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Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Address at Denton, MD: September 5, 1938

Congressman Goldsborough, Congressman Lewis, ladies and gentlemen:

This is Labor Day. For two reasons, which I think you will approve, I have accepted the invitation of your Congressman to come to the Eastern Shore of Maryland today.

The first reason for coming here is to give you and me a chance to reestablish a fact which we thought was long ago thoroughly established by the Constitution of the United States even if it is denied by some of your newspapers and by some of your candidates for public office. That fact is that the Free State of Maryland, proud of itself and conscious of itself, is also proud and conscious of being a most important part of the United States of America; that what happens in and to the Free State of Maryland matters mightily in and to the United States of America and, under the Constitution, to the Chief Executive and to the Congress of the United States; and finally, that in the Free State of Maryland—happily a part of the Union—the Flag, the Constitution and the President are still as welcome as in all of the other forty-seven States of the Union.

The second, and the original reason for my coming here is also related to the unity of this Nation.

Unthinking people may believe that the first Monday in September-Labor Day—is set aside in special honor of those who work at a trade in mills and factories and railroads and mines. But that is a narrow interpretation, for this day belongs just as much to those who work with head and hand on the farms. There is no distinction between those who run farms or work on farms and those who work in industry. For you and I well know that most of the people in cities have come there comparatively recently from farms all over the country, including the Eastern Shore of Maryland and from farms of the Old World from which originally we all came.

America has always had- and America still has- a small minority who assume that there are not enough good things to go around to give that minority all that it wants and at the same time to give the rest of America—the overwhelming majority of America—a humane and modern standard of living. Even today that minority is shortsightedly sure that its interests must lie in exploiting all who labor on the farm as well as in the mill and the mine.

But at the same time all over the country the unity of interest of all common men and women—warm-hearted, simple men and women, willing to live and let live, whether in factory or on farm- grows steadily more evident. Clearer every day is the one great lesson of history—the lesson taught by the Master of Galilee- that the only road to peace and the only road to a happier and better civilization is the road to unity-the road called the “Highway of Fellowship.”

But as this community of interest becomes apparent to those who live on farm and in city, the strategy of the cold-blooded few to divide and conquer, to make common men blind to their common interests, becomes more active. Class conscious itself, just because it does conceive its interest to be opposed to the interest of all other people, that small minority is deliberately trying to create prejudice between this and that group of the common people of America—to create a new class feeling among people like ourselves, who instinctively are not class conscious.

You in the State of Maryland—and the people of other states -have in recent weeks been treated to a number of examples of this deliberate attempt to create prejudice and class feeling which ‘can be charitably explained only as political hysteria. But it does not help the cause of Constitutional Government or effective democracy anywhere to laugh off such things in campaign time on the general theory that anything is fair in love and politics.

Today above all else that minority is trying to drive a wedge between the farmers on the one hand and their relatives and their logical partners in the cities on the other. It is trying to narrow the broad definition of “labor” in the mind of the farmer, who above all people has always known what it means to have to labor from sun-up to sun-down. It is trying to make the farmer forget that the people in the cities who, like him, labor for their daily bread are his own people, flesh of his flesh, and blood of his blood, Americans just like him.

This is my fourth visit to the Eastern Shore since 1933 —perhaps more visits than any other President has made; and I have been honored by being given an honorary degree by your own historic Washington University.

You have sent your sons and daughters by the thousands into the industrial world. Your products of farm and fishery go to the greatest city markets of the United States. And you have never lost the sense of the lasting spiritual values in life.

That is why I have wanted to come here on Labor Day and preach a sermon, if you will, on that ancient text “We are all members one of another.”

In order to make that relationship a benefit rather than a curse, in order to keep all of our people abreast of each other and in line with the present, our democratic form of Government must move forward on many fronts at the same time.

For a dozen years or more prior to 1933, the Federal Government had not moved forward at all. Life was out of balance and Government had failed completely to recognize that important social needs call for action. In a nation-wide effort to catch up with lost time, to bring a distant past up to the present, a whole series of new undertakings had to be launched in 1933. But remember well that these undertakings were on a complete front that included American citizens in every occupation and in every part of the country.

During this process there were of course many people both in private and public life who did not like to do the things that had to be done. They admitted the existence of certain abuses. But in their hearts they wishfully believed that improvement should come from individual initiative or local initiative without the help of Government. If improvement could not come without Government action, then they wanted no improvement at all.

People who feel and think like that I call “conservatives,” and even “reactionaries.” And people who feel that the past should be brought up to the present by using every legitimate instrument to do the job, including Government, I call “liberals” or “progressives.”

Any man-any political party—has a right to be honestly one or the other. But the Nation cannot stand for the confusion of having him pretend to be one and act like the other.

A few days ago a brilliant newspaper writer came to the White House and asked me to illustrate the difference between a liberal and a conservative. I will condense for you what I told her.

For example, I said, “Mr. A” is a composite conservative. “Mr. A” admitted that in 1933 interest rates charged by private banking to ordinary citizens who wanted to finance a farm or a home were altogether too high; he admitted that there were excesses, sharp practices and abuses in issuing securities and buying and selling stocks and bonds; he admitted that the hours of work in his factory and a great many other factories were too long; he admitted that old people, who became destitute through no fault of their own, were a problem; he admitted that national and international economic conditions and speculation had made farming and fishing extremely hazardous occupations; and he even admitted that the buying power of farmers and fishermen had not kept pace with the buying power of many other kinds of workers.

But, “Mr. A” not only declined to take any lead in solving these problems in cooperation with his Government, he even-found fault with and opposed, openly or secretly, almost every suggestion that was put forward by those who belonged to the liberal school of thought.

“Mr. B,” on the other hand, was the composite of a liberal. He not only agreed with “Mr. A” on the needs and the problems, but “Mr. B” put his shoulder under the load, he gave active study and active support to working out methods, in cooperation with his Government, for the solving of the problems and the filling of the needs. “Mr. B” did not claim that the remedies were perfect but he knew that we had to start with something less than perfect in this imperfect world of ours.

If we have a Government run by the “Mr. A’s” of this life, it is obvious that the Nation will slip behind once more in the march of civilization—bump along from one 1929 crisis to another. Yours is the choice of what kind of a Government you want.

I ran across an interesting thing the other day. Lord Bryce, in the last edition of his great work on the American Commonwealth, had this to say: “An eminent journalist remarked to me in 1908 that the two great parties were like two bottles. Each bore a label denoting the kind of liquor it contained, but each was empty. This at any rate may be said, that the parties may seem to have erred . . . by neglecting to discover and work out any principles capable of solving the problems which now perplex the country. In a country so full of change and movement as America, new questions are always coming up and must be answered. New troubles surround a Government and a way must be found to escape from them; new diseases attack the nation, and have to be cured. The duty of a great party is to face these, to find answers and remedies, applying to the facts of the hour the doctrines it has lived by, so far as they are still applicable, and when they have ceased to be applicable, thinking out new doctrines conformable to the main principles and tendencies which it represents.”

That has been my conception of the obligations and ideals of the Democratic Party, for the Democratic Party has always been a party of ideas rather than money, and it has always failed when it has only been one of two empty bottles.

Yes, why should not we be frank with each other? The Democratic Party will live and continue to receive the support of the majority of Americans just so long as it remains a liberal party. If it reverts to the situation of thirty or forty years ago, which Lord Bryce described, it will fail.

As the leader of that party, I propose to try to keep it liberal. As President of the United States, I conceive that course to be in the best interests not only of Democrats but also of those millions of American men and women who are affiliated with other parties or with no party at all. And I have the right, in sincerity and honesty, to make that statement in any state, in any county and in any community of the United States of America.

Increasingly during these past six years a common understanding of what unity means has grown throughout the land. People have continued to ask their representatives, their executive representatives, their representatives in Legislatures and the Congress, to be liberal, to take the initiative, to be positive forces in improving social and economic conditions. That applies to farmers just as much as to industrial workers.

You who live on the farm or near the farm know well how farmers were exploited by those who controlled Government from the end of the World War down to 1933—and by the monopolies they fostered which still give us trouble. But I think you realize also that for many long years industrial labor was exploited too. Farmers have come to realize that unless industrial labor is prosperous it cannot buy the food and the materials for clothing which are produced from the soil. Industrial labor has come to understand that unless the farmers of the country are prosperous they cannot buy the product of the factories.

Economic lesson number one of the past twenty years is that men and women on farms, men and women in cities, are partners. America cannot prosper unless both groups prosper. That is the keystone in the arch of the economic and social policy of your Administration in Washington.

May I illustrate again by taking some high-spots?

Nearly thirty years ago people who were injured in factories through no fault of their own found it difficult, if not impossible, to get adequate compensation for their injuries. A very proper demand arose for workmen’s compensation laws. Thanks to the pioneering of a young Maryland legislator, the first Workmen’s Compensation Act ever to be passed in the United States was adopted by Maryland. Ten years later, I, following this man’s lead, was helping to pass a workmen’s compensation law through the Legislature of the State of New York.

But what I want to emphasize is that workmen’s compensation laws are not for the sole benefit of workmen injured in industry. They confer a definite benefit on farmers because the injured industrial worker is able to get his compensation promptly and continue to buy food for himself and his family.

Later on in the halls of Washington a young Congressman pushed and pleaded until he got a parcel post law on the statute books of the United States. That parcel post law was of principal benefit to those who in every state lived on R.F.D. routes. But it was not for their benefit alone, for it helped their brothers and sisters who worked in the cities of the country.

And that young Congressman was the same Maryland legislator of earlier days.

Many years later it became clear that the problem of dependent old age was a trying one, that the states and the Federal Government, that employers and employees, should come together to pass a nationwide old-age pension and unemployment insurance act. Once again the Representative from the Free State of Maryland took the lead and, thanks to his pioneering, decent security of life is assured today to millions of our people.

I know that, speaking here to you citizens in Denton and to people who are listening in on the radio all over Maryland, I know that I do not have to name that young man. That man is now well along in mature middle age, and I do not have to tell you his name. But in forty-seven other states there are people, millions of them, who are listening to what I am saying on this Labor Day, and for their benefit the name of that man is Representative Lewis of Maryland. And millions of people in all the other states of the Union are very proud of him.

It is the privilege of some of us to dream dreams, and of some of us to carry out the dreams of others. But in Maryland you are fortunate in having a man who not only has seen visions but has lived to make his dreams come true.

He symbolizes, for the farm and the city alike, the inherent humanity of the man who rises from humble circumstances, and the inherent ability to grow in vision and effectiveness in the fertile soil of American opportunity and the American tradition of equality.

It is suggestive to me that he has never forgotten that he learned to read and write at the knee of a Christian minister in Sunday School. That is why perhaps he has lived the life of the Good Samaritan—and he has never passed by on the other side.

You in Maryland will shortly vote in a primary. The choice in all parties is solely yours—that goes without saying. But may I express the hope that the choice you make will be the choice of all who are entitled to vote in the primaries—not the choice of a group, an “organization” group or an “anti-organization” group, not the choice of only part of the voters either in city or in country districts, but the choice of all who have the right to make the choice.

At a time of grave international troubles in many parts of the world, the best contribution that we at home can make to our own security is to eliminate quickly all feelings of injustice and insecurity throughout our land. For our own safety we cannot afford to follow those in public life who quote the Golden Rule and take no steps to bring it closer.

As President, I have willingly defended the interests of each of the Nation’s great groups to the others, even if the others Were critical. I have been just as glad to defend business to labor and agriculture, and to defend labor to business and agriculture, as I have been to defend agriculture to labor and business. That is part of my public duty.

When I became President I found a country demoralized, disorganized, with each of these groups seeking to survive by taking advantage of the others. As in the time of George Washington in 1787, when there was grave danger that the states would never become a Nation—as in the time of Abraham Lincoln, when a tragic division threatened to become lasting—our own time has brought a test of our American Union.

A great part of my duty as President has been to do what I could to bring our people together again. That has been my unchanging purpose since March 4, 1933. The great test for us in our time is whether all the groups of our people are willing to work together for continuing progress.

Such progress, I need hardly remind you, comes ultimately from the rank and file of our citizens, and through the representatives of their free choice—representatives willing to cooperate, to get things done in the true spirit of “give and take”-not representatives who seek every plausible excuse for blocking action.

What you do, what I do, what any man or woman may do, is of small moment compared with what the people do. In this effort to preserve our democracy and our Union, I am confident that all who labor in the field and factory will carry on the good work, carry it through to a just and successful end.

That is our high purpose on this Labor Day of 1938.


Citation: Franklin D. Roosevelt: “Address at Denton, Maryland.,” September 5, 1938. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project.