Essential Speeches in Early 20th Century American Democracy

Handout – Key Speeches in early 20th Century American Politics:
Bryan, Roosevelt, Wilson, Hoover, & Roosevelt
Carl A. Young

Essential Speeches
Handout Speeches

23 January 2010

William Jennings Bryan

William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925) was a devout Presbyterian and an unsuccessful Democratic nominee for President in the 1896, 1900, and 1908 elections. He served as Secretary of State under Wilson, was a professional speaker, prohibitionist, and populist referred to as The Great Commoner and was anti-imperialist and anti-trust. He died shortly after winning the Scopes Trial in 1925 as an anti-Darwinist.

In his 1898 speech against imperialism, fueled by concerns over the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in which the United States would gain Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines, Bryan argues against the hypocrisies inherent in comparing American protectorates in Cuba and imperialism in the Philippines. He defends the Cuban approach as patriotic and in line with democratic ideals but warns of degeneration of greed and imperialistic designs. He underpins his argument with a warning that a government’s strength is not is might, but “the consent of the governed.

Notable Quotes:

  • Our nation exhausted diplomacy in its efforts to secure a peaceable solution of the Cuban question, and only took up arms when it was compelled to choose between war and servile acquiescence in cruelties which would have been a disgrace to barbarism.
  • Our guns destroyed a Spanish fleet, but can they destroy that self-evident truth, that governments derive their just powers, not from superior force, but from the consent of the governed?

On 8 August 1900, he railed against the imperialism in the Philippines and the hypocrisy of the plan of self-determination for Cuba while establishing an imperial trade base in the Philippines. He attacks four principles of imperialism (emergence as a world power, protection of commercial interests, spread of Christianity, and lack of honorable retreat) as un-Christian, un-democratic, and greedy.

Notable Quotes:

  • The Filipinos do not need any encouragement from Americans now living. Our whole history has been an encouragement not only to the Filipinos, but to all who are denied a voice in their own government.
  • We cannot repudiate the principle of self-government in the Philippines without weakening that principle here.
  • A colonial policy means that we shall send to the Philippine Islands a few traders, a few taskmasters and a few office-holders and an army large enough to support the authority of a small fraction of the people while they rule the natives.
  • Is the sunlight of full citizenship to be enjoyed by the people of the United States, and the twilight of semi-citizenship endured by the people of Puerto Rico, while the thick darkness of perpetual vassalage covers the Philippines?
  • Force can defend a right, but force has never yet created a right.

Teddy Roosevelt

Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt (1858-1919) came from a very wealthy family, suffered ill health as a child, and became an avid outdoorsman and naturalist embodying progressive ideals. He served as President from 1901 until 1908 and lost a bid for the office in 1912 to Woodrow Wilson. He received the Medal of Honor (awarded in 2001) for actions in San Juan Heights in Cuba in 1898 during the Spanish – American War. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1906 for his role in mediating the Russo-Japanese War.

At his inauguration on 4 March 1905, he borrowed from the Christian spirit of “to whom much is given, much will be required” as he declared it to be a responsibility of the United States to uphold the American ideals of character, intelligence, courage, hardihood, and endurance. To that end, the United States pledged friendship to other countries. His inauguration was delivered against a background of war between Russia and Japan, the formation of the 1st Workers Soviet in St. Petersburg, and the publication of Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity.

Notable Quote:

  • Upon the success of our experiment much depends, not only as regards our own welfare, but as regards the welfare of mankind. If we fail, the cause of free self-government throughout the world will rock to its foundations, and therefore our responsibility is heavy, to ourselves, to the world as it is to-day, and to the generations yet unborn.

Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson (1856- 1924) was a devout Presbyterian and intellectual who served as president of Princeton University (1902-10) and governor of New Jersey (1911-13) before being elected as President of the United States. He was anti-trust, in favor of tax-reform, women’s suffrage, and idealistic internationalism as a way for the United States to make the world safe for democracy. He received the Nobel Prize in 1919 for his efforts during the 1919 Peace Conference.

His inauguration on 4 March 1913 was set against a background of advances in international communism, scientific discovery, and industrial genius such as continuing developments in Russia, Niels Bohr’s publication of the theory of atomic structure, and Henry Ford’s pioneering of the assembly line along with increasing tension in Eastern Europe. He urged consideration of the human cost to the massive industrial expansion of recent years. He cautioned government against the concerns of “private interests” and an over-influential industrial system, identified the need for a sound banking and currency system, and urged scientific application to improve agriculture. He argued that government should “[safeguard] the health of the Nation, the health of its men and its women and its children, as well as their rights in the struggle for existence” and explained that government service to its people underpinned society.

Notable Quotes:

  • We have been proud of our industrial achievements, but we have not hitherto stopped thoughtfully enough to count the human cost, the cost of lives snuffed out…
  • Nor have we studied and perfected the means by which government may be put at the service of humanity, in safeguarding the health of the Nation, the health of its men and its women and its children, as well as their rights in the struggle for existence.

On 8 April 1913, Wilson became the first president to directly address a joint session of Congress where he called for change to the tariff legislation he said had become a system of patronage to industry. He called for free trade legislation as a foundation for successful commerce built on “competitive supremacy.”

Notable Quotes:

  • We long ago passed beyond the modest notion of “protecting” the industries of the country and moved boldly forward to the idea that they were entitled to the direct patronage of the Government.
  • We must… put our business men and producers under the stimulation of a constant necessity to be efficient, economical, and enterprising, masters of competitive supremacy, better workers and merchants than any in the world.

On 2 April 1917, Wilson addressed the Congress requesting a declaration of war against Germany. He insisted that “armed neutrality… is impracticable” and subsequently requested authority to mobilize the national economy for war, place 500,000 soldiers in the Army, and allow for a taxation plan to pay for this war. Reversing his winning electoral pledge to keep America out of the war, he said, “the right is more precious than peace.”

Notable Quotes:

  • But armed neutrality, it now appears, is impracticable.
  • …it would be most unwise to base the credits which will now be necessary entirely on money borrowed.
  • The world must be made safe for democracy.
  • We enter this war only where we are clearly forced into it because there are no other means of defending our rights.
  • But the right is more precious than peace…

A year later, on 8 January 1918, he addressed the Congress with what became known as the Fourteen Points Address. Here he outlined his plans for the peace at the conclusion of World War I consisting of open diplomacy, freedom of the seas, free trade, arms reduction, restoral of lands, and an association of nations. He failed to bring the United States into the League of Nations, but succeeded in establishing the organization.

Notable Quotes:

  • It is the principle of justice to all peoples and nationalities, and their right to live on equal terms of liberty and safety with one another, whether they be strong or weak. Unless this principle be made its foundation no part of the structure of international justice can stand.

Herbert Hoover

Herbert Hoover (1874-1964) was a trained engineer and government reformer believing in a minimal government supporting the efforts of the people. He is discredited largely due to his inability to stop the crisis stemming from the stock market crash of 1929. He served as president from 1929-33.

During his inaugural address on 4 March 1929, approximately six months before the crash, the country was at peace and experiencing significant prosperity. He outlined objectives for improving the criminal justice system, enforcement of the Eighteenth Amendment, investigating federal jurisprudence, strengthening government regulation on business, establishing a cooperative spirit within the government over more authoritative means, and expansion of education, public health while promoting world peace.

Notable Quotes:

  • The strong man must at all times be alert to the attack of insidious disease.
  • There would be little traffic in illegal liquor if only criminals patronized it.
  • The election has again confirmed the determination of the American people that regulation of private enterprise and not Government ownership or operation is the course rightly to be pursued in our relation to business.
  • Self-government can succeed only through an instructed electorate.
  • Public health service should be as fully organized and as universally incorporated into our governmental system as is public education.
  • I have no fears for the future of our country. It is bright with hope.


Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945) was an extremely wealthy New York aristocrat elected to president in 1933 and remained until his death in office in 1945. He established the New Deal, is credited by many for getting the United States out of the Great Depression, and guiding the country through World War II. In 1933 the world had been in a depression since October 1929, Germany appointed Hitler as chancellor, begun burning books and building concentration camps, the United States launched its first aircraft carrier, the USSR was suffering massive starvation, and the Congress delivers to FDR wide-ranging powers to curb the Depression. At his inauguration on 4 March, he claimed “that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” and threatened Congress to call for expansive power if the Congress failed to lead the country out of the Depression.

Notable Quotes:

  • So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself…
  • They have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish.
  • But in the event that the Congress shall fail to take one of these two courses, and in the event that the national emergency is still critical, I shall not evade the clear course of duty that will then confront me. I shall ask the Congress for the one remaining instrument to meet the crisis–broad Executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.

On 6 January 1941 (eleven months before the United States entered World War II), FDR highlighted international concerns to a largely isolationist audience and committed the country to national defense in American and throughout the hemisphere while resisting aggressors and appeasers by calling for significant increases in the production of armaments. Here he highlighted the four freedoms: of speech, of worship, from want, and from fear – everywhere.

Notable Quotes:

  • The best way of dealing with the few slackers or trouble makers in our midst is, first, to shame them by patriotic example, and, if that fails, to use the sovereignty of Government to save Government.
  • In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.
    • The first is freedom of speech and expression—everywhere in the world.
    • The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world.
    • The third is freedom from want—which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants-everywhere in the world.
    • The fourth is freedom from fear—which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor —anywhere in the world.

A little over three years later, on 11 January 1944, while the United States was at war, he outlined his economic bill of rights supporting the supreme objective of security (physical, economic, social, and moral) in an environment of international cooperation stating “that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence.” From this stem the rights to a job; to earn; of every farmer to raise and sell his products; of every businessman to trade freely; of every family to a decent home; to adequate medical care; to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment; and to a good education.

Notable Quotes:

  • The one supreme objective for the future, which we discussed for each Nation individually, and for all the United Nations, can be summed up in one word: Security. And that means not only physical security which provides safety from attacks by aggressors. It means also economic security, social security, moral security—in a family of Nations.
  • Freedom from fear is eternally linked with freedom from want.
  • In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all regardless of station, race, or creed. Among these are:
    • The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the Nation;
    • The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;
    • The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;
    • The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;
    • The right of every family to a decent home;
    • The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;
    • The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;
    • The right to a good education.

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