The 1933 Banking Crisis? ‘We have nothing to fear,’ Roosevelt and the fireside chats are here!

During the peak of the Great Depression, the Roosevelt administration used radical economic policy as well as an innovative social policy response in the Fireside Chats that led to the end of the 1933 Banking Crisis. The Chats marked a change in the president-citizen relationship and a new sense of trust that enabled Roosevelt to assuage public fears about the security of the banking system and restore confidence in the economy. Simultaneously, Roosevelt commenced a more intimate style of presidential communication that later presidents would also effectively utilise. Roosevelt’s successful restoration of public confidence, his strong leadership and, in essence, good acting skills allowed him to console the public by presenting an apparent air of confidence and a strong, believable public facade; many historians including Rexford Tugwell, Amos Kiewe, David Ryfe and William Silber agree on this point. 

The 1933 Banking Crisis was the culmination of months of uncertain economic conditions and financial losses; 342 banks had been closed in 1932 alone. A sort of mass hysteria had seized the American public, who had little financial knowledge and who had been left uninformed by President Hoover of the important role market confidence and investment plays in economic stability. Silber posits that the Banking Holiday of March 5, 1933, which paused all financial trading across America, was the shock policy needed to stop the constant withdrawal of funds from the banking system.[1] During the seven-day closure, roughly 4000 banks were declared insolvent, and under the Emergency Banking Act 1933, only a few banks were declared sound for reopening. Under this Act, these banks would be financially guaranteed by the government. The Fireside Chats were implemented to complement the economic policy through a deliberate attempt to reassure the public of the validity of the government policy and banking security by providing some basic financial education to the mostly economically unaware American people. Tugwell notes that the intimate relationship that the president established with his radio audience through the Fireside Chats encouraged feelings of stability in the public though this was not necessarily the financial reality.[2] However, overall, historians concur that the combined action of the government was highly successful restoring half the withdrawn deposits within two weeks of the banks reopening.

Timing played an important role in the success of the Roosevelt administration’s early actions. The public had grown weary of the Hoover administration’s lack of visible, decisive action. The public were hungry for a change of administration and this only helped to foster the success of the Roosevelt campaign; the emotional state of the public meant that they wanted Roosevelt to succeed; they wanted to believe in the ability of their new president to halt the Banking Crisis. Additionally, Ryfe notes President Hoover’s failure to interact with the public had caused the public to lose confidence in his leadership abilities.[3] Hoover preferred indirect public communication through the press rather than giving live speeches or radio broadcasts, whereas Roosevelt was determined to utilise radio to foster a trusting friendship with the public that would result in his administration receiving greater public support and boosting consumer confidence.

Having previously tested the medium of radio during his Governorship of New York, Roosevelt knew that radio had the capacity to establish him as the people’s president by communicating to individual citizens in the comfort of their own homes. Roosevelt evoked what Ryfe calls a ‘friend-next-door’ tone of warmth, intimacy and inclusion that facilitated a new presidential relationship and trust. Roosevelt used phrases such as ‘fellow Americans,’ inclusive language and personal pronouns (‘I,’ ‘we,’ ‘you,’ and ‘our,’) and empathic praise of the people’s response to the Banking Crisis to cement an intimate relationship with the public. The opening lines of Roosevelt’s first, fifteen-minute long Fireside Chat, March 12, 1933, initiated a tone of openness and communication that would shape all future presidential communications: ‘My friends, I want to talk for few minutes with the people of the United States about banking.’[4] By addressing the public as friends and intimating his desire to aid the public in their situation, Roosevelt immediately established a relationship of trust with his radio audience. This, along with what historians agree was a frank and direct style, allowed him to comfort the frightened public by providing them with a fatherly figure that represented safety, affirmative action and a new hope for the future.

Ronald Reagan borrowed Roosevelt’s techniques of directness and reassurance in his television addresses during the Cold War in order to establish an intimate relationship with the public at home and to instil confidence.[5] Reagan’s stylistic mimicry highlights the impact Roosevelt had on changing the way later presidents would approach the American public.

President Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats shifted the president-citizen relationship into a new rhetorical paradigm facilitated by direct communication through radio. This newly personalised communication mechanism played a crucial role in the administration’s successful cessation of the Crisis, by fostering a unique public trust in the administration’s abilities and also reformulated the nature of the president-citizen relationship for years to come.

[1] Silber, William L. ‘Why did FDR’s Banking Holiday Succeed?’ FRBNY Economic Policy Review (2009): pp. 19-30.

[2] Tugwell, Rexford G. ‘Franklin D. Roosevelt on the Verge of the Presidency.’ The Antioch Review 16 (1) (1956): pp. 46-79.

[3] Ryfe, David Michael. ‘Franklin Roosevelt and The Fireside Chats.’ Journal of Communication (1999): pp 80-103.

[4]F D Roosevelt, ‘Fireside Chat no.1’ in Kiewe, FDR’s First Fireside Chat: Public Confidence and the Banking Crisis.

[5] Reed Welsch, ‘Was Reagan Really a Great Communicator? The Influence of Televised Addresses on Public Opinion,’ Presidential Studies Quarterly 33(4) (2003):p 853.


One comment on “The 1933 Banking Crisis? ‘We have nothing to fear,’ Roosevelt and the fireside chats are here!

  1. Amy says:

    I found the angle of this blog post very interesting. The image of the ‘fireside chats’ is a great example of the fascinating intersection between historically significant individuals, such as presidents, the public, and such large forces as national and international economies. I wonder, do you think there is less room in politics now for presidents and other politicians to interact with the public according to their own style or personality? It seems to me that poll driven politics has become much more sanitised and calculated and withought personality.

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