Franklin D. Roosevelt having a fireside chat in Washington, D.C, April 28, 1935.
Credit: Image courtesy of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library.
I never saw him—but I knew him. Can you have forgotten how, with his voice, he came into our house, the President of these United States, calling us friends..."
—Carl Carmer, April 14, 1945
(quoted on Museum of Broadcast Communications website, Flashback: The 70th Anniversary of FDR's Fireside Chats—linked from EDSITEment-reviewed Center for History and New Media)
We live in an era of instantaneous and constant communications, yet many of our political leaders seem to have lost the ability to express their ideas to the people they govern. Franklin Roosevelt not only knew how to do that, he elevated the task to that of an art. Many historians, critics as well as supporters, credit the success of much of the early New Deal as much to the delivery of the messages as to their content.
What was it about FDR's voice, the structure of his Fireside Chats, and the relative novelty of radio in 1933 that made his use of this medium so effective and important historically? Why were Americans willing to engage with this unseen but clearly heard man? What can we learn from this example of presidential leadership?
This lesson will focus on two of FDR's Fireside Chats. The first, "The Bank Crisis," was given on March 12, 1933, and the second, "On the New Deal," was given on May 7, 1933.
In this lesson, students will gain a sense of the dramatic effect of FDR's voice on his audience, see the scope of what he was proposing in these initial speeches, and make an overall analysis of why the Fireside Chats were so successful.
In the process of completing this lesson, students will
The literature on FDR's Fireside Chats is extensive, both in print and on-line. Teachers will want to read some of the material to get a sense of what historians think about FDR's use of the medium, as well as the content of the actual speeches.
Roosevelt made a total of thirty-one Fireside Chats, from the initial days of his first administration to the dark days of World War II. He used these opportunities to explain his hopes and ideas for the country, while inviting the citizenry to "tell me your troubles." The combination of the novelty and intimacy of radio with the believability of his message created a powerful force that enabled him to pass a sweeping set of legislation in the first 100 days of his presidency and then go on to many other accomplishments in the following twelve years.
The first broadcast set the pattern for the content and tone of the rest: FDR patiently and calmly explained the complexities of the nation's banking crisis in a way that was understandable and accessible to the masses.
The care and attention that he put into his addresses is apparent and something that teachers may want to emphasize with students. He used words, phrases, analogies, and terms that people could grasp easily; eighty percent of his words were among the one thousand most commonly used words in the English vocabulary, and they were being delivered to a nation where nearly ninety percent of the populace had a radio. It is no wonder that his words were eagerly awaited and devoured by a devastated and depressed nation.
To get a general sense of the power of FDR's speeches and their words, see: Between The Wars: Franklin Roosevelt as a Communicator on the EDSITEment-reviewed Center for History and New Media website.
At the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library, you can find links for ALL the Fireside Chats linked from the EDSITEment-reviewed American Presidents website. Finally, this is a fine overview—Flashback: The 70th Anniversary of FDR's Fireside Chats, Museum of Broadcast Communications. This link is also at the Center for History and New Media.
The public's response to FDR's voice and speeches can be gauged in part through the letters Americans wrote him. Some of these letters, responding to his first and second Fireside Chats, are available online from the EDSITEment-reviewed History Matters site. Teachers may also want to read the introductory sections on the first and second Fireside Chats from Lawrence and Cornelia Levine's book The People and the President: America's Conversations with FDR (Beacon Press, 2002). Each chapter contains an interesting overview of a Fireside Chat, with good insights about the structure of the speeches, FDR's thinking at the time, and the effectiveness of the message, followed by letters to FDR from citizens responding to his speeches.
Find and bookmark the recommended links and materials from EDSITEment-reviewed websites. Download and print out selected documents and duplicate copies, as needed, for student viewing. For the first activity, students can access the primary source material via a LaunchPad; they can access activities two and three by way of worksheets.
Editorial cartoons responding to FDR and his programs are available on The Real Deal: The Battle to Define FDR's Social Programs (link from American Studies at the University of Virginia, an EDSITEment-reviewed website).
Students listen to the First Fireside Chat. They can access the text and a link to an audio clip of the First Fireside Chat (link from History Matters, an EDSITEment-reviewed website) or by way of the Student Launch Pad.
After listening to a portion of the speech, they will work together to determine the main points that FDR is making. They should focus on:
Students then will read the Second Fireside Chat to get a sense of how different it is to read the speech, rather than to listen to FDR's words. First, they should work collaboratively to understand the major issues that FDR is addressing in this speech. They can make a chart of the principle contents—what are the different programs that he is proposing? Then, they should comment on those parts of the speech that they believe would have been more effective in a radio broadcast -- to a 1933 audience. (They will be asked to base their analyses on their own experience with Fireside Chat 1.)
Students will then debate which format they think would have been more effective in 1933—and why. In addition, they can make connections to their own experiences listening to political speeches in their lifetime.
Students will revisit the themes and impact of Fireside Chats One and Two, examining letters that people wrote to FDR after they heard these addresses.
They will annotate the portions of the letters that show the power of FDR's use of the radio by way of worksheets. In addition, they could be required to go back to the text and include one example of an issue or topic that the letter writer is highlighting - adding that to their annotation.
Five letters responding to the first Fireside Chat are at: "You have a marvelous radio voice, distinct and clear": The Public Responds to FDR's First Fireside Chat. Five letters responding to the second Fireside Chat are at: "I A Socialist Trust You": Americans Support FDR's Legislative Agenda. Both are available on the text document.
Students will conduct an analysis of editorial cartoons - mostly positive about the First 100 Days - and connect this legislative success to the power of the Fireside Chats. The cartoons can be accessed at: New Deal Editorial Cartoons They are also available on the worksheet.
Students should examine a series of early 1933 editorial cartoons, first attempting to understand their meaning. Then, they should annotate them by drawing their own original cartoon and/or responding on the cartoons. Students should pay particular attention to what the editorial cartoons are saying about the content and effectiveness of the early New Deal, making connections to the issues highlighted in the Fireside Chats. (One of the cartoons listed below is negative, implying that FDR was going too far in his efforts to revive the nation.)
Cartoons to Analyze
2 class periods