Frame of Reference
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Frame of Reference

Moving Forward with Strong and Active Faith: FDR’s Final Words to the Nation

Seventy-six years after the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, his timeless words continue to elicit hope during times of darkness

Franklin Delano Roosevelt at his home in Hyde Park, New York in 1928. This was seven years after polio took the use of his legs and the same year he was elected governor of New York. Source: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

“The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today. Let us move forward with strong and active faith.” ~ President Franklin D. Roosevelt, April 1945

It was a warm spring day in April of 2014. I was alone and preparing for the next day’s big event by setting up rows of chairs in front of a quaint one-story white house. That little white house is one of the most visited historic sites in the state of Georgia, and it is known simply as the Little White House.

Perhaps Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the then governor of New York, had a premonition when he built the home in 1932 that he would soon be elected president of the United States and occupy THE White House. After all, this was the same man who made the declaration as a young lawyer in New York City that he would someday hold the nation’s highest office. Even when polio struck him at the age of 39 and took the use of his legs, it did not steal the grit and unbounded determination that his distant cousin and hero Theodore Roosevelt also possessed.

The following day’s event was the annual ceremony commemorating Roosevelt’s death, which had occurred 69 years before right there at the Little White House. The date was April 12, 1945, and just like this day in 2014, it was a pleasant spring day filled with the congenial sounds of birds chirping and the smell of Georgia pines filling the air.

The Little White House in Warm Springs, Georgia pictured in April 2014. Source: Holley Snaith

As I went about the simple task of lining up chairs, all I could think about was the history that transpired here in this small southern town. The next day, I, a teenager who was then aspiring to one day become a historian, found myself surrounded by esteemed authors and prominent names. Yet my mind continuously drifted back to the history of the place, and the legacy of the man who put it on the map. I thought of that ebullient personality who drove-up to the front of this very house with his specially-made Ford Phaeton, clinching that ever-present cigarette holder between his teeth and sporting his signature grin.

Slowly I meandered back into the present day, contemplating why, after so many decades, a crowd was still gathering to remember the man and the legend. I maintain that one logical answer to this question is that Franklin Roosevelt still speaks to us through his timeless words; words that have just as much meaning today as they did then.

This year, 2021, marks 76 years since the death of the man who has been heralded one of our greatest presidents. His full name does not need to be spoken; all you need to know are those three iconic initials: FDR. He led the United States through the two greatest crises of the twentieth century: the Great Depression and World War II. As fate would have it, he came at the right time; America was thirsty for his leadership.

Franklin Roosevelt holding his “campaign hat” while sitting on the porch of his new home in Warm Springs, the Little White House, October 1932. Source: Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum

As I write this article, we are engaged in our own societal battles, but these do not entail the use of artillery or airplanes. COVID-19 has had a devastating effect on the world, and we are asking: Will it ever end? How many more lives will be lost? What will our new “normal” look like? In addition to this fatal virus, racism, hatred, and violence continue to plague our communities. We seem to be entrenched in an endless cycle.

As one who studies history, I do not look favorably upon hypothetical questions, but it is during times such as this that I wonder: What would FDR say to a nation longing to hear inspirational words filled with the perfect blend of optimism and realism?

Few presidents have connected with the people the way FDR did, and few were as blessed as he with the gift of eloquently speaking. Yet FDR was also shrewd in the way he took advantage of this talent, using it to enter the living rooms of millions of Americans and talking to them like family.

After FDR’s death, his widow Eleanor boarded the train carrying her husband’s casket that traveled from Warm Springs to Washington. Ironically, the train left the station on Friday the 13th, a date FDR always dreaded and tried to avoid scheduling any travel plans on. As his funeral cortege steadily made its way down the streets of Washington, the crowds were silent, only interrupted by occasional soft sobs from the crowd. One man who could not control his tears was asked by the individual next to him if he knew the president. The man softly responded with his head bowed, “No, but he knew me.” To a nation in mourning, it seemed the world had stopped turning.

A woman cries as Franklin Roosevelt’s funeral train passes through the rural South in April 1945. Source: Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum

Almost immediately after taking the oath of office, FDR became the first president to communicate through the airwaves with the American people, making him an instant friend to millions. His photograph hung proudly in living rooms across the country, with the only portrait above him being that of Christ. Talking with members of my own family who lived through his presidency, they shared with me how lost they personally felt when the president died. He was a politician who spoke to them in simple terms, a fellow man who listened, and a leader who lifted them up in times of turmoil.

In this present time, with fear seemingly being omnipresent, I seek inspiration from his words and choose to optimistically believe that we will unite and move forward with a stronger and more active faith. Collectively, we fail to remember how much we all have in common. This is simply because everyone has their own life, career, family, and of course, opinions. But now that we are walking through one of the greatest crises of this century and have seen that a virus such as this does not discriminate based on race, religion, or economic status, it is my hope that we come to understand and appreciate that we are simply one human family with far more in common than we can even fathom.

Franklin Roosevelt started the country’s first polio rehabilitation center in Warm Springs in 1927. Here he and Eleanor are pictured talking to some of the young patients at the Georgia Hall in 1938. FDR, and sometimes Eleanor, would journey down to Warm Springs to spend Thanksgiving with the patients. Source: The Roosevelt Doctor

Just as COVID-19 does not discriminate, neither did that ravaging disease called infantile paralysis. FDR faced numerous physical and spiritual obstacles through this harrowing time in his life, but even in the midst of the darkness, he was a man of deep faith, not only in God, but also in mankind, science, and nature. It is during times such as now, just as after Pearl Harbor and September 11th, that this strong and active faith, whatever that may mean to you, is imperative to tomorrow’s progress and the healing that will come from this turbulent time.

So I come back to that question: What would FDR say to a troubled nation during this uncertain time? Of course, I have opinions on what he would say or do if he were here in the present, but it is not my job to put those thoughts here.

Instead, I will leave you with his own words, perhaps some of the more precious and poignant words he ever wrote. This excerpt comes from his undelivered Jefferson Day Address that was to be given on April 14th:

“Today as we move against the terrible scourge of war — as we go forward toward the greatest contribution that any generation of human beings can make in this world — the contribution of lasting peace — I ask you to keep up your faith. I measure the sound, solid achievement that can be made at this time by the straight edge of your own confidence and your resolve. And to you, and to all Americans who dedicate themselves with us to the making of abiding peace, I say;

The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today. Let us move forward with strong and active faith.”

This is the last photograph of Franklin Roosevelt taken, on April 11, 1945, just one day before his death. It was taken in the living room of the Little White House by photographer Nicholas Robbins for Madame Elizabeth Shoumatoff’s “Unfinished Portrait” of the president. Source: Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum.

You can read the full text of FDR’s undelivered Jefferson Day Address here.

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