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Eleanor Roosevelt Speeches

Humanistic Democracy and the American Ideal

Speech at the New York Herald Tribune Forum

October 24, 1939


Speech at the New York Herald Tribune Forum: "Humanistic Democracy and the American Ideal"

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[unknown speaker:]

I am proud of being able to present to you today the First Lady of our land in her own right and a newspaper woman who has won her spurs.

[unknown woman:]

I can take notes if you want me to?


Take as much as you need.


Mrs. Reed, Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, my subject is a rather large subject: humanistic democracy and the American ideal. And I'm not going to run over the ten minutes which have been allotted to me and I think I am going to cut it. I think we'll just talk for a minute about what is the American ideal. I imagine most of us think of the American ideal as being, first of all, an opportunity for education for every child in the country as far as that child is able to take the opportunity. Well, I imagine you all know that we fall far short of that. Then I imagine that our next answer to what is the American ideal would be that everybody, every child, should at least have a chance to come into the world healthy and strong. Well if that depended just on food, we would fall short of that because there are many mothers who have not food enough to ensure their children health at birth. Neither have they adequate care and neither have many, many children adequate medical care, either as small children or as they grow up. So we fall short of that ideal. Then I should say that the next ideal in a humanistic democracy would be that everybody should have an opportunity to earn a decent living under decent conditions. And I'm afraid we'll have to own that we fall short of that. So we have to grant that in obtaining an ideal democracy we've got a good deal of work to do.


Now you've heard today all the things that threaten us. You've heard that we have communist groups amongst us and Nazi groups amongst us and I don't believe you were really surprised. And I imagine that you are prepared to take all the precautions which have been suggested to you. [Break 3:32-3:59] So I'm going to turn to something which I happen to think a great deal more important. Now don't mistake me, I think it very important when we know that alien-controlled groups or individuals are doing us harm, to try at least to counteract their influence. But I think it important that we should beware, lest in suppressing them, we also suppress some of our own freedoms. That's something to remember. [Applause] Then I think it very important that we concentrate on understanding what are the objectives of our democracy and working for them. Now we may work in different ways. We may think different methods will obtain those objectives, but we should take the trouble to know what we really mean by democracy. And we should take the trouble to defend the liberties that we believe are inherent in democracy and to make the sacrifices, if necessary, to make democracy work if we believe in it. But we have to believe in it and we have to work for it. It isn't enough to applaud the fact that we need to believe in the Sermon on the Mount; how about trying to live up to it.


I'm going to use just one illustration. We've heard a great deal about aliens today and I confess that I agree with pretty much all I heard. But I think it most important that we should keep our power to really look into things and not just use words and catchy phrases. To really get at the truth before we make up our minds as to what should be done. Now I'm going to tell you about some aliens just as an illustration of what I mean about being careful. How we preserve our own liberties and about being careful how we work for democracy and what our responsibilities are. The story that I'll tell you happened to be in one particular place, but I could duplicate it in every state in the Union in some place with a few minor changes. Now there happened to be a man, not long ago, who had been thirty-five years in this country. He had come over from another country even as you and I, if not ourselves, our ancestors. Well thirty-five years is quite a while. But in those thirty-five years he had worked very hard to develop an industry in our country. He'd been thrifty; he bought a little plot of ground with a rather terrible little house on it. And the hours of work were long. When he first arrived, the pain was not so very high; and he never was w-well instructed in the American language beyond what his boss needed to have him know so that he would do his work. Nobody offered him a suggestion that he should go to school. Nobody offered to help him take out his citizenship papers. Now I don't know how many of you have helped people to take out their citizenship papers. But if you had, or if you have, you know what I mean when I tell you that it takes education and patience and a great deal of intelligence. Well, nobody did that for this particular gentleman. He got his law-- uh along as best he could and he had a number of children and they were all American children born in this country. And then one day, his particular job folded up. And he went to WPA and he worked on WPA. And then one day somebody came to him and said, “You're an alien, you can't work on WPA.” He said, “An alien? What's that? I'm an American. I've been in America thirty-five years.”

“Oh yes, but you hadn't got any citizenship papers to show.”

“What are citizenship papers? I voted.” [Laughter]

“Oh, well, you voted by mistake and you're an alien. You get off WPA.”


So then he went to the local relief and they said, “Oh but you own a house. You own your home. You can't have relief. Get a mortgage on your house, sell your house.”

“Oh but I can't, nobody wants to buy it.”

“Well, I'm sorry, we can't give you any relief. You can't be on the relief rolls.”

So then he went to surplus commodities. And he had a son and his daughter-- daughter-in-law living with him because the boy had lost his job and two little children. So that meant six to feed. And when the boy tried to get on WPA he was certified but he couldn't get on, there were people ahead of him. And when he went for relief he couldn't get relief because his father, whom he was living with, owned his house. And so the last resort was surplus commodities. And he got-- the old man got a pound of peas for six people because the governor of that state happened to be anxious to um not help a certain group of labor people who were a little obstreperous at the time too much and hadn't asked for surplus commodities. And so for six people there was a pound of peas. And the old man went back to his little house and his little garden and he hung himself. Now remember that.


Someone wrote me when I wrote this story that we didn't want people who didn't become citizens. How about we, you and I, who don't-- who for thirty-five years have lived in communities where people like that weren't offered the chance perhaps to learn better English; weren't offered a helping hand to become citizens. Where do you think the responsibility lies? I have a sneaking suspicion that it lies on us because we haven't really lived up and tried to make democracy work, to make it a living thing. [Applause] The ideal of democracy is not in this country existent today anymore that it is in many other countries, but we have aspirations, we have more than any other country. And because we can see the threat to it, let's wake up and work for it. But don't let's be afraid. I'm not afraid of talking to a communist or meeting a communist. I believe in democracy and in my inward power to work for democracy and to make it seem worthwhile to other people. [Applause] And for that reason I am not afraid and I don't want you to be afraid. I want you to make this country a land where we do not live under fear, but where we work to make life worth living. Thank you.

[unknown speaker:]

Following these distinguished remarks by Mrs. Roosevelt, we take just a moment for station identification.

Program Participants

  • : Roosevelt, Eleanor, 1884-1962

Names and Terms Mentioned or Referenced


About this document

Humanistic Democracy and the American Ideal
Speech at the New York Herald Tribune Forum

October 24, 1939


Speech at the New York Herald Tribune Forum

Eleanor Roosevelt

Project Editors
  • National Endowment for the Humanities

Eleanor Roosevelt Speeches is a project and publication of The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project, The George Washington University, Academic Building, Post Hall, Room 312, 2100 Foxhall Road, NW, Washington, DC 20007

Transcript Editors
  • : Lewis, Britanny
  • : Melvin, Melissa
  • : Arquette, Arianna
  • : Alhambra, Christopher   [ ORCID: 0000-0002-6299-793X | VIAF ]

Transcribed and published by the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project, 2019-11-27

Transcription created from holdings at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library