FDR Shows Us the Best of the Liberal Tradition

Like the great presidents who preceded him, Franklin Roosevelt is a figure shrouded in myth. Progressives view him as the trail-blazing champion of the working people against the forces of economic royalism. Conservatives vilify him as the man who created the administrative state -thus destroying freedom in the name of equality. As is usually the case with such issues, the truth lies somewhere in between the two. Roosevelt, or FDR as he was usually called, was an advocate for workers, but he was also a pragmatist who was often criticized by the progressives of his time (including his wife). He also did create the administrative state, but out of a sincere belief that government has a vital role to play in protecting freedom. In short, like most historical figures, Franklin Roosevelt is complex and our opinions about him should reflect this. However, one thing stands without question – FDR is a great president. Leading America through the Great Depression and World War II, Roosevelt remains controversial, but he has nonetheless joined a club occupied only by Washington and Lincoln. As heirs to the American political tradition, he so lovingly preserved, it is vital that we understand the source of Franklin Roosevelt’s greatness. 

Between the twin terrors of socialist dreams and nationalist nightmares, liberalism is greatly threatened. Something our contemporary politics shares with that of Franklin Roosevelt’s day. Roosevelt’s response was to champion liberalism more ardently and more robustly than any American president since. The heart of liberalism is freedom, but most thinkers and statesmen tend to view freedom in simplistic terms. Franklin Roosevelt did not make this mistake. He understood that freedom took many forms and he sought to defend them all. These freedoms take three primary forms: freedom from dependence, freedom from tyranny, and freedom from our own vices. Thus, to be free requires economic, political, and personal liberation. This is the cause of liberalism, and it was the chief cause of America’s longest-serving president. 

Franklin Roosevelt is most famous for his defense of economic freedom. This is understandable, the first great crisis facing his presidency was an economic one. From the moment he assumed office, FDR argued that while American markets must remain free, so must the people who participate in those markets. In his mind, the Great Depression was merely the latest example of how an untrammeled capitalist system, without a strong social safety net, endangered human liberty. It created a class of citizens totally dependent upon the titans of industry and the travails of market forces. No human is meaningfully free if they cannot afford to support a family or else have no option but to work a demeaning and dangerous job. As he said at the 1936 Democratic National Convention: “Liberty requires opportunity to make a living – a living decent according to the standards of the time, a living wage gives man not only enough to live by, but something to live for.”   

It was for this reason – to free people from economic dependence – that Roosevelt created the welfare and regulatory state. Whether right or wrong, he earnestly believed that though the government was imperfect, recent history showed that freedom could not always survive without it. Thus he declared that “better the occasional faults of government that lives in a spirit of charity than consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.” A sentiment that echoed the importance he placed not only on economic freedom but on Christian charity as a foundation for public policy. 

Franklin Roosevelt’s defense of political freedom is less famous but equally important to understanding his project. In his eyes, any system of government that undemocratically restrained the individual’s ability to pursue happiness was tyrannical. Such logic was the motivating ethos of the American Revolution and he deployed that history in 1938 when attacking the politics of the Jim Crow South. “When you come down to it” Roosevelt asserted “there is little difference between the feudal system and the fascist system.” The South he argued, had built its entire society around a feudal system with black people at the bottom. Such a state of affairs was quite simply un-American.  

World War II gave FDR the chance to more fully expand upon the necessity of political freedom. Before and after the United States entered the conflict, FDR’s speeches endeavored to rouse a sometimes reluctant nation to defend freedom. A sentiment he expressed in 1943 as America struggled against the Axis powers: “The issue of this war is the basic issue between those who believe in mankind and those who do not – the ancient issue between those who put their faith in the people and those who put their faith in dictators and tyrants. There have always been those who did not believe in the people, who attempted to block their forward movement across history, to force them back to servility and suffering and silence.” The implication was clear – the United States was not fighting for her mere self-interest but for the preservation of political freedom for all people. 

Franklin Roosevelt offered no political programs or policies to defend personal freedom by cultivating virtue. We should not interpret his lack of policy prescriptions regarding this issue as signaling some lesser importance. FDR simply argued that by and large, the improvement of cultures and minds was a matter best left to churches, charities, and schools rather than a Washington bureaucrat. A devout Episcopalian for most of his life, Roosevelt strongly felt that unless we conquer our various selfish vices no human was totally free. Furthermore, the creation of a more perfect union relied upon a selfless and charitable citizenry. 

Roosevelt’s speeches show us the limited capacities in which our government officials can work to perpetuate virtue. On the radio, on the campaign trail, and in private FDR’s rhetoric was laced with appeals for individuals to rise above their own selfishness. He challenged the American people to remember that “the only effective guide for the safety of this most worldly of worlds, the greatest guide to us all is, moral principle.” We must rise above our various vices – selfishness, fear, ignorance – to constantly do our best for our fellow man. Roosevelt shows that though the government cannot make us virtuous, our leaders can challenge us to be better than we often are.     

This robust understanding of freedom and liberalism has all but vanished in the modern day. Both left and right too often emphasize some forms of freedom at the expense of others. Defending liberalism against its enemies requires we take a page from FDR’s book. Though it is worth mentioning that perhaps Franklin Roosevelt’s greatest lesson is not political or philosophical. It is his disposition – the exuberance of his jaunty smile and his sincere confidence that if we put our faith in God, everything will be alright in the end.