In a recent article in the Chicago Tribune, “10 Things You Might Not Know about Fear,” Mark Jacob and Stephan Benzkofer mentioned the relatively obscure origins of FDR’s famous declaration in the face of the Great Depression, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself!” As Jacob and Benzkofer report, Eleanor Roosevelt was once asked about the origins of this frequently quoted sentence in her husband’s first Inaugural Address, and she suggested that it must have come from Thoreau, whose journal entry for September 7, 1851 included the line, “Nothing is so much to be feared as fear.” Her suggestion proceeded from her belief that her husband had taken a volume of Thoreau’s writings with him to the hotel where the final version of the Address was written, implying that this practice would have been routine. While the debate about the source of this historic declaration continues, Eleanor’s recollection of Franklin’s reading habits certainly stands as yet another testament to Thoreau’s ubiquitous influence in American history, politics, and philosophy.
Read more about the Thoreau-Roosevelt connection:
John Buescher, “The Only Thing We Have to Fear Is Fear Itself,” TeachingHistory.org.
William Safire, “The Speech: An Expert’s Guide,” Room for Debate: A New York Times Blog, January 19, 2009.
Ira Katznelson, Excerpt from Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time (Journal of Transnational American Studies, 2013).