U.S. Intellectual History Blog

"Roosevelt calls me bad names. He calls me an economic royalist."

I’m reading Frances Perkins’ reflections on FDR for an article I’m working on about Mabel Byrd’s stint in the New Deal. In what I just read, Perkins discusses the reactions to a 1936 FDR speech in which he suggested America had overcome the political royalists but still had a whole set of powerful economic forces (“royalists” in his sudden splurge of literary flair) to overcome. There is a historical echo here in terms of contemporary arguments about Obama trying to define “rich” as earning $250,000 a year.

     “it was used against him, and almost immediately. Many rich persons, even widows who derived their income from trust funds over which they had no control and from investments in enterprises in whose conservative managemetn they could take no part, began to whimper, ‘Roosevelt calls me bad names. He calls me an economic royalist.’
       “People who ought to have known better jumped to the conclusion that he was declaring himself an enemy of every rich person, whether one’s riches accrued from old land holdings in whose development and management one took no part or from portfolios of investments which had come to one under Grandfather’s will.
       “Even people who earned large incomes by intellectual or artistic activities, who actually contributed to the economic life and progress of the country, were inclined to believe that he meant them in his condemnation of ‘economic royalists.’ This reaction, of course, was typically American; it was not literate or urbane, but in some subtle way, I suppose, it expressed a more widely distributed guilty conscience than anyone realized [my emphasis]. I remember explaining to two rich women, personal friends of mine, that they were not economic royalists; that they had no control over anything; that they merely lived off the profits which farsighted fathers and husbands had secured for them.
          “Roosevelt was both the gainer and the loser from his use of this challenging phrase–the gainer because people who were not rich reacted like those who were rich but not powerful. I told him that these two women, also friends of his, were deeply disturbed. He laughed. ‘Of course, they did not know what I had in mind, but perhaps it was a lucky choice of words. Anyhow, I don’t think people ought to be too rich.’
          “He said ‘too rich’ in an emphatic tone of voice. I never knew what he meant by ‘too rich’ and I doubt that he did. It was probably a hark-back to the older and simpler American scene before the apperance of the multimillionaire, who was a puzzle and embarrassment to the old-fashioned ‘well-to-do’ and often seemed like an aggressor to the poor.”1

What parallels or disimilarities do you see between Perkins’ note about “Americans’ guilty conscience” and contemporary discussions about taxing the “wealthy?”

1. Frances Perkins, The Roosevelt I Knew. (New York: The Viking Press, 1946) 123-4.

One Thought on this Post

  1. Lauren,

    I fear that the new gospel of wealth (e.g. Limbaugh’s idea that you own your money, no matter that it was enabled by your context, guile, or outright cheating) has turned any potential for a “guilty conscience” into aggressive backlash against anyone, Obama or otherwise, who would suggest that riches obtained in a country have an obligation to the commons of the country (whether that commons is defined as public works, maintenance of regulation, or helping equalize conditions for the poor).

    – TL

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