FDR Served Up a Critique of Capitalism With His Thanksgiving Proclamations

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Franklin Delano Roosevelt wasn’t a socialist. But, like Abraham Lincoln before him, the 32nd president enjoyed the company of radical thinkers and often borrowed ideas from them. The New Deal was never the utopian socialist experiment that its right-wing detractors claimed it was, but it did deliver Social Security, a federal jobs program, rural electrification, and the opportunity to form unions that were strong enough to challenge even the most powerful corporations. Eventually, FDR’s administration developed the sweeping industrial policies that allowed the United States to create the “arsenal of democracy” that was essential to crushing fascism.

Roosevelt borrowed so many left-wing ideas that the venerable leader of the Socialist Party who opposed FDR in four presidential campaigns, Norman Thomas, would say, “Roosevelt’s New Deal was not the best alternative, but it certainly was a better alternative than had been offered to the problems of our times, and it was offered with an élan, a spirit that made things go and which tended to lift up people’s hearts.”

Roosevelt, said Thomas, displayed “an enlightened concern to correct some of the most notorious abuses of the old capitalism.”

Prior to launching the New Deal, Roosevelt met with Thomas and other socialists to discuss their platform proposals. Once in office, FDR initiated regulations that were explicitly aimed at tempering the excesses of Wall Street speculators and corporate CEOs. At the same time, he offered a steady critique of capitalism as it had come to be understood in the years leading up to the Great Depression.

From the beginning of his administration, literally in his first inaugural address, Roosevelt insisted that

the rulers of the exchange of mankind’s goods have failed through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and have abdicated. Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men. The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.

This critique of capitalism was a constant theme during Roosevelt’s early years in office. He claimed as his mission “the liberation of the exploited” and stressed “the falsity of material wealth as the standard of success.” He explained that such a standard “goes hand in hand with the abandonment of the false belief that public office and high political position are to be valued only by the standards of pride of place and personal profit.” The president called for “an end to a conduct in banking and in business which too often has given to a sacred trust the likeness of callous and selfish wrongdoing.”

A master communicator, FDR recognized that the critique could not be truly understood, and accepted, if it were merely delivered in addresses to Congress and political debates. It needed to permeate American life. So it was that the president used his Thanksgiving Proclamations to speak not just of bountiful harvests and prayers of gratitude but to highlight moral certainties that could never be reconciled with unfettered capitalism.

“May we ask guidance in more surely learning the ancient truth that greed and selfishness and striving for undue riches can never bring lasting happiness or good to the individual or to his neighbors,” read Roosevelt’s first proclamation in 1933. A year later, he declared, “Our sense of social justice has deepened. We have been given vision to make new provisions for human welfare and happiness, and in a spirit of mutual helpfulness we have cooperated to translate vision into reality. More greatly have we turned our hearts and minds to things spiritual. We can truly say, ‘What profiteth it a nation if it gain the whole world and lose its own soul.’ ”

By 1935, with the New Deal project fully engaged, the president wrote: “We can well be grateful that more and more of our people understand and seek the greater good of the greater number. We can be grateful that selfish purpose of personal gain, at our neighbor’s loss, less strongly asserts itself.”

After his landslide reelection in 1936—following a campaign in which he proclaimed, “We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob”—FDR would encourage Americans “to fulfill our obligation to use our national heritage by common effort for the common good.” That same year, he found cause for thanksgiving in the fact that labor organizing guaranteed that “the toiler in shop and mill receives a more just return for his labor.”

Norman Thomas and the socialists would have had Roosevelt go further, But, unlike so many contemporary political figures, FDR was not afraid to echo the left’s condemnations of greedy oligarchs and self-serving autocrats. Nor did he hesitate to speak of economic democracy. Toward the end of his presidency, Roosevelt would use his 1944 State of the Union address to outline an “Economic Bill of Rights” that demanded health care, housing, education, and living wages for Americans. But, years earlier, in his 1939 Thanksgiving Proclamation, the president had celebrated the fact that the nation had “gone steadily forward in the application of democratic processes to economic and social problems.”

Roosevelt knew that, while the struggle for economic democracy might be advanced from a podium in the Capitol, it was perhaps best appreciated in a season of thanksgiving for bounty—and the sharing of that bounty.