Jefferson, Jackson, and Roosevelt Dinner, Wheeling, West Virginia, October 10, 1959

I have always thought it an interesting commentary on history that all Democratic dinners across the country always link together the two founding fathers of our party, Andrew Jackson and Thomas Jefferson. For we ought to realize that neither of them was beloved by all Democrats in their day.

For example, one prominent Democrat is quoted as saying, in 1824: “I feel much alarmed at the prospect of seeing General Jackson President. He is one of the most unfit men I know of for such a place. He has very little respect for law . . . his passions are terrible . . . he is a dangerous man.”

This was the statement of Thomas Jefferson.

And who do you suppose it was, when Mr. Jefferson was President, who described him as “too cowardly to resent foreign outrage on the republic” – a man willing “to seize peaceable Americans and prosecute them for political purposes” – a man who seemed to hold himself “above the law”.

This statement, of course, was made by General Andrew Jackson.

But while we are devoted to them both, I also think it is appropriate today to invoke the memory of another great Democratic President – the man in whose progressive image our party must be forever molded – Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Every American who lived through the past generation has his own favorite memory of Franklin Roosevelt – some incident in that fabulous career that to him best illustrates F.D.R. ’s character and personality.

But, in sorting out these memories, think back to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in 1936 – when F.D.R. was re-nominated by wild acclamation. His acceptance speech inspired a crowd of over 100,000 in Franklin Field. But perhaps the most dramatic moment – portraying more than anything else his courage and determination – occurred just prior to the speech, completely hidden from that huge audience. As the President came forward behind the curtain to the front of the stage, leaning on the arm of his son, Jimmy, he suddenly lost his balance and fell to the ground. Lesser men might have lost their composure or dignity – most would have been visibly shaken. But with the aid of his son and the Secret Service, the President was instantly back on his feet before more than a few had observed what had happened. A few seconds later the curtain opened – and he stood there calm and erect, accepting the tremendous roar of the crowd with the familiar Roosevelt smile; and without hesitation, without any sign of recent distress, he launched confidently into one of his most buoyant, most winning speeches. This is the image of Franklin Roosevelt that we honor here today – the man of determination and steel in an hour of crisis – not only the personal crisis of paralysis but the crisis of a nation in panic, the crisis of a world at war, and all the rest.

I think our best guide to the future is the standard set forth by Franklin Roosevelt on that damp Saturday night in Philadelphia. “Governments can err”, the President said, “Presidents do make mistakes; but the immortal Dante tells us that divine justice weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted in different scales. Better the occasional faults of a Government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a Government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.”

The American people today are confronted in their Executive Branch with the very danger of which Franklin Roosevelt warned – “a Government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.” Where Franklin Roosevelt opened new horizons, this Administration sets ceilings. Where Roosevelt urged a spirit of self-sacrifice, we are now lulled into a spirit of self-satisfaction. F.D.R. in 1936 set before us the unfinished tasks of our society, its new opportunities, its unfulfilled promises. In 1959, on the other hand, the President emphasizes the limitations on our economy – and the limitations on our nation.

And when this Administration does act, it acts not with the faith of Franklin Roosevelt – it acts out of fear – fear of the future, of the new and the untested and the unpopular – fear of our weaknesses and even fear of our strength. It is we of the Democratic Party, on the other hand, who must act out of faith. For we place our trust in the people – and in 1960, the people will place their trust in the Democratic Party.

Source: David F. Powers Personal Papers, Box 32, "Jefferson, Jackson and Roosevelt, Wheeling, WV, 10 October 1959." John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.