Seventy years after the week in which the death of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt shocked the nation and the world, it is easy enough to imagine the loss of America’s longest-serving and most-transformative president as history.
But FDR understood the American story as that of a long struggle characterized by old fights on new grounds. “In our own land we enjoy indeed a fullness of life greater than that of most nations,” he said. “But the rush of modern civilization itself has raised for us new difficulties, new problems which must be solved if we are to preserve to the United States the political and economic freedom for which Washington and Jefferson planned and fought.”
The way to “reaffirm the faith of our fathers” Roosevelt argued, as he sought and won his greatest electoral victory in 1936, was “to restore to the people a wider freedom.”
“That very word freedom, in itself and of necessity, suggests freedom from some restraining power,” FDR explained, in his “Rendezvous With Destiny” speech to the Democratic National Convention of 1936; he continued:
In 1776 we sought freedom from the tyranny of a political autocracy—from the eighteenth-century royalists who held special privileges from the crown. It was to perpetuate their privilege that they governed without the consent of the governed; that they denied the right of free assembly and free speech; that they restricted the worship of God; that they put the average man’s property and the average man’s life in pawn to the mercenaries of dynastic power; that they regimented the people.
And so it was to win freedom from the tyranny of political autocracy that the American Revolution was fought. That victory gave the business of governing into the hands of the average man, who won the right with his neighbors to make and order his own destiny through his own government. Political tyranny was wiped out at Philadelphia on July 4, 1776.
Since that struggle, however, man’s inventive genius released new forces in our land which reordered the lives of our people. The age of machinery, of railroads; of steam and electricity; the telegraph and the radio; mass production, mass distribution—all of these combined to bring forward a new civilization and with it a new problem for those who sought to remain free.
For out of this modern civilization economic royalists carved new dynasties. New kingdoms were built upon concentration of control over material things. Through new uses of corporations, banks and securities, new machinery of industry and agriculture, of labor and capital—all undreamed of by the Fathers—the whole structure of modern life was impressed into this royal service.