Ninth Annual FDR Memorial Lecture 11/10

Image result for forged in crisisForged in Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times


An enthralling historical narrative filled with critical leadership insights that will be of interest to a wide range of readers—including those in government, business, education, and the arts—Forged in Crisis, by celebrated Harvard Business School historian Nancy Koehn, spotlights five masters of crisis: polar explorer Ernest Shackleton; President Abraham Lincoln; legendary abolitionist Frederick Douglass; Nazi-resisting clergyman Dietrich Bonhoeffer; and environmental crusader Rachel Carson.

What do such disparate figures have in common? Why do their extraordinary stories continue to amaze and inspire? In delivering the answers to those questions, Nancy Koehn offers a remarkable template by which to judge those in our own time to whom the public has given its trust.

Tickets: Public and Alumni $15
Students: Free
Adams House LCR 4 PM




Nancy Koehn is an historian at the Harvard Business School where she is the James E. Robison professor of Business Administration. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Stanford University, Koehn earned a Master of Public Policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government before taking her MA and PhD in History from Harvard. She writes frequently for the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Harvard Business Review Online. She is also a weekly commentator on National Public Radio.


When Reason Trumped Politics: The Remarkable Political Partnership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Wendell L. Willkie

When Reason Trumped Politics:

The Remarkable Political Partnership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Wendell L. Willkie

by C. Stephen Heard, Jr.

As the American people nervously watch this year’s presidential campaign descend into a rant of name calling and outright crudity that would be inappropriate in a saloon, it might be wise to pause and look back 75 years to a remarkable partnership between Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Wendell L. Willkie, opposing candidates in the 1940 election. Though the race was boisterous and equally contentious — FDR was running for an unprecedented third term to the horror of the Republican Party — each candidate managed to wage a vigorous campaign that kept sight of a shared common goal: the betterment of America. Even more importantly, their cooperation during that election year and in the years that followed likely prevented the collapse of Great Britain and provided America with its greatest fighting ally against the forces of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt

This relationship is all the more remarkable considering the very different starting points of these two men. FDR was born to an affluent family in Hyde Park, New York. He graduated from two of the country’s most prestigious schools, Groton and Harvard. (He attended Columbia Law as well, but never completed his degree.) Intrigued by politics at an early age, Roosevelt was elected to the New York Senate in 1910, and later, despite the crippling effects of the polio he contracted in 1921, he achieved the governorship of New York in 1928. Roosevelt owed his allegiance to the Democratic Party as much to sympathy with its tenets as to the fact that his distant cousin Theodore Roosevelt had four sons who appeared eager to enter politics. FDR realized very early on that there would be much more opportunity with the Democrats than there would ever be in the Grand Old Party.

Wendell Willkie

Willkie, on the other hand, was born to a modest family in 1892 in the small Indiana town of Elwood and attended both college and Law School at Indiana State University. His interest in politics literally began when he was barely four years old — his father took him to a torchlight procession for the Democratic Presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan, who had come to Elwood during the 1896 campaign. His commitment to politics continued through his school career including meeting with the liberal trial lawyer, Clarence Darrow. Willkie also developed an interest in communism reading Karl Marx and even considered a run for Congress.

On April 2, 1917, the same day Woodrow Wilson signed a declaration of war against Germany, Willkie volunteered for the United States Army. He was sent to France but the war ended before he saw combat. In 1918, he married Edith Wilk, a librarian from Rushville, Indiana. Soon his mother, Henrietta, herself a lawyer and one of the first women admitted to the Indiana bar, convinced Willkie that his strong character and intelligence would better serve him in a larger arena. So the young couple moved to Akron, Ohio where Willkie started with Firestone Tire and Rubber, and soon joined a local law firm. He soon became a leading utilities lawyer and was elected President of the Akron Bar Association.

His wife, Edith, who shared the same ambitions as her mother-in-law, convinced her husband to move to New York where he joined a major utility company, Commonwealth and Southern Corporation, as General Counsel. In 1933 Willkie became the president of C&S, which through multiple acquisitions, had become the largest public utility holding company in America. Maintaining his interest in politics, Willkie became a delegate to the 1932 Democratic Convention. He eventually supported Roosevelt as the party’s nominee and contributed $150 to his campaign.

REA Poster 1939

The two men became adversaries as the respective spokesmen for the opposing sides in one of America’s key issues in the 1930’s – the expansion of the country’s electrical grid. Willkie felt strongly that private utilities, like C&S, could and should do the development job. Because of the project’s scale, Roosevelt felt equally strongly that this was a job best undertaken by the Federal government

Although Thomas Edison had developed the electrical means to power the incandescent light bulb in 1870, by the 1930’s only the northeast surrounding New York and the northern Midwest around Chicago had enjoyed the benefits of the new power source. Virtually the entire Midwest and southern areas of the country were without electricity. The long power lines and generation facilities required to electrify these massive land areas crucial to America’s farms and agricultural areas were simply too extensive and too expensive to finance privately. Roosevelt therefore introduced and engineered legislation through a Congress he knew was deeply aware of the broad and painful impact the Depression was having on their constituents. Roosevelt’s leadership led to the creation of the Rural Electrification Administration(all external links in this article are to unless noted), the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Public Utilities Holding Company Act. Through the legislative hearing process, as well in speeches and the press, the two men vigorously defended their differing approaches, yet in stark contrast to today, publicly expressed respect for their opponent.

Willkie’s first meeting with Roosevelt was in the White House in December 1934. After a cordial exchange, Willkie sent a telegram to his wife “CHARM OVERRATED. I DIDN’T TELL HIM WHAT YOU THINK OF HIM.”

As Willkie’s potential appeal grew in the eyes of the Republican leadership, they seemed to be unmindful, at least at first, of his liberal and internationalist views, concentrating instead on Willkie’s increasingly vocal objections to the anti-business direction of the Democratic party. In fact, he broke ranks and voted for Al Landon in the 1936 election.

In 1939, feeling that the Democratic party had abandoned him, Willkie switched his voter registration from Democratic to Republican at the suggestion of prominent New York Republican businessmen who planned to back him as the candidate best qualified to run against President Roosevelt in 1940. Willkie won the Republican nomination on the sixth ballot at a brokered convention. He then proceeded to wage a vigorous and at times aggressively personal campaign against the president, largely centered on domestic issues. In particular, Willkie objected to FDR’s decision to run for an unheard of third term, viewing it as a highly dangerous precedent. “If one man is indispensable,” he argued, “then none of us is free.” However, on the international front, Willkie spoke often about the dangers facing America, and believed, as did Roosevelt, in the need to help our allies, especially Great Britain. He supported, for instance, Roosevelt’s call for the first ever peacetime draft, as well as the Destroyers for Bases Agreement — policies that had limited appeal within the isolationist ranks of the Republican party — but that Willkie felt were essential to the security of the United States.

Some hardly subtle Willkie campaign buttons from the collection at the FDR Library and Presidential Museum

In the end, with active wars raging in Europe and the Far East, the electorate decided not to change leadership. Roosevelt won the election easily, capturing both the popular and Electoral College vote by very large margins.

Interestingly at the time, there was a precedent for Roosevelt reaching out to Republicans in his desire to build a bipartisan foreign policy. In the spring of 1940, the president had a growing and increasingly deep concern as he watched country after country in Europe falling under Hitler’s war machine. Roosevelt also had the personal and political strength to take a bold step especially given the strong desire to stay out of the war by Republican isolationists. He brought two prominent Republicans, Henry L. Stimson and Frank Knox into the government as his Secretaries of War and the Navy, respectively. Both men had vigorously opposed Roosevelt’s 1930 campaign seeking reelection as the governor of New York. Both men, however, went on to be strong and highly regarded supporters of Roosevelt’s wartime strategies and actions. In that long-ago time the differences between the parties — with the exception of the Republican right-wing isolationists — was significantly closer than it is today.

The success of Roosevelt’s decision to bring two well-known Republicans into his cabinet as well as his respect for Willkie, whom he had just defeated, brought about a unique and uncommon phenomenon historically unheard of in Presidential elections. Shortly after the November election President Roosevelt told close advisors that he wanted to use his former adversary’s talents and intelligence, perhaps even offer Willkie a position in the government. The opportunity presented itself before the end of the year.

On December 29, while the president was trying to relax in the Caribbean, he received an urgent message from British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to the effect that England was running out of cash and thus unable to buy arms and take other steps to protect the British people. Roosevelt’s response was characteristically swift and strong.

The original letter from Roosevelt hung for many years on the wall at Chartwell.

In January 1941, the president asked Willkie to go to London to personally deliver a letter to Mr. Churchill whom Mr. Roosevelt frequently addressed as “a former naval person.” In the letter, Roosevelt wrote, quoting from Longfellow:

January 20, 1941

Dear Churchill:
Wendell Willkie will give you this –He is truly helping to keep politics out over here.
I think this verse applies to you people as it does to us:
“Sail on, Oh Ship of State!
Sail on, oh Union strong and great.
Humanity with all its fears
With all the hope of future years
Is hanging breathless on thy fate.”

As ever yours,
Franklin D. Roosevelt

Churchill was inspired by the letter and later gave one of his most memorable speeches in Parliament: “Give us the tools, and we will finish the job,” he finished. (You can listen to the relevant excerpt HERE (link to Churchill framed the president’s letter and hung it at his private residence at Chartwell where it remained until his death.

Willkie had planned to visit embattled Britain on his own before Roosevelt asked him on the eve of his third inauguration to be the president’s informal emissary. Willkie accepted immediately. While he was in London, Willkie walked the streets without a helmet or gas mask, protections which virtually all Londoners carried because of constant German air raids. He visited bombed out sites and slept in air raid shelters and subways with British civilians. He also visited other cities and towns — Birmingham, Coventry, Manchester and Liverpool. Churchill invited him to 10 Downing Street, though he did insist on providing his guest with a helmet and gas mask.

On February 5, Roosevelt called Willkie to return to the United States to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in support of the Lend-Lease legislation, which ultimately brought America into the war and helped turn the tide for the Allies against Hitler. Lend-Lease allowed the United States to supply food, oil, armaments, including warships and warplanes to Britain and other allies, including Free France, Britain, China.

Willkie and Churchill in front of Number 10

When ultraconservative Senator Nye of North Dakota asked Willkie at the Senate hearing about the apparent contradiction between his support of Lend-Lease and his previous campaign statements that Roosevelt would lead America into war by April 1, Willkie smiled and said, “That was a bit of campaign oratory, Senator.” The hearing room burst into laughter.

In his testimony, Willkie went on to explain, “I tried as hard as I could to defeat Franklin Roosevelt, and I tried not to pull any of my punches. He was elected president. He is my president now.”

Roosevelt, hoping to ensure public support for his controversial plan, conjured one of the most memorable metaphors of his time in office. Speaking to the press, he compared his plan to someone lending their neighbors a garden hose to put out a fire in their home. “What do I do in such a crisis?” the president asked the assembled reporters. “I don’t say …‘Neighbor, my garden hose cost me $15, you have to pay me $15 for it’…I don’t want $15 – I want my garden hose back after the fire is over.” To which skeptical Senator Robert Taft of Ohio later responded: “Lending war equipment is a good deal like lending chewing gum. You don’t want it back.”

Willkie’s testimony helped pass the Lend-Lease Act while earning him the enmity of the Republican Party.

Roosevelt’s respect for Willkie was again demonstrated in the summer of 1942. Specifically, the president’s former adversary, and now close advisor, suggested to Roosevelt that he again act as an envoy, to traverse the globe seeking insights into how the world could live in peace after the war. Travelling on an Army Air-Corps converted B-25 bomber with an Army Air-Forces crew, Willkie spent 49 days meeting with foreign leaders including Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union. General de Gaulle, leader of the Free French, British Field Marshall Montgomery in North Africa, Chang Kai-Shek in China and elsewhere showing American unity and discussing plans for the post war world.

Willkie greets General Chang Kai-Skek

Upon his return to the United States, Willkie reported to Roosevelt. He also authored a best-selling book, One World, with his observations and recommendations. The book sold one million copies in its first month. In October of 1942, Willkie made a radio “Report to the People” which was heard by about 26 million Americans. In his broadcast, Willkie urged that after the war America should join a world-wide organization, which ultimately became the United Nations. The President wanted Willkie to lead the new organization. Willkie declined.

In April, Willkie had joined a New York law firm which subsequently became one of the city’s largest and most respected, Willkie, Farr & Gallagher. Two months later he also represented Hollywood movie producers before a Senate subcommittee that was investigating claims that the industry was producing pro-war propaganda. Willkie’s First-Amendment arguments ended any further investigation. Around this same time, he was asked to join the Board of Directors of Twentieth Century-Fox and soon became Fox’s Chairman.

Willkie’s views on race were equally advanced. He had previously advocated integration of the military and civil service. Willkie now urged appointment of an African American to the cabinet or the Supreme Court. He continued to be a strong advocate for equal rights for minorities. In 1943, Willkie worked with the then Chairman of the NAACP, Walter White, to convince Hollywood to give black Americans better treatment in the movie industry.

Memorial plaque to Wendell Willkie on the grounds of the New York Public Library. The inscription reads:
“I believe in America because in it we are free-
free to choose our government, to speak our minds,
to observe our different religions.”

The final chapter of the Roosevelt-Willkie partnership is perhaps even more fascinating than the collaboration described here. Although some political historians are aware of certain of the facts, most have only vague knowledge of the fact that Roosevelt asked Willkie to be his Vice-Presidential running mate in 1944, the president’s successful attempt to earn an unprecedented fourth term. When Willkie declined the invitation, Roosevelt dispatched his Special Counsel, Samuel L. Rosenman, to New York to have highly confidential discussions with Willkie about Roosevelt’s “long term project…after the 1944 election to start to form a new party with Willkie” – a more moderate hybrid or fusion party – that would free American politics from isolationism by jettisoning the extreme right or left of both parties.

Sadly, it never came to pass. Willkie died in October of 1944. Roosevelt passed away less than six months later, in April of 1945.

While it’s unlikely that the current crop of bickering candidates will soon provide anything like the legendary non-partisan cooperation evinced by these two men, perhaps the rancor and dysfunction of the 2016 presidential campaign will finally provoke the American public to seriously consider the formation of a new party — one freed from extremism — that was so presciently contemplated by two of America’s most astute politicians over 75 years ago.

Retired attorney, avid history buff and Foundation Alumni Advisory Board member C. Stephen Heard Jr. ’58 wrote his senior honors thesis on Wendell Willkie. He lives with his wife Susan in Charleston, South Carolina.

A printer friendly version of this article can be downloaded HERE.

FDR: A Life in Pictures

FDR: A Life in Pictures

Get the book!
FDR: A Life in Pictures

by Michael Weishan

Lightweight yet Machiavellian. Frivolous but intense. Socialist and fascist. Devious yet charming. Communist while Caesar. Both traitor and savior combined. Rarely have such contradictory descriptives been attached to a single man. But at one time or another, each was tagged to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, perhaps the most influential political figure of the 20th century. Here for the very first time in one volume: a visual road map through the extraordinarily rich timeline of FDR’s life, charting step-by-illustrated-step his amazing progression from pampered youth to 32nd president of the United States. Meticulously compiled from more than 70 large-format, digitally restored period photos — some never before published, and most with extended captions — FDR: A Life in Pictures documents as no other book can the remarkable living legacy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Demagogues and Democracy

Demagogues and Democracy

by Cynthia M. Koch

The specious promises of the prophets of an unearned plenty are a mirage which beckons and lures us, not to the millennial city, but into the deserts of disillusion and ruin. And perhaps we shall even lose our liberties on the way.

-Winston Churchill, “Soapbox Messiahs,” 1936

Out of office during the 1930s, Winston Churchill devoted himself to—and earned his living from—writing. In this piece from the June 20, 1936, issue of Colliers, a popular opinion magazine of the time, Churchill’s critique of the leading American demagogues of the Depression—Huey Long, Father Charles Coughlin, and Dr. Charles Townsend—warned that the magical thinking that “some great new world is going to open where work will do itself, and where ‘something for nothing’ is the order of the day” was nothing but a “mirage” (p. 11). A firm believer in capitalism (and democracy), he lambasted those who would turn to communistic or fascistic solutions to address the worldwide financial crisis. Echoing the optimism of Franklin Roosevelt, with whom he would forge the Anglo-American special relationship a few years later, Churchill declared, “I believe that prosperity will return. I believe that the greatest days of that system of private enterprise which has done so much for the world in the past century lie in the future and not in the past. But the gains of tomorrow can be won only by thought and effort” (p. 46).

These are not the words of a demagogue. They speak of hard work and sacrifice and to those facing starvation and homelessness, they offer no immediate solutions. Much more alluring in times of uncertainty and despair, are the charms of the demagogue. He (and most of the time, but not always, a demagogue is a he) promises easy solutions to complicated problems using dubious methods. He stirs up people’s passions and fears with exaggerated rhetoric and scapegoating. Slogans, name calling, and misrepresentation are his stock in trade. And most of all, he cajoles people into believing that he and only he can solve their problems—often turning himself into a messianic figure who commands “emotional attachment to his person” that “effectively block[s],” in the words of David H. Bennett in his book Demagogues in the Depression, “any group awareness of either the real sources of unhappiness or the real means of solution” (p. 4).

Demagogues have a long history associated not only with suffering and deprivation, but with the very foundations of democracy. Perhaps it is because only in democracy do ordinary people dare to believe that their lives can be better. That seductive dream opens the door for the demagogue. The word itself derives from ancient Greek and means quite simply a leader who espouses the cause of the common people. Plato’s Republic suggests a more sinister meaning in Book VIII: “[T]yranny is . . . established out of no other regime than democracy . . . the greatest and most savage slavery out of the extreme of freedom.”

Dr. Michael Leib of Philadelphia,
an Antifederalist

In the United States, by the 1790s our first demagogues were appearing in “democratic societies,” which opposed the strong central government and elitism of the Federalists. Many were idealistic democrats inspired by Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution; others more easily fit the contemporary description of “mob-masters” who, as described by Reinhard H. Luthin in “Some Demagogues in American History,” eschewed gentlemanly decorum for rabble rousing. As we know all too well, the Founders—well-born, educated gentlemen—carefully restricted voting rights in the Constitution to white men with property, judging the restriction of suffrage (in the words of John Dickinson) a “defence against the dangerous influence of those multitudes without property and without principle with which our Country like all others, will in time abound.” But it was Dickinson’s home state of Pennsylvania that alone had extended voting to white men without a property requirement in its first state constitution.

Luthin’s first American demagogue was Dr. Michael Leib of Philadelphia, an Antifederalist who was “selfish and ambitious . . . [with] a spitfire eloquence that ‘produced effect rather by the velocity of his missiles than the weight of his metal’” (p. 23). And like many who were to follow, while expressing concern for the welfare of the masses, Leib “lived luxuriously, powdered his hair, wore ultrafashionable dress, and sprayed himself with perfume, just like the hated Federalists.” He nonetheless “convinced the humble” he was “one of them” and won a seat in the U.S. Senate. The idea of universal [white] manhood suffrage spread and as the “era of the common man” took hold in the 1820s, a long parade of American demagogues began. They were, according to Luthin, “confined neither to a single political party nor to a particular social viewpoint nor to one section of the country” (p. 4). Michael Leib was followed by Antimason Thurlow Weed, then by the Jacksonian Democrats Franklin E. Plummer, Richard M. Johnson, and Ely Moore. Anti-Jacksonian Whigs like Tom Corwin were followed by antislavery Republicans like James H. Lane, Nathaniel P. Banks, and Thaddeus Stevens, who in turn railed against proslavery Democrats Albert Gallatin Brown, Henry A. Wise, Louis T. Wigfall, Joseph E. Brown, and William L. Yancey. Later we had the Tammany Democrat Fernando Wood, Anglophobe Republican Richard J. Oglesby, and a host of “bloody-shirt” Republicans like Ben Butler, James G. Blaine, and William A. Wheeler, to name a few. In the South populist-Democrats sprang up in the 1870s with Ben Tillman, followed by Tom Watson and Jim Hogg in the 1890s, and Jim Vardaman, Eugene Talmadge, Jim Ferguson, and Theodore G. Bilbo into the early twentieth century. Together they round out a partial list of demagogues in American history. It should not be overlooked that historian Lutkin was doing his research during the rise of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy in the early 1950s.

Demagoguery reached new heights in the 1930s. Hitler rose to power in January 1933 and Mussolini consolidated his totalitarian empire. Each promised to right the wrongs—economic as well as nationalistic—that had plagued Germany and Italy after World War I. In the United States, a host of extremists emerged in those grim days. Father James R. Cox led the Jobless Party in 1932 and William H. “Coin” Harvey organized the Liberty Party in the same year. In 1933 William Dudley Pelley founded the Nazi-like Silver Shirts Legion in America and another admirer of Hitler, “General” Art J. Smith, organized the Khaki Shirts. Philip Johnson and Alan Blackburn, also fascists, began their National Party in 1934. There were also Alexander Lincoln and his Sentinels of the Republic, George E. Deatherage and the Knights of the White Camellia, and self-styled fascists Seward Collins and Gerald Winròd (Bennett, p. 4).

The four demagogues who formed the Union Party in the summer of 1936 were another story. Each had reached national prominence in his own right and together they—and their many followers—believed they stood a chance against Franklin Roosevelt: Father Charles E. Coughlin, the “radio priest” from Royal Oak, Michigan; Dr. Francis E. Townsend of Long Beach, California, creator of the Old Age Revolving Pension Plan; Gerald L. K. Smith of Louisiana, who inherited the mantle of Huey Long’s Share Our Wealth plan after Long’s assassination; and Congressman William Lemke of North Dakota, a long-time activist on behalf of farmers of the northern Great Plains. They were unlikely political bedfellows, but they had two things in common: each believed in Robin Hood-like panaceas to the Great Depression that would take money from those who had it and give it to the poor; and each, for his own reason, hated Franklin Roosevelt.


Father Coughlin

[N]o candidate who is endorsed for Congress can campaign, go electioneering for, or support the great betrayer and liar, Franklin D. Roosevelt. . . . I ask you to purge the man who claims to be a democrat from the Democratic Party—I mean Franklin Double-Crossing Roosevelt.

Father Charles Coughlin, Townsend Plan Convention, Cleveland, July 1936

Father Charles Coughlin, the “radio priest.”

The Reverend Charles E. Coughlin, the “radio priest,” built a radio following in the late 1920s from his pulpit at a small parish church in Royal Oak, Michigan. Born in Hamilton, Ontario, to Irish Catholic parents, Coughlin began his religious life in Canada but moved to the U.S., where he was assigned to lead the Shrine of the Little Flower of Jesus—a newly established temple to St. Thérèse, a recently canonized French Carmelite nun. Located in a poor industrial suburb of Detroit with few Catholics, the Ku Klux Klan harassed the parish with burning crosses. Anxious to expand and build support for his church, Coughlin began delivering sermons on the radio in 1926 and organized the Radio League of the Little Flower to solicit contributions. With radio in its infancy, and Coughlin’s extraordinarily mellifluous voice, the fundraising was enormously successful. He raised more than enough money to support and expand the shrine, along with his growing staff and radio expenses, and became a celebrity.

After the stock market crash in October 1929, Coughlin added politics and economics to his radio sermons, railing against big banks, bankers, and “Godless Communism” as responsible for the woes of his working-class listeners. He purchased radio time in Chicago and Cincinnati, in addition to Detroit, and by 1930 was reaching a national audience. He attacked Herbert Hoover as “the banker’s friend, the Holy Ghost of the rich, the protective angel of Wall Street.” His popularity soared. “Hoover Prosperity Breeds Another War,” brought him 1.2 million letters (Bennett, p. 34). Before long Coughlin was receiving an average of 80,000 letters a week and employing 96 mail clerks. (Early in his presidency Roosevelt received about 50,000 letters a week.) Reflecting his own Irish Catholic heritage and that of his substantially Irish and German Catholic audience, Coughlin was an Anglophobe and highly influential among Roman Catholics in New England, the Northeast and Midwest—a constituency important to Roosevelt. Coughlin supported FDR as a candidate and early in his presidency, calling the New Deal “Christ’s Deal,” until the president moved to distance himself when Coughlin’s attentions became too effusive and the priest began to see himself an economic advisor.

In the middle of his fiery speech at the Townsend Plan convention in Cleveland, 1936, Father Coughlin dramatically stripped off his clerical collar and black coat before a crowd of 10,000.

The break between Coughlin and Roosevelt came after late 1934 when Coughlin declared the old political parties “all but dead” and should “relinquish the skeletons of their putrefying carcasses to the halls of a historical museum” and announced formation of his political organization, the National Union for Social Justice. Large numbers of local units, organized by congressional district, were to be the “lobby of the people” to pass legislation consistent with his Sixteen Principles, which abolished the Federal Reserve and replaced it with a central bank and called for the nationalization of key industries and protecting the rights of labor. By April 1935 Coughlin claimed 8.5 million people had expressed support for the Sixteen Principles. By the following January, he announced “at least” 5,267,000 new members in 26 states and 302 of 435 congressional districts.

A vocal isolationist, at the end of January 1935 Coughlin preached against the “menace of the World Court” as well as “international bankers” who, as David Kennedy explains in his book Freedom From Fear, were the alleged beneficiaries of Roosevelt’s nefarious plan to involve the United States in overseas affairs (pp. 232-34). (Roosevelt himself misread the peoples’ temper and thought it an opportune time to reintroduce the country to internationalism.) Prodded also by the Hearst newspapers, hundreds of thousands of telegrams filled the Senate mailroom and the World Court treaty was defeated by a narrow margin. As Kennedy reports, Louisiana Senator Huey Long declared, “I do not intend to have these gentlemen whose names I cannot even pronounce, let alone spell, passing on the rights of the American people” (p. 233). After the 1936 election, Coughlin became a vocal anti-Semite, blaming Jewish bankers for the Russian Revolution as well as world financial crises. To oppose Communism he increasingly expressed sympathy for Hitler and Mussolini. Coughlin’s broadcasts were substantially silenced after the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939 when he was forced off the air. He continued to push his anti-intervention views in his magazine Social Justice until after Pearl Harbor when, threatened with revocation of his mailing privileges and a likely sedition trial, the Roman Catholic Church finally silenced him.

Gerald L. K. Smith (and Huey Long)

I’ll show you the most historic and contemptible betrayal put over on the American people. . . . Our people were starving and they burned the wheat . . . hungry, and they killed the pigs . . . led by Mr. Henry Wallace, Secretary of Swine Assassination . . . and by a slimy group of men culled from the pink campuses of America with a friendly gaze fixed on Russia . . . beginning with Frankfurter and all the little frankfurters. . . . They told the workers to organize under section 7a, and the U.S. government became the biggest employer of scab labor in the world . . . and they had the face to recognize Russia, where two million Christians had been butchered and the churches were still burning. . . . This election to me is only an incident. . . . My real mission is to see that the red flag of bloody Russia is not hoisted in place of the Stars and Strips—Give me a hand!

Gerald L. K. Smith, Cleveland, 1936

Gerald L. K. Smith
“I’ll teach ‘em how to hate.”

Gerald L. K. Smith’s Cleveland speech took place at Coughlin’s National Union for Social Justice convention in August 1936, one of two meetings that summer that forged the alliance of protest movements into the Union Party. Smith was heir to Huey Long’s Share Our Wealth Plan and Huey Long was the one demagogue who seriously worried Franklin Roosevelt. FDR called him “one of the two most dangerous men in America.” The other, he later added, was General Douglas MacArthur (Brinkley, p. 57). Long was governor, then senator, from Louisiana where his powerful machine won popular support by implementing long-overdue improvements in public health, education, road-building, and public works. He was from the poor hill country of northern Louisiana (although his family was reasonably prosperous) and built his power base on the disaffected, populist sentiments of that region’s tenant farmers. Known as the Kingfisher, he had become the virtual dictator of Louisiana when he resigned as governor in 1932 to become senator.

Long’s Share Our Wealth Plan called for deeply graduated, confiscatory income and inheritance taxes designed to redistribute large fortunes to the citizenry at large. Every American family would be guaranteed a “household estate” of $5,000, “enough for a home, an automobile, a radio, and the ordinary conveniences,” and a government guaranteed annual income of from $2,000 to $2,500 (Brinkley, p. 72). Share Our Wealth clubs proliferated throughout the South and by mid-1935 were in many other regions as well.

Huey Long for President lapel button.

At first Long supported Roosevelt, but later he became an opponent as his own aspirations for the presidency became clear. Roosevelt sought to undermine Long’s influence by denying him patronage and launching an investigation into alleged tax fraud in the Long organization. Democratic politicians warned Roosevelt that Long was a threat to the New Deal coalition and that he was planning a third party run. Roosevelt was sufficiently worried that in 1935 he had the Democratic National Committee prepare a statistical report on the two most prominent demagogues—Father Coughlin and Huey Long (Bennett, p. 80). But the threat from the latter came to an end when Long was assassinated in September 1935.

Gerald L. K. Smith, a clergyman who was national organizer of the Share Our Wealth Society, continued Long’s national political plans; but where Long had been largely noncommittal on race, Smith took the Share Our Wealth Society in new racist (and anti-Semitic) directions. Like Long and Coughlin, Smith was a bombastic orator, memorable for some of the most sensational (and frightening) rhetoric of the era:

I’m not a teacher. I’m a symbol—a symbol of a state of mind. When the politicians overplay their hand, certain nerve centers of the population will begin to twitch. The people will start fomenting and fermenting, and then a fellow like myself, someone with courage enough to capture the people, will get on the radio, make three or four speeches, and have them in his hand. I’ll teach ‘em how to hate. The people are beginning to trust true leadership. (Bennett, p. 142)

Smith formed the American First Party in 1943 and ran for president as an isolationist in 1944. He was a member of William Dudley Pelley’s pro-Nazi Silver Shirts organization, patterned after Hitler’s brown shirts. After the war he advocated for the release of Nazi war criminals convicted at the Nuremburg Trials and continued as an activist in far right politics.

Francis E. Townsend

We dare not fail. Our plan is the sole and only hope of a confused and distracted nation. . . . We have become an avalanche of political power that no derision, no ridicule, no conspiracy of silence can stem. . . . Where Christianity numbered its hundreds in its beginning years, our cause numbers in its millions. And without sacrilege we can say that we believe that the effects of our movement will make as deep and mighty changes in civilization as did Christianity itself.

Francis E. Townsend, Time, November 4, 1935

Dr. Francis Townsend in 1935.

The third mass movement of the 1930s was the Townsend Old Age Revolving Pension Plan founded in 1933 by an elderly and mild-mannered medical doctor from Long Beach, California. By spring 1936 it had between 2 and 3.5 million paying members (dues were 25¢) organized into more than 4,500 local Townsend Clubs. Its members were the elderly, people for whom the Depression struck particularly hard as their life’s savings were lost in the bank crises—and jobs, even for the young and able-bodied, were hard to come by. Social changes played a role, too. With multigenerational families dispersed by the demands of the new industrial economy, the traditional social safety net was stretched thin. It is not surprising, then, that the movement started in southern California, which was already a retirement mecca with the elderly living far from their families. Frightened and desperate, they were ready for a savior.

Dr. Townsend seemed an unlikely demagogue, but possessed of an idea and a cause he nevertheless became one. His fanatic followers were devoted to him as a savior and he did not disabuse them of the notion.

Born in 1867 into a poor but religious farm family in rural Illinois, Townsend tried farming and school teaching before enrolling in medical school, receiving his degree at age 36. He practiced medicine in the Black Hills of South Dakota for 15 years, served as a medical officer in World War I, and moved to Long Beach in 1919. To supplement his medical income in California, he speculated in real estate sales, and was appointed a county public health officer in 1930. Then he too lost his job and was thrown back on dwindling savings. Appalled by the poverty of the elderly, he determined to take action. He was 66 years old when he wrote an opinion piece for his local newspaper, the Long Beach Press-Telegram, setting forth his plan to provide a “revolving” pension for the elderly.

It is estimated that the population of the age of 60 and above in the United States is somewhere between nine and twelve millions. I suggest that the national government retire all who reach that age on a monthly pension of $200 a month or more, on condition that they spend the money as they get it. This will insure an even distribution throughout the nation of two or three billions of fresh money each month. Thereby assuring a healthy and brisk state of business, comparable to that we enjoyed during war times.

Townsend Plan billboard.

To Townsend and his followers, it was simple and perfect: the original plan was to be funded by a “transaction” or sales tax on all business transactions—wholesale and retail—that would stimulate the economy. He called it the “velocity of money” and it would sweep away the Depression. With the aged withdrawn from the workforce, Townsend predicted that “millions” of jobs would be created, and state and local governments would save on the costs of almshouses, prisons, and policing as poverty was eliminated. He worked with his old boss Earl Clements, a real estate marketer, who masterminded the publicity machine and membership program that turned the Townsend Plan into a national movement in a matter of months. It was phenomenally popular. At one point club members conducted a letter-writing and petition-signing campaign to secure congressional approval of a bill to institute the plan. In a matter of three months, twenty million signatures (one-fifth of the adult population) were collected, a demonstration of public support “unmatched in history”—exceeding support for the soldiers’ Bonus Bill or opposition to the World Court, which were “mere rivulets compared with this torrent.” But even with this massive support, and subsequent revisions, the measure did not pass (Bennett, p. 174).

When Roosevelt refused to meet with him, Townsend was miffed. A more serious problem was the Social Security Act with its $30 a month old age insurance, which Townsend and his followers thought a devious distraction designed to take support away from the Townsend Plan. The Townsend movement grew in strength after passage of Social Security in 1935 and many historians credit the Townsend Plan with helping to speed passage of Social Security (Bennett, p. 177).

William Lemke and Dr. Francis Townsend, Washington, D.C., 1939. Library of Congress.

Townsend and his supporters were scornful of economists who found the plan unworkable, assailing the “brain trust professors . . . who don’t care a tinker’s damn how the old folks live or die.” Townsend himself proclaimed on more than one occasion, “God deliver us from the professional economists.” The plan, of course, was unworkable. An economist’s nightmare, the yearly costs were estimated at one and one-half times the amount spent on government at all levels—federal, state, and local. And that did not take into account the huge inflationary (and highly regressive) cost of the transaction tax, the tremendous bureaucracy required to administer the program, and the fact that the 2% fee would be likely to drive low-profit-margin businesses—such as the securities exchanges—out of the country. It was derided as “believing in Santa Claus all over again.” But Townsend’s followers were zealously committed. Some boycotted merchants who would not extend them credit based on the certainty of income to come after the plan’s passage (Bennett, pp. 160, 155).

Congressional Democrats, worried that Townsend was becoming another demagogue, opened hostile hearings on his program in May 1936. Embarrassed by his lack of knowledge of economics, and under fire for the financial management of his organization, Townsend stormed out of the hearings, and the following month joined Smith and Coughlin in their plans for the Union Party.

William Lemke

William H. Lemke on the campaign trail, 1936.

Congressman William H. Lemke, the standard bearer for the Union Party, was the only elected official among the party leaders. Elected to Congress in 1932 as a Republican from North Dakota, he had the strong support of the Non-Partisan League—an agrarian reform organization that opposed the monopolistic practices of the railroads, financiers, and grain elevator operators in the northern Plains. The eldest son of a German-American farm family that had settled in the rugged Dakotas in 1883, by the time Lemke was of age his family was prosperous enough that he could attend the University of North Dakota, Georgetown, and ultimately Yale Law School. He became a lawyer, worked for farmers and farm organizations, and became active with the Non-Partisan League.

Lemke supported FDR in 1932 and campaigned avidly for him while also seeking his own congressional seat. He had met with Roosevelt early in 1932 and secured what he believed was a pledge on farm policy that involved stimulating inflation and guaranteeing high prices by “dumping” farm surpluses abroad; Lemke also expected to be a close advisor to the president on farm policy. A staunch supporter of the New Deal at first, when Roosevelt changed his ideas on farm relief to crop reductions coupled with parity payments to the farmers (policies advocated by Brain Truster Rexford Guy Tugwell and Agriculture Secretary Henry A. Wallace), Lemke felt betrayed. He denounced the Agricultural Adjustment Administration and the “brainless trust” as a farce and by 1935 was calling the New Deal a “new shuffle with the cards stacked.” Bravado and anti-(East Coast) intellectualism peppered his rhetoric. “Roosevelt will have to get rid of the ‘brain trust’ or he will be in fact as well as in the newspapers a real Kerensky and not a leader of men.” He railed against “Wall Street racketeers” and “international bankers” and the failure to pass inflationary measures such as the Bonus Army Bill, the remonetization of silver, and the issuance of greenbacks. He denounced the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation as an effort to prop up failed private banks, instead of establishing a central bank (Bennett, p. 95).

But Lemke’s real focus was on farm legislation. With his Senate colleague (and old friend) Lynn J. Frazier of North Dakota, he co-sponsored a series of farm bills designed to provide mortgage relief to farmers facing foreclosure. When the first of these was declared unconstitutional, he refashioned it and moved on to craft an even more sweeping program: the Frazier–Lemke Farm Refinance bill, which provided for the Farm Credit Administration to supply the cash necessary for farmers to pay off their mortgages or buy back their farms. In return, the government would offer new very low-interest mortgages, which would be issued as a bond issue. If the low interest rate precluded bond sales, the Federal Reserve would be ordered to issue $3 billion of “printing press” money for the farmers. Lemke became an agrarian hero.

Roosevelt opposed, but did not veto, the first two measures. Not only FDR, but most of official Washington, opposed the third measure. But to Lemke it was the solution, the panacea, to relieve not only the farmers, but also the entire economy—by putting new money in circulation to stimulate business. Roosevelt sought to have the bill killed, believing it would unbalance the entire economy. Lemke worked tirelessly to counter the administration’s effort to tie the bill up in committee and miraculously secured 218 signatures on a petition that defied the president and brought the vote to the floor. The administration counter-attacked and the final straw came when the Speaker of the House read a letter from William Green—president of the American Federation of Labor—claiming that “labor would suffer” because the bill would lead to a “reduction in living standards, reduced buying power and a more acute unemployment problem” (Bennett, p. 100). In the end 58 of the members who had signed the petition did not vote for the bill and the measure lost 235–142. Lemke was crushed and was ready to join with Roosevelt’s fiercest enemies in the ill-fated campaign of the Union Party.

The Union Party Challenge

Dr. Francis Townsend, Gerald L. K. Smith, and Father Charles Coughlin after delivering speeches at Townsend Plan convention, Cleveland, July, 1936. United Press International.

They lost, of course. The 1936 election was a landslide for FDR. Despite their name, the four demagogues of the Union Party were hardly united and the campaign was plagued by all the problems you might expect when four megalomaniacs pledge cooperation. Too late to get Lemke on the ballot in crucial states, with little organization, short of funds, and plagued by internal squabbles, Lemke garnered only 892,378 votes—less than 2% of the popular vote. Roosevelt won 60.8% of the popular vote and 523 electoral votes to the Republican challenger Alfred Landon’s 8—the most lopsided electoral victory in American presidential history.

Lemke remained in Congress and continued to advocate for farmers until his death in 1950, but his reputation as a courageous agrarian reformer was tarnished by his association with the anti-Semitic far-right fringe of the Union Party.


But is this the end of the story? Lemke, Townsend, Coughlin, and Long/Smith posed a real challenge to the major parties. At their height they may have had as many as thirteen million followers, perhaps 10% of the population. As the Union Party they presented a formidable coalition of northeastern and Midwestern Roman Catholic urban voters, poor white southern cotton farmers, and financially strapped German and Scandinavian wheat farmers on the northern Plains, combined with a national movement of angry (formerly middle-class) white Protestant senior citizens. It was an unlikely mixture—riven by sectional, class, labor-agrarian, and religious differences—but still a potentially powerful voting bloc that the Democratic Party took very seriously.

What damage could have been done? An economy wrecked under the burden of the unsupportable payments to pensioners or farmers? Would confiscatory tax schemes and inflationary fiscal policies have killed American capitalism? Or would we have moved directly to Coughlin’s strange mixture of fascism and a centralized economy, taking with it his paranoid anti-Semitism? All of this and more was in the air. Earl Browder (Communist), Norman Thomas (Socialist), and John W. Aiken (Socialist Labor) were also on the ticket that year. And the Silver Shirts and other fascists were waiting in the wings. But all of these voices were in the “fringe” and none was able to capture the nomination of a major party. That would have to wait until 2016.

By today’s standards the voices of dissent in the 1930s were muffled: radio was new and powerful and everyone, Roosevelt included, used it to great benefit. But newspapers, the U.S. mail, telegrams, in-house print publications, even the polls and political science of the 1930s, were slow and imprecise tools compared with the power of today’s 24-hour news cycle, Internet newsfeeds, sophisticated polling and statistical models, and social media.

Many of today’s political leaders, like the radio priest and Dr. Townsend, trade on their celebrity and authority as anti-establishment “outsiders” to secure political power. This has a dangerous appeal. Coughlin was only stopped by his Canadian birth. Huey Long was cut down by an assassin. Truth and sound economics could not stop Dr. Townsend’s believers.

If demagoguery is an enduring part of democracy, can we take comfort in the fact that it has always been with us but has not prevailed—at least not in this country? But what if the conditions of 1936 had been different? What if Coughlin, Townsend, Smith, and Lemke had better party discipline or the power of modern communications?

The populace enthralled to demagogues has not changed. Their willingness to believe in easy solutions to intractable problems is still with us. People still relish the tough talk, name calling, and scapegoating. They love to be entertained by the bombast, to hear the demagogue shout the things no “gentleman” would say. Most of all, people today are just as willing as they always have been to follow a charismatic leader who promises to solve their problems and deliver the American dream.

Huey Long on the cover of Time magazine, April 1, 1935.

But can people be blamed for seeking the American dream? Alan Brinkley in Voices of Protest makes the point that Long’s Share Our Wealth Plan could not be easily dismissed as sheer demagoguery. Yes, it was simple and “seriously, perhaps fatally, flawed.” But by other measures of demagoguery it fell short. “It was not an attempt to divert attention away from real problems; it did not focus resentment on irrelevant scapegoats or phony villains. It pointed, instead, to an issue of genuine importance; for the concentration of wealth was . . . a fundamental dilemma of the American economy” (p. 74). And, of course, it still is.

The panaceas of the demagogues of 1930s spoke to the essential economic inequality and exploited xenophobia, both of which still plague us today. Fortunately, in the 1930s Franklin Roosevelt was able to counter their worst invective and most outlandish schemes with a message that reinvigorated the democratic process and envisioned an American Dream of inclusivity as well as prosperity. Not self-centered, it demanded common effort toward shared goals for a better future.

“It is your problem, my friend, your problem no less than it is mine. Together we cannot fail, ” he said in his First Fireside Chat, March 12, 1933. This message of joint effort and joint responsibility leading to a bright future was a message he delivered throughout his long presidency. He was never more eloquent than in this, the final speech of the 1940 campaign.

I see an America where factory workers are not discarded after they reach their prime, where there is no endless chain of poverty from generation to generation, where impoverished farmers and farm hands do not become homeless wanderers, where monopoly does not make youth a beggar for a job.
I see an America whose rivers and valleys and lakes—hills and streams and plains—the mountains over our land and nature‘s wealth deep under the earth—are protected as the rightful heritage of all the people.
I see an America where small business really has a chance to flourish and grow.
I see an America of great cultural and educational opportunity for all its people.
I see an America where the income from the land shall be implemented and protected by a Government determined to guarantee to those who hoe it a fair share in the national income. . . .
I see an America with peace in the ranks of labor. . . .
I see an America devoted to our freedom—unified by tolerance and by religious faith—a people consecrated to peace, a people confident in strength because their body and their spirit are secure and unafraid.
(Franklin D. Roosevelt, Cleveland, November 2, 1940)

And Roosevelt codified the dream in the Economic Bill of Rights that he included in his Annual Message to Congress on January 11, 1944, making explicit a concrete connection between individual freedom and economic security. To Roosevelt economic security was a second Bill of Rights “under which a new basis of . . . prosperity can be established for all regardless of station, race, or creed.”

Roosevelt’s record of accomplishment effectively silenced the demagogues and created a template for liberal democracy that endured for forty years. It is important that we look back to this perilous era in American history because liberal democracy is not complete and its unfinished business is the truth behind today’s demagoguery.

To counter the demagogue, our leaders must take seriously the Black Lives Matter movement as well as the white middle- and working-class calls for protection from joblessness. Income inequality is as much a threat to our democracy as it was in the 1930s. And the xenophobic fears that would shut our doors to immigration pose threats to individual liberty. As FDR warned in his Economic Bill of Rights speech, “Necessitous men are not free men. People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.” Today’s problems are echoes of the unfinished business of the Roosevelt era. Today’s democratic leaders must challenge those who use demagoguery to offer unworkable and simplistic solutions to our truly pressing problems.

Roosevelt did not hesitate to use the power of his office—both as inspirational leader and in the exercise of raw political power—but most importantly, by his policies he gave the lie to those who claimed he was deaf to the needs of ordinary Americans. People could honestly answer with a resounding “Yes” the question of whether they were better off in 1936 or 1940 or 1944 than they were in 1933.

Yes, it is harder today. The issues are not so starkly drawn and today’s political climate encourages demagoguery in ways unknown in Roosevelt’s time. The old allegiances that channeled many voters are weaker now. Labor unions, party loyalty, religious affiliation, race and ethnicity, and even political machines once helped voters choose candidates that represented their interests. Instead, today sophisticated political campaigns with their legions of spokespersons and the ever-growing ranks of the punditry spin political discourse for months, even years. More often than not the debate devolves to character assassination and bogus scapegoating with the media and campaign surrogates offering a succession of excuses, explanations, and scorecards on truthfulness instead of discussion of relative policy positions.

In this political climate, people must decide for themselves amid a welter of nonstop political banter, which is an unhappy by-product of our twenty-first century revolution in mass communications. The result is often more stultifying and stupefying than energizing for those who participate in democracy.

These realities make the ability to distinguish between candor and cant more difficult than ever. Individual judgment is more important than ever. Instead a bored, fragmented, polarized, and poorly educated electorate relies on newsfeeds and media that as often as not report what the voter already believes or wants to hear. More than was ever possible in the 1930s, today’s demagogue is empowered to tell the most gullible among us exactly what we want to hear. And as Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt warned, we are in danger of losing our liberties along the way.





Bennett, David H. Demagogues in the Depression: American Radicals and the Union Party, 1932–1936. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1969. I am indebted to this work for much of the historical narrative in this article.

Brinkley, Alan. Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and the Great Depression. New York: Vintage Books, 1983.

Churchill, Winston. “Soapbox Messiahs.” Collier’s, June 20, 1936.

Kennedy, David M. Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929–1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Luthin, Reinhard H. “Some Demagogues in American History.” American Historical Review 57 (1951): 22–46.

American Story

The American Story: From Washington to Roosevelt, Reagan and Beyond

by Dr. Cynthia M. Koch

Parson Weems’ Fable, Grant Wood – 1939

[The following is an illustrated version of the lecture given by Dr. Cynthia M. Koch at the FDR Foundation’s Telling Our Story conference November 10, 2015]

Defining the identity of the new United States, what we might call the “master narrative,” was one of the many tasks facing our founding fathers and mothers in the 1790s.

The new nation lacked all the usual markers for nationhood: no established religion, no dominant ethnicity, no monarchy or aristocracy. No folklore and—most important—no shared history.

Most Americans had a common language, but of course it was English—and distinguishing the new United States from England was essential if the nation was to achieve the full measure of its independence. The thirteen different colonies with their different religions, economies, traditions, and racial and ethnic make-up had one thing in common: the experience of the Revolutionary War.

And the American Revolution was indeed unique: a republic founded on the Enlightenment principles of universal human rights of liberty, equality, and freedom. Moreover, it was a New World republic, existing far from the metropolitan centers of Europe on the edge of a continent, much of which was still considered “wilderness,” and inhabited by indigenous people.

Many were concerned with defining the new nation and its identity, but it fell to a group of history-writers to craft the most enduring narrative.

Mercy Otis Warren

They were six men and one woman, all witnesses to the American Revolution: John Marshall, the first Supreme Court chief justice had served under Washington at Valley Forge; David Ramsey and Hugh Williamson were surgeons in the Continental Army; Edmund Randolph accompanied Washington to Boston as an aide-de-camp before he became a Virginia delegate to the Continental Congress. Jeremy Belknap, Benjamin Trumbull, and William Gordon were Congregational clergymen who ministered to the troops in the field. Mercy Otis Warren, whose brother and husband were famous Boston patriots, wielded her pen, she said, in part because her gender denied her the opportunity to take up “manly arms.”

“Deeply moved by what they had witnessed during the momentous 1770s, they wrote their country’s first narrative, filled with stories of heroism and virtue generated by the war.”1

Theirs was a history of “fresh beginnings and founders’ intentions,” which interpreted the Declaration of Independence as the “culmination of a long colonial gestation period.”

According to historian Joyce Appleby, from whom I am borrowing liberally, “These original efforts served as a template for successive reworkings of the story of American nation-building.”2

And, as we shall see, the essential outlines of the narrative endured well into the 20th century.

The first historians stressed not only that America was the rightful inheritor of the Enlightenment principles, but that it was “the last best hope of mankind” in the struggle for freedom in the face of the corrupt institutions of old-regime Europe. George Washington and the leaders of the Revolution came to represent civilization’s irrepressible quest for democratic nationalism.3

As these early formulations were popularized in the 19th century, the Revolution was made to seem the inevitable end of a long sequence of foreshadowings from colonial history—the Mayflower Compact, John Winthrop’s City on a Hill, surviving the “starving time” at Jamestown, Washington’s “Father, I cannot tell a lie,” Penn’s Treaty with the Indians, the Pocahontas-John Smith story, and the first Thanksgiving.

All of these and many more fed into the founding narrative of a nation that would be an exemplar to the world.

But “[t]here was no place in this narrative for examining the variety of complex reasons that had brought Europeans to the North American continent, much less for taking stock of the enslavement and expulsion of peoples whose cultural values called into question the claimed universality of American ideals.”4

George Bancroft

George Bancroft’s History of the United States, the first complete history of the nation, was written during the middle decades of the 19th century. He added ideas of a democratic spirit, which with divine guidance, drove American expansion across the continent.5 Bancroft made the settler families of the land west of the Appalachians the carriers of a new and vibrantly democratic civilization.

These “pioneers” were never depicted as invaders, even though blood was always spilled before any land was opened up for settler occupation. Instead [Appleby again] “the iconography and literature of the westward movement invoked a peaceful tableau in which the sunburned and hardy pioneer father walked beside his Conestoga wagon, Bible in his hand, his rifle at the ready should any hostile force attempt to repel his ‘castle on wheels.’”

This narrative served both American democracy and nationalism by celebrating the courage and fortitude of ordinary white citizens and by justifying the seizure of territory long occupied by Native Americans.6

The pioneers were a brave, resilient, and industrious people, continually renewing themselves and the nation by their expansion of the frontier.

This story of new beginnings included only white Americans, not those still held in slavery or driven from their ancestral lands. The Mexican War, Civil War and Reconstruction, the Indian Wars, and the social dislocations brought about by industrialization and immigration did little to change the master narrative.

In 1893 historian Frederick Jackson Turner famously declared the frontier “closed” and defined the nation in terms of an American type that suited equally well the “pioneer” and the ethos of the titans shaping the new industrial economy: “coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical inventive turn of mind . . . that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy, that dominant individualism with the buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom.7

This was the American and his narrative: Inheritor of the Revolutionary principles of the rights of man, he was hardy and bold. He was brave and virtuous. He had little patience for “book-learning,” the arts, or the niceties of polite society. He was the do-er, the maker, the problem-solver, endowed by God with a special purpose to spread democracy to those less fortunate—except (in a stunning omission that damns them to hypocrisy today) to those who were believed at the time to lack capacity for self-government—African Americans, Native Americans and women. And, through him (it was always him), the nation prospered. Abundant farms, canals, and railroads turned the wilderness into a land of plenty.

Historians in the 20th century made it their business to challenge and refine this narrative, but it endured in schoolbooks, art, literature, popular culture—and presidential rhetoric.

Let us look now at how Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, the two great communicators of the 20th century, used the familiar national story in shaping their presidencies.

Neither of them offered an empirically correct story of the American past; they used myth, exaggeration, and distortion as it suited their purposes. But in each case, the president depended on his audience’s acceptance of a national narrative that was believed to be true.

Franklin Roosevelt used American history in many ways, but was particularly fond of drawing upon heroic figures: George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Alexander Hamilton, John Paul Jones, Patrick Henry, Benjamin Franklin, and early American pioneers were his favorites.

He used them to tell stories that would unite people and provide comfort, courage, reassurance, and inspiration to Americans facing fear, hardship, uncertainty, and war.

Most useful were historic figures, who were exemplars of his own governing priorities. Ironically, he used them to introduce new ideas and new approaches.

Thomas Jefferson, for example, “applied the culture of the past to the needs and the life of the America of his day. His knowledge of history spurred him to inquire into the reason and justice of laws, habits and institutions. His passion for liberty led him to interpret and adapt them in order to better the lot of mankind.”8

Benjamin Franklin “realized . . . it is the whole duty of the philosopher and the educator to apply the eternal ideals of truth and goodness and justice in terms of the present and not terms of the past. Growth and change are the law of all life. Yesterday’s answers are inadequate for today’s problems—just as the solutions of today will not fill the needs of tomorrow. . . .”9


FDR often spoke at historic locations—all the better to cloak his messages of change with comforting images of continuity. He visited Mount Vernon twelve times, the most visits by any president before or since.10 Most famously, he escorted the King and Queen of England there during their 1939 state visit.

It was the first time that reigning British monarchs had set foot on American soil. Metaphorically it was the end of the American Revolution and the beginning of the Anglo-American alliance that would be needed to defeat Hitler.

Roosevelt often invoked historic figures to remind people that leaders have to take on problems that can be unpopular. He called this taking on the “big jobs” of the day.

Alexander Hamilton “did the job which then had to be done—to bring stability out of the chaos of currency and banking difficulties.”

Jefferson established the new republic as a “real democracy based on universal suffrage and the inalienable rights of man.”

Jackson’s big job was to “save the economic democracy of the Union for its westward expansion . . . strengthened in the ideals and practice of popular Government.”

Lincoln’s was to “preserve the Union and make possible … the united country that we all live in today.”11

Explaining the need for banking and security laws enacted to curb Wall Street speculation, he turned to America’s most famous self-made man:

“Only a very small minority of the people of this country believe in gambling as a substitute for the old philosophy of Benjamin Franklin that the way to wealth is through work.”

George Washington personified FDR’s most revered leadership skill: timing.

“We know that it was Washington’s simple, steadfast faith that kept him to the essential principles of first things first. His sturdy sense of proportion brought to him and his followers the ability to discount the smaller difficulties and concentrate on the larger objectives.”12

Roosevelt used the phrase “first things first,” beginning with his first inaugural and frequently throughout his presidency.

In 1943, more than a year before his famous D-Day prayer, he used Washington’s birthday as an opportunity to rally the war-weary nation. Skillfully invoking religious and civil iconography, he tied the legendary Prayer at Valley Forge to his own international goals for a permanent peace:

“The skeptics and the cynics of Washington’s day did not believe that ordinary men and women have the capacity for freedom and self-government.

They said that liberty and equality were idle dreams that could not come true—just as today there are many Americans who sneer at the determination to attain freedom from want and freedom from fear, on the ground that these are ideals which can never be realized. They say it is ordained that we must always have poverty, and that we must always have war.”13

Forty years later Ronald Reagan’s use of the American master narrative was very different. He used it to look backward to an earlier time to promote ideas of self-reliance and free enterprise. But, like FDR, he was a great storyteller. As one scholar puts it, “Reagan’s version of the course and direction of American history pervades all of his rhetoric.”14

He famously used John Winthrop’s “shining city on a hill” to inspire a return to greatness for an America battered by the Vietnam War, the civil rights struggles, Watergate, inflation, gasoline shortages, and the Iran hostage crisis.15 Reagan “repeatedly [told] his audiences that if they choose to participate in the story” of American exceptionalism, it will return, and they will become part of America’s greatness.

As he described it in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in 1980:

“Three hundred and sixty years ago, in 1620, a group of families dared to cross a mighty ocean to build a future for themselves in a new world. When they arrived at Plymouth, Massachusetts, they formed what they called a “compact”; an agreement among themselves to build a community and abide by its laws. . . .

Isn’t it once again time to renew our compact of freedom; to pledge to each other all that is best in our lives; all that gives meaning to them—for the sake of this, our beloved and blessed land?”16 In his First Inaugural, he invoked the American Revolution, to foster not united action, but individual responsibility: “On the eve of our struggle for independence . . . Dr. Joseph Warren, president of the Massachusetts Congress, said to his fellow Americans, “Our country is in danger, but not to be despaired of . . . . On you depend the fortunes of America. You are to decide the important questions upon which rests the happiness and the liberty of millions yet unborn. Act worthy of yourselves.”17

In his Farewell Address, Reagan used the American narrative one final time to advance his philosophy of limited government:

“Ours was the first revolution in the history of mankind that truly reversed the course of government, and with three little words: ‘We the People.’ ‘We the People’ tell the government what to do; it doesn’t tell us.

‘We the People’ are the driver; the government is the car. And we decide where it should go, and by what route, and how fast. . . .

He could also see how the American narrative that he had used so deftly was losing its potency.

“An informed patriotism is what we want. . . Are we doing a good enough job teaching our children what America is and what she represents in the long history of the world? Those of us who are over 35 or so years of age grew up in a different America. We were taught, very directly, what it means to be an American.” . . .

Conservative that he was, he urged a return to the past:

. . . [W]e’re about to enter the ’90s, and some things have changed. Younger parents aren’t sure that an un-ambivalent appreciation of America is the right thing to teach modern children. And as for those who create the popular culture, well-grounded patriotism is no longer the style. Our spirit is back, but we haven’t re-institutionalized it.

We’ve got to do a better job of getting across that America is freedom—freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of enterprise. . . .

Ronald Reagan was right about the 1990s. And telling the American story was changing.

The heroic master narrative was indeed very much “out of fashion” among professional historians and had been for nearly a century. In fact, Reagan’s un-ambivalent view of America’s unblemished past could no longer be sustained.

During the 1990s a new, more complex—and inclusive—narrative burst into public consciousness.

After the Second World War, the study and production of history (and all other fields of learning) was expanded by Roosevelt’s G.I. Bill [this and following links are to wikipedia, unless noted], which vastly increased the number of college-educated Americans.

Among them were new generations of historians who opened new fields of study in areas that reflected their own origins—immigration, ethnic and labor history. By the last decades of the century a new and even more diverse generation of scholars emerged with perspectives and interpretations drawn from the feminist movement, the civil rights movement, and the American Indian Movement.

These new social and cultural historians introduced fundamental changes to the master narrative and their influence began to be seen not only in scholarly work, but also in museum exhibits, popular culture, and eventually, K-12 history education.

This expansion and deepening of the pool of historians complicated the master narrative of American history.

To the old verities were added new facts, evidence, and interpretations. The clash between traditional historical memory and the new scholarship played out in series of public controversies during the 1990s.

Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way [or Westward Ho!], by Emanuel Leutze (1862)

In 1991 The West as America, an exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art presented 19th century artists’ images of the Old West in the context of new historical interpretations. Westward expansion was presented in terms that challenged the master narrative of the frontier and called attention to the conquest and removal of Native Americans.

A media frenzy and public outcry ensued, followed by threatened cuts to the budget of the Smithsonian Institution by Republican members of the Senate Appropriations Committee, who charged the museum with “politicizing” history. In 1995 another Smithsonian exhibit, this one at the National Air and Space Museum, highlighted deep differences between historical scholarship and popular collective memory about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb, was to be the centerpiece of an exhibit rather ponderously entitled “The Crossroads: The End of World War II, the Atomic Bomb, and the Origins of the Cold War.” [link to the Smithsonian Institution]

In an acrimonious public debate that continued for more than a year, veterans’ organizations objected to the museum’s central storyline, which they called “revisionist history.”

In the end, the exhibit was cancelled, but not before congressional funding for the Smithsonian was again threated and the director of the museum was forced to resign. A third major battleground involved National Standards in History for K-12 education. Very much in the spirit of Ronald Reagan’s plea for increased historical literacy, President George H.W. Bush advocated National Education Goals in history, along with new standards in English, math, science, and geography, which had broad bi-partisan and public support.18

So it took many by surprise when in January 1995 the Senate voted 99 – 1, in a “sense of the Senate resolution,” to oppose the National History Standards.

They were voluntary guidelines that had been developed over an inclusive three-year effort funded and co-sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Nevertheless, shortly before the standards were released, Lynne Cheney, past chair of the NEH and an early champion of them, published a blistering attack in the Wall Street Journal. [link to the University of Michigan]

She charged that the U.S. History Standards presented a “grim and gloomy” portrayal of American history. Why so much attention, she asked, to topics such as the Klu Klux Klan and McCarthyism? Why did this curricular framework save its “unqualified admiration” for “people, places and events” that are politically correct?19

In an op-ed for the New York Times, she declared, “The American history standards make it seem that Joseph McCarthy and McCarthyism (mentioned 19 times) are far more important than George Washington (mentioned twice) or Thomas Edison (mentioned not at all).”20

Cheney’s criticism doomed the effort to establish even voluntary standards for the study of American history. Today’s effort, the Common Core, does not even include history as a stand-alone subject. History/social studies are a subset of “English Language Arts Standards.”

There have been other assaults on the master narrative. And rightly so. The disputes over the Columbian Quincentenary, DNA confirmation that Thomas Jefferson had indeed fathered at least one of the children of his slave, Sally Hemings. The on-going Confederate flag controversy.

Have these new understandings of America’s past negated America’s story? Do we still have a recognizable national narrative sufficient to support a cohesive national identity?

FDR delivering the Four Freedoms Speech

In his Four Freedoms Address in 1941, FDR declared that people must have an “unshakable belief in the manner of life which they are defending.”21

In the aftermath of 9/11, the nation experienced a sense of unity born of tragedy. But recent mass shootings, assaults on African Americans, and the threat of climate change do not produce a sense of urgency needed for united action. Our Congress and our people are torn by division and dissent. Is it because we’ve undone our national story, our national identity?

It could be said that no, we no longer need a national narrative, that the old verities are hopelessly corrupted, proven false by the revealed truth of a hypocritical history. Yet, there is ample evidence that important aspects of the original narrative are still in place, framing our national identity—and thus our public policy both at home and abroad. We debate whether or not the nation is a beacon of freedom and opportunity for the world’s troubled masses. Or whether the working poor and a shrinking middle class undermine the American dream. Indeed, whether in this land of freedom and equality for all, “black lives matter.” Yet these debates occur in an a historical present, divorced from the motivating power of shared historical memory; the kind of memory that was shared and believed to be true by many Americans, a shared history that Roosevelt and Reagan relied on to advance their ideas for a better America.

If that very history is now politically contested, what is our national narrative? On what is it based? Can we or should we be writing a new historical narrative that represents our history truthfully to today’s sophisticated and diverse America?

It must honestly acknowledge our national failings—and use that as a starting point for a new inclusive narrative that situates our high ideals in the energizing diversity of the peoples of the United States. Only then can we expect a united citizenry and effective international leadership.

Cynthia Koch is the former Director of the FDR Presidential Library and Museum, and is now Public Historian in Residence at Bard College.


1. Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt and Margaret Jacob, Telling the Truth About History (New York: W.W. Norton), p. 101.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid., 104

4. Ibid, 105.

5. Ibid, 112.

6. Ibid., 115.

7. Ibid., 117.

8. Address at the Home of Thomas Jefferson, Monticello, Virginia, July 4, 1936, Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1936 Volume: The People Approve, Samuel I. Rosenman, ed. (New York: Random House, 1938), p. 241.

9. Address at the University of Pennsylvania, September 20, 1940, Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1940 Volume: War – And Aid to Democracies, Samuel Rosenman, ed. (New York: Macmillan Company, 1941), p. 441.

10. Telephone conversation, Karen Anson, Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, with Jennifer Kittraus, George Washington-Mount Vernon Historic Site, January 20, 2006.

11. Address at the Jackson Day Dinner, January 8, 1940, Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1940 Volume: War – And Aid to Democracies, Samuel Rosenman, ed. (New York: Macmillan Company, 1941), p. 30.

12. Radio Address on Washington’s Birthday, February 22, 1943, Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1943 Volume: The Tide Turns, Samuel I. Rosenman, ed. (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1950), p. 112-13.

13. Radio Address on Washington’s Birthday, February 22, 1943, Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1943 Volume: The Tide Turns, Samuel I. Rosenman, ed. (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1950), p. 112.

14. William F. Lewis, “Telling America’s Story: Narrative Form and the Reagan Presidency,” Quarterly Journal of Speech (73) 1987, p. 283.

15. Ibid.

16. Ronald Reagan, Republican National Convention Speech, July 17, 1980. Accessed August 15, 2016.

17. Ronald Reagan, First Inaugural Address, January 20, 1981. Accessed August 15, 2016.

18. Gary B. Nash, Charlotte Crabtree, and Ross E. Dunn, History on Trial: Culture Wars and the Teaching of the Past (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), p. 151.

19. Ibid, p. 4.

20. Lynne V. Cheney, “Mocking America at U.S. Expense,” New York Times, 10 March 1995, p. 29.

21. FDR, Annual Address to Congress, Jan. 6, 1941, Four Freedoms Speech.

How Did The WPA Change U.S. Infrastructure?

President Trump has yet to announce his trillion-dollar plan to improve infrastructure across the U.S., something he’s been talking about since the campaign.

If it happens, it could be the biggest infrastructure push in the U.S. in decades — perhaps comparable to the most famous overhaul in American history. That came eight decades ago, under President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and the Works Progress Administration.

“It did just about everything,” Gray Brechin, geographer and founder of the online archive The Living New Deal, tells Here & Now‘s Jeremy Hobson of the WPA. “It built roads, sewers, water systems, airports, zoos, libraries, city halls. It’s all over the country. It’s just that you don’t really notice it.”

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