Franklin Delano Roosevelt was born in Hyde Park, New York, on January 30, 1882, the son of James Roosevelt and Sara Delano Roosevelt.
Nearly all of his early schooling was furnished by his parents, and tutors. He attended Groton, an upper-class preparatory school in Massachusetts, from 1896 to 1900, then received a BA degree in history from Harvard in just three years (1900-03). Roosevelt went on to study law at Columbia University in New York City. He left the university without receiving a degree when he passed the bar examination in 1907. For the next three years he practiced law with a prominent New York City firm.
In 1905, Roosevelt married Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, a distant cousin and the niece of President Theodore Roosevelt. She would become Franklin`s most influential ally and an active, beloved First Lady. The couple had six children, of whom five survived infancy. Roosevelt was a great companion to his children, especially enjoying outdoor sports with them.
Roosevelt, a Democrat like his father, tried politics in 1910 and won a seat in the New York State Senate from his traditionally Republican home district. He flourished as a courageous and adroit political contender.
State legislatures elected U.S. senators in those days. Leading a group of fellow Democratic legislators, Roosevelt spearheaded a successful drive against a candidate hand picked by the party bosses. His ploy infuriated Tammany Hall, the Democratic political machine in New York City.
In 1912, Roosevelt was reelected to the State Senate. That year he actively backed Woodrow Wilson against his fifth cousin, Theodore Roosevelt, in the presidential Election of 1912. Wilson won and rewarded the young senator with the post of Assistant Secretary of the Navy in 1913. Josephus Daniels, Secretary of the Navy, tutored his assistant on national politics, including the art of dealing with Congress.
In 1914, Roosevelt sought nomination as a candidate for the U.S. Senate. He was trounced, mainly because Tammany Hall had opposed him.
Roosevelt wanted to enter military service following the United States` entry into World War I in April 1917, but Daniels persuaded him to stay on. Roosevelt tackled numerous wartime projects. In 1918, he toured European battlefields and consulted with military leaders. He had gained national prominence.
The Democratic National Convention nominated Governor James M. Cox of Ohio for president in 1920. The delegates wanted a vice-presidential candidate from an eastern state to balance the ticket. The convention chose Roosevelt.
Cox and Roosevelt ran on a platform advocating U.S. membership in the League of Nations. However, the Senate had snuffed out America`s chance for membership. Senator Warren G. Harding of Ohio and Governor Calvin Coolidge of Massachusetts, the Republican candidates, handily defeated the Democratic ticket.
Roosevelt had established himself as a leader and was only 38; the defeat did him little harm. In 1920, he became a vice president of the Fidelity and Deposit Company of Maryland and took charge of the New York City office.
Tragedy struck, however, in 1921. Roosevelt, now 39, contracted polio, a fearsome and incurable disease that paralyzed his legs. He devoted a considerable part of his fortune in the 1920s to renovate a spa in Warm Springs, Georgia, said to have curative waters that he had sought to aid in his recovery. He founded the Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation, which continues to accommodate people with physical disabilities. In later years, a cottage he had built there would be called “the Little White House.”
Roosevelt`s iron determination played a major role as he struggled to recover, but he never regained the use of his legs. He frequently resorted to a wheelchair, but largely managed to hide the fact — with the media`s help — throughout his later career. Eleanor Roosevelt once recalled, "I know that he had real fear when he was first taken ill, but he learned to surmount it. After that I never heard him say he was afraid of anything."
A Resumed Career
Roosevelt resumed his political career with the support and assistance of Eleanor, and Louis Howe, his trusted political advisor and friend. At the Democratic National Convention of 1924, Roosevelt rose to nominate New York governor Alfred E. Smith for president, but Smith lost the nomination to John W. Davis. In 1928, Smith won the presidential nomination, then arranged for Roosevelt`s nomination to succeed him as New York`s governor. Republican candidate Herbert Hoover defeated Smith, but Roosevelt won the gubernatorial race.
The majority of Roosevelt`s policies during his first term as governor would not be characterized as activist. However, during his second term, the Depression`s effects became more pronounced in New York. To jump start the economy, he secured legislation in the fall of 1931 that established the first of the state relief agencies, the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration. In fact, Roosevelt was effective in most of his dealings with the Republican legislature, and honed skills that he would use in the future.
Roosevelt began to campaign for the presidency following his reelection as governor in 1930. The governor`s pronounced efforts to alleviate the economic depression in New York burnished his credentials, while the deep doldrums hobbled President Hoover and the Republicans nationwide.
The Democratic Party anointed Roosevelt as candidate for president at its national convention of 1932 in Chicago. He ignored tradition and showed up in person to accept the nomination, following a flight to Chicago. He then vigorously hit the campaign trail, calling for "relief, recovery, and reform" by government intervention in the economy. Roosevelt`s charisma and pro-active approach fused to help rout Hoover by seven million votes in November 1932 — beginning the first of four terms.
Tackling the Depression
In his first 99 days, he proposed, and a Democratically controlled Congress swiftly enacted, an ambitious "New Deal" to deliver relief to the unemployed and those in danger of losing farms and homes, recovery to agriculture and business, and reform, notably through the inception of the vast Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). The New Deal effects would take time; some 13,000,000 people were out of work by March 1933, and virtually every bank was shuttered.
On March 12, 1933, Roosevelt broadcast the first of 30 "fireside chats" over the radio to the American people. The opening topic was the Bank Crisis. Primarily, he spoke on a variety of topics to inform Americans and exhort them to support his domestic agenda, and later, the war effort.
The nation enjoyed measurable progress by 1935, but businessmen and bankers increasingly opposed the New Deal. The president`s experiments alarmed them. They were dismayed by his toleration of budget deficits and his removal of the nation from the gold standard, and were disgusted by legislation favorable to labor.
Nevertheless, Roosevelt and the Congress forged ahead with a new program of reform, often called the Second New Deal, which included Social Security, more controls over banks and public utilities, an immense work relief program, and higher taxes on the rich to help pay for it all.
The president was re-elected by a wide margin in 1936, but the U.S. Supreme Court had been nullifying crucial New Deal legislation. Persuaded that he had popular backing, Roosevelt introduced legislation to expand the federal courts, ostensibly as a straightforward organizational reform, but actually to "pack" the courts with justices sympathetic to his proposals. He was unsuccessful, but constitutional law would eventually change to allow the government to regulate the national economy.
During the period between the wars, Roosevelt maintained a pragmatic diplomatic stance on foreign affairs. He had been a supporter of Woodrow Wilson`s internationalist ideas, but dropped them when the country turned inward to Isolationism in the 1920s.
In the late 1930s, however, FDR brought the nation`s attention back to foreign affairs. He was alarmed by Germany`s aggression in Europe and Japanese incursions in the Pacific. A widespread isolationist perspective held by the electorate, and by Congress, which enacted neutrality laws intended to prevent American involvement in a second world war, inhibited the president.
Roosevelt gained ground when, spurred by Germany’s defeat of France in 1940, Congress passed his Lend-Lease legislation to materially support Great Britain’s resistance to the Germans. Britain and the Soviet Union were joined by the United States following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on December 7, 1941.
Leadership in World War II
As a wartime leader, Roosevelt promulgated his foreign policy goals in a succession of major conferences:
FDR would not witness the war`s conclusion. On April 12, 1945, at Warm Springs, Georgia, a cerebral hemorrhage took his life.
National ambition snuffed out Roosevelt’s dream of a postwar world of peace and order. Shortly before his death, it became clear that the U.S.S.R.`s postwar plans included hegemony over central and eastern Europe. His belief in the UN`s capacity to maintain the peace using the cooperation of the former wartime Allies was lost in the Cold War that followed.
The nation changed forever during Roosevelt`s tenure and the New Deal coalition lasted for many years after his death. Such programs as Social Security, and the Food and Drug Administration, are part of the national safety net. A great transformation of the president`s power came with Franklin D. Roosevelt. His forceful leadership and many years in office inspired a term, the "imperial presidency," that would be applied to subsequent presidents with similar leadership styles.