A Hollywood director would have rejected the weather on inauguration day as overkill. Added to the dominant plot element—that the nation was careening into the abyss of fiscal disaster—a cold wind scythed out of the northwest and drove bursts of rain before it. Saturday, March 4, 1933, was as ugly in weather as in national outlook. Across the country, all twelve Federal Reserve banks were closed, and commercial banks in forty-three states either were closed, were limiting withdrawals, or had placed other restrictions upon normal banking. Even on his final day in the White House, Hoover had thrown himself into a flurry of work, still trying to gain acceptance of his program. Reporting on his last full day in office, the New York Times wrote, “That he leaves office reluctantly and with a feeling of not having had a fair opportunity is obvious.”
Wrapped in overcoats and huddling under umbrellas, people began to fill the pine benches set up before the Capitol, where the inauguration would take place. One hundred thousand spectators crowded into the sodden forty-acre tract to witness the transfer of power. Others shivered in bleachers on the roof of the Capitol portico. Four hundred thousand more lined Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and the Capitol. Many spectators climbed up into trees and onto rooftops, and some stood in the open fronts of the partially demolished buildings where the Bonus Army had camped the previous summer. Bunting hung from the lampposts, and Roosevelt’s image smiled from posters mounted in store windows. But the mood was grave, reflective rather than jubilant, as if the great crowds recognized that the nation stood at a crossroads. Machine gun cages guarded the corners of the Capitol, and policemen and soldiers stood watchfully along the avenue.
The open presidential limousine set out from the White House a little before noon. The atmosphere within the car was strained. Hoover had not been gracious about relinquishing the reins of government, nor about the customary protocols. He was packing his bags the day before when his friend Leland W. Cutler, a fellow Stanford graduate who was then president of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce and lobbying for money to build a bridge across San Francisco Bay, dropped by the White House. Hoover asked if he was staying over for the inaugural festivities, and Cutler replied that a Democratic inauguration was not his idea of a festivity. “Nor mine,” said Hoover, and in that vein, he had chosen not to invite the Roosevelts for the traditional inaugural eve dinner. They had come for tea instead, and even then he had tried to persuade his successor to join him in a statement about the banking crisis. Roosevelt again declined, and the meeting had ended badly, with Hoover haughtily dismissing the normal courtesies of the transition. The tension lingered even now, as the car made its way along Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Capitol, the two men seated side by side in the back.
Hoover stared straight ahead, ignoring the applauding crowds and Roosevelt’s efforts to make conversation. At first the president-elect followed his lead in not responding to the crowds, but it must finally have seemed foolish not to acknowledge the applause, so Roosevelt began to smile at last and waved his top hat as they passed along the avenue.
At the Capitol, he waited in a committee room while John Nance Garner took the vice presidential oath in the Senate chamber. Then those in attendance moved from the chamber to the inaugural stand outside and a bugle call announced the beginning of the ceremony. Roosevelt, bareheaded and without an overcoat, walked to the podium on the arm of his son James. He raised his right hand, placed his left on the old Dutch family Bible open to the thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians—“And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity”—and repeated the oath of office after Supreme Court chief justice Charles Evans Hughes. Then he turned to the crowd, gripped the podium, and began to speak, his first words invoking an almost religious urgency: “This is a day of national consecration.”
As the new president continued, the sun found openings in the clouds and threw shafts of light on the spectators. The words he had chosen with such care were eloquent, and they resonated with people hungry for hope. “This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly,” he said. “This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. 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.”
With that, Roosevelt began to spell out his vision for America. He scorned “the unscrupulous money changers” for their “false leadership” and lack of vision while “a host of unemployed citizens face the grim problem of existence, and an equally great number toil with little return.” He spoke of rebalancing the scales, returning ethics and unselfishness to business, and embracing anew “social values more noble than mere monetary profit.” Among those values, he asserted, was “the joy and moral stimulation of work,” which “no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits.” Providing work lay at the center of his plan. “This nation asks for action, and action now,” he said. “Our greatest primary task is to put people to work. This is no unsolvable problem if we face it wisely and courageously. It can be accomplished in part by direct recruiting by the government itself, treating the task as we would treat the emergency of a war, but at the same time…'accomplishing greatly needed projects to stimulate and reorganize the use of our natural resources.”
He provided few details, but that hardly mattered. Reassurance was the key, and reassurance lay in his words and the sound of his voice. Across the nation, everywhere there was a radio, Americans listened. They gathered by the tens of millions on the farms and in the cities, around stoves in country stores, in the kitchens of apartments where the rent was overdue and in homes threatened by foreclosure, in restaurants and hospitals and offices; and in the combative thrust of Roosevelt’s Jacksonian address they found glimmerings of the hope they so sorely needed.
“The people of the United States have not failed,” he reminded them as he drew toward the end. “In their need they have registered a mandate that they want direct, vigorous action. They have asked for discipline and direction under leadership. They have made me the present instrument of their wishes. In the spirit of the gift I take it.”
If the people wanted action now, action is what they got. As the president and first lady led the inaugural parade back along Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House and emerged after a quick lunch to view it from an open reviewing stand, during the three hours it took the 18,000 marchers to pass before them, his aides were finalizing a pair of proclamations. One put a national banking holiday into effect on Monday, the first business day after the inauguration, and halted gold and silver exports and foreign exchange transactions. The other called an emergency session of the Congress for the Thursday that followed. He signed them both on Sunday afternoon.
The start of the new workweek was like nothing the country had experienced. With the banks closed, Washington didn’t know what to do with out-of-towners who had come to the inauguration and now wanted to go home. Hotel cashiers refused out-of-town checks, and guests who wired home for money could get, at most, $100. Merchants across the country devised strategies to cope with the cash shortage. Some sent runners armed with $20 bills to make small purchases at other stores and collect the change, until those stores caught on and sent runners of their own. Others turned to barter. At the Golden Glove boxing matches in Madison Square Garden, the sponsoring New York Daily News accepted anything worth the 50 cent admission fee, including food, clothes, books, and tools. By the night of Thursday, March 9, hours after it convened, the brand-new Congress had passed and the president had signed emergency banking legislation. To those depositors who had withdrawn gold or gold certificates, the Federal Reserve Board offered a grace period to redeposit what they had taken out. After that, said the board, the hoarders’ names would be released.
At ten o’clock on the night of March 12, eight days after his inauguration, Roosevelt sat before a microphone as a young radio reporter named Robert Trout, with the Washington CBS affiliate WJSV, prepared to introduce him. Trout had worked up two openings with his manager, an Iowan named Harry Butcher. The president had liked the more folksy of the two, and thus Trout entered radio history, launching not only an enduring term but a new twist in political communication, the use of the airwaves to bypass hostile newspapers and speak directly to the people. “The president,” he said, “wants to come into your home and sit beside your fireplace for a little fireside chat.”
Roosevelt spoke for fourteen minutes, explaining the banking system, his actions in dealing with the bank closures, and the phased reopenings that would follow. He spoke in clear and simple terms; as Will Rogers wrote, the president had “stepped to the microphone…'and knocked another home run,” taking a dry subject and making “everybody understand it, even the bankers.” He closed by asking the people to overcome their doubts. “Confidence and courage are the essentials of success in carrying out our plan,” he said. “You people must have faith; you must not be stampeded by rumors and guesses. Let us unite in banishing fear. We have provided this machinery to restore our financial system, and it is up to you to make it work. It is your problem, my friends, your problem no less than it is mine. Together we cannot fail.”
The banks started reopening on Monday, March 13, and, as if people had been waiting for this signal from their president, money started flowing in again.