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Franklin Delano Roosevelt (January 30, 1882 – April 12, 1945) — 32nd President of the United States 1933-1945
Childhood and Youth
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was born in Hyde Park, New York in 1882 at “Springwood,” his family’s country estate amid the rolling hills and pastoral splendor of the Hudson Valley. Descendants of Dutch immigrants who arrived in New York City in the mid 17th century, FDR’s ancestors had lived in the valley for generations and were distant cousins to a second branch of the family that had settled Oyster Bay, Long Island, and gave rise to Theodore Roosevelt. Franklin was the son of James Roosevelt and his second wife, Sara Delano, and with the exception of a half-brother twenty-six years his senior, had no other siblings.
At Springwood, FDR enjoyed a privileged but solitary boyhood, where, under the doting eye of his mother, he pursued his many outdoor passions, including riding, fishing, ice-boating, and wandering the woods and fields of his father’s estate. The family also owned a town house in New York City, where they spent much of the winter, as well as a summer cottage on Campobello Island, Canada.
Like many of the children of the old-money Hudson Valley Aristocracy, FDR’s early education was undertaken at home, first by a governess, and later by a private tutor. At fourteen, FDR was sent to Groton, a prestigious boy’s boarding school located in Massachusetts, where he would remain for four years. Next came Harvard, which granted him a BA in 1903, and finally, Columbia University Law School. FDR left Columbia without taking a degree, but he passed the New York bar examination in 1907, and spent the next three years practicing law as a junior clerk at Carter, Ledyard, and Milburn, a prominent New York City law firm.
In the fall of 1902, while FDR was still at Harvard, he began to see more and more of his distant cousin, Anna Eleanor Roosevelt. A year later, FDR asked for her hand, and the two of them were married on March 17, 1905. The daughter of Elliot Roosevelt and Anna Hall, Eleanor was a member of the Oyster Bay branch of the Roosevelt family. She was also the niece of a man FDR much admired, Theodore Roosevelt, who was President at the time of their marriage and gave Eleanor away in the absence of her deceased father. The couple had six children, five of whom survived infancy. In the first years of their marriage, Eleanor’s attention remained primarily focused on her family, but as the years passed, she would become more and more involved in issues of public policy and social justice.
Early Political Career
Always active and interested in politics (FDR was a great admirer of his distant cousin, Theodore Roosevelt, who served as President of the United States from 1901 to 1908), FDR abandoned law in 1910 to run for the New York State Senate. FDR ran as a progressive, independent-minded Democrat, who stood in staunch opposition to the “political bossism” so prevalent at the time. He won election by a comfortable margin, and would serve in the New York State Senate for the next three years, having won re-election in 1912. As a state senator, FDR continued his opposition to “machine” politics,” sponsored a resolution urging New York’s congressional delegation to approve the Seventeenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution calling for the direct election of senators, and was an early champion of the cause of conservation.
FDR’s career in the New York State Senate came to an end in 1913, when, as a reward for his support of the Woodrow Wilson’s presidential candidacy at the Democratic National Convention in 1912, he was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy. FDR was thrilled. The Navy Department was one of the largest and most important government agencies and it offered FDR substantial opportunities to gain valuable administrative experience and make important political contacts from coast to coast. The appointment also seemed propitious. His cousin Theodore held the post in 1898 and had used it as an effective stepping stone in his march to the governorship of New York, and finally the White House. FDR threw himself into the position with great enthusiasm, and soon established a reputation as an energetic and effective administrator. Granted considerable latitude by his superior, Josephus Daniels, FDR focused his attention for the most part on the business side of the Navy Department, although he did, on occasion, discuss tactics. After the U.S. entry into World War One, for example, FDR pressed Secretary Daniels to rush through a crash building program of 50-foot launches to defend U.S. ports against the German submarine menace — a program that Daniels rejected. FDR was more successful in his promotion of the so-called North Sea Mine Barrage, an ambitious plan designed to keep German submarines out of the North Sea by sewing a “belt” of mines from Norway to Scotland. Like the proposed 50-foot launch scheme, Daniels also opposed this idea, but after a direct appeal by FDR to President Wilson, the plan was approved. In the Spring of 1918, the British and American Navies began the difficult task of laying the mines, and although the barrage remained incomplete at War’s end, it limited German access to the North Sea and was a factor in the collapse of morale among German sailors that manifested itself in the famous Kiel mutiny of November 1918.
Setbacks and Challenges
FDR left the Navy Department in the summer of 1920 to accept the Democratic Party’s nomination as the vice-presidential running mate for James M. Cox. FDR was chosen because he balanced the ticket geographically, had earned considerable respect for his performance as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and had a well-known name. The 1920 campaign was a difficult one for the Democrats, however. The country seemed to have tired of Wilson, whose progressive ideas and support for U.S. participation in the League of Nations had become increasingly unpopular. To overcome this, Roosevelt and Cox campaigned furiously, with FDR averaging ten speeches a day. But it was to no avail. The nation wanted a change and the Republican ticket of Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge won by a wide margin, establishing Republican control of not only the White House, but also both Houses of Congress.
The election of 1920 may have been a disaster for the Democratic Party as a whole, but in many ways it was a triumph for FDR. For it was through the 1920 campaign that the young Roosevelt first acquired a national following. It also provided FDR with the opportunity to hone his political skills, skills that he would use to great effect, later in his career.
Following the 1920 election, FDR returned to private law practice, eventually establishing a partnership with Basil O’Connor that specialized in corporate cases with offices at 120 Broadway in the heart of Wall Street. In the summer of 1921, FDR also took a well-deserved vacation, heading to his family’s summer retreat on Campobello Island, New Brunswick. It was during this fateful period, while enjoying the splendors of a maritime summer with his children, that FDR contracted poliomyelitis (infantile paralysis). Despite courageous efforts to regain the use of his legs, the disease would render FDR unable to stand or walk unassisted for the rest of his life. FDR refused to accept this, however, and for the next seven years would undergo a daily regime of exercise and therapy in a vain attempt to rebuild his atrophied muscles. This relentless search for a cure would ultimately bring FDR to Warm Springs, Georgia, where in 1927 he established the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation for the treatment of victims of polio. FDR threw all he had into the foundation and invested nearly 2/3rds of his private fortune into it before he heeded the call to return to politics.
Governor of New York
The occasion was the 1928 presidential election. Al Smith, then Governor of New York, had been nominated as the national Democratic candidate, and anxious to carry the state of New York, he asked FDR to run as his successor. At first, FDR refused, citing the important work he was doing in Warm Springs, and his own desire to continue his efforts to regain full use of his legs. FDR’s political advisor, Louis Howe, was also against the idea, as it was widely believed that 1928 would be a “Republican Year.” But Smith persisted, and after a conversation with his wife, Eleanor, who implored him to go ahead, and his unsolicited nomination by the State Democratic Party, FDR decided to throw caution to the wind and enter the race.
Knowing full well that his health might become an issue in the campaign, FDRconducted one of the most vigorous races of his career. In town after town, he hammered away at his opponent, making sure, whenever possible, that he did so from a standing position. FDR accomplished this by locking his steel braces into place and firmly gripping the arm of an aide, or a steel rod that had been specially installed in the back seat of his touring car. Tall, strong, and vigorous, and openly asking the public to come to their own conclusions about the state of his health, FDR quickly dispelled any doubts about his ability to take on the rigors of office. His efforts paid off, and in spite of the fact that the Republican ticket under Herbert Hoover took the country by a landslide, FDR scored an upset victory in New York, thereby winning not only the governorship, but also the admiration of the national democratic leadership, who had already targeted FDR as a possible presidential candidate in 1932.
FDR would serve two, two-year terms as Governor of New York, from 1928 to 1932. In true progressive tradition, he pursued an activist agenda, enhancing the power of state agencies, expanding support for social services and increasing regulatory supervision of business. He also provided help to the state’s agricultural community by passing tax cuts for small farmers, boosting funds for rural education, and initiating the first program in the country that sought to raise commodity prices by taking land out of production. Following the collapse of the Stock Market in 1929, and the onset of the Great Depression, FDR moved slowly away from his fiscal conservatism, and through measures such as the New York State Unemployment Relief Act and the creation of the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration (TERA), moved to provide relief to the growing numbers of jobless in the state.
The New Deal Years
On March 4, 1933, when FDR took the oath of office to become the 32nd President of the United States, America was a country in the midst of the worst economic crisis in its history. Since the onset of the Great Depression—initiated by the crash of the stock market in the fall of 1929—over $75 billion in equity capital had been lost on Wall Street, the gross national product had plunged from a high of $104 billion to a mere $74 billion, and U.S. exports had fallen by 62 percent. Over thirteen million people, nearly 25 percent of the workforce, were now unemployed. In some cities, the jobless rate was even higher. In Chicago it had climbed to 40 percent, in Detroit, a staggering 50 percent. Caught in a web of despair, thousands of shabbily dressed men and women walked the streets in search of work, or a bit of food, doled out from one of the hundreds of soup kitchens set up by private charities to keep the wage-less from starvation. In rural America, meanwhile, thousands of tons of unmarketable crops sat rotting in gain storage bins, while farm income plummeted and thousands of families were forced to abandon their homesteads. Reeling from the pressures of such a massive economic downturn, more than 11,000 banks had closed their doors, and the U.S. banking system had all but ceased to function. The nation, in short, appeared to be falling into an economic abyss that might well result in the total breakdown of order. Some observers even feared that without immediate and dramatic action, the country might well slip into revolution.
FDR’s response to this unprecedented crisis was to initiate the “New Deal” — a series of economic measures designed to alleviate the worst effects of the depression, reinvigorate the economy, and restore the confidence of the American people in their banks and other key institutions. The New Deal was orchestrated by a core group of FDR advisors brought in from academia and industry known as the “Brains Trust” who, in their first “hundred days” in office, helped FDR enact fifteen major laws. One of the most significant of these was the Banking Act of 1933, which finally brought an end to the panic that gripped the nation’s banking system. The success of the Banking Act, depended in large measure on the willingness of the American people to once again place their faith—and money—in their local banks. To ensure this, FDR turned to the radio, and in the first of his many “fireside chats,” convinced the American people the crisis was over and that their deposits—backed by the newly established the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) — were safe.
Other significant New Deal measures included the establishment of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), and the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA). The most famous measure of the New Deal was the 1935 Social Security Act, which led to the establishment of the Social Security Administration and the creation of a national system of old-age pensions and unemployment compensation. Social Security also granted federal financial support to dependant children, the handicapped, and the blind. The New Deal also led to the establishment of a number of significant regulatory agencies, such as the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), set up to stave off a further crash of the Stock Market, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), which ultimately made home ownership affordable for millions of average Americans, as well as the National Labor Relations Board, the Civil Aeronautics Authority, and the Federal Communications Commission.
While the New Deal did much to lessen the worst affects of the Great Depression, its measures were not sweeping enough to restore the nation to full employment. Critics of FDR’s policies, on both the right and the left, have thus found ample reason to condemn it. Conservatives argue, for example, that it went too far, and brought too much government intervention in the economy, while those on the left argue that it did not go far enough, and that in order to be truly effective, the Roosevelt Administration should have engaged in a far more comprehensive program of direct federal aid to the poor and unemployed. But the New Deal’s greatest achievements transcend mere economic statistics, for in a world where democracy was under siege, and the exponents of fascism and communism flourished, the New Deal offered hope and restored the faith of the American people in their representative institutions. It also transformed the federal government into an active instrument of social justice and established a network of laws and institutions designed to protect the American economy from the worst excesses of liberal capitalism.
The policies of the New Deal changed the nature of government in the United States. But domestic reform was not the only area in which FDR transformed America. Torn asunder by the devastating effects of the Great Depression, and bitter about American involvement in World War I, the United States of the 1930s turned its back on the rest of the world and disavowed its international responsibilities. In the absence of American support, the League of Nations foundered and the enemies of democracy flourished. Piece by piece, Hitler’s Germany expanded at the expense of her neighbors, Italy invaded Abyssinia, Franco launched his fascist crusade in Spain, and the Japanese invaded China.
World War II
Restrained by neutrality laws passed in the late 1930s that did not distinguish between aggressor and victim, FDR could do little to assist the targets of aggression. But he understood the need for American leadership in opposition to fascism, and so began a long, eloquent campaign of popular education designed to awaken the American people from their isolationist slumber. “Let no one imagine,” he warned, “that America may expect mercy” in the event that the fascists in Europe and Asia should prevail. Indeed, it was sheer folly, he insisted, to believe as the isolationists did, that the United States could survive “as a lone island in a world dominated by force…handcuffed, hungry and fed through the bars from day to day by the contemptuous, unpitying masters of other continents.”
As the German Army stormed across Poland, Norway, Denmark, the Low Countries and France in 1939-40 at the outbreak of the Second World War, FDR turned the United States into the “arsenal of democracy.” When Great Britain stood alone, and few thought she could survive, he rejected the advice of his own Chiefs of Staff and insisted that American arms shipments to the British must not only continue, but expand, resulting in the passage of the Lend-Lease Act in March 1941. He also began a massive rearmament campaign the results of which were nothing short of remarkable. In June 1939, the United States possessed an army of a mere 186,000 men that ranked 19th among nations. By mid 1943, the total number of men and women under arms in the United States stood at twelve million, the largest and most powerful assembly of land, sea, and air forces the world had ever seen.
Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and American entry into the war, FDR assembled a remarkable team of generals and admirals, and with Churchill, crafted the ‘Grand Alliance’ that ultimately destroyed the twin evils of German Nazism and Japanese militarism. As the instigator of the Manhattan project, he became the father of the nuclear age. Determined not to let America once again revert to isolationism after the war, FDR committed the United States to a host of international mechanisms in 1944, such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, that would guarantee American involvement in the wider world and ultimately give rise to the “global economy.” Finally, and most importantly, through his call for a world based on the “Four Freedoms”—Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear—and his determination to establish a United Nations committed to collective security, human rights, national self determination, and economic justice, FDR provided the vision and framework for the world we live in today.
The Last Year
In the spring of 1945, after four long years as commander-in-chief and an exhausting trip to the Crimean Peninsula to meet with Soviet Premier, Joseph Stalin, and British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, FDR traveled to Warm Springs for a much-needed rest. He would never return to the White House again. On April 12, 1945, while posing for a portrait by the well-known watercolor artist Elizabeth Shoumatoff, FDR noted that he had a terrific headache, slumped in his chair, and passed out. Within two hours he was pronounced dead, the victim of a massive cerebral hemorrhage.
The nation, still in the final throngs of the struggle to defeat Hitler, was stunned by the news. It did not seem possible that the man who had exuded so much energy and confidence during the dark days of depression and war was no longer there to lead. On the morning of April 13, FDR’s train departed Warm Springs for the last time. As it made its way slowly northward, first to Washington and then to Hyde Park, thousands of grieving mourners lined the tracks, many of whom wept openly. Two days later the train finally arrived at the platform that stood at the foot of the long trail that winds its way down to the Hudson from Springwood. FDR had come home.
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Sources: The New Deal Network: www.newdeal.feri.org
American Heritage Center and Museum
Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum
Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute