American Portraits

You Felt He was Talking to You: FDR’s Fireside Chats and Identity

In this lesson, students will learn about Franklin D. Roosevelt and how his identity helped him to soothe the fears of Americans during the Great Depression. They will also learn how embracing their identity can help them be successful.

Founding Principles

Consent of the Governed image

Consent of the Governed

The government's power is only justified when its power comes from the will or approval of the people.

Representative / Republican Government image

Representative / Republican Government

Form of government in which the people are sovereign (the ultimate source of power) and authorize representatives to make and carry out laws.

Narrative

On the evening of Sunday, March 12, after only a week in the White House, Roosevelt sat at a desk filled with microphones. The announcer introduced Roosevelt, stating, “The president wants to come into your house and sit beside your fireside for a little fireside chat.” As he began his chat, FDR didn’t attempt grand, sweeping oratory, but instead spoke in genial, intimate terms. Roosevelt later said he tried to identify with each of the listeners as if they were a “mason at work on a new building, a girl behind a counter, a farmer in his field.”…

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

How will embracing your own identity help you to be successful?

Virtue Defined

Identity answers the question, “Who am I?”

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will learn about Franklin D. Roosevelt and how his identity helped him to soothe the fears of Americans during the Great Depression. They will also learn how embracing their identity can help them be successful.

Objectives

  • Students will analyze Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats and how they formed a part of his identity.
  • Students will apply their knowledge of identity to their own lives.
  • Students will understand how to embrace their own identity.

Background

Franklin D. Roosevelt was born in 1882 to a wealthy upstate New York family. He attended elite private schools and went to college at Harvard. After graduating, Roosevelt chose a life of public service, becoming a member of the New York Assembly and serving as Assistant Secretary of the Navy during World War I. He was on the Democratic ticket as vice president to presidential candidate Jim Cox in the 1920 election, but Republican Warren G. Harding defeated the duo.

In 1921, Roosevelt contracted polio and endured a grueling rehabilitation regimen. By 1928, he re-entered politics and was elected governor of New York just before the Great Depression wracked the United States and the world. In 1932, Roosevelt defeated incumbent Herbert Hoover to become president of the United States. He was re-elected in 1936, 1940, and 1944, leading the nation through the Depression and World War II while breaking with George Washington’s precedent of serving only two terms.

During his time as president, Roosevelt utilized the recently invented radio, which had become part of millions of homes during the 1920s, to reach the American people. Families would gather around the radio in living rooms, and groups of friends and strangers would meet in public to listen to a boxing match or baseball game. While he was governor, Roosevelt had experimented with giving an informal address directly to the people rather than a formal speech. Given his success, Roosevelt decided to deliver “Fireside Chats” 30 times throughout his presidency. The president used these messages to assuage American’s fears during the Depression and World War II, as well as to promote his policies.

When Roosevelt spoke, he developed an intimate link with listeners, who felt as if the president was speaking directly to them. The American people believed they had a friend in Roosevelt; someone who cared about their problems and offered consolation, answers, and encouragement.

Vocabulary

  • Oratory
  • Mason
  • Bolster
  • Dialogue
  • Forge
  • Inextricably

Introduce Text

Have students read the background and narrative, keeping the Compelling Question in mind as they read. Then have them answer the remaining questions below.

For more robust lesson treatment, check out our partners at the Character Formation Project

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Questions

Walk-In-The-Shoes Questions
As you read, imagine you are the protagonist.

  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What fears or concerns might you have?
  • What may prevent you from acting in the way you ought?

Observation Questions

  • Who was Franklin D. Roosevelt?
  • Why did Roosevelt hold the Fireside Chats?
  • What did Roosevelt say or do in the Fireside Chats that helped the American people cope with the Great Depression?
  • How did Franklin D. Roosevelt help to advance freedom with his Fireside Chats?

Discussion Questions
Discuss the following questions with your students.

  • What is the historical context of the narrative?
  • What historical circumstances presented a challenge to the protagonist?
  • How and why did the individual exhibit a moral and/or civic virtue in facing and overcoming the challenge?
  • How did the exercise of the virtue benefit civil society?
  • How might exercise of the virtue benefit the protagonist?
  • What might the exercise of the virtue cost the protagonist?
  • Would you react the same under similar circumstances? Why or why not?
  • How can you act similarly in your own life? What obstacles must you overcome in order to do so?

Additional Resources

  • Brands, H.W. Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. New York: Doubleday, 2008.
  • Burns, James MacGregor. The Lion and the Fox: Roosevelt, 1882-1940. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Jovanovich, 1956.
  • Cohen, Adam. Nothing to Fear: FDR’s Inner Circle and the Hundred Days that Created Modern America. New York: Penguin Press, 2009.
  • Goodwin, Doris Kearns. No Ordinary Time: Franklin & Eleanor Roosevelt, The Home Front in World War II. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994.
  • Leuchtenburg, William E. Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. New York: Harper and Row, 1963.
  • Smith, Jean Edward. FDR. New York: Random House, 2007.

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