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A Call for "Bold Persistent Experimentation": FDR's Oglethorpe University Commencement Address, 1932
by Paul Stephen Hudson
On Sunday evening, May 22, 1932, New York governor Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered a powerful commencement address for the graduates of Oglethorpe University at Atlanta's Fox Theatre.
Roosevelt's clarion call for "bold persistent experimentation" has long been cited by historians and politicians as an important early depression era speech. Richard Hofstadter, for example, headlined an influential essay on FDR by citing his pivotal call for "bold persistent experimentation." Hofstadter used the governor's Oglethorpe pronouncements as a theme for his persuasive contention: "At the heart of the New Deal there was not a philosophy but a temperament." (1) And in his 1993 inaugural address, President Bill Clinton, emphasizing a need for change, again employed the dramatic phrase spoken by Roosevelt on that may evening in 1932.
That Roosevelt would give such a significant speech in the improbable settling of a small Georgia college commencement was due to the initiative of the charismatic Thornwell Jacobs, who served as Oglethorpe University's president from 1915-1945. (2) In 1931, Jacobs announced that the university would award an honorary doctorate to Roosevelt "in recognition of his high achievements in statesmanship, economics, and philanthropy." (3) Jacobs had gained a reputation for awarding honorary degrees to notables when at his first Oglethorpe commencement in 1920, without any previous announcement, he dramatically read a letter from President Woodrow Wilson accepting in absentia an honorary doctorate in International Law. Among others holding honorary Oglethorpe doctorates during Jacobs's tenure were William Randolph Hearst (1927), Bernard Baruch (1933), Walter Lippmann (1934), Amelia Earhart (1935), David Sarnoff 1938), and Joseph Kennedy (1941).
Jacobs later explained that Roosevelt's frequent trips to Warm Springs and his 1,750-acre farm atop Pine Mountain had made Georgia the governor's "second native choice" and that the state had adopted him as a "second native son." The Oglethorpe president wanted his university to honor Roosevelt "as a Georgian, as a public official, and as an American." (4) Due to his mother's illness, however, Roosevelt was obliged to cancel his 1931 Oglethorpe commencement appearance, but his schedule was cleared to meet the commitment in May of the following year.
In the spring of 1932, it was uncertain whether Roosevelt or the more conservative Al Smith would be the Democratic candidate for president. On April 7, from Albany, New York, FDR fired his first popular salvo for "progressive" economic reform -- the "forgotten man" radio address, drafted by "brains trust" advisory Raymond Moley. Roosevelt boldly lambasted "trickle down" proposals and demanded a recovery program "that builds from the bottom up and not from the top down, that puts faith once more in the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid." (5) For about six weeks after the speech, Roosevelt gave no significant follow-up on that progressive theme. The upcoming Oglethorpe address, scheduled for May 22, would allow FDR an opportunity to reinvigorate his campaign. Although at the time he was leading the race for delegates to the Chicago Democratic Convention in July, Roosevelt wanted to maintain a "fighting bid" for the party nomination. The timing was critical for a dramatic speech.
The controversial content of Roosevelt's Oglethorpe address had an almost impromptu genesis at Warm Springs, where the governor was visiting his favorite picnic spot with three members of the press corps. They were bantering good-naturedly with FDR, teasing him about his insipid campaign speeches since the "forgotten man" address. Roosevelt and his speech writers had not yet prepared the upcoming commencement speech, and the only background documents in hand were some biographical notes on James Oglethorpe, for whom the university was named. FDR playfully challenged the writers, saying, "Well if you boys don't like my speeches, why don't you take a hand in drafting one yourselves?" Ernest Lindly of the New York Herald Tribune quickly responded, "All right, I will"; and he did. The other journalists, Walter Brown and Louis Ruppel, did some editing but the final speech was Lindley's draft (6)
And so it was quite by chance that Franklin Roosevelt's call for "bold persistent experimentation" developed, ostensibly for the Oglethorpe University class of 1932. On the night of the commencement address at the Fox Theatre, university president Jacobs grandly introduced Governor Roosevelt and saluted him as one who had "gathered the skillful power of the North, the free spirit of the West, and the responsive soul of the South." (7) The capacity crowd gave prolonged applause and waited expectantly to hear the probable Democratic nominee for president.
Although Roosevelt began his speech with the usual commencement greetings, he moved quickly to issue startling, forthright challenges against the established order. [Click here to read entire speech.] Condemning the "superfluous duplication of productive facilities" and the "profligate waste of natural resources," FDR boldly called for "a larger measure of social planning." After scathing references to Wall Street financiers as "selfish and opportunistic," the New York governor flatly asserted that "we cannot allow ourselves to be governed by that small group of men." This alleged cabal, he averred, constituted "controlling and directive forces." (8)
Warming to his task, Roosevelt declared the need "to inject life into our ailing economic order." He dramatically proposed a "wider, more equitable distribution of the national income" and called for broad relief objective to ensure "that all who are willing to work receive . . . at least the necessities of life." FDR broadly hinted at currency inflation, saying "we must either restore commodities to a level approximately their dollar value of several years ago or . . . continue the destructive process of reducing, through defaults . . . obligations assumed at a higher level." Roosevelt emphasized the desideratum of a major national policy shift with emphasis on wages instead of profits, arguing that "the reward for a day's work will have to be greater than it has been, and the reward to capital . . . will have to be less." (9)
Near the conclusion of his remarkable speech, Roosevelt, with his characteristic public speaking manner, lifted his head high above the podium, raised his voice to a singing pitch and cried the words for which the Oglethorpe address is chiefly remembered: "This country needs, and unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold persistent experimentation.It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something." (10)
Roosevelt's address provoked strong negative reactions from critical observers as well as his own staff. Two days later, the New York Times criticized FDR's blandness and lack of specificity, noting that his one conclusion was to "try something." Roosevelt advisor Louis Howe was outraged at the leftist tone of the address. He phoned Warm Springs from New York City on May 23, to tell the candidate that his speech was an appalling piece of political stupidity. (11) Howe feared that such talk about "experimentation" would frighten voters who considered Roosevelt a dangerous radical. But FDR, by following his political instincts, had again boldly related to the "forgotten man." Millions of distressed Americans heard Roosevelt's words as he intended them to be heard -- as a hopeful departure from the attitude of helplessness in the face of calamity. (12) With his nomination virtually sealed, FDR then heeded Howe's advice and made few public statements. Indeed, the Oglethorpe address was Roosevelt's last major speech before he accepted the Democratic nomination at the Chicago convention in July. And true to the spirit of the Oglethorpe address, Roosevelt boldly broke precedence when he flew to Chicago to accept the nomination before the convention adjourned.
The importance of the Oglethorpe speech was never underestimated by those close to FDR. Samuel Rosenman, one of Roosevelt's favorite speech writers, believed that the call for "bold persistent experimentation" became a "kind of watchword for the New Deal program." (13) Rexford Tugwell, a staff advisor on the brains trust, regarded the speech as "the best of all the public addresses in Franklin's long career," and called it "the sincerest, most unpolitical statement of Roosevelt's attitudes and convictions." (14)
Governor Roosevelt's final words to the Oglethorpe University graduating class of 1932 were characteristic of the active style that his presidency would assume, as well as the social objectives that the New Deal would seek: "We need enthusiasm, imagination, and the ability to face facts, even unpleasant ones, bravely. We need to prevent by drastic means if necessary the faults in our economic system which we now suffer. We need the courage of the young. Yours is not the task of making your way in the world, but the tasking of remaking the world you find before you." (15)
Certainly his supporters, and to a degree some of his detractors, agree that the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt was in many respects a fulfillment of the bold approach that he first outlined to Oglethorpe University's graduating class on May 22, 1932.
6 The journalists were: Walter Brown of the New York Times, Louis Ruppel of the New York Daily News, and Ernest K. Lindley of the New York Herald Tribune. Lindley, who firmly believed that Roosevelt was destined to occupy the White House, had written the first biography of him the year before: Franklin D. Roosevelt: A career in Progressive Democracy (New York, 1931). Some informed and consistent accounts of the origins of FDR's Oglethorpe speech are in Raymond Moley, After Seven Years (New York, 1939), 24; Samuel I. Rosenman, Working with Roosevelt (New York, 1952), 65; and Rexford G. Tugwell, The Democratic Roosevelt (Garden City, N.Y., 1957), 219.
8 The entire text of FDR's Oglethorpe address has been widely published. It was printed the next day, May 23, 1932, in the Atlanta Constitution and the New York Times. The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt I: 639-47, published the text of the "Address at Oglethorpe University" [sic]. In his Step Down, Dr. Jacobs: The Autobiography of an Autocrat [Atlanta, Ga., 1945), Thornwell Jacobs published his own introduction of Roosevelt as well as the text of the spring 1932 Oglethorpe commencement address.
13 See Rosenman, Working With Roosevelt, 66. Interestingly, the Chicago Daily Tribune's analysis of the Oglethorpe address (May 29, 1932) headlined perhaps the first reference to what later became the familiar label of FDR's legislative program: "ROOSEVELT ASKS NEW DEAL FOR WORKERS IN THE U.S." The Democratic candidate did not use the term "New Deal," coined by Rosenman, until the nomination acceptance speech in Chicago.
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