Famous Sayings: #21 — ‘The Only Thing to Fear…’

July 31, 2016

The only thing to fear is fear itself.

the only thing to fear, is fear itself, fear, FDR, the great depression, Herbert Hoover, national conventions
Franklin Delano Roosevelt during one of his “Fireside Chats,” which helped to calm the American public’s fears. By Unknown or not provided [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I had this famous saying in my back pocket, but I was waiting for the anniversary or the next inauguration day to finally use this. However, with the type of election we have this year and after the emotions stirred within those who watched both major party conventions, what better time than now?

Also, as Hillary Rodham Clinton formally accepted the Democratic presidential nomination, her speech actually included the line, “The only thing to fear is fear itself.” How did I feel about the speech? I felt it was quite good, although I had lowered expectations. There was just no way for former Secretary Clinton have to top Michelle and Barack Obama or Joe Biden. Those were the three best speeches I had seen this month.

If you had watched both conventions, you would have noticed a sharp contrast. While the Republicans did rely on fear and anger in their convention, the Democrats tried to counter with (racial and cultural) inclusiveness. The Republicans attacked Hillary on her scandals and her low trust numbers. Much of it was fair and some of it was out of line. And the Democrats attacked Trump on his rhetoric and hypocrisy.

Another instance of “The only thing to fear is fear itself” was written into an episode of “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.” The gang was transported to a strange place and tormented by their fears. Trini was haunted by her own fear … of fear. That was so uninspired. Come on … The writers could have put in a little more effort.

So, Where Does This Phrase Come From?

As anybody knows, the phrase “The only thing to fear is fear itself” comes from the 32nd President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Now, if you know that FDR first spoke this phrase, chances are that you also know that it came from his inauguration speech on March 4, 1933.

What Is the History Behind the Speech?

As we all know, FDR ran for president during the Great Depression. His opponent in the 1932 general election was incumbent President Herbert Hoover.

What started as a recession during the summer of 1929 finally snowballed on October 24, 1929. On what has been called “Black Thursday,” 12.9 million overpriced shares were dumped on Wall Street. That record would be shortly eclipsed on what is called “Black Tuesday,” as 16 million additional shares were traded on the stock floor.

This had a domino effect at home. The lack of confidence in the stock market led to decreased investment and layoffs. Wages fell. Since people could not pay for basic services, foreclosures and repossessions increased (“The Great Depression”). People starved and had to wait in bread lines. Displaced people squatted in areas that would be known as “Hoovervilles” (“Herbert Hoover”).

The happenings in the stock market rippled throughout the world. Eventually, the value of the dollar affected the Gold Standard, which tied international currencies together at fixed rates (“The Great Depression”).

During his term, President Hoover had seen these major losses on the stock market and the collapse of the banking system. While this happened only 7 months after Hoover took office, he has been largely blamed for exacerbating the effects of the stock market crash. Fiscally conservative, Hoover refused to pull government resources to invest in a larger stimulus program (“Herbert Hoover”).

When FDR ran against Hoover, he promised voters that he would bring with him a “New Deal.” But the challenger wasn’t forthcoming with details on the campaign trail. People wondered what this “New Deal” was, and FDR would only give some clues in his speech in March 1933.

The famous phrase can be found in the first paragraph of FDR’s inauguration speech:

I am certain that my fellow Americans expect that on my induction into the Presidency I will address them with a candor and a decision which the present situation of our Nation impels. This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. 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. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.

Now, What Does “The Only Thing to Fear…” Mean?

As the newly inaugurated President Roosevelt said in the first paragraph, the “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror” people were feeling at the time only “paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” This might have been a dig at Hoover, who feared increased involvement from the government.

  • However, the fears of both the people and Hoover were in a sense well-founded or understandable.
  • By 1933, there were between 13 million and 15 million Americans were unemployed (“The Great Depression”).
  • Also by 1933, 11,000 out of 24,000 banks had failed (“FDR’s First”).
  • As mentioned about, businesses feared to make investments and that took money out of the economy.
  • Banks feared to make loans and that took more money out of the economy.
  • All remaining banks were ordered to close by Inauguration Day in 1933 (“The Great Depression”).
  • And as the “New Deal” was being rolled out, it required an incredible amount of government growth. That is something Hoover wanted to avoid.

As part of the New Deal, new agencies and programs were created. This included the Securities and Exchange Commission, Social Security, and the creation of twelve district banks. And until Social Security was created, the United States was the only industrialized country without a program for social security or unemployment (“The Great Depression”).

FDR also oversaw changes to the way taxes were collected. While the Internal Revenue Service had already existed since 1862, there were reforms that affected it. Among the changes were the Revenue Act of 1942, which increased taxes overall and allowed tax payers to use medical expenses and investments for deductions. The Current Tax Payment Act in 1943 established the payroll tax. The Individual Income Tax Act (1944) led to the creation of the 1040 tax form (“Historical”).

By the way, if you are wondering where the district banks are, take a look at American money. You will see black numbers on $1 bills and all bills printed before the late 1990’s. These are where the banks are (going from memory):

  1. Boston, Massachusetts
  2. New York, NY
  3. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  4. Cleveland, Ohio
  5. Richmond, Virginia
  6. Atlanta, Georgia
  7. Chicago, Illinois
  8. Louis, Missouri
  9. Minneapolis, Minnesota
  10. Kansas City, Missouri
  11. Dallas, Texas
  12. San Francisco, California

Getting Back on Topic …

At first glance, the saying seems paradoxical. But if you know what a paradox is in literary terms, you know that a paradox seems self-contradictory at first but it is really true after giving it some thought.

Basically, Roosevelt was saying that “fear itself” is what holds people back and it isn’t so much about the problems in front of them. He worked to reassure the American people that he was working on the problem and that they would see eventually the end of the depression.

Now, many historians agree that the New Deal wasn’t necessarily the catalyst. Indeed, the industrial response to World War II finally lifted the United States out of the Great Depression. In any event, Roosevelt was a calming force that the American people needed.

What Else Did FDR Do?

Additionally, FDR also passed laws to protect consumers. As he alluded in the inaugural address:

Yet our distress comes from no failure of substance. We are stricken by no plague of locusts. Compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered because they believed and were not afraid, we have still much to be thankful for. Nature still offers her bounty and human efforts have multiplied it. Plenty is at our doorstep, but a generous use of it languishes in the very sight of the supply. Primarily this is because rulers of the exchange of mankind’s goods have failed, through their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and abdicated. Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men.

One agency created was the Federal Deposit Insurance Commission (“The Great Depression”). It still exists today and consumers are told to only leave their money in institutions who are FDIC insured. If so, any losses the bank suffers can preserve the money in your account up to a certain amount. If you have less than $250K, you’re covered.

One law that was passed during FDR’s presidency was Glass-Steagall. It existed to prevent the hedge-funding, speculation, and “too-big-to-fail” banks that sprung up after it was repealed by the Gramm-Leach-Bliley act. As a result of the latter, we eventually got the Great Recession of 2008 and the big bank bailout.

Does This Saying Apply Today?

You bet it does.

On a personal level, we can conquer fear by first addressing it. As Jay Winner, M.D. points out, running away from our emotions will actually prolong them. This might seem to contradict FDR’s speech, but it doesn’t. It’s not wrong to have fears but it is wrong to constantly live in fear, especially if it is unreasonable. And that constant fear keeps us from moving on and making progress, especially when we don’t address it and try to understand it.

Finally, when I mentioned the Republican and Democratic National Conventions at the top, I noted the fear-mongering. Sadly, many in the Republican leadership often use fear of the “other.” There were mentions of illegal immigrants throughout. Many people want us to fear them and blame them for decreased wages and the loss of jobs. Also, there is the fear of Muslims that has only been exacerbated after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center.

On the Democratic side, there is an amount of fear-mongering outside of the convention. Many of us are being told to fear the Republican nominee, especially because of nukes. I mean, foreign policy (or the lack thereof) is a real concern here, but that fear is a leading reason given for voting for Hilldawg. Just sayin’.

But yes, there is justified fear around the globe. However, there are some things that are in our control. Regardless of who you vote for, the American president will have a tremendous effect on world issues.

To my fellow Americans:

There are 3 months to go before the general election. Do your research on all the candidates you can vote for, including those in local, state, and congressional races. Choose the people who you feel will serve the best interests of their constituents (and perhaps blunt the negative effects the eventual president will have). These next 4 years could be pivotal.

Correction (8/14/2016): Before, I had stated that FDR created the IRS. Silly me, in reality, he signed acts that affected the way the agency was run. I have included these above.

Works Cited

“FDR’s First Inaugural Address Declaring ‘War’ on the Great Depression.” National Archives. The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. Web. Retrieved 31 July 2016. <https://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/fdr-inaugural/>.

“Historical Highlights of the IRS.” Internal Revenue Service. United States Treasury; Last updated 6 July 2016. Web. Retrieved 14 Aug 2016. <https://www.irs.gov/uac/historical-highlights-of-the-irs>.

History.com Staff. “The Great Depression.” History.com. A+E Networks; 2009. Web. Retrieved 31 July 2016. <http://www.history.com/topics/great-depression>.

History.com Staff. “Herbert Hoover.” History.com. A+E Networks; 2009. Web. Retrieved 31 July 2016. <http://www.history.com/topics/us-presidents/herbert-hoover>.

“‘Only Thing We Have to Fear Is Fear Itself’: FDR’s First Inaugural Address.” History Matters. Web. Retrieved 31 July 2016. <http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5057/>.

Winner, Jay, M.D. “Noting to Fear, but Fear Itself?” Psychology Today. 14 Oct 2008. Web. Retrieved 31 July 2016. <https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/stress-remedy/200810/nothing-fear-fear-itself>.


6 thoughts on “Famous Sayings: #21 — ‘The Only Thing to Fear…’

  1. nvsubbaraman

    I have also heard this right for the past more than six decades. Your analysis is indeed great and I got a lot of additional inputs. Thanks aplenty. Congrats.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha, I checked out your blog. So, you’re Australian. I think I learned a little bit from your comic strips.

      For the most part, I like political cartoons. Politics are frustrating and drawing can be cathartic.


  2. Vince Lombardi and George Patton are two,leaders who have effectively used the fear factor for uniting others to take positive action for a worthy cause. . In Trump’s case,, however, while many abhor his character flaws, the real damage occurs because he is using fear for the evil intent of dividing us and creating unneeded distrust in this country.


    1. Man, the Trump campaign is kind of an enigma to me at times, although the answers may be simple. On one hand, I wonder if he is a plant in order to drive more voters over to Hillary Clinton. On the other hand, there is probably a mixture of Trump’s ego, ineptitude, and opportunism. Remember that he is using a lot of dangerous rhetoric some Republican leaders have used in the past in order to scare voters. Now, it’s being used against the entire party.


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