FDR's Purge Declaration
June 24, 1938
At the end of a long fireside chat dealing with the conditions in the country and calling for congressional passage of stalled administration legislative initiatives, President Roosevelt with the following words in effect declared war on the most conservative elements within his own political party. Critics quickly dubbed the president's intention to intervene in the year's upcoming nominating primaries as a "purge". While Roosevelt would mount a nationwide speaking trip and did speak out forcefully against several Democratic members of Congress (Senator Walter F. George of Georgia for instance), the "purge" was, at best, less than a full-blown intervention in the nominating process. Even so, political commentators and the president's enemies interpreted the results as a blow to the chief executive and an indication of his supposed declining influence and "lame duck" status.
"It is because you are not satisfied, and I am not satisfied, with the progress that we have made in finally solving our business and agricultural and social problems that I believe the great majority of you want your own government to keep on trying to solve them. In simple frankness and in simple honesty, I need all the help I can get - and I see signs of getting more help in the future from many who have fought against progress with tooth and nail in the past.
And now, following out this line of thought, I want to say a few words about the coming political primaries.
Fifty years ago party nominations were generally made in conventions - a system typified in the public imagination by a little group in a smoke-filled room who made out the party slates.
The direct primary was invented to make the nominating process a more democratic one - to give the party voters themselves a chance to pick their party candidates.
What I am going to say to you tonight does not relate to the primaries of any particular political party, but to matters of principle in all parties - Democratic, Republican, Farmer-Labor, Progressive, Socialist, or any other. Let that be clearly understood.
It is my hope that everybody affiliated with any party will vote in the primaries, and that every such voter will consider the fundamental principles for which his or her party is on record. That makes for a healthy choice between the candidates of the opposing parties on election day in November.
An election cannot give a country a firm sense of direction if it has two or more national parties which merely have different names but are as alike in their principles and aims as peas in the same pod.
In the coming primaries in all parties, there will be many clashes between two schools of thought, generally classified as liberal and conservative. Roughly speaking, the liberal school of thought recognizes that the new conditions throughout the world call for new remedies.
Those of us in America who hold to this school of thought, insist that these new remedies can be adopted and successfully maintained in this country under our present form of government if we use government as an instrument of cooperation to provide these remedies. We believe that we can solve our problems through continuing effort, through democratic processes instead of Fascism or Communism. We are opposed to the kind of moratorium on reform which, in effect, means reaction itself.
Be it clearly understood, however, that when I use that word "liberal," I mean the believer in progressive principles, of democratic, representative government and not the wild man who, in effect, leans in the direction of Communism, for that is just as dangerous to us as Fascism itself.
The opposing or conservative school of thought, as a general proposition, does not recognize the need for government itself to step in and take action to meet these new problems. It believes that individual initiative and private philanthropy will solve them - that we ought to repeal many of the things we have done and go back, for example, to the old gold standard, or stop all this business of old age pensions and unemployment insurance, or repeal the Securities and Exchange Act, or let monopolies thrive unchecked - return, in effect, to the kind of government that we had in the 1920s.
Assuming the mental capacity of all the candidates, the important question which it seems to me the primary voter must ask is this: "To which of these general schools of thought does the candidate belong?"
As president of the United States, I am not asking the voters of the country to vote for Democrats next Novemb as opposed to Republicans or members of any other party. Nor am I, as president, taking part in the Democratic primaries.
As the head of the Democratic party, however, charged with the responsibility of carrying out the definitely liberal declaration of principles set forth in the 1936 Democratic platform, I feel that I have every right to speak in those few instances where there may be a clear-cut issue between candidates for a Democratic nomination involving these principles, or involving a clear misuse of my own name.
Do not misunderstand me. I certainly would not indicate a preference in a state primary merely because a candidate, otherwise liberal in outlook, had conscientiously differed with me on any single issue. I should be far more concerned about the general attitutde of a candidate toward present-day problems and his own inward desire to get practical needs attended to in a practical way. You and I all know that progress may be blocked by outspoken reactionaries but we also know that progress can be blocked by those who say yes to a progressive objective, but who always find some reason to oppose any specific proposal to gain that objective. I call that type of candidate a "yes, but" fellow.
And I am concerned about the attitude of a candidate or his sponsors with respect to the rights of American citizens to assemble peaceably and to express publicly their views and opinions on important social and economic issues. There can be no constitutional democracy in any community which denies to the individual his freedom to speak and worship as he wishes. The American people will not be deceived by anyone who attempts to suppress individual liberty under the pretense of patriotism.
This being a free county with freedom of expression - especially with freedom of the press, as is entirely proper - there will be a lot of mean blows struck between now and election day. By "blows" I mean misrepresentation and personal attack and appeal to prejudice. It would be a lot better, of course, if campaigns everywhere could be waged with arguments instead of with blows.
I hope the liberal candidates will confine themselves to argument and not resort to blows. For in nine cases out of ten, the speaker or the writer who, seeking to influence public opinion, descends from calm argument to unfair blows hurts himself more than his opponent.
The Chinese have a story on this - a story based on three or four thousand years of civilization: Two Chinese coolies were arguing heatedly in the middle of a crowd in the street. A Stranger expressed surprise that no blows were being struck by them. His Chinese friend replied, "The man who strikes first must adminit that his ideas have given out."
I know that neither in the summer primaries nor in the November elections will the American voters fail to spot the candidates who ideas have given out."