In the fall of 1940, when Luftwaffe planes were dropping tens of thousands of bombs over British cities and ports every night, and when American intervention in the war seemed more and more necessary, Eleanor Roosevelt published a short book entitled The Moral Basis of Democracy. Framed around Christ’s message of treating others with kindness, the golden rule she believed was essential to the flourishing of a healthy democracy, she asked all Americans to rise to their better selves and “practice a Christ-like way of living.”
This was not a question of belief in his divinity, she wrote. It was rather his example of a life of gentleness, mercy, and love that would bring “the spirit of social cooperation…more closely to the hearts and to the daily lives of everyone…[and] change our whole attitude toward life and civilization.” Democracy, above all other forms of government, “should make us conscious of the need we all have for this spiritual, moral awakening.”
A social reformer and a crusader for human rights, she saw poverty, inequality, and racial discrimination rampant in the United States, all deepened by the Great Depression despite Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Democracy’s true essence, she argued, is fraternity, sharing, sacrifice, and an ethic of responsibility for the neighbors we know as well as for the people we don’t know. “That means an obligation to the coal miners and sharecroppers, the migratory workers, to the tenement-house dwellers and the farmers who cannot make a living.” Americans had a strong work ethic, she noted, but it was not enough to work for themselves—rather they must “serve the purposes of the greatest number of people.”
Like Eleanor, Franklin Roosevelt deeply believed that the core purpose of true democratic government was to better the lives of its citizens, especially the weakest among them. And like Eleanor, Franklin was an idealist, but he was also a master politician, an idealist without illusions, who possessed a tough-minded understanding of how the world—and Congress—worked and was willing to dirty his hands and do everything necessary to accomplish what he believed were good ends.
Eleanor Roosevelt lived in that jostling, fighting world but was not wholly of it. She campaigned for her husband’s elections and fought to build support for controversial policies. She knew firsthand that everything in Washington was a fight, a clash of interests, whether to advance the good or beat back the bad. But while for FDR there was no transcending the morass of politics, she sought a different way. Max Weber had written in 1919, “He who seeks the salvation of the soul, of his own and of others, should not seek it along the avenue of politics.” To…
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