Franklin D. Roosevelt Biography
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) uttered the words “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” to reassure Americans in the midst of the Great Depression. Born into a wealthy New York family in 1882, Roosevelt entered politics early in his life, becoming a senator by age 28, then governor of New York, and finally president in 1932. A victim of polio and confined to a wheelchair, a fact many Americans never knew, Roosevelt became president at the depth of the Great Depression and strove to rescue the country from economic disaster. Working tirelessly, FDR revived the economy with his “New Deal” and simultaneously prepared the country for World War II. FDR died in office as the only man to be elected to four terms as president.
Facts and Trivia
- Roosevelt’s cousin Theodore had also served as president. He inspired FDR to enter public service.
- FDR’s “New Deal” program dramatically enlarged the federal government’s power and responsibility, creating our modern welfare and social security programs.
- Roosevelt is considered by many to be the “father” of the modern Democratic Party. The Democrats had been the conservative party prior to FDR, but his sweeping liberal reforms made the Democratic Party into the champion of the underprivileged in America.
- FDR married Eleanor Roosevelt in March of 1905. She was his fifth cousin, once removed, and they had known each other on and off since childhood.
- Prior to U.S. involvement in World War II, FDR created the “Lend Lease” program in order to provide England with equipment to fight the Germans. Though America sought to stay out of a European war, Roosevelt’s planning helped the United States prepare for a war he knew the country could not long avoid.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3248
Article abstract: Displaying extraordinary personal courage and perhaps the most astute political leadership America has ever witnessed, Roosevelt dominated American government for a longer period than has any other president of the United States.
Born in Hyde Park, New York, on January 30, 1882, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a member of an American aristocratic family of great wealth. James and Sara Roosevelt, of Dutch and English ancestry, educated their only child with private tutors and European tours. At Groton School in Massachusetts, Roosevelt came under the influence of Rector Endicott Peabody, who prided himself on grooming future politicians and instilling in his charges a lifelong commitment to public service.
By 1900, when Franklin enrolled at Harvard University, he was an impressive young man—six feet two inches tall, handsome, with a patrician nose and majestically deep-set eyes. In his junior year, he fell in love with his fifth cousin, Eleanor Roosevelt, a tall, slender woman whose pleasing face was punctuated by a prominent set of Rooseveltian teeth. Eleanor was the daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt’s younger brother, Elliott, who died from alcoholism when she was ten. In 1905, Franklin married Eleanor, over the objections of his mother, who tried to postpone the wedding.
Following Harvard, Roosevelt dabbled briefly with the practice of law before turning to the real love of his life: politics. In 1910, he entered the political arena for the first time, running for the New York State Senate. Fellow Democrats skeptically observed his entrance into the race for several reasons: his aristocratic bearing, his tendency to look down his nose at people, his unfamiliarity with working-class voters in the Hyde Park-Poughkeepsie area, and the fact that he was a former Republican. The political climate, however, demanded a reformer, and Roosevelt, following in the footsteps of his cousin Theodore, could fill the bill by pointing to the ugly specter of corruption within the opposition party. During the campaign, FDR (as he came to be known) showed he was different from the average “cheap-talking” politician, displaying a pragmatic unorthodoxy that later endeared him to the nation. He even campaigned for office in an automobile, an unusual political act for a time when most people eyed the horseless carriage with suspicion. Victory was his, however, and FDR became only the second Democrat elected from his district to the New York State Senate since the Civil War. He was on his way.
It was not an easy path to success. Experiences in the New York senate taught him the limits of progressive, reformistic power. When he challenged Charles F. Murphy’s Tammany machine of New York City over the Democratic nomination for the United States Senate, he met defeat. He gradually learned, however, to moderate his reform tendencies. This later proved to be his first major lesson in the school of politics. Following his reelection in 1912, Roosevelt jumped at the opportunity to join Woodrow Wilson’s administration in the capacity of assistant secretary of the Navy under Josephus Daniels. In doing so, young FDR may have imagined himself following the example of Theodore, who had achieved the governorship of New York, the vice presidency, and the presidency after serving in the same position. The Navy Department afforded Roosevelt a chance to hone his administrative skills and strengthen his political ties throughout the Democratic Party to the point that, by 1920, delegates to the national convention were willing to exploit his famous name by nominating him for the vice presidency as James M. Cox’s running mate. Cox and Roosevelt suffered defeat in the Republican landslide that swept Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge into office. FDR remained basically unchanged throughout these events, still a somewhat immature young man who maintained very few strong convictions.
All this changed in August, 1921, when Roosevelt contracted polio while vacationing at Campobello Island, his family’s resort off the Maine seacoast. His health was shattered, but a new Roosevelt slowly began to emerge. Paralyzed from the waist down, and wealthy enough to retire at the age of thirty-nine, he fought to regain his vigor. First, he had to overcome the frustration that resulted from the wearing of heavy steel braces which prohibited him from walking unaided. Second, he had to ignore the pleas of his mother (whom he worshiped but who urged him to withdraw from politics) and listen to his wife and his personal secretary, Louis McHenry Howe, who plotted to restore him to some semblance of health. During this period of recovery, Eleanor became his “legs,” going where he could not go, doing what he could not do physically, and generally learning the art of politics.
In 1924, FDR showed that Roosevelt the fighter had superseded Roosevelt the dedicated aristocrat when he appeared at the Democratic National Convention to give his “Happy Warrior Speech” nominating Alfred E. Smith for president. Smith lost the nomination, but Roosevelt did not lose his political career to polio. Instead, it seemed to give him a strength of character he had rarely shown before the Campobello incident. In 1928, while Smith was losing his home state of New York by 100,000 votes to Herbert Hoover, FDR was winning the governorship by twenty-five thousand, thus becoming the front-runner for the 1932 Democratic presidential nomination. Reelected by an unprecedented 725,000 votes in 1930, Roosevelt, aided by his national campaign manager, James A. Farley, began his first run for the presidency. Capturing the nomination on the third ballot, Roosevelt pledged himself to create, if elected, a “new deal” for the American people.
The 1932 presidential campaign pitted FDR against the Republican incumbent, Herbert Hoover. With the country three years into the Great Depression, Roosevelt wisely ran a pragmatic campaign—fluctuating between alternative ideological positions, allowing Hoover’s record to speak for itself, and leaving the decision to the American electorate. On November 8, 1932, the people spoke—giving him a 472-59 electoral victory over Hoover. When Roosevelt took office on March 4, 1933, the nation was mired in the worst depression in American history. There were approximately thirteen million unemployed people—25.2 percent of the work force. As a mood of apprehension gripped the country, Roosevelt tried to calm the panic-stricken populace:
First of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.
During the crucial one hundred days that followed his inaugural speech, Roosevelt began the New Deal. He quickly satisfied the public’s overwhelming desire for leadership and action by issuing executive orders and introducing legislation which a frightened Congress quickly rubber-stamped. FDR acted in four critical areas: finance, industry, agriculture, and relief (welfare). In combating the Depression, Roosevelt gave the nation no panacea but offered the means through which it might be able to survive the crisis. He did not end the Depression—but many of his programs and the laws he signed got the country through the Depression and remained an effective part of the federal government long after his death. In finance, the Emergency Banking Act (1933) and the Glass-Steagall Banking Act (1933) saved the banking structure and helped prevent a future crisis by creating the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. The Truth-in-Securities Act (1933) and the Securities Exchange Act (1934) brought Wall Street under tighter public regulation. In industry, the National Industrial Recovery Act (1933) offered both business and labor opportunities for greater self-government. Later, through the National Labor Relations Act (1935), he concentrated more on allowing labor unions the right to organize. In agriculture, Roosevelt tried to restore farmers’ prosperity through the Agriculture Adjustment Act (1933) by subsidizing certain farm products they could not afford to sell at market prices. In relief, FDR straddled the line between welfare and public works. At first, the New Deal doled out money to unemployed people through the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (1933) and sent young men to work camps through the Civilian Conservation Corps (1933).
After the one hundred days had passed, FDR turned away from welfare and made government jobs a primary goal of his administration. Listening to his advisers, Harry Hopkins and Harold L. Ickes, Roosevelt made the federal government the employer of the last resort through the Civil Works Administration (1933), the Public Works Administration (1933), and the Works Progress Administration (1935). In particular, the WPA, which averaged 2,112,000 on its monthly payrolls from 1935 to 1941, was the largest, most visionary, and probably most effective federal relief program ever created. Perhaps the most long-lasting reform achieved by FDR was the Social Security Administration (1935), granting unemployment compensation and old-age pensions.
Roosevelt’s New Deal programs generated billions of new dollars throughout the American economy, increasing incomes and causing tax revenues to “trickle up” to the federal and state governments. The jobs also raised the hopes of millions of voters who came to believe that FDR had saved them from financial disaster. He was the man who put food on their tables, shoes on their feet, and a roof over their heads. In brief, the New Deal was political dynamite, and Roosevelt was the New Deal. The president’s charismatic leadership, his inspirational speeches and informal “fireside chats,” made him an unbeatable campaigner, as his 1936 Republican opponent learned. Roosevelt crushed Kansas Governor Alfred M. Landon by the largest electoral margin in recent American history, 523 to 8.
In less than three years, Roosevelt created an imperial presidency and vastly enlarged the federal bureaucracy, thus prompting criticisms from conservatives and the Supreme Court. When the Court began invalidating some New Deal programs such as the National Industrial Recovery Act (Schechter v. United States, 1935) and the Agriculture Adjustment Act (Butler v. United States, 1936), he struck back. In 1937, FDR tried to pack the Court with New Dealers by introducing the Federal Judiciary Reorganization Bill. Although the bill failed to pass Congress, Roosevelt prevailed in this struggle, since the Court’s later decisions proved more favorable to New Deal legislation. Still, the court-packing scheme suggested dictatorial ambitions and damaged FDR’s reputation in some circles. His popularity further declined as the nation slid deeper into the Depression in 1938, and the president, determined to keep his working majority in Congress, attempted to purge conservative Democrats from his party. This tactic also failed. By 1939, the New Deal, for all practical purposes, was dead.
As the New Deal passed into history, new dangers loomed on the horizon. Totalitarian regimes in Germany, Japan, and Italy threatened America’s position in the world. Roosevelt himself recognized that the leaders of these regimes, Adolf Hitler, Hideki Tojo, and Benito Mussolini, would necessitate some changes in American foreign policy when he said that “Dr. Win the War” would have to replace “Dr. New Deal.” In this way, he reluctantly began to shift American diplomacy in the direction of confronting these aggressors. After Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, precipitating a declaration of war by England and France, Americans debated whether their country should maintain its isolation or aid its British and French allies. While Roosevelt was preaching neutrality, he won an unprecedented third term, a 449-82 electoral victory over his 1940 Republican opponent, Wendell Willkie.
When the war came to America, it struck with a fury. Possibly no aspect of FDR’s foreign policy has evoked more controversy than the role he played in leading the United States into World War II. On December 7, 1941, a little more than a year after he promised that “this country is not going to war,” Japanese planes swept down on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, nearly destroying the United States Pacific Fleet. The declaration of war that followed prompted his critics to complain that he had tricked his nation into war. While the Roosevelt Administration made numerous errors in judgment, FDR did not intentionally expose the military installation to attack in order to drag a reluctant and isolationistic American people into the war.
Shortly after the “day of infamy,” Roosevelt met with British prime minister Winston Churchill in the first of several Washington conferences forming a “grand alliance” between the two world leaders and their nations. At the first meeting, Roosevelt agreed to the idea that the allies should place top priority on defeating Germany and Italy, while fighting a holding action against Japan in the Pacific theater. In fact, throughout the war, FDR actively planned and executed top military and diplomatic decisions that affected its outcome and the postwar world. Together with Churchill and Soviet premier Joseph Stalin, he agreed to the formulation of the United Nations. At the Yalta Conference (February, 1945), Roosevelt made another of his extremely controversial decisions that would affect public opinion long after he was gone. In return for Stalin’s promise to enter the war against Japan and to allow free elections in the Soviet bloc nations, FDR acquiesced to Russia’s hegemony in eastern Poland and other territories occupied by Soviet troops. Because these decisions were kept secret by the chief signatories, Roosevelt never felt the full fury of his critics before his death on April 12, 1945.
In electing Franklin D. Roosevelt to an unprecedented four terms of office, the American people lent credence to the belief that FDR was the greatest leader ever to hold the presidency. This view was further substantiated by the 1982 survey conducted by Professor Robert K. Murray of Pennsylvania State University among a thousand Ph.D. historians; only Abraham Lincoln ranked ahead of Roosevelt as the best president in American history. Nevertheless, Roosevelt certainly had his critics, and they made valid points: He seems to have had dictatorial ambitions when he circumvented the Constitution and tried to pack the Supreme Court. FDR may have gravely damaged the national economy by allowing the national debt to grow to astronomical proportions. Other presidents followed him down the path of “deficit spending,” enlarging upon the problem that he had created in order to combat the Depression. Without a doubt, Roosevelt was one of the most controversial presidents in American history.
FDR created the imperial presidency, in the process setting a precedent for leadership by which all his successors have been evaluated. He took the executive branch, which had lost much of its power and glory, and expanded it beyond the limits achieved by any twentieth century American chief executive. Circumstances such as depression and war, and the force of his indomitable personal character shaped by the adversity of polio, allowed him to restructure the office into its present form—one that casually encroaches on the normal powers and functions of Congress and the Supreme Court. In 1939, for example, in an act that escaped virtually unnoticed by the nation’s press, he issued Executive Order 8248, creating the Executive Office of the President and shifting the powerful Bureau of the Budget from the Treasury Department to the White House. Then, when the time came to run for an unprecedented third term in 1940, Roosevelt occupied a perfect position to manipulate the federal economy for reelection purposes, and manipulate it he did—setting another example that his successors have followed.
Although Roosevelt’s primary claim to greatness lay in domestic achievements, he made major contributions in foreign policy as well. He was the president who led America to victory over the Axis powers and then achieved the first détente with the new superpower: Soviet Russia. It was in the arena of American politics and government, however, that FDR made his greatest imprint. Even his critics must concede that his impact on the nation was extraordinary.
Abbott, Philip. The Exemplary Presidency: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the American Political Tradition. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990.
Burns, James MacGregor. Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1956. The best political biography of Roosevelt. Burns stresses FDR’s Machiavellian tendencies and his failure to implement an enduring reform coalition.
Burns, James MacGregor. Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970. One of the best books analyzing Roosevelt’s role as commander in chief during World War II.
Dallek, Robert. Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy, 1932-1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979. Dallek received the Bancroft Prize in history for this excellent analytical overview of FDR’s foreign policy.
Davis, Kenneth Sydney. FDR, Into the Storm, 1937-1940: A History. New York: Random House, 1993.
Divine, Robert A., ed. Causes and Consequences of World War II. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1969. Very good historiographical collection of essays and accompanying bibliography focusing on the prelude to and aftermath of World War II.
Freidel, Frank. The Apprenticeship. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1952. The first of a projected six-volume biography. The Apprenticeship covers the period from Roosevelt’s birth through his tenure as assistant secretary of the Navy. Some reviewers thought this volume suffered from an overemphasis on FDR’s early life.
Freidel, Frank. Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Rendezvous with Destiny. Boston: Little, Brown, 1990.
Freidel, Frank. The Ordeal. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1952. The second volume covers the era from 1919 to 1928, including FDR’s contracting polio in 1921, his comeback (firmly established by the “Happy Warrior Speech” in 1924), and his election as governor of New York in 1928.
Freidel, Frank. The Triumph. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1956. The third volume addresses the subject of Roosevelt’s two terms as governor of New York, culminating with his election as president of the United States in 1932. This is a very dispassionate analysis of Roosevelt’s emergence as the master politician who crushed Herbert Hoover’s hopes in the 1932 presidential election.
Freidel, Frank. Launching the New Deal. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1973. Focuses on the winter of 1932-1933 through the completion of the “One Hundred Days” Congress of June, 1933. This is a very detailed, well-documented study of the early New Deal, although it omits Harry L. Hopkins’ Federal Emergency Relief Administration. (Freidel’s four-volume series on Roosevelt provides an unusually well-balanced account. The first three volumes constitute the definitive analysis of FDR’s early years.)
Leuchtenburg, William E. Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. New York: Harper and Row, 1963. This overview of Roosevelt’s foreign and domestic policy up to 1940, the best one-volume treatment of its subject, is scholarly yet highly readable.
Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr. The Age of Roosevelt: The Crisis of the Old Order, 1919-1933. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1957. This is the first of four projected volumes focusing on the changes experienced by the United States during Franklin Roosevelt’s career. Essentially, the first volume analyzes the political, economic, and social currents of the 1920’s, culminating with FDR’s first presidential election in 1932. Somewhat flawed by the author’s tendency to allow his liberalism to prejudice his historical analysis of the period.
Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr. The Age of Roosevelt: The Coming of the New Deal. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1959. The second volume of Schlesinger’s series analyzes the first two years of Roosevelt’s presidency and the New Deal from 1933-1935. The problem of Schlesinger’s pro-Roosevelt bias is less serious in this work than in his first volume.
Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr. The Age of Roosevelt: The Politics of Upheaval. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1960. The third volume (to date) of Schlesinger’s multivolume study of Roosevelt carries the analysis of FDR through his reelection in 1936. As with the first and second volumes, this work is characterized by Schlesinger’s highly subjective analysis of political, economic, and social history, but it solidifies Schlesinger’s major contribution to the literature on Roosevelt.
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