Franklin Delano Roosevelt is among the most remembered U.S. Presidents. Serving as President for more than twelve years, he was the only President to be elected four times. Roosevelt led the United States through its worst depression and its worst war. He tried his best to stay optimistic with our country and the decisions he made. In Roosevelt’s first inaugural address, he asked for faith in America’s future. He told the country, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” (Burns 1970, p. 238). That is the lesson that he taught our country to live by.
Franklin was born on January 30, 1882, in Hyde Park, New York. He was the only child of James and Sara Roosevelt. Born into a very wealthy family, he grew up on his father’s estate called Springwood. Being an only child, his parents adored him, but brought him up with a loving firmness. His father taught him that “being wealthy also brought with it the responsibility of helping people who were not so lucky” (Johnson 1967, p. 38).
Franklin D. Roosevelt was always a very smart and educated young man. Growing up, Franklin’s parents took him on many trips to Europe, where he studied and learned how to speak many different languages. He graduated from Harvard University in 1903 and then went on to get a degree from Columbia University Law School. But he never seemed to show an interest with doing legal work. In 1905, he married his distant cousin, Eleanor Roosevelt, whom he had been courting for some years before that. Franklin and Eleanor had six children together. Franklin took much pride and companionship in them. It wasn’t until this time that Franklin decided to get involved with politics.
In 1910, Roosevelt accepted an invitation from state Democratic leaders to run for the New York Senate. This was going to be a difficult task for Franklin because Republicans had controlled his district for over fifty years. But he was determined to do it. Roosevelt wanted a clean government and strongly opposed big city officials. With those requests, that was all he needed to win the election. Franklin became a state senator at the age of 29, and from then on, he was known as a very “bold and skillful political fighter” (Abbott 1990, p. 103). In 1913, President Wilson appointed him as assistant secretary of the Navy. This was the perfect job for FDR, as he said, “I now find my vocation combined with my avocation in a delightful way. Politics being my ‘vocation’ and ships and naval history being my hobby or avocation’” (Abbott 1990, p. 104). This job taught him, not only a lot about national politics, but especially about ways to get along with Congress. In 1914, Roosevelt ran for the Democratic nomination as a candidate for the U.S. Senate, but lost by a large margin. He wanted to enter the military service in 1917, when the U.S. was involved in World War I, but was convinced instead to visit the battlefields and meet with military leaders overseas. This is how he became a national figure to the world. In the 192, Roosevelt was nominated for Vice-President under James M. Cox, who together, called for a campaign concerning U.S. membership in the League of Nations. They ended up getting defeated by Coolidge, though. This defeat did not really harm Roosevelt. By that time, he was already a well-established leader among the Democrats.
Life seemed to be going all too well for FDR and his family until tragedy struck. In August 1921, Roosevelt fell into the water while sailing, which left him, not only partially paralyzed, but also with a severe case of polio. Many people thought that his career in politics had ended. But he continued his political activity out of his home, eventually gaining back the use of his hands, arms, and developed strong shoulders. He was determined to fight this disease with his best effort and he surely did. While doing this, he helped others do so, as well. In 1924, he established the Warm Springs Foundation, where people could go to get proper treatment for polio, even if they couldn’t afford it. When he returned to politics later that year, he had mastered his walking with the help of braces.
His first major public appearance since the polio attack was his nominating speech for Governor Smith of New York. He received major applause from the crowd at the National Convention. Even though Smith didn’t win, Franklin had regained significance as a Democratic leader and a man who had overcome personal tragedy. But, Smith did get the presidential nomination in 1928 and encouraged Roosevelt to run for Governor of New York, which he did do and won. This was a big and exciting step for Roosevelt. During his time as governor, he proved to become very popular with the voters by obtaining relief systems for both farmers and the unemployed, gaining control of public utilities and services, strengthening the prisons, getting better pensions for elders, and taking better care of the environment. He said to the nation at this time, “It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something” (Abbott 1990, p. 200). This gained much respect and admiration for Roosevelt from the public.
Roosevelt was now ready to take on a more challenging job, and it just so happened that he was nominated for President in 1932. John Garner was chosen for Vice-President. Roosevelt was ready and willing to take on this campaign. He was the first man to ever make an acceptance speech at the national convention, during which he promised the United States a “new deal” to get the nation out of the Depression and prevent future ones. During the campaign, he traveled to 38 states, showing the world that he was physically able to take on this job. At this time, he also told the world that “the fate of America cannot be depended on any one man. The greatness of America is grounded in principles and not on any single personality” (Johnson 1967, p. 173). And he was very convincing, receiving 472 electoral votes and winning the Presidency in a landslide.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt entered off ice on March 4, 1933. He was the last President to be inaugurated in March. Going into this job, Roosevelt knew that there were many immediate problems that had to be handled, like the banking crisis. On March 6th, just two days after becoming President, Roosevelt declared a “bank holiday,” which meant that all banks would shut down until the Department of Treasury could look over every bank’s books and make sure they were all on a stable basis. By doing this, Roosevelt ended the bank crisis and restored confidence in many Americans.
Moving right on to the next problem, on March 9th, Roosevelt, with congressional approval, began to pass recovery and reform laws. Congress approved almost all the important bills with large majority rules. The session of Congress passing laws in known as the “Hundred Days.” On March 12th, Roosevelt began to give his famous “fireside chats” over the radio, explaining the new laws that are being passed and how they will benefit the nation in the future. Walking into a Presidency while the nation is in the midst of a depression is an extremely difficult job. But Roosevelt was prepared to make immediate changes and succeeded in handling the nation’s problems, while also gaining respect from the people.
Roosevelt described his reform program, the New Deal, as a “use of authority of government as an organized form of self-help for all classes and groups and sections of our country” (Sullivan 1970, p. 87). There were many different parts to the program, all of them working towards relief for the cities and states. The Civil Works Administration was started in 1933, which supplied funds that went towards public projects such as building roads, repairing old schools, cleaning public parks, and other things like that. Also in 1933, the Civilian Conservation Corps was established to, not only give work to many young Americans, but also helped with programs for flood control, forestry, and soil conservation (Sullivan 1970, p. 93). Roosevelt also passed laws to protect investors of stock, help oil and railroad industries, and strengthen small businesses. In 1935, the Social Security Act was passed, giving relief to the unemployed and pensions to the elderly. Later that year, the National Labor Relations Act also strengthened the rights of labor workers. The only downside to the New Deal was the fact that it cost a great amount of money, causing the national debt to rise higher than ever.
Roosevelt did an outstanding job of strengthening relations with and promoting good will among other nations (Burns 1970, p. 334). He described his foreign policy as one of a “Good Neighbor.” His first move was to repeal the Platt Amendment of 1901, which said the U.S. could interfere with Cuban affairs. This repeal was approved in 1934. Then, in 1935, the U.S. signed Reciprocal Trade Agreements with six other Latin-American countries, promising nonaggression and conciliation with all of them
(Burns 1970, p.336). Roosevelt also used personal diplomacy by visiting countries to make peace with them. He was actually the first U.S. President to visit South America and attend the Inter-American Conference. Roosevelt also succeeded in resuming trade between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Because all ties were broken after the Russian Revolution in 1917, the United States had no relations with the Soviet Union. But in 1933, with Roosevelt’s help, the two nations exchanged diplomatic representatives for the first time in sixteen years. Roosevelt told the world that “Nationwide thinking, nationwide planning, and nationwide action are the three great essentials to prevent nationwide crises for future generations to struggle through” (Burns 1970, p. 340).
Before long, it was time for another election. Both Roosevelt and Garner were renominated to represent the Democrats. They were running against Alfred Landon and Frank Knox. The Republicans tried to bring Roosevelt down, saying he failed in keeping his promise to balance the budget. But Roosevelt responded by sharing how he succeeded in ending the Depression and bringing the U.S. back to a prosperous nation. FDR’s speech in New York City in 1936 left a very strong message to the world, saying, “I should like to have it said of my first administration that in it the forces of selfishness and lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said of my second administration that in it, these forces are mastered” (Freedman 1990, p. 194). Again, that was all it took to convince the American people, because Roosevelt won the election in another landslide, carrying almost every U.S. State.
In Roosevelt’s second inaugural address, he told the United States that “the test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little” (Freedman 1990, p. 213). FDR’s first problem that needed to be dealt with in his second term of office was the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court declared many portions and laws under the New Deal as unconstitutional. So, in 1937, the President decided to reorganize the Supreme Court. He wanted to make it so that the Supreme Court justices were constantly changing, bringing the Court different views and opinions from time to time. This proposal did not pass because people thought that Roosevelt was doing this just to prevent the New Deal from failing. Before long, though, most of the Supreme Court justices had retired or died, so new ones had to be appointed.
The next problem came up in 1937, when Japanese attacks on China started to threaten world peace (Schuman 1996, p. 107). Roosevelt wanted to help China get armed for defense. He believed that Japanese should respect U.S. rights to aid China and demanded that Japan apologize and pay for the U.S. ship that went under by China. The Japanese people agreed to this at once (Schuman 1996, p. 108).
The third major issue that came about in Roosevelt’s second term was the Neutrality Acts. Roosevelt was not a huge fan of these acts because he wanted to help nations in time of need, especially ones opposing the Axis Powers: Germany, Italy and Japan (Schuman 1996, p. 110). Even after World War II began in 1939, the U.S. managed to stay isolated from the “last Great War.” But later that year, the U.S. passed the Neutrality Act of 1939, allowing other nations to purchase weapons from the U.S. for war.
Hard to believe, but very true, it was time for yet another Presidential election, which led to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s third consecutive term in office. There were many factors that lead to his reelection. He appointed a few Republicans to his Cabinet, hoping to gain some Republican support. He was the only President to ever be nominated for three terms, which led to the 22nd Amendment. Roosevelt was, so far, keeping the United States out of war and promised to continue to do so. And, guiding the U.S. through two successful terms, the people thought that at the time, the nation needed a president with good experience and leadership skills (Schuman 1996, p. 132).
As FDR entered his third term of office, he decided to give Great Britain all the help they needed with the war. In 1941, he met with the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, and together made up the Atlantic Charter. Under this charter, there were no territorial gains and all nations had the right to choose their own government, there were freedom of the seas, and all could conduct world trade peacefully (Burns 1970, p. 591). Roosevelt also granted all Americans “Four Freedoms” which were: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom of want, and freedom from fear. Later that year, Congress passed the Lend-Lease Act, allowing the U.S. to provide war supplies to any nation vital to U.S. security. To reassure them in doing so, Roosevelt told Congress that, “Our security is not a matter of weapons alone. The arm that wields them must be strong, the eye that guides them clear, the will that directs them indomitable” (Burns 1970, p. 601). As time went on, relations with Japan got increasingly worse. The United States reduced trade with Japan and issued warnings, but nothing seemed to help. Finally, the U.S. officials decided to meet with Japanese diplomats, unaware that the Japanese planes were attacking U.S. fleets in Pearl Harbor. This is what finally led to the U.S. entering World War II.
Now having entered the war, Roosevelt had to decide where to send troops first. He met with Churchill, along with officials from the Soviet Union, and they all formed the United Nations, or Allies that opposed the Axis Powers. He was the first President to leave the U.S. during war, but it was necessary so that he could meet with other Allied leaders (Schuman 1996, p. 197). He mostly met with Churchill and Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union. Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin became known as “The Big Three,” and together created a strong pact to stick together and defeat the Axis Powers. Their goal was to drive all Germans, Italians, and Japanese out of any territory where they did not belong, starting with North Africa.
Besides being involved with the war outside the country, Roosevelt’s home life changed during this time as well. The Roosevelt’s could not entertain guests as much anymore because security regulations were added to the White House. Machine guns were set on the roof, Secret Service agents posted throughout the grounds, and even a bomb shelter was put in the basement. These regulations were necessary in order to keep everyone safe and the White House under control.
In the election of 1944, Roosevelt was ready to retire, but felt it was his duty to run for the fourth term, especially since the war was still going on. He had no problem getting renominated and Harry S. Truman was nominated as Vice-President. The Republicans thought that the “fourth term” was unfair and felt that Roosevelt was in poor health. But this did not stop him from winning yet another election, this one also a landslide. In his final inaugural address, he told the United States that they learned “they cannot live alone at peace, that their own well-being is dependent on the well-being of nations far away” (Johnson 1967, p. 353).
When Roosevelt started his fourth term, his health was really starting to weaken. But his Presidency still went on, so he never let a cold or minor weight loss stop him. In February 1945, he met with Churchill and Stalin for the Yalta Conference in the Soviet Union. The “Big Three” discussed plans for organizing a peace treaty with the United Nations once the war ended. But it was at this time that Roosevelt began to have doubts about the Soviets. He told Churchill to keep on top of Stalin and keep Roosevelt posted if any changes occurred. Franklin D. Roosevelt was then headed to Warm Springs for a break from politics and time to just relax and rest. He spent only a very short time there before his death. The night of April 12th, the President had a horrible headache, which caused a cerebral hemorrhage that then spread throughout his body. With the news of his death, Americans gathered around the White House, filled with silence and grief. Roosevelt had prepared a “fireside chat” for the following day, which the First Lady later shared with the nation. The last words written by Franklin Delano Roosevelt to the nation, that he brought such a long way, were, “To you, and all Americans who dedicate themselves with us to the making of an abiding peace, I say: the only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today. Let us move forward with strong and active faith” (Freedman 1990, p. 492).
When you think about all the amazing accomplishments of one man, it is easy to understand why Franklin Delano Roosevelt will always be among the most remembered United States Presidents. He not only faced the truth himself, but made the rest of the country face it as well. Roosevelt had the incredible ability to look truth in the face and deal with it as best as he could. “He left behind him a country that had greatly changed from what it was in 1932” (Johnson 1967, p. 384). Besides that, Roosevelt left Americans a story about history that will always interest them. “It is more than a tale that is just told for fun; it is one of our legends” (Johnson 1967, p. 385).
President Roosevelt lived quite a life. Besides being a wonderful father to his children, a loving husband to his wife, and fighting an endless battle with polio, FDR lead a nation through many difficult obstacles and to tremendous heights with more strength and confidence, and that in itself made him a great man. But what made Roosevelt even more of a man was his ability to not only help others, but make the American nation believe in themselves as individuals. For he once told his nation, “True individual freedom cannot exist without security and independence” (Freedman 1990, p. 494). That quality was his real claim for being known as the man that he was.
Abbott, P. (1990). The Exemplary President and the American Political Trust, University of Mass. Press, Boston.
Burns, J. (1970). Roosevelt, the Soldier of Freedom, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., New York City.
Freedman, R. (1990). Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Clarion Books, New York City.
Johnson, G. (1967). Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Portrait of a Great Man, William Morrow and Co., Englewood Cliffs.
Schuman, M. (1996). Franklin D. Roosevelt: The Fourth Term President, Enslow Publishers, Inc., Springfield.
Sullivan, W. (1970). Franklin Delano Roosevelt, American Heritage Publishing Co., Inc., New York City.