Franklin D. Roosevelt

Address at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, North Carolina

December 05, 1938

Governor Hoey, President Graham, my hosts of the Carolina Political Union, my new found alumni of the University of North Carolina:

From the bottom of my heart I am grateful to all of you today, and very happy to be a part of this great University.

A very old friend of mine, the late Justice Cardozo of the Supreme Court of the United States wrote a few years ago:

We live in a world of change. If a body of law were in existence adequate for the civilization of today, it could not meet the demands of tomorrow. Society is inconstant. So long as it is inconstant . . . there can be no constancy in law. . . .Law defines a relation not always between fixed points, but often between points of varying position. . . .There is change whether we will it or not.

It is recognition of this philosophy that has made the University of North Carolina representative of liberal teaching and liberal thought. And it is my recognition of your recognition of that philosophy that brings me so willingly to Chapel Hill today.

It is a far cry from the days of my first visit to the University, nearly a quarter of a century ago, and the splendid new buildings that I saw in the last five minutes of my drive prove it. I came here then because my old Chief—that consistent North Carolina liberal, Josephus Daniels—told me that I should see for myself a great institution of learning that was thinking and acting in terms of today and tomorrow and not merely in the tradition of yesterday.

In those days, 1913 and 1914, the leadership of the Nation was in the hands of a great President who was seeking to recover for our social system ground that had been lost under his conservative predecessor, and to restore something of the fighting liberal spirit which the Nation had gained under Theodore Roosevelt. It seemed one of our great national tragedies that just when Woodrow Wilson was beginning to accomplish definite improvements in the living standards of America, the World War not only interrupted his course, but laid the foundation for twelve years of retrogression. I say this advisedly because it is not progress, but the reverse, when a nation goes through the madness of the twenties, piling up paper profits, hatching all manner of speculations and coming inevitably to the day when the bubble bursts.

It is only the unthinking liberals in this world who see nothing but tragedy in the slowing up or temporary stopping of liberal progress.

It is only the unthinking conservatives who rejoice down in their hearts when a social or economic reform fails to be 100 per cent successful.

It is only the possessors of "headline" mentality that exaggerate or distort the true objectives of those in this Nation whether they be the president of the University of North Carolina or the President of the United States, who, with Mr. Justice Cardozo, admit the fact of change and seek to guide change into the right channels to the greater glory of God and the greater good of mankind.

You undergraduates who see me for the first time have read your newspapers and heard on the air that I am, at the very least, an ogre—a consorter with Communists, a destroyer of the rich, a breaker of our ancient traditions. Some of you think of me perhaps as the inventor of the economic royalist, of the wicked utilities, of the money changers of the Temple. You have heard for six years that I was about to plunge the Nation into war; that you and your little brothers would be sent to the bloody fields of battle in Europe; that I was driving the Nation into bankruptcy; and that I breakfasted every morning on a dish of "grilled millionaire." (Laughter)

Actually I am an exceedingly mild mannered person—a practitioner of peace, both domestic and foreign, a believer in the capitalistic system, and for my breakfast a devotee of scrambled eggs. (Laughter)

You have read that as a result of the balloting last November, the liberal forces in the United States are on their way to the cemetery—yet I ask you to remember that liberal forces in the United States have often been killed and buried, with the inevitable result that in short order they have come to life again with more strength than they had before.

It is also true that other men in public life have protested in the past against certain forms of economic control and that epithets far stronger than any I have ever used have been employed even by Presidents of the United States. Those of us who knew Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt and Grover Cleveland could hardly call any of them mollycoddles.

I was reading a letter of Theodore Roosevelt the other day, written to a friend in the spring of 1908, and it will, I think, interest and amuse you if I quote from it. He was writing to a man who was fighting for social and political decency on the Pacific Coast. Here is what he said:

Now and then you must feel downhearted when you see men guilty of the most atrocious crimes who, from some cause or other, succeed in escaping punishment, and especially when you see... men of wealth, of high business, and in a sense of high social standing, banded together against you. My dear sir, I want you to feel that your experience is simply the experience of all of us who are engaged in this fight. There is no form of slander and wicked falsehood in which the New York papers, not only those representing the lowest type of demagogy, but those representing the interests that call themselves preeminently conservative, preeminently cultured, have not indulged in as regards myself. From all I can gather the feeling against me, not only in Wall Street, not only in the business houses of the greatest financiers of New York, but also in most of the uptown clubs . . . it is just in these places that the feeling against me has been most bitter. As a matter of fact, I do not care a snap of my fingers about it. I do not care whether they think well of me or think ill of me. But I do care a very great deal to do this work without flinching, on the one hand, and on the other hand without becoming angered and irritated to a degree that will in any way cause me to lose my head.

Now, so it is with you and your associates. You must keep reasonably good-natured; but above all things you must not lose heart; and you must battle on valiantly, no matter what the biggest business men may say, no matter what the mob may say, no matter what may be said by that element which chooses to regard itself as socially the highest element. You are in a fight for plain decency, for the plain democracy of the plain people who believe in honesty and in fair dealing between man and man. Do not get disheartened; and keep up the fight,

Theodore Roosevelt, born of an old New York family, Southern on his mother's side, trained as a young man on our Western frontiers, was perhaps the first American President in modern times who knew the whole Nation. In the letter which I have read, and with this national background, it seems to me what he said in effect was, first, that the American people have, and must have, a definite objective for the improvement of government, for the improvement of social and economic conditions; second, that these objectives must be carried out by definite action, and, third, that in the attaining of them, the President and the Government and the people as a whole must have two essential qualities-first, a sense of proportion and perspective, and, second, good will and a sense of humor.

Almost every crisis in the history of our Nation has become a crisis because of a lack on the part of leaders or on the part of the people themselves, a lack of some of these essentials.

The very birth of the Democratic Party, at a time when President Washington publicly expressed the hope that the Nation could be run without Parties, was due to the simple fact that the Government itself was dominated by the great commercial and shipping interests of the seaboard, and failed to give recognition to the needs and the desires of the masses of the inhabitants of the original Thirteen States who did not subscribe to their theory that birth, wealth or political position could give to the possessors of these qualifications the sole right to govern. Hence the Democratic Party.

A generation later a Government dominated by the other extreme-the plainer people from the back country, from the Piedmont and the slopes of the Alleghenies, the Upper Hudson, and the backwoods of New England—paying scant attention to the ship owners of the seaboard, drove our Nation into the second war against Great Britain. And here in the South it is worth remembering that the first suggestion of secession from the Union was proposed by delegates from the New England States in the Hartford Convention of 1814.

In both cases tolerance and the national point of view were absent. Another generation went by and it was the same lack of tolerance, the same lack of a national point of view which brought about a war which was not inevitable—the War Between the States.

The scene changed and the Nation was confronted not by a sectional difference but by a struggle for economic and social control—a period which saw the control of our National Government by groups of individuals, who, owning their Government, through owning vast financial power, used the plea of development of our national resources that they might feather their own nests.

In the lifetime of people who are still with us, there were men who we must admit had courage and vision, who pushed railroads across the plains, opened mines, dammed rivers, created vast aggregations of capital; and left in their wake vast aggregations of national and state and local political power.

In a sense those were glorious days because the wide-open spaces were open to those native Americans and those who were flocking hither from the centers of Europe to find work in new fields.

A current author has recently emphasized the perfection of life that surrounded our population half a century ago. He draws a picture of the complete lack of any restraints on any individual and infers that every American of those days, no matter in what part of the country he or she lived, lived in a Utopia of work and play to which we should seek an immediate return.

I do not believe it.

A few days ago in Georgia I talked with an old friend whom I have known for ten years. He was what might be called an oldfashioned Southern conservative. We got to "reminiscing" about the old days when I first lived in Georgia. He reminded me of the days when cotton was selling at five cents a pound, and, while he admitted that the ramifications of our Federal legislation, and especially of Court decisions during the past six years were somewhat beyond him, nevertheless he allowed that some principle of crop control—cotton and tobacco, for example decided on by a majority of the farmers themselves, was the most democratic way to prevent the return of five-cent cotton in a few years.

He reminded me of two little banks in Warm Springs, Georgia-banks in which many thousand of dollars of local savings had been deposited—of the failure of both of these banks and the loss of the savings—and of the fact today that deposits in the banks of the United States are safe; and, he remarked, "I hope that that type of liberal legislation will not be repealed."

He reminded me of the white men and Negroes who never saw, as the heads of families, one hundred dollars in cash the whole year round. He reminded me of the days in 1932 when the States of the Union were going broke, losing their credit because the whole burden of the relief of the starving was placed on their shoulders without the contribution of one dollar from the Federal Government. He reminded me of the complete lack of any social security program—of the days when a home-builder was charged fifteen and twenty per cent to borrow the money to build his house—of the days when slum clearance was a beautiful ideal on paper and nowhere else.

And when he left me, he said—"Young man, I don't know the United States the way you do but I know this section of the Nation pretty well. I don't understand the working out of all these new-fangled things that the Government has been starting in these past six years. But I know this section of the country and I want to tell you that there is a new spirit abroad in the land. I am not talking just about the fact that there is more buying power, that houses are painted that were never painted before, that our banks are safe, that our roads and schools are infinitely better. What I am talking about is that all of our young people in my section of the country and in every other section think that we are "going places."

Those two words "going places" seem to be an essential in modern civilization everywhere.

They represent the conviction on the part of the young people of America that life never remains static; that there are better days ahead than ever before; that an opportunity to find a way of life, to earn a living, to raise a family in comfort and security are better today and will be better tomorrow. There may be those in the world who believe that a regimented people, whose every thought and action is directed by one man, may give some people a type of security which is pleasing to them. But whatever convictions I have, none is stronger than my abiding belief that the security and well-being of the American people can best be served by the democratic processes that have made this country strong and great.

The future, however, rests not on chance alone, not on mere conservatism, mere smugness, mere fatalism, but on the affirmative action which we take in America. What America does or fails to do in the next few years has a far greater bearing and influence on the history of the whole human race for centuries to come than most of us who are here today can ever conceive.

We are not only the largest and most powerful democracy in the whole world, but many other democracies look to us for leadership in order that world democracy may survive.

I am speaking not of the external policies of the United States Government. They are exerted on the side of peace and they are exerted more strongly than ever before toward the self-preservation of democracies through the assurance of peace.

What I would emphasize is the maintenance of successful democracy at home. Necessarily democratic methods within a nation's life entail change—the kind of change through local processes described by Mr. Justice Cardozo—the kind of change to meet new social and economic needs through recognized processes of Government.

Because we live in an era of acceleration, we can no longer trust to the evolution of future decades to meet these new problems. They rise before us today and they must be met today.

That is why the younger generation means so much in our current affairs. They are part of the picture in their twenties without having to wait until they pass middle age.

That is why I myself associate myself so enthusiastically with the younger generation.

That is why I am happy and proud to become an alumnus of the University of North Carolina, typifying as it does American liberal thought through American action.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, Address at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, North Carolina Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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