Mary E. Stuckey

 

On her book Political Vocabularies: FDR, the Clergy Letters, and the Elements of Political Argument

Cover Interview of May 27, 2018

A close-up

I hope that readers who come across the book come to realize that people who disagree with them politically aren’t necessarily “wrong.” They just have a very different understanding of how the political world operates. They start with very different assumptions. Therefore, it makes more sense to talk about those assumptions instead of arguing about policy. The two things are logically connected, and the assumptions come first.

I also hope that readers come to read some of the quotations from the letters themselves. The letters were written in response to a request from the president that the members of the American clergy inform him of conditions in their communities. The clergy who replied took this task very seriously, and they give us a wonderfully complex view of life in the middle of the Depression. They are smart, and funny, and angry, and sad, and terribly moving; they are also very American.

The clergy, for example, argued both for and against the expansion of presidential power under Roosevelt. One individual noted, “I have never seen such evidence of a quick degeneracy and ruin as I have witnessed since you became the misleader of our nation,” while others considered Roosevelt to be “the most beloved of any president for years.” They disagreed on policy too: Some told moving stories of the plight of the deserving poor, whose lives had been wrecked by the Depression, and others wrote of their contempt for those who took government money and refused to work. These letters are evidence that the debates motivating politics in the 1930s are, in many ways, with us still.