The 8 Best Lines from FDR’s First Inaugural Address

by | Aug 9, 2021 | Thoughts | 0 comments

In the early spring of 1933, newly elected President Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered his first inaugural address.

The most enduring line from that speech was his proclamation that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

While that line may be the most quoted, it is only the 5th sentence of a wisdom-filled speech which continues to be relevant to Americans today.

Here are 8 of our favorite lines from FDR’s Inaugural Address:

1) “Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits.”

We had to look up “evanescent.” It means “soon passing out of sight, memory, or existence; quickly fading or disappearing.”

The accumulation of profits (read: money, stuff, prestige) is evanescent. Much more durable is the satisfaction that comes from losing ourselves in our work, achieving our goals, and unleashing our creativity (100 percent of people are creative, including you).

2) “These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men.”

This is an easy one to glaze over, but it reveals FDR to be a stoic. “Our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister” is a biblical allusion, but it also is a reference (intentional or not) to ancient stoic wisdom.

What FDR is trying to tell us here is that it is easy to wait for others to “solve” our problems, when in reality, the only person who can solve your problems is you. Sometimes it takes dark times to realize that, but once we do, our lives will forever be changed. It also serves a prelude of sorts to JFK’s exhortation 28 years later to “ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”

Here’s a question to which we don’t have an answer, but we want to know what you think – have we become too entitled?

3) “Yet our distress comes from no failure of substance. We are stricken by no plague of locusts. Compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered because they were not afraid, we have still much to be thankful for.”

In the darkest of times, at the height of the Great Depression, FDR reminded us that we can always be grateful for our circumstances. If you are reading this email today, there is a good chance that your current situation is better than that of billions of people on this planet right now. You are not in a war-torn country. You are not lacking for food. You are not a potential victim of an ongoing genocide, living in daily fear. How lucky we are!

This is not meant to minimize your own situation or challenges. We reject the term “first world problems” because it de-legitimizes real problems. This simply reminds us that in the face of our very real challenges, we can still be grateful.

4) “They [the profit-chasers] know only the rules of a generation of self-seekers. They have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish.”

This sentiment also applies also to ourselves. When we succumb to constant “self-seeking” in lieu of a greater purpose or vision, a core part of our being perishes, and we find ourselves hollowed out. Humans thrive on vision. Do you have one?

5) “I favor as a practical policy the putting of first things first.”

Sound advice indeed, especially in the age of distraction. We should all tape this on our desk and remind ourselves of it every day when we sit down to work. First things first.

6) “Small wonder that confidence languishes, for it thrives only on honesty, on honor, on the sacredness of obligations, on faithful protection, on unselfish performance; without them it cannot live.”

Here FDR is speaking about public confidence in business and political leaders. It is compelling to think about the “inputs” required for others to have confidence in you, or your work, or your company. At the end of the day, it all comes back to integrity and reliability.

7) “In the field of world policy I would dedicate this Nation to the policy of the good neighbor—the neighbor who resolutely respects himself and, because he does so, respects the rights of others.”

This is a very buddhist view of the world. It reminds of our Valentine’s Day post – only by loving yourself are you fully able to love others.

8) “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself —nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror.”

A well written sentence – true, concise, profound, memorable. Unfortunately, at this point it has become such a cliché that it goes in one ear and out the other. But really stop and consider it for a moment.

What are you afraid of? What are we as a country afraid of?

When we drill down and look at the facts, quite often it is the fear itself, rather than the object we’re supposedly afraid of, that is the culprit of so much of our needless suffering.

We highly recommending reading the entire address for yourself (and listening to the accompanying audio excerpt).

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