Franklin D. Roosevelt Early Life
Roosevelt was born on January 30, 1882, in Hyde Park, New York. He was born into a wealthy family as the only child of James Roosevelt and Sara Ann Delano Roosevelt, and a distant cousin of President Theodore Roosevelt. Assuming the Presidency at the depth of the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt (Franklin Delano Roosevelt) helped the American people regain faith in themselves. He brought hope as he promised prompt, vigorous action, and asserted in his Inaugural Address, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Roosevelt attended law school at Columbia University and worked for several years as a clerk in a Wall Street law firm. In 1910, he entered politics, winning a state senate seat as a Democrat in the heavily Republican Dutchess County. In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson named Roosevelt assistant secretary of the U.S. Navy. He would hold that post for the next seven years, traveling to Europe in 1918 to tour naval bases and battlefields after the U.S. entrance into World War II.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt Biography and Profile
Born in January 30, 1882 at Hyde Park, New York–now a national historic site–he attended Harvard University and Columbia Law School. On St. Patrick’s Day, 1905, he married Eleanor Roosevelt.
Following the example of his fifth cousin, President Theodore Roosevelt, whom he greatly admired, Franklin D. Roosevelt entered public service through politics, but as a Democrat. He won election to the New York Senate in 1910. President Wilson appointed him Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and he was the Democratic nominee for Vice President in 1920.
Franklin D. Roosevelt Education
He was educated by tutors and governesses until age 14, and the entire household revolved around him, with his mother being the dominant figure in his life even into adulthood. His upbringing was very unlike the common people whom he would later champion.
In 1896, Roosevelt attended Groton School for boys, a prestigious Episcopal preparatory school in Massachusetts. The experience was a difficult one for him, as he did not fit in with the other students. Groton men excelled in athletics and Roosevelt did not.
He strived to please the adults and took to heart the teachings of Groton’s headmaster, Endicott Peabody, who urged students to help the less fortunate through public service.
After graduating from Groton in 1900, Roosevelt entered Harvard University, determined to make something of himself. Though only a “C” student, he was a member of the Alpha Delta Phi fraternity, editor of the Harvard Crimson newspaper and received his degree in only three years.
However, the general consensus by his contemporaries was that he was underwhelming and average.
Roosevelt went on to study law at Columbia University Law School and passed the bar exam in 1907, though he didn’t receive a degree. For the next three years, he practiced corporate law in New York, living the typical upper-class life.
But Roosevelt found law practice boring and restrictive. He set his sights on greater accomplishments.
In the summer of 1921, when he was 39, disaster hit-he was stricken with poliomyelitis. Demonstrating indomitable courage, he fought to regain the use of his legs, particularly through swimming. At the 1924 Democratic Convention he dramatically appeared on crutches to nominate Alfred E. Smith as “the Happy Warrior.” In 1928 Roosevelt became Governor of New York.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Politics
Elected President in November 1932
He was elected President in November 1932, to the first of four terms. By March there were 13,000,000 unemployed, and almost every bank was closed. In his first “hundred days,” he proposed, and Congress enacted, a sweeping program to bring recovery to business and agriculture, relief to the unemployed and to those in danger of losing farms and homes, and reform, especially through the establishment of the Tennessee Valley Authority.
By 1935 the Nation had achieved some measure of recovery, but businessmen and bankers were turning more and more against Roosevelt’s New Deal program. They feared his experiments, were appalled because he had taken the Nation off the gold standard and allowed deficits in the budget, and disliked the concessions to labor.
Social Security, taxes on the wealthy
Roosevelt responded with a new program of reform: Social Security, heavier taxes on the wealthy, new controls over banks and public utilities, and an enormous work relief program for the unemployed.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt Re-Elected in 1936
In 1936 he was re-elected by a top-heavy margin. Feeling he was armed with a popular mandate, he sought legislation to enlarge the Supreme Court, which had been invalidating key New Deal measures. Roosevelt lost the Supreme Court battle, but a revolution in constitutional law took place. Thereafter the Government could legally regulate the economy.
Roosevelt pledged “good neighbor” policy
Roosevelt had pledged the United States to the “good neighbor” policy, transforming the Monroe Doctrine from a unilateral American manifesto into arrangements for mutual action against aggressors. He also sought through neutrality legislation to keep the United States out of the war in Europe, yet at the same time to strengthen nations threatened or attacked.
When France fell and England came under siege in 1940, he began to send Great Britain all possible aid short of actual military involvement.
Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Roosevelt directed organization of the Nation’s manpower and resources for global war.
Feeling that the future peace of the world would depend upon relations between the United States and Russia, he devoted much thought to the planning of a United Nations, in which, he hoped, international difficulties could be settled.
As the war drew to a close, Roosevelt’s health deteriorated, and on April 12, 1945, while at Warm Springs, Georgia, he died of a cerebral hemorrhage.
Franklin Roosevelt Family
Franklin Roosevelt married Eleanor Roosevelt, his fifth cousin and the niece of Theodore Roosevelt, on March 17, 1905. The couple became engaged during Roosevelt’s last year at Harvard.
Franklin Roosevelt Children: Franklin and Eleanor went on to have six children: AnnaRoosevelt, James Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt (who died as an infant), Elliott Roosevelt, Franklin Jr. Roosevelt and JohnRoosevelt . Except for John, who chose a career as a businessman, all of the Roosevelts’ children had careers in politics and public service.
Franklin D. Roosevelt Accomplishments
By the time he left office, the United States had become a superpower, able and willing to exert its influence around the globe. It was a nation of newfound prosperity; a country where the federal government, with the people’s support, had become the engine of change in nearly every sphere of national life and would build on that power for many years. In the process, FDR made the Democrats into a ruling party.
It took two generations, with the 1980 election of conservative President Ronald Reagan, for the government to pull back and for Americans to conclude that Washington had become too powerful. But the underpinning of FDR’s New Deal remain in place today, including a powerful executive branch and a culture of celebrity surrounding the president, carefully enhanced and nurtured by FDR during his long tenure.
Goodwin wrote: “It may well be true that a social revolution is not possible without war or violent internal upheaval. These provide a unity of purpose and an opportunity for change that are rarely present in more tranquil times. But as the history of other countries and America’s own experience after World War I illustrates, war and revolution are no guarantee of positive social change. That depends on the time, the nation, and the exercise of leadership. In providing that leadership, Franklin Roosevelt emerges as the towering public figure of the 20th century.”
A biography published by the Miller Center at the University of Virginia concludes, “Faced with the Great Depression and World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt guided America through its greatest domestic crisis with the exception of the Civil War, and its greatest foreign crisis. His presidency – which spanned 12 years – was unparalleled, not only in length but in scope. FDR took office with the country mired in a horrible and debilitating economic depression that not only sapped its material wealth and spiritual strength, but cast pall over its future. Roosevelt’s combination of confidence, optimism and political savvy – all of which came together in the experimental economic and social programs of the ‘New Deal’ – helped bring about the beginnings of a national recovery.”
A Constant Connection to Everyday People
One of FDR’s most important attributes as a leader was his ability to empathize with his fellow citizens, to show that he cared for them and would do everything he could to help them This enhanced his political power by connecting him irrevocably to everyday people. It’s something that presidents have tried to do ever since, but few have accomplished it as well as Roosevelt.
He had contracted polio in 1921, at age 39, and never recovered the use of his paralyzed legs. Eleanor, his wife, said this experience of struggling and failing to conquer the disease broke him out of the isolation of his background as a patrician who had lived a life of ease and privilege. In his experience with polio, he learned what it was like to struggle, and fail, but to persevere.
FDR said it was the president’s “duty” to “keep in touch, personal touch, with the nation…to try to tie together in my own mind the problems of the nation.” As president, FDR was an eager student of what was going on around the country, reading the newspapers, listening to members of Congress, staff members and friends, and most of all paying close attention to what his wife observed during her many fact-finding trips in the United States and visits to American troops abroad. She kept voluminous notes and reported back to the president frequently. Their marriage was troubled, but he considered her his “eyes and ears” and a partner in governing. Eleanor threw herself into this role, partly because it gave her a way to help her husband do his job and partly because it prevented their relationship from becoming too distant.
FDR also knew how to manage the news media to rally support for his agenda. He cultivated newspaper reporters, and even though publishers were often against his policies, he got favorable coverage from the journalists who actually wrote the stories about him. He would hold two or three press conferences per week and had the reporters gather around him, informally, as he sat at his big Oval Office desk. The reporters loved the access and the personal connection to the president, and they became fans of FDR.
He pioneered the use of radio, an increasingly popular medium in the United States. He held 30 “fireside chats” during his 12 years as president, addressing the country directly as if he were talking with a household after a family dinner. He didn’t want to overdo it, knowing that any politician could wear out his welcome with too much exposure. But the fireside chats were eagerly anticipated and made FDR, with his pleasant, distinctive voice and boundless optimism, a welcome guest in countless homes.
“He was very charismatic,” Dallek says. “He had a brilliant intuitive feel for American politics and you can’t teach that; you can’t teach how to be a great politician.” He used his communication skills to shape public opinion and create grass-roots support for his ideas that converted to support for his legislation in Congress.
When he died at age 63 of a cerebral hemorrhage at his Warm Springs, Georgia, vacation home on April 12, 1945, immense grief spread across the country. It was only a few weeks after FDR had been sworn in for an unprecedented fourth term, and many Americans wondered if anyone could replace him. As his funeral train made its way across the nation, a man was found weeping along the route, and was asked if he had known FDR. “I didn’t know him,” the man replied. “But he knew me.” This was a feeling shared by millions of Americans.
Establishing the Social Safety Net
Roosevelt was a believer in governmental experimentation. He argued that leadership in the modern age meant being flexible and reshaping government actions to accommodate “a changing and growing social order.” He tried many new ideas and kept those that seemed to work, however imperfectly. He was a pioneer in the creation of a strong social safety net to help Americans in their time of need. Among the transformational programs he and his brain trust devised was unemployment insurance and Social Security, which he launched in 1935 to provide income assistance to the elderly. FDR and a compliant Congress also created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., which guaranteed the savings of everyday people; the Securities and Exchange Commission, which regulated financial markets; the Civilian Conservation Corps, which employed 300,000 young men at 1,200 camps around the country; the Works Progress Administration, which generated many job-creation programs; the Tennessee Valley Authority and rural electrification; and the Soil Conservation Service.
“He didn’t end the Depression,” Dallek adds. “It was the onset of industrial mobilization for the war that did that. But he did certainly improve economic conditions in the country.”
After FDR, Goodwin writes, “No longer would government be viewed as merely a bystander and an occasional referee, intervening only in times of crisis. Instead, the government would assume responsibility for continued growth and for fairness in the distribution of wealth. Big government – modern government – was here to day.”
Writes historian Arthur Bernon Tourtellot in “The Presidents on the Presidency,” “Franklin Roosevelt proved the presidential office equal, without constitutional alteration although with statutory enlargement, to the most desperate domestic and foreign crises. His historic significance in the development of presidential leadership is that he used with prompt and exceptional vigor the influence and fullest powers of the presidency to rescue the capitalist system in this country at a time when its real interests had been so badly and so casually served that not only did it invite economic ruin but actually had the nation on the verge of it.”
Policy Ideas and Political Savvy
On foreign policy, FDR also excelled in setting goals and achieving them. FDR developed personal connections to other heads of state and government, especially British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Yet he knew that personal diplomacy only went so far because national interests were, in the end, more important than relationships between leaders. So his approach was a deft blend of personal charm, policy ideas and political savvy.
FDR, who had been assistant secretary of the Navy under President Woodrow Wilson, turned out to be a brilliant commander in chief. He edged a nervous country from isolationism to helping the allies against fascism, and stitched and held together a remarkable and rambunctious international coalition.
The Miller Center adds: “In foreign affairs, FDR committed the United States to the defeat of the fascist powers of Germany, Japan, and Italy, and led the nation and its allies to the brink of victory. This triumph dramatically altered America’s relationship with the world, guiding the United States to a position of international prominence, if not predominance. By virtue of its newfound political and economic power, as well as its political and moral leadership, the United States would play a leading role in shaping the remainder of the 20th century.”
In both foreign and domestic affairs, FDR took presidential power to its limits, something Barack Obama is doing again today, to some extent, with his string of executive orders and unilateral actions on issues ranging from gun control to immigration. The goal, with both Roosevelt and Obama, was to bypass a balky Congress.
In 1940, FDR used his executive authority to provide 50 World War I-era destroyers and other ships to Great Britain, then under attack by Nazi Germany, in exchange for long-term rights to British bases in Newfoundland, the West Indies and elsewhere. Isolationists argued that the deal would bring the United States closer to full-scale war with Germany, but FDR went ahead, arguing that Britain could lose the war without immediate American help.
After the United States entered the war, Roosevelt notoriously created internment camps for Japanese-American citizens starting in 1942, in violation of their rights as Americans. He argued that it was necessary to safeguard against sabotage, but it remains a blot on FDR’s record.
In 1937, after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected some of his programs, Roosevelt tried to fundamentally alter the judicial arrangement by asking Congress to allow him to increase the number of Supreme Court justices – in effect, to pack the court with his supporters. His plan would have expanded the court from nine to as many as 15 justices. The move failed in the Senate, but the court thereafter began to leave FDR’s programs alone. So he got his way in the end.
Driving the Country Forward
By the end of his presidency, Goodwin wrote, “The society of a few haves and a multitude of have-nots had been transformed. Because of the greatest – indeed, the only – redistribution of income downward in the nation’s history, a middle-class country had emerged. Half of the American people – those at the lower end of the compensation scale – had doubled their income while those in the top 20 percent had risen by little more than 50 percent. Those in the bottom half of earners had seen their share of the country’s income increase by 16 percent while those at the top had lost 6 percent.”
This reduced social and economic inequalities during the Roosevelt era, but these problems have recently begun to intensify again. The middle class actually got smaller between 2000 and 2013, according to a Pew Foundation study. Median income declined in most states, even though the national average for the unemployment rate dropped from 10 percent in 2009 to 5.5 percent currently. But millions of Americans are underemployed, making substantially less than they used to, or are so discouraged that they are no longer actively seeking work, which means they are not counted. Also, most Americans haven’t benefited much or at all from the booming stock market.
FDR offers lessons for President Obama and the candidates who want to succeed him in 2016. “People have to trust you,” Dallek says. “There’s got to be credibility in what you say. Trust is absolutely essential. People have to feel you are on their side. There has to be a personal connection to you as president.”
There was also Roosevelt’s can-do spirit. He had an abiding faith in the presidency as the essential engine needed to drive the country forward. At the conclusion of his 1940 campaign, he told a nighttime rally in Cleveland, “There is a great storm raging now … that makes things harder for the world. And that storm … is the true reason that I would like to stick by those people of ours … until we reach the clear, sure footing ahead. … We will make it before the next term is over. … When that term is over, there will be another president. … And I think that in the years to come, that word ‘president’ will be a word to cheer the hearts of common men and women everywhere.”
It didn’t quite turn out that way. Harry Truman, FDR’s successor, had trouble filling FDR’s shoes. He had only been vice president for several weeks when Roosevelt died, and Truman quickly learned he had been left out of key policy decisions and deliberations, including the development of the atomic bomb.
And Truman faced a series of very difficult problems during his own time in office. The United States and its allies were well on their way to winning World War II when Roosevelt died, but Truman had tough choices to make in deciding the strategy to finally defeat Germany and Japan, such as his decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After the war, he had to deal with a troubled economy, both at home and abroad; labor unrest; resistance from Republicans in Congress; the challenge of an aggressive Soviet Union and China; the deepening cold war; and the Korean War with its mounting casualty lists and lack of victory. In the end, many Americans turned against him. Truman’s job approval rating sank to only 36 percent when he left office, an embarrassingly low number, Dallek says.
But on the positive side, Truman and his advisers implemented the strategy of containing communism, which turned out to be effective and led to the eventual victory of the West over the Soviet Union many years later. Truman also recognized the state of Israel, desegregated the armed forces and attempted to use the federal government very aggressively to end labor-management disputes.
In some ways, these actions represented a continuation of FDR’s legacy – taking the long view and doing what the president felt was best for the country despite the odds against him.
Franklin D. Roosevelt Quick Facts
Roosevelt was distantly related to both his wife and 11 other presidents.
An only child with maternal roots dating back to the Mayflower, Franklin D. Roosevelt spent a privileged childhood in Hyde Park, New York, prior to attending an elite Massachusetts boarding school. He then enrolled in Harvard College, where he began courting another Roosevelt, Anna Eleanor, his fifth cousin once removed as well as the niece (and goddaughter) of his fifth cousin, then-President Theodore Roosevelt, whom FDR greatly admired. When the couple married in 1905, Theodore Roosevelt took a break from his White House duties to give Eleanor away in lieu of her deceased father. “Well, Franklin,” the president purportedly exclaimed at the wedding, “there’s nothing like keeping the name in the family.” Though Theodore was his closest relative to head the country, FDR claimed to have traced his family tree to 10 other presidents as well.
He had little love for the law.
After Harvard, FDR went on to Columbia Law School, where he promptly flunked contracts and civil procedure and had to make up the classes over the summer. “Franklin Roosevelt was not much of a student and nothing of a lawyer afterwards,” one professor later recalled. “He didn’t appear to have any aptitude for law, and made no effort to overcome that handicap by hard work.” In fact, Roosevelt didn’t even stick around to get his degree, leaving Columbia in 1907 upon passing the bar exam. Family connections landed him a job at Carter Ledyard and Milburn, a prestigious New York City firm. But although he had some minor successes there, he never quite took to the profession, preferring instead to talk politics. Luckily, his family connections also brought him into contact with local Democratic leaders, who in 1910 backed his successful campaign for a New York State Senate seat. Roosevelt’s star only rose from there; he became assistant secretary of the Navy in 1913, a vice-presidential candidate in 1920, governor of New York in 1929 and a presidential candidate in 1932.
FDR won all of his presidential elections in landslides.
In what came to be called the “New Deal coalition,” disparate groups such as Southern whites, Catholics, Jews, African-Americans, labor union members and small farmers united to comfortably elect Roosevelt to four terms in the White House. During his first presidential race in 1932, with the Great Depression at its height, he defeated unpopular incumbent Herbert Hoover by an electoral vote tally of 472-59. He then vanquished Kansas Governor Alf Landon in 1936 (523 electoral votes to eight), businessman Wendell Willkie in 1940 (449 electoral votes to 82) and New York Governor Thomas Dewey in 1944 (432 electoral votes to 99), winning at least 53.4 percent of the popular vote each time.
No president will ever serve longer (barring a constitutional change).
When George Washington decided in 1796 that eight years in office was enough, he established an unwritten rule that would stand for nearly a century and a half. A few presidents, including Theodore Roosevelt, tried to buck this precedent. But none succeeded until FDR, who ran for a third term in 1940 largely over concerns about the growing threat from Nazi Germany. In the end, he served in the White House for more than 12 years, a feat his political opponents disparaged as bad for democracy. With Roosevelt’s tenure in mind, momentum grew for the 22nd amendment, ratified in 1951, which declared “no person shall be elected … president more than twice.”
His handicap was largely concealed from the public.
In the summer of 1921, while on vacation in Canada, 39-year-old Roosevelt fell ill with what was ultimately diagnosed as polio, a disease with no known cure. Paralyzed from the waist down, he underwent years of painstaking physical rehabilitation to try and regain the use of his legs. Yet although he made some progress, learning to move short distances with the help of steel leg braces and a cane (usually while holding the arm of a companion), he would remain wheelchair-dependent for the rest of his life. FDR could not even dress or bathe himself. The public never knew the full extent of his disability, however, in part because the media rarely mentioned it. At Roosevelt’s request, most images from the time show him seated in an open car or standing at a podium. When the occasional photographer did try to catch him in his wheelchair, Secret Service agents reportedly tore the film out of their cameras.
Historians divide his New Deal into two parts.
In his 1932 speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president, Roosevelt famously promised to tackle the Great Depression with “a new deal for the American people.” Wasting no time, he initiated a flurry of legislation during his first 100 days in office, much of which remains in effect to this day. To shore up the faltering financial sector, FDR closed insolvent banks and reorganized others, federally insured bank deposits, established stock market regulations and abandoned the gold standard. He also took steps to end Prohibition, to increase employment through large-scale public works projects, to institute agricultural subsidies and to bring electricity to rural areas. Related measures continued to pass throughout the rest of 1933 and 1934, after which Roosevelt took the New Deal in a more liberal direction, generally referred to as the “Second New Deal.” This time around, Congress raised taxes on the wealthy, guaranteed labor unions the right to collectively bargain and approved unemployment and disability benefits, as well as Social Security for retirees. Try as he might, though, Roosevelt could not fully pull the country out of the Depression until it began mobilizing for World War II.
Roosevelt tried to increase the size of the Supreme Court.
Fed up with the U.S. Supreme Court for striking down several New Deal laws, Roosevelt in early 1937 proposed expanding it from nine to as many as 15 justices. Under this so-called “court-packing” plan, which critics derided as a separation of powers violation, a new justice would be added for each sitting justice above the age of 70 who refused to retire. But although FDR’s fellow Democrats held large majorities in both houses of Congress, they for once balked at supporting his agenda. In losing the battle, though, Roosevelt won the war. Never again would the Supreme Court invalidate a piece of New Deal legislation, and by the time of his death, seven of the nine justices were his appointees.
He sanctioned the imprisonment of Japanese-Americans.
Anti-Japanese sentiment in the United States reached a fever pitch following the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. In California, for example, the governor, the entire congressional delegation, numerous newspapers and top U.S. Army commanders all called for Japanese residents to be removed so that they could not commit acts of espionage and sabotage. Some government officials had misgivings about what’s now considered one of the most shameful episodes in U.S. history. But not Roosevelt, a humanitarian in many other respects, who told the War Department to do what it thought best. In February 1942, he signed an executive order delineating “military areas … from which any or all persons may be excluded.” About 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, two-thirds of whom were American citizens, were then forcibly removed to internment camps, their property sold off at bargain-basement prices. German-Americans and Italian-Americans were generally spared this fate. A few decades later, Congress issued a formal apology and awarded $20,000 to each surviving detainee.
FDR was the first sitting president to fly in a plane.
At a time when air travel was much more dangerous, Roosevelt flew to Chicago in 1932 to accept the Democratic nomination for president. He then became the first sitting president to journey via airplane—and the first sitting president to leave the country in wartime—when he took off from Miami in January 1943 aboard a Boeing 314 flying boat. After making stops in Trinidad, Brazil and Gambia, he got on a second plane, a TWA C-54, which brought him to Casablanca, Morocco, for a conference with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. More flights followed, including one from Malta to the Soviet Union just a couple of months before his death.
In “No Ordinary Time,” historian Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote, “[T]he Roosevelt years had witnessed the most profound social revolution in the country since the Civil War – nothing less than the creation of modern America.”
“He humanized the American industrial system,” adds presidential scholar Robert Dallek, who is writing a new biography of FDR titled “Prophet of a New Order: FDR in Depression and War.” “He was a major transformative leader. He didn’t want to jettison capitalism or free enterprise even though there were accusations that he was a socialist. This was nonsense. But he understood there needed to be change.”
- Franklin D. Roosevelt Biography and Profile