Tuesday, June 11, 2013 – Essay #82 – “Commonwealth Club Address” by Franklin D. Roosevelt – Guest Essayist: Tony Williams, Program Director of the Washington-Jefferson-Madison Institute

In 1932, the Democratic candidate, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was the privileged scion of a wealthy family who ran a campaign that was committed to the Progressive vision of American society and government from the turn of the century.  In his “Commonwealth Club Address,” FDR embraced the Progressive idea that pitted the “interests” against the people.  He also promised the continued growth of the administrative state managed by enlightened bureaucratic elites in the name of the people.  Even more importantly, FDR maintained that the purpose of government under the social compact was to preserve rights, but he was bold enough to assert that a redefinition of rights was necessary in an industrial age.  Achieving this vision would usher in a secular utopia of progress and equality.

FDR provides a history lesson, as he understands it, which was rooted in the belief that government formerly guaranteed a constitutional rule of law “within which people could live happily, labor peacefully, and rest secure.”  However, in the course of the late nineteenth century, the ruthless and corrupt financial titans of the industrial age built an economic oligarchy that necessitated a larger national state to regulate the economy for the public good.

FDR even goes so far as to state that the American dream was a fantasy that was no longer true.  “A glance at the situation today only too clearly indicates that equality of opportunity as we have known it no longer exists.”  The solution was clear to FDR — the government would regulate wealth in the public interest and create an equal outcome for all of its citizens.

Progressives such as FDR called upon the government to aid in the creation of a new American dream. The new dream envisioned by FDR would raise the standard of living for everyone, bring luxury to the poorest, and release everyone from heavy manual toil.  This dream was not founded upon free enterprise, which he declared to be over, but upon the national government.  “The day of enlightened administration has come,” he proclaimed.

Since corporations were a “danger” to the economic well-being of the country, they required federal regulation by experts in executive agencies who would manage capitalism.  As he saw it, “The task of government in its relation to business is to assist the development of an economic declaration of rights, an economic constitutional order.”  FDR then made a new social compact regarding the purpose of government and its relation to the economy.

The Lockean purpose of the American government under the Declaration of Independence was to protect the inalienable rights of the people.  Although he maintains the idea that government protects rights, FDR subtly alters the rights in his evolutionary understanding of the Constitution The job for him and his “Brains Trust” of advisors was to redefine those rights.  “The task of statesmanship has always been the redefinition of these rights in terms of a changing and growing social order.  New conditions impose new requirements upon government and those who conduct government.”

FDR enumerates the rights of the new social compact:

“Every man has a right to life; and this means that he has also a right to make a comfortable living . . . Our government formal and informal, political and economic, owes to everyone an avenue to possess himself of a portion of that plenty sufficient for his needs.”

“Every man has a right to his property; which means a right to be assured, to the fullest extent attainable, in the safety of his savings . . . . In all thought of property, this right is paramount; all other property rights must yield to it.”

After asserting these new rights of mankind, FDR claims weakly that he is “not prepared to say that the system which produces [princes of property] is wrong,” even though he assailed American capitalism with an unremitting barrage of criticisms.  Given the greed that guided the economic royalists, FDR stated that any time a capitalist failed to “join in achieving an end recognized as being for the public welfare . . . the government may properly be asked to apply restraint.”  The government would be swift to regulate in the public interest, he promised.

FDR celebrated the “new terms” of the social contract that “Roosevelt and Wilson sought to bring to realization.”  Thus, he acknowledged that the progressive ideals would shape the course of his administration as he sought nothing less than the fundamental transformation of the American government and economy.  The Great Depression provided FDR to justification to re-shape American principles and rights that were now defined and granted by government rather than built into the fabric of human nature by nature and nature’s God.  In 1944, FDR would offer the American people a Second Bill of Rights eclipsing the outmoded natural rights republic of the American founding, thus fulfilling the promise he made in his 1932 Commonwealth Address.

Read Commonwealth Club Address by Franklin D. Roosevelt here: http://www.constitutingamerica.org/blog/?p=4358

Tony Williams is the Program Director of the Washington-Jefferson-Madison Institute in Charlottesville, VA, which teaches teachers American founding principles.  Free downloads of its recently published WJMI Guide to the Constitution are available at http://www.thefederalistpapers.org/ebooks/jefferson-and-madisons-guide-to-the-constitution.    He is the author of four books including American Beginnings: The Dramatic Events that Shaped a Nation’s Character.

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