Franklin D. Roosevelt stands as one of America’s most masterful presidential orators. His inspiring speeches and intimate “fireside chats” helped lead the nation through one of its most turbulent eras.
Over the course of an unprecedented four terms in office, from 1933 to 1945, Roosevelt not only created policies to steer the nation through multiple crises, including the Great Depression, the surprise attack on U.S. soil at Pearl Harbor and World War II. He also served as a master communicator—to calm Americans’ fears and rally them around his policies.
He employed the new medium of radio to deliver his voice directly into living rooms across the country in some 30 “fireside chats.” Roosevelt spoke plainly and convincingly, channeling a rare combination of patrician competence and affable warmth that gave Americans much-needed hope in a bleak time. He often chose words to draw his audience into a sense of collective striving and higher moral purpose.
“He could explain complicated policy with clarity and precision [and] entertain and enlighten audiences with stories that ranged from the poignant to the humorous...” writes Mary E. Stuckey, professor of communication at Georgia State University. “His rhetoric soars with eloquence, educates with charm and evokes the everyday concerns of U.S. citizens with palpable grace. His political speech…crafted a political coalition of unmatched durability and constituted a communal sense of national self.”
Here are quotes from some of FDR’s most powerful speeches during his 12 years as president.
1. Accepting the Democratic Presidential Nomination and Promising ‘A New Deal’
July 2, 1932
In 1932, the U.S. held its first presidential election during the Great Depression. With unemployment soaring and a fast-growing number of American families unable to meet basic needs for housing and food, Roosevelt promised to marshal the federal government’s resources to reinvigorate the economy, provide jobs and relieve hardship. This “New Deal” platform helped him defeat incumbent Herbert Hoover in a landslide, 57.3 percent to 46.9 percent.
“What do the people of America want more than anything else? To my mind, they want two things: work, with all the moral and spiritual values that go with it; and with work, a reasonable measure of security—security for themselves and for their wives and children. Work and security—these are more than words. They are more than facts. They are the spiritual values, the true goal toward which our efforts of reconstruction should lead…
Throughout the Nation, men and women, forgotten in the political philosophy of the Government of the last years, look to us here for guidance and for more equitable opportunity to share in the distribution of national wealth.
On the farms, in the large metropolitan areas, in the smaller cities and in the villages, millions of our citizens cherish the hope that their old standards of living…have not gone forever. Those millions cannot and shall not hope in vain.
I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people. Let us all here assembled constitute ourselves prophets of a new order of competence and of courage. This is more than a political campaign; it is a call to arms. Give me your help, not to win votes alone, but to win in this crusade to restore America to its own people.”
2. First Inaugural Address: 'The Only Thing We Have to Fear...'
March 4, 1933
Roosevelt assumed office on March 4, 1933, three years into the Great Depression. His first inaugural address showed FDR’s instinctive understanding of crisis leadership. His iconic phrase “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” offered Americans much-needed hope, conveying that it’s possible to move forward out of economic paralysis and that citizens' collective efforts would be crucial to achieving “victory.”
“So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.”
3. First Fireside Chat: Calming Fears Over the Banking Crisis
March 12, 1933
In the first week of his presidency, Roosevelt declared a four-day bank holiday to stop the panic run on banks that could have been catastrophic for the economy. To restore Americans’ confidence that the ailing system would not collapse, he used his first-ever fireside address to appeal to Americans to do their part—by trusting in the system and refraining from withdrawing their money.
“It is possible that when the banks resume a very few people who have not recovered from their fear may again begin withdrawals. Let me make it clear to you that the banks will take care of all needs except of course the hysterical demands of hoarders—and it is my belief that hoarding during the past week has become an exceedingly unfashionable pastime in every part of our nation.
It needs no prophet to tell you that when the people find that they can get their money—that they can get it when they want it for all legitimate purposes—the phantom of fear will soon be laid. People will again be glad to have their money where it will be safely taken care of and where they can use it conveniently at any time. I can assure you, my friends, that it is safer to keep your money in a reopened bank than it is to keep it under a mattress.”
4. Speech to Congress Promoting Social Security
January 17, 1935
Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law on Aug. 14, 1935. "If any piece of social legislation can be called historic or revolutionary, in breaking with the past and in terms of long run impact, it is the Social Security Act," said Wilbur J. Cohen, one of the architects of the 1935 Social Security bill as well as of the 1965 Medicare law.
“In addressing you on June eighth, 1934, I summarized the main objectives of our American program. Among these was, and is, the security of the men, women, and children of the Nation against certain hazards and vicissitudes of life. This purpose is an essential part of our task.
In the important field of security for our old people, it seems necessary to adopt three principles: First, non-contributory old-age pensions for those who are now too old to build up their own insurance. It is, of course, clear that for perhaps 30 years to come funds will have to be provided by the States and the Federal Government to meet these pensions.
Second, compulsory contributory annuities which in time will establish a self-supporting system for those now you and for future generations.
Third, voluntary contributory annuities by which individual initiative can increase the annual amounts received in old age. It is proposed that the Federal Government assume one-half of the cost of the old-age pension plan, which ought ultimately be supplanted by self-supporting annuity plans…
The establishment of sound means toward a greater future economic security of the American people is dictated by a prudent consideration of the hazards involved in our national life. No one can guarantee this country against the dangers of future depressions, but we can reduce those dangers. We can eliminate many of the factors that cause economic depressions, and we can provide the means of mitigating their results. This plan for economic security is at once a measure of prevention and a method of alleviation.
We pay now for the dreadful consequence of economic insecurity—and dearly. This plan presents a more equitable and infinitely less expensive means of meeting these costs. We cannot afford to neglect the plain duty before us. I strongly recommend action to attain the objectives sought in this report.”
5. 'Good Neighbor Policy' Address
August 14, 1936
As Nazism ominously grew abroad, FDR kept a decidedly isolationist stance in the mid-1930s. In this speech, delivered at Chautauqua, N.Y., he decried the horrors of war, but also hinted that America “can and will” be ready to defend itself and its “neighborhood.”
"I have seen war. I have seen war on land and sea. I have seen blood running from the wounded. I have seen men coughing out their gassed lungs. I have seen the dead in the mud. I have seen cities destroyed. I have seen two hundred limping exhausted men come out of line—the survivors of a regiment of one thousand that went forward forty-eight hours before. I have seen children starving. I have seen the agony of mothers and wives. I hate war…
Of all the Nations of the world today we are in many ways most singularly blessed. Our closest neighbors are good neighbors. If there are remoter Nations that wish us not good but ill, they know that we are strong; they know that we can and will defend ourselves and defend our neighborhood.
We seek to dominate no other Nation. We ask no territorial expansion. We oppose imperialism. We desire reduction in world armaments.
We believe in democracy; we believe in freedom; we believe in peace. We offer to every Nation of the world the handclasp of the good neighbor. Let those who wish our friendship look us in the eye and take our hand."
6. FDR's 8th State of the Union Address: 'The Four Freedoms’
January 6, 1941
As the war in Europe intensified and America’s allies lobbied for increased assistance, FDR used his eighth State of the Union address to try and move the nation away from its long-held isolationist stance. Specifically, he stressed the importance of increasing arms production—what he called America's "arsenal of democracy"—and moving forward with his "Lend-Lease" program, to supply Allies with U.S. munitions. He argued his case on moral grounds, underlining the global threat to democracy and reaffirming "the supremacy of human rights everywhere." He declared that people of all nations should enjoy the four basic freedoms that Americans take for granted.
"I suppose that every realist knows that the democratic way of life is at this moment being directly assailed in every part of the world—assailed either by arms or by secret spreading of poisonous propaganda by those who seek to destroy unity and promote discord in nations that are still at peace. During 16 long months this assault has blotted out the whole pattern of democratic life in an appalling number of independent nations, great and small. And the assailants are still on the march, threatening other nations, great and small.
Therefore, as your President, performing my constitutional duty to "give to the Congress information of the state of the union," I find it unhappily necessary to report that the future and the safety of our country and of our democracy are overwhelmingly involved in events far beyond our borders….
I…ask this Congress for authority and for funds sufficient to manufacture additional munitions and war supplies of many kinds, to be turned over to those nations which are now in actual war with aggressor nations. Our most useful and immediate role is to act as an arsenal for them as well as for ourselves…
In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.
The first is freedom of speech and expression—everywhere in the world.
The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world.
The third is freedom from want, which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants— everywhere in the world.
The fourth is freedom from fear, which, translated into world terms, means a worldwide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor—anywhere in the world.
That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called “new order” of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.
To that new order we oppose the greater conception—the moral order. A good society is able to face schemes of world domination and foreign revolutions alike without fear."
7. Roosevelt’s Address to Congress After the Attack on Pearl Harbor
Dec. 8, 1941
Despite widespread desire to keep America out of hostilities, FDR was compelled to change course after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. In crafting his speech to Congress, Roosevelt changed the first line from “a day which will live in world history” to the sharper, more compelling “a day which will live in infamy.”
"Mr. Vice President, Mr. Speaker, Members of the Senate, and of the House of Representatives:
Yesterday, December 7th, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.
The United States was at peace with that nation and, at the solicitation of Japan, was still in conversation with its government and its emperor looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific.
Indeed, one hour after Japanese air squadrons had commenced bombing in the American island of Oahu, the Japanese ambassador to the United States and his colleague delivered to our Secretary of State a formal reply to a recent American message. And while this reply stated that it seemed useless to continue the existing diplomatic negotiations, it contained no threat or hint of war or of armed attack.
It will be recorded that the distance of Hawaii from Japan makes it obvious that the attack was deliberately planned many days or even weeks ago. During the intervening time, the Japanese government has deliberately sought to deceive the United States by false statements and expressions of hope for continued peace.
The attack yesterday on the Hawaiian Islands has caused severe damage to American naval and military forces. I regret to tell you that very many American lives have been lost. In addition, American ships have been reported torpedoed on the high seas between San Francisco and Honolulu…
Japan has [also] undertaken a surprise offensive extending throughout the Pacific area. The facts of yesterday and today speak for themselves. The people of the United States have already formed their opinions and well understand the implications to the very life and safety of our nation.
As Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy, I have directed that all measures be taken for our defense. But always will our whole nation remember the character of the onslaught against us...
I believe that I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost but will make it very certain that this form of treachery shall never again endanger us.
Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory and our interests are in grave danger.
With confidence in our armed forces, with the unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph—so help us God.
I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7th, 1941, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese empire."