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Born into a wealthy family from New York, Franklin Delano Roosevelt entered political life as a member of the Democratic Party and rose to prominence quickly due to his strong leadership skills, money, and family connections. During his first term as president of the United States, he introduced his “New Deal” domestic agenda to stem the tide of the growing national economic depression sweeping the country. Throughout the years, he managed to win a wide base of popular support thanks to his policies aimed at helping the most vulnerable of American citizens, from poor farmers to the jobless urban professionals. Roosevelt tried to bring economic balance to the American society, making sure that nobody was left behind. He supported labor and social welfare programs for the disadvantaged and emphasized the need for a just wealth distribution in the country.
During his lengthy administration, Roosevelt was the leader that helped the United States overcome a series of historical crises, from the Great Depression to the Pearl Harbor attack and World War II. His diplomatic tact and his resilience in face of adversity put him in the pantheon of the United States’ greatest political leaders.
Early Life and Education
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was born on January 30, 1882, in New York. His parents, James Roosevelt and Sara Ann Delano Roosevelt, were both from influential and wealthy New York families. Franklin spent his childhood between Springwood, the family’s lavish house near the Hudson River, and the family’s second home in New York City. He had a happy and carefree childhood, despite the overprotective tendencies of his parents. His mother, especially, exerted a great amount of influence on his life.
In 1896, at age 14, Franklin entered Groton School, a prestigious preparatory school in Massachusetts, where he escaped his mother’s overshadowing authority but found a different type of regimentation. Despite the rigid environment of the school, with its strict schedule and cold atmosphere, Franklin found a mentor in Endicott Peabody, the school’s headmaster, who remained a close friend and advisor throughout the years. In 1900, Franklin enrolled at Harvard University. He did not excel in college but was very interested in forming and maintaining social ties with Boston’s elite. During this period, his fifth cousin Theodore Roosevelt, whom he admired greatly, became president of the United States.
While at Harvard, Franklin started to date one of his distant cousins, Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, an intelligent and affectionate woman who had grown up as sheltered as he. Their relationship progressed quickly but when they started to think about marriage, which Franklin’s mother fiercely opposed. In 1903, Franklin graduated from Harvard with a degree in history and enrolled at Columbia Law School in New York City. On March 17, 1905, he and Eleanor finally married, despite Sara’s misgivings. Over the course of their marriage, Franklin and Eleanor had six children.
Early Political Career
In 1907, Franklin D. Roosevelt passed his bar exam and began to practice law as an attorney for a major Wall Street firm. He never particularly expressed political ambitions, but as he gained a disdain for law practice, he started to seriously consider politics. When Theodore Roosevelt won the White House, the Democratic Party felt that having a Roosevelt among them would give them a boost to their image. In 1910, the Democrats came to Franklin and suggested to him to run for the state senate in his district. He accepted the challenge and even though his district was almost exclusively Republican by tradition, he surprisingly won a seat in the state senate. This first political victory pleased Roosevelt and he took his position very seriously, revealing from the early debut of his political career a progressive, independent spirit and an assertive nature.
By 1912, Franklin D. Roosevelt had already attained a certain level of influence within the Democratic Party, and he played a key role in getting the New York delegation to support Woodrow Wilson for president. Wilson won the presidency in the fall while Roosevelt was also re-elected for the state senate, where he served as a chairman of the Agriculture Committee. Shortly after, Wilson’s Secretary of the Navy, Josephus Daniels, offered Roosevelt a position in Washington as Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Roosevelt gladly accepted. He had a lifelong passion for the Navy and was the owner of an extensive collection of books on naval subjects. Moreover, his cousin, Theodore Roosevelt had also held the same position fifteen years earlier.
In 1914, American politics were disrupted by the start of the World War I in Europe. Franklin Roosevelt strongly believed that the United States should join the fight against Germany and he pushed the Navy Department to launch military preparations. He also ran for a seat in the U.S. Senate but after losing the election, he returned to his position within the Navy Department. The United States entered World War I in 1917, and Roosevelt became responsible for designing a naval action strategy and for coordinating the mobilization and deployment of ships and personnel.
Meanwhile, his personal life suffered a severe blow. In 1918, his wife discovered that Franklin had engaged in an adulterous affair with Lucy Mercer, her pretty and young secretary. Distraught, Eleanor asked Franklin for a divorce. However, both he and his mother realized that the divorce would cause a scandal and ruin his political career. To appease Eleanor, Franklin promised to end his relationship with Lucy. Although he cut contact with Lucy, his marriage hardly recovered. Eleanor never forgave him but preferred to maintain a civil and polite relationship. From this point on, they started to lead separate lives.
In 1920, when the Democrats elected James M. Cox as their presidential nominee, Franklin D. Roosevelt was chosen to be his running mate. Although Roosevelt invested a lot of energy in the campaign, the Democrats had few chances of winning the election considering the political and social climate of the moment. After the defeat in the presidential election, Roosevelt returned to New York City where he resumed his law career.
Stricken with Polio
In 1921, Roosevelt passed through one of the most critical moments of his life when he contracted poliomyelitis, which paralyzed his body. He fought intensely against the disease and with great effort, he managed to regain some mobility, but his legs remained permanently paralyzed. While his mother pressured him to renounce public life for a stable and secure domestic existence at their residence in Hyde Park, Roosevelt decided that his invalidity should not affect his life goals and he returned to politics. He gradually taught himself to walk again by wearing iron braces on his hips and legs and supporting himself with a cane. Despite his attempts to downplay the gravity of his disability, the American people were aware of Roosevelt’s struggle with his illness throughout his political career.
By 1924, Roosevelt was fully immersed in politics again. He led Alfred E. Smith’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. Although his candidate lost, Roosevelt earned the respect of the Democrats for the willpower with which he had circumvented his illness. Four years later, Smith managed to win the presidential nomination and he advised Roosevelt to seek election for governor of New York. Roosevelt was reluctant to accept, but when the New York state convention nominated him, he decided to accept the nomination. To dispel the doubts about his ability to control his illness, he engaged in an intense and strenuous campaign. Smith lost the presidential election, but Roosevelt won the governorship.
Governor of New York
In October 1929, just a few months after Roosevelt began his term as Governor of New York, the Wall Street Crash of 1929 occurred, and the economy of the country began to crumble. Roosevelt’s response to the crisis was admirable. He successfully implemented innovative strategies and due to his handling of the crisis, he won re-election a year later with an astounding number of votes. One of his greatest victories as governor was convincing the New York legislature to adopt several bills that regulated workers’ rights and increased compensation. He also established the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration meant to help the state’s unemployed and struggling citizens to survive the economic depression.
Realizing that the Herbert Hoover administration was overwhelmed by the severity of the economic crisis and that discontent was rising in the country, Roosevelt decided to run for president. In June 1932, he entered the Democratic National Convention, promising to American people a “New Deal”. His campaign focused on the need to repeal Prohibition, lower tariffs, and provide unemployment relief. The greatest surprise of the campaign was Roosevelt’s insistence on taking a 27,000 miles journey across the country to meet and talk with the voters. Despite the devastating effects of polio on his body, he demonstrated a remarkable physical endurance which added substance to his political message of hope and optimism. Hoover’s defeat became imminent as the campaign progressed.
President of the United States (1933-1945)
On March 4, 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered his inaugural address and from his first days in the office, he acted with an openness and honesty towards citizens and press that were unprecedented in former administrations. It was during this address that he spoke the now immortal words, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Even when talking about the dire situation of the American economy, he inspired trust and reassured people that solutions existed. One of his first steps as president was to surround himself with different experts, union leaders, professors, and intellectuals that could advise him and help him find solutions. Pressured by the gravity of the economic depression, Roosevelt decided that radical policies were dangerous and that the best way to handle these sensitive issues was to try innovative programs to stimulate the economy and employment. While some of his solutions were efficient, others reflected poorly in reality.
During his first months in office, Roosevelt pushed for innovative federal legislation and issued a series of executive orders to institute his New Deal agenda, meant to produce “relief, recovery, and reform”. Among others, his agenda advocated farming subsidies, unemployment insurance, and retirement pensions.
To fix the distressing unemployment issue, President Roosevelt urged Congress to establish the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, which provided states with financial aid to develop programs for the millions of unemployed people in the country. An innovative policy was the foundation of the Civilian Conservation Corps, which involved 250,000 young men in projects for rural development. The Agricultural Adjustment Act provided subsidies to farmers who were in deep trouble due to falling prices. The Tennessee Valley Authority was established by Roosevelt with the aim of reducing the devastating poverty in the area. To further reduce employment, Roosevelt pushed the National Industrial Recovery Act, which caused controversy because it forced businesses to set fix prices and wages.
By 1935, Roosevelt’s domestic policy was widely described as leftist and he received numerous attacks from big business leaders. In elaborating his New Deal, Roosevelt intended to create a welfare state that would maintain capitalism as its foundation. While he rejected socialism, Roosevelt believed that the federal government should support the Americans who were struggling. Meanwhile, the conservatives considered his policies extreme. To defend his New Deal, Roosevelt accused his opponents of not taking into consideration society’s most vulnerable groups. This clash led to the development of a Second New Deal. The new program brought the Social Security Act of 1935, which promised economic security for the elderly, the temporarily unemployed, and the sick, and the National Labor Relations Act, also known as the Wagner Act, which protected workers against unfair practices of companies.
Another important success of Roosevelt was the creation of the Works Progress Administration through the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act, which was a program aimed at providing employment to the jobless. The WPA employed 8.5 million people at a cost of $11 billion in the following decade and while Roosevelt’s opponents considered the program a waste, the WPA had outstanding results at a practical level – from the construction of public buildings, playgrounds, and highways, to the consolidation of tens of thousands of bridges, parks, and airport runways. WPA workers even developed cultural and artistic programs and events for numerous communities.
Through his political agenda, Roosevelt made many enemies among the rich, and this became transparent during the 1936 presidential campaign when a large percentage of the country’s newspapers threw their support behind Roosevelt’s Republican opponent, Alfred M. Landon. While big business leaders supported Landon, Roosevelt had an outstanding base of support among the working class and the unions. He collected 61% of the popular vote and won one of the most impressive victories in the history of the United States.
After a series of clashes with the Supreme Court and the conservative factions of the government during his second term, Roosevelt lost some of his political force and became unable of passing some of his other reform legislation.
World War II
Concerning foreign policies, President Roosevelt had adopted throughout his presidency a strategy which he described as the “Good Neighbor Policy”, which enforced the idea that the United States should respect the rights of other countries and not intervene in their affairs. As Adolf Hitler rose to prominence in Germany and the war became imminent in Europe, the United States decided to avoid getting involved in the conflict. During the 1930s, Congress passed a series of Neutrality Acts, but when Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, Roosevelt convinced Congress to repeal the 1935 Neutrality Act and give the U.S. the authorization to export arms to the European belligerents.
In 1940, Franklin D. Roosevelt won a third term as president against Wendell Willkie. During the campaign, Roosevelt had promised that he would protect the peace in the United States and would not send Americans to fight in a foreign war. Despite all his promises, he was forced to change his policy under the overwhelming political pressure and changing world events. When France was occupied by Germany in June 1940, the Americans, shocked by the event, changed their views as well, and the isolationists lost public support.
Besides the European crisis, Roosevelt also had to manage another international conflict with Japan. When the Japanese revealed their expansionist goals in Southeast Asia by attacking China, French Indochina, and other territories, the United States passed an Embargo Policy on Japan, which angered Japanese leaders. The Roosevelt administration refused to remove the embargo. On December 7, 1941, Japan delivered a surprise bomb attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, destroying 19 American ships and killing around 2,400 Americans. The United States declared war on Japan, while Germany and Italy declared war on the United States. The idea of American neutrality became a distant dream.
At the beginning of 1942, after mobilizing its armed forces, the United States entered the war. Roosevelt’s main preoccupation was handling the diplomatic aspects by negotiating with the allied countries, Britain and the Soviet Union. He had to work closely with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin to form strategies against the Axis powers. Roosevelt met Churchill in January 1943 in Morocco to discuss the strategy of the Allied troops. In November, he met both Churchill and Stalin in Iran. In August 1944, the three leaders met in Washington D.C. where they decided to found the United Nations, an international peacekeeping organization. A few months later, Franklin D. Roosevelt won a fourth term as president against Republican presidential candidate Thomas E. Dewey.
In February 1945, after he was elected to a fourth term in office, Roosevelt had another meeting with his allies, Churchill and Stalin, at Yalta, in the Crimea. Hitler’s end was near, and they needed to discuss sensitive post-war policies regarding Germany and Poland. The results of the Yalta negotiations are still controversial and many criticized Roosevelt for abandoning Eastern Europe in the hands of the communist Soviets. In reality, Roosevelt knew that he could not trust Stalin and that Stalin would not compromise, especially since the Soviet army had already occupied Poland and a large part of Eastern Europe.
When he returned from Yalta, Roosevelt was so physically weak that he scared everyone. He sought refuge in Warm Springs, Georgia, but his health continued to deteriorate dramatically. On April 12, 1945, after complaining of a headache, Roosevelt fell unconscious and died within hours of a massive cerebral hemorrhage. He was in the company of his former lover, Lucy Mercer.
Right after Roosevelts death, Vice President Harry S. Truman was summoned to the White House for a meeting with Eleanor Roosevelt. As he walked into her office, she said, “Harry, the president is dead.” Truman ask if there was anything he could do for her, she responded, “Is there anything we can do for you? For you are the on in trouble now.” With less than three months as vice president, Truman was sworn into office and would lead the country during the closing days of the war.
Franklin D. Roosevelt was deeply mourned by Americans all over the country, who were shocked and devastated by his death. He had accompanied them in moments of extreme crisis, such as economic depression and war. Months after his death, the Axis powers surrendered, and peace was restored in the world.
Ranking as President
In the ranking of presidents as listed in the book by Brian Lamb et al, historians rank Franklin Roosevelt highly at third on the list. He was placed behind George Washington and ahead of his cousin Theodore Roosevelt. FDR and Abraham Lincoln are he only two presidents to have been consistently ranked in the top ten every leadership category by historians.
- Brinkley, Alan. Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Oxford University Press. 2010.
- Hamilton, Neil A. and Ian C. Friedman, Reviser. Presidents: A Biographical Dictionary. Third Edition. Checkmark Books. 2010.
- Lamb, Brian, Susan Swain, and C-SPAN. The Presidents: Noted Historians Rank America’s Best – and Worst – Chief Executives. New York: PublicAffairs, 2019.
- West, Doug. The Great Depression – A Short History. C&D Publications. 2016.
- West, Doug. Franklin Delano Roosevelt: A Short Biography: Thirty-Second President of the United States. C&D Publications. 2018.
- Whitney, David C. and Robin V. Whitney. The American Presidents: Biographies of the Chief Executives, from George Washington through Barack Obama. 11th Edition. The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc. 2012.
- Franklin D Roosevelt: The man who conquered fear. January 19, 2009. The Independent. Accessed June 26, 2018.
- Roosevelt and Churchill: A Friendship That Saved The World. National Park Service. Accessed June 26, 2018.
- Maher, Neil M. (July 2002). A New Deal Body Politic: Landscape, Labor, and the Civilian Conservation Corps. Environmental History. 7 (3): 435–61. Accessed June 26, 2018.
Doug West (author) from Missouri on July 15, 2018:
Good comments. Sounds like you got something out of the article. I hadn't really thought about parallels between Hillary and Eleanor.
Glenn Stok from Long Island, NY on July 15, 2018:
This was a wonderful review of the life of President Roosevelt during his political career. You did a great amount of research on this Doug, to make this article complete.
I learned a lot that I didn’t know about his background, such as the affair he had Lucy Mercer. It’s interesting that when things like this happen in political life, one's spouse needs to accept the status quo for her husband's career to continue.
It seems very similar when Hillary Clinton didn’t divorce her husband after his affair with Monica Lewinsky. The only difference is that she hurt her own ability to later become president because she lost the approval of female voters, among other things. Eleanor Roosevelt wasn’t planning a political career for herself, so it didn’t matter.
It’s interesting that Roosevelt was elected four times in a row. He was surely a great president with a lot of achievements. It’s sad that his death due to a cerebral hemorrhage shortened his last term to only a few months.