits that any old group asks for—but never mention how those benefits will be paid for."

Those tactics are wrong even for a party out of power, and if continued for another two years, they can hardly give to the voters of the Nation any real confidence in the Republican Party or its leadership.

We Democrats, however, have to act as a party in power. And we cannot hold the confidence of the people if we cannot avoid wrangling except by agreeing to sit still and do nothing.

If there are nominal Democrats who as a matter of principle are convinced that our party should be a conservative party—a Democratic Tweedledum to a Republican Tweedledee—it is on the whole better that the issue be drawn within the party, that the fight be fought out, and that if the Tweedledums are defeated they join the Tweedledees. But, my friends, the prospects of such a knock-down and drag-out fight are far more remote than members of the opposition would have you believe. The people of the country are not deceived when honest debate and an honest effort to work things out for the good of the country are labeled dissension or called bad blood by those outside of the party whose wish is father to the thought. Those persons hate to admit it but the fact remains that such debate on our part over the period of the past six years has borne six crops of good fruit.

If we deliver in full on our contract to the American people we need never fear the Republican Party so long as it commands the support of—and in fact down underneath is actually directed by—the same people who have owned it for several generations. For the American Liberty League—unless I am incorrectly informed- still functions as a vehicle for political contributions and the spreading of shopworn propaganda.

Jackson and the party as he led it delivered on the barrel-head.

Up to the very last Jackson delivered for the common people he believed in, and for the national unity which he did so much to create.

On his very last day in the White House he vetoed a bill supported by the opposition and many of his own party which surrendered to the states and to a thousand, warring, petty local interests, the Federal Government's responsibility for husbanding the surplus funds in the Federal Treasury for the benefit of the whole Nation.

Along side this statement in my manuscript I note the letters N. B. which in dead Latin stand for "nota bene," or in live English, "take good notice."

Jackson's successor, reputedly a smart politician, could not keep the Democratic Party in power because he and they drifted from principles to politics. He and they were turned out at the next national election in 1840, because they failed to keep the pork barrel locked up in the cellar, and because they failed to deliver what they had promised to anyone except themselves.

And again my manuscript bids me say "N. B.—take good notice."

Let this be another thought for 1940, In 1840 the new Whig President, William Henry Harrison, elected on a red fire- note the color—hard cider, sky-is-the-limit campaign, backed by the descendants of Hamiltonian aristocrats and by disgruntled Democrats, made his first tender of the Secretaryship of the Treasury in his Cabinet—to whom do you suppose? To none other than old Nicholas Biddle himself, Nicholas Biddle, the money changer whom Andrew Jackson had so soundly trounced and driven from the Temple.

From Andrew Jackson to Nicholas Biddle—four short years. And again I say, "N. B.—take good notice."

A full generation—twenty years—passed by before the principle of Andrew Jackson's true democracy came back to life in the White House with the next real Democrat, Abraham Lincoln. And, parenthetically, he was chosen President only by the founding of a new party.

Let me ask two obvious questions. Does anyone maintain that the Democratic Party from 1840 to 1876 was by any wild stretch of the imagination the party of Thomas Jefferson or of Andrew Jackson? To claim that is absurd.

Does anyone maintain that the Republican Party from 1868 to 1938 (with the possible exception of a few years under Theodore Roosevelt) was the party of Abraham Lincoln? To claim that is equally absurd.

My casual acquaintance—shall I say my casual acquaintance?—with political life for twenty-five years and my more serious reading of prior history lead me to observe that the American people have greatly changed in their attitude toward government in this—our— generation.

We of this modern day take our politics less seriously. And we take our government more seriously.

In the old days the ideal candidate, whom smart managers always looked for, was, as someone has described a former President, a man with "a protective reputation, an obvious but unalert integrity. . . a complete absence of plan or even of thought." It might be well for both parties in considering their candidates for President and Vice President to apply that formula, or to be more strictly accurate, the reverse of that formula, to the dozens who, like Barkis, seem even at this moment to be very, very willing.

In the old days, for the bulk of the population, the elections were only a seasonal diversion—a circus with an oratorical sideshow—with the real job done by quiet economic and social-perhaps I should say back room—pressures behind the scenes.

Today there is emerging a real and forceful belief on the part of the great mass of the people that honest, intelligent and courageous government can solve many problems which the average individual cannot face alone in a world where there are no longer one hundred and twenty acres of good land free for everybody.

Today the voting public watches and analyzes every move made by those who govern them—whether in the Executive or the Legislative or the Judicial branches of our Government-with clearer perception and greater insistence on efficiency and honesty.

Today in that analyzing they are less and less influenced by the red fire and the hard cider ballyhoo of newspaper owners or political orators who adhere to the practices of a century ago.

Yes, we have learned to go behind the headlines and behind the leads and behind the. glittering generalities in order to analyze and reanalyze, using our own thinking processes and not somebody else's before we make up our own minds.

You remember what Abraham Lincoln said about fooling the people. That was in the 1860's. I should say that no wise political leader of 1939 will take it as a safe working rule that you can fool many of the people any of the time.

This new generation, since the war, believes more than did its fathers in the precept "I am my brother's keeper." It believes in realities, economic and spiritual realities, where its fathers did not bother much to go beneath catchwords.

And it is national in its outlook. Youth today will not listen to a sectional conception of party politics—to a combination of two or three parts of the country against another part, or farmers against labor or business against the state.

The younger generation of Americans, by a very large majority, intends to keep on "going places" with the New Deal. Do not overlook this rising generation. Its vote rises proportionately each year.

On Jackson Day every true follower of Jackson asks that the Democratic Party continue to make democracy work.

In answer to the demands of the American people we have expanded the functions of the Government of the United States. We are handling complicated problems of administration with which no other party has ever had to wrestle. To do that, we are constantly recruiting lieutenants who will give intense and genuine devotion to the cause of liberal government. We have brought to the Government men and women whose first thought is to be of service to their country through their government-men and women with fewer attributes of selfishness and more objectives of clean service than any group I have ever come in contact with in a somewhat long career.

Almost without exception they are more intent on doing a good job than in keeping themselves on the payrolls. Almost without exception they possess that quality of cooperative effort which distinguishes them from the political office-holder of half a century ago.

We seek and we welcome their cooperation and yours, not only from those who are with us now, but from others who come to see the light. We are even willing to accept temporary help.

But we always bear in mind the story of the Orangemen's parade in North Ireland on the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne.

The parade was set but the Orangemen had no bass drum. And what is a parade without a bass drum!

But the captain of the Orangemen had a good personal friend in the captain of the Fenians in the same town.

He explained his problem to his friend, the captain of the Fenians, and asked him to cooperate by lending the Fenian drum for the Orangemen's parade.

"Sure," said the captain of the Fenians, "I'll give you my fullest cooperation. I will lend you the drum; you couldn't have a decent parade without it."

"But," he added, with a twinkle in his eye, "since I'm personally responsible for the safety of the drum you'll understand if I have to make one personal condition. You'll have to agree to take the drum out of the parade when you get to Queen Street.

"For that's the corner where we Fenians are going to be laying for you."

If we Democrats lay for each other now, we can be sure that 1940 will be the corner where the American people will be laying for all of us.

The way to avoid fighting among ourselves is to fight together against the enemies of the American people—inertia, greed, ignorance, shortsightedness, vanity, opportunism- all of the evils that turn man against man.

It is my belief, and it is the belief of the great majority of those who hear me tonight, that not just for two years to come, but for a generation to come, we will maintain a united front against those enemies of America.

Let us remember the example of Andrew Jackson, who fought to the last for a united democratic nation.

If we do that—by the Eternal, we shall never have to strike our colors.

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

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