Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the 32nd President of the United States and a central figure in world events during the mid-20th century, leading the United States during a time of worldwide economic crisis and world war. The only American president elected to more than two terms, he facilitated a durable coalition that realigned American politics for decades. He is considered to be one of the greatest american presidents in history.
Roosevelt was born on January 30, 1882, in the Hudson Valley town of Hyde Park, New York to businessman James Roosevelt I and Sara Ann Delano. He belonged to one of the oldest families in New York State. His parents were sixth cousins and both were from wealthy old New York families. They were of mostly English descent; Roosevelt's patrilineal great-grandfather, Jacobus Roosevelt III, was of Dutch ancestry, and his mother's maiden name, Delano, could be traced to a French Huguenot immigrant ancestor of the 17th century. Their only child was to have been named Warren, but Sara's infant nephew of that name had recently died. Their son was named for Sara's uncle Franklin Hughes Delano.
Roosevelt grew up in an atmosphere of privilege (reportedly, when James Roosevelt took his young son to visit President Grover Cleveland in the White House, the busy president told Franklin, "I have one wish for you, little man, that you will never be President of the United States.") Sara was a possessive mother; James, 54 when Franklin was born, was considered by some as a remote father. Sara was the dominant influence in Franklin's early yearsl. Frequent trips to Europe - he made his first at the age of two, and went with his parents every year from the ages of seven to 15 - helped Roosevelt become conversant in German and French. He learned to ride, shoot, row, and play polo and lawn tennis. Roosevelt also took up golf in his teen years, becoming a skilled long hitter. He learned to sail, and his father gave him a sailboat at the age of 16 which he named "New Moon".
Roosevelt attended Groton School, an Episcopal boarding school in Groton, Massachusetts; 90% of the students were from families on the social register. He was strongly influenced by its headmaster, Endicott Peabody, who preached the duty of Christians to help the less fortunate and urged his students to enter public service. Forty years later Roosevelt said of Peabody, "It was a blessing in my life to have the privilege of his guiding hand", and the headmaster remained a strong influence throughout his life, officiating at his wedding and visiting Roosevelt as president.
Peabody recalled Roosevelt as "a quiet, satisfactory boy of more than ordinary intelligence, taking a good position in his form but not brilliant", while a classmate described Roosevelt as "nice, but completely colorless"; an average student, he only stood out in being the only Democratic student, continuing the political tradition of his side of the Roosevelt family. Roosevelt remained consistent in his politics; immediately after his fourth election to the presidency, he defined his domestic policy as "a little left of center".
Like all but two of his twenty one Groton classmates, Roosevelt went to Harvard College in nearby Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he lived in a suite that is now part of Adams House, in the "Gold Coast" area populated by wealthy students. His mother Sara moved to Boston in 1900 to be closer to her son. Roosevelt was again an average student academically, and he later declared, "I took economics courses in college for four years, and everything I was taught was wrong." He was a member of the Alpha Delta Phi fraternity and the Fly Club.
Roosevelt entered Columbia Law School in 1904, but dropped out in 1907 after passing the New York State Bar exam. Many years later, he posthumously received a J.D. from Columbia Law School. In 1908, he took a job with the prestigious Wall Street firm of Carter Ledyard & Milburn, dealing mainly with corporate law.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt entered politics in 1910 as state senator from heavily Republican Dutchess County, a rural area that included Hyde Park. Early in 1912 Roosevelt became a spokesman for New York progressives in their fight against Tammany Hall, and his efforts helped to elect Woodrow Wilson president; FDR was rewarded
the following year with the post of assistant secretary of the navy, a position that the Old Roughrider, Theodore Roosevelt, had used to catapult himself to the White House. For the next seven years FDR worked under the close supervision of Secretary of the Navy Daniels. He was often impatient with his chief and did not shrink back from undercutting him, yet he learned from Daniels how to deal with congressional leaders and in time came to develop respect for the "chief." Above all, Roosevelt was an enthusiastic supporter of the president.
The first two years of the European war saw the energetic assistant secretary disgusted with the American inaction; as an advocate of preparedness he joined the likes of Leonard Wood and Henry Cabot Lodge in denouncing the cautious neutrality of Wilson and Daniels. Roosevelt's actions bordered at times on insubordination: in March 1917, he approached the British for official exchanges of naval information, an impetuous and indiscreet action taken without sanction by his superiors. Specifically, the yachtsman from Hyde Park wanted to build fifty-foot plywood subchasers and to establish himself as the American civilian leader in Europe in order to coordinate the Anglo-American war effort.
In October 1917, the ebullient assistant secretary fully backed the proposed mine barrage of the North Sea waters between Scotland and Norway, and when the General Board concurred, was not above telling Daniels "I told you so." This feverish activity prompted admirers to regard FDR as one of the most capable administrators in the capital ("See young Roosevelt about it. . . ."); on the other hand, it moved his detractors to denounce him as shallow, suggesting that "F. D." stood for feather-duster.
During the summer of 1918 the president finally granted Roosevelt the chance to travel to Europe, where FDR attempted to bring about unified action in the Mediterranean Sea. "The Italians may not love us, but at least they know that we have no ulterior designs in the Mediterranean." The mission proved to be stillborn. When the assistant secretary inquired of Italy in August 1918 why its fleet did not put out to sea even for training exercises, the reply came that the Austrians also preferred to remain in port. Roosevelt commented: "This is a naval classic which is hard to beat, but which perhaps should not be publicly repeated for a generation or two." Upon returning to the United States, the energetic Roosevelt thought about resigning his post in order to accept a commission in the navy, but the war ended before he could realize this scheme. FDR returned to Europe during the winter of 1918/1919 in order to supervise the disposal of American navy property.
He visited the Peace Conference in Paris and returned with Wilson, who turned him into an ardent public supporter of the League of Nations. Franklin Delano Roosevelt served as president of the United States from 1932 until his death in 1945, but these eventful and controversial years are beyond the scope of this work and, in any case, are sufficiently well known and reported elsewhere.
Roosevelt had a lifelong interest in the environment and conservation starting with his youthful interest in forestry on his family estate. As governor and president, he launched numerous projects for conservation, in the name of protecting the environment, and providing beauty and jobs for the people. He was strengthened in his resolve by the model of his cousin Theodore Roosevelt. Although FDR was never an outdoorsman or sportsman on TR's scale, his growth of the national systems were comparable. FDR created 140 national wildlife refuges (especially for birds) and established 29 national forests and 29 national parks and monuments. He thereby achieved the vision he had set out in 1931:
Heretofore our conservation policy has been merely to preserve as much as possible of the existing forests. Our new policy goes a step further. It will not only preserve the existing forests, but create new ones.
As president, he was active in expanding, funding, and promoting the National Park and National Forest systems. He used relief agencies to upgrade the facilities. Their popularity soared, from three million visitors a year at the start of the decade, to 15.5 million in 1939. His favorite agency was the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which expended most of its effort on environmental projects. The CCC in a dozen years enrolled 3.4 million young men; they built 13,000 miles of trails, planted two billion trees and upgraded 125,000 miles of dirt roads. Every state had its own state parks, and Roosevelt made sure that WPA and CCC projects were set up to upgrade them as well as the national systems.
Roosevelt heavily funded the system of dams to provide flood control, electricity, and modernization of rural communities through the Tennessee Valley Authority, as well as less famous projects transforming western rivers. He was a great dam builder, although 21st century critics would see this as the antithesis of conservation.
The rejection of the League of Nations treaty in 1919 marked the dominance of isolationism from world organizations in American foreign policy. Despite Roosevelt's Wilsonian background, he and Secretary of State Cordell Hull acted with great care not to provoke isolationist sentiment. Roosevelt's "bombshell" message to the world monetary conference in 1933 effectively ended any major efforts by the world powers to collaborate on ending the worldwide depression, and allowed Roosevelt a free hand in economic policy. Roosevelt was a lifelong free-trader and anti-imperialist. Ending European colonialism was one of his objectives.
The main foreign policy initiative of Roosevelt's first term was the Good Neighbor Policy, which was a re-evaluation of U.S. policy towards Latin America. Since the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, this area had been seen as an American sphere of influence. American forces were withdrawn from Haiti, and new treaties with Cuba and Panama ended their status as U.S. protectorates. In December 1933, Roosevelt signed the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States, renouncing the right to intervene unilaterally in the affairs of Latin American countries.
The isolationist movement was bolstered in the early to mid-1930s by U.S. Senator Gerald Nye and others who succeeded in their effort to stop the "merchants of death" in the U.S. from selling arms abroad. This effort took the form of the Neutrality Acts; the president asked for, but was refused, a provision to give him the discretion to allow the sale of arms to victims of aggression. In the interim, Italy under Benito Mussolini proceeded to overcome Ethiopia, and the Italians joined Nazi Germany in supporting the General Franco and the Nationalist cause in the Spanish Civil War. In 1936 Germany and Japan signed a Anti-Comintern Pact, but they never coordinated their strategies. Congress passed, and the president signed, a mandatory arms embargo at a time when dictators in Europe and Asia were girding for world war.
Member Naval History Society
New York Hist. Society
Alpha Delta Phi
Phi Beta Kappa. Mason. Episcopalian; senior warden St. James Church
On March 17, 1905, Roosevelt married Eleanor (née Roosevelt) in New York City, despite the fierce resistance of his mother. While she did not dislike Eleanor, Sara Roosevelt was very possessive of her son, believing he was too young for marriage. Several times she attempted to break the engagement. Eleanor's uncle, President Theodore Roosevelt, stood in at the wedding for Eleanor's deceased father Elliott, as Eleanor was his favorite niece. (Eleanor had lost both parents by age ten.)
The young couple moved into Springwood, his family's estate at Hyde Park, where Roosevelt's mother became a frequent house guest, much to Eleanor's chagrin. The home was owned by Roosevelt's mother until her death in 1941 and was very much her home as well. In addition, Franklin Roosevelt and his mother Sara did the planning and furnishing of a town house she had built for the young couple in New York City; she had a twin house built alongside, with connections on every floor. Eleanor never felt it was her house.
Biographer James MacGregor Burns said that young Roosevelt was self-assured and at ease in the upper class. In contrast, Eleanor at the time was shy and disliked social life, and at first stayed at home to raise their several children. Although Eleanor had an aversion to sexual intercourse and considered it "an ordeal to be endured", they had six children, the first four in rapid succession:
Anna Eleanor Roosevelt (1906 – 1975)
James Roosevelt II (1907 – 1991)
Franklin Roosevelt (1909 – 1909)
Elliott Roosevelt (1910 – 1990)
Franklin Delano Roosevelt Jr. (1914 – 1988)
John Aspinwall Roosevelt II (1916 – 1981)
Roosevelt welcomed fatherhood, and he and Eleanor suffered greatly when their third child, named for Franklin, died of heart disease in infancy in 1909. Eleanor soon was pregnant again and gave birth to another son, Elliott, less than a year later. The fifth child and fourth son, born in 1914, was also named for Franklin.