Forgotten man

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Forgotten man is a phrase with several meanings, some of which are polar opposites. It was first used by William Graham Sumner in his article The Forgotten Man (published posthumous in 1918) to refer to the person compelled to pay for reformist programs; however, since Franklin Roosevelt appropriated the phrase in a 1932 speech, it has more often been used to refer to those at the bottom of the economic government whom the state (in Roosevelt's view and in the general social humanitarian approach) needed to help.[1]

Sumner's Forgotten Man

Yale University professor William Graham Sumner appears to be the first to use the phrase "the forgotten man" in his 1876 essay. His algebraic definition of the forgotten man was "C", who is coerced into helping the man at the economic bottom "X", by "A" and "B" who demand charity for "X".[2]

As soon as A observes something which seems to him wrong, from which X is suffering, A talks it over with B, and A and B then propose to get a law passed to remedy the evil and help X. Their law always proposes to determine what C shall do for X, or, in better case, what A, B, and C shall do for X... What I want to do is to look up C. I want to show you what manner of man he is. I call him the Forgotten Man. perhaps the appellation is not strictly correct. he is the man who never is thought of.... I call him the forgotten man... He works, he votes, generally he prays—but he always pays..."

Roosevelt's forgotten man

Roosevelt redefined the phrase in a fireside chat (radio address) he gave on April 7, 1932. Roosevelt used the phrase to describe the poor men who needed money and were not getting it, promoting his New Deal.[3] Roosevelt said,

These unhappy times call for the building of plans that rest upon the forgotten, the unorganized but the indispensable units of economic power, for plans like those of 1917 that build from the bottom up and not from the top down, that put their faith once more in the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid.[4]

The term quickly appeared within popular culture, and ironically, or not, Sumner's forgotten man, C, was forgotten. Joan Blondell and Etta Moten Barnett sing the song "Remember My Forgotten Man" in the climactic sequence of the film Gold Diggers of 1933, with scenes of mass unemployment.[5] In the film My Man Godfrey (1936) a Boston Brahmin is mistaken for a tramp when frivolous socialites are looking for a "forgotten man" in a scavenger hunt.

Works titled "The Forgotten Man"

The Forgotten Man is also the name of several works.


  1. Remembering 'The Forgotten Man'
  2. The Forgotten Man and Other Essays at the Online Library of Liberty
  3. Remembering 'The Forgotten Man'
  4. Roosevelt's speech, April 7, 1932
  5. TCM: Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)
  6. The Forgotten Man, and Other Essays
  7. Works of Franklin D. Roosevelt