President #32, C-SPAN Historians Ranking #3
Brother can you spare a coin that has my face on it?
With the exception of Abraham Lincoln, no American President ever faced crises of the scope that Franklin Delano Roosevelt did. He entered the White House as the nation was in the throes of its worst economic situation ever. When he died twelve years later, the country was the preeminent economic and military power in the world.
And if you were alive in 1932 when Roosevelt won his first term in office, you would have been quite surprised to think that this man would have been able to accomplish so much. Roosevelt’s accomplishments before taking office would not have have led you to believe that a radical restructuring of the American government and economy would take place.
Roy Jenkins, a British author who served in both houses of Parliament, tried to sum up the extremely complicated life of Franklin Roosevelt in about 180 pages. Jenkins passed away in January of 2003, a few months before this book was published. Jenkins chose not to examine Roosevelt as some sort of larger than life figure, but rather as a politician who worked his way up the system. Jenkins clearly is in Roosevelt’s camp; but, he isn’t afraid to point out Roosevelt’s flaws.
And if you thought Jenkins had a hard time compressing Franklin Roosevelt’s life into 180 pages, it’s even harder trying to write this post in anything resembling a concise manner. But, I’ll give it a shot.
Franklin Roosevelt was born into a wealthy family in Hyde Park, New York on January 30, 1882. There were two prominent branches of the Roosevelt family in New York. Franklin came from the Dutchess County line, which was mostly Democratic, in contrast to most of the residents of the area. Theodore Roosevelt came from the Oyster Bay (in Nassau County on Long Island) line, who were nearly all Republicans.
The two sides of the family had a merger of sorts when Franklin married his fifth cousin, Eleanor, in 1905. Theodore Roosevelt escorted Eleanor (his niece, her father had already passed away) up the aisle at the wedding. As a wedding “gift,” Eleanor got the “privilege” of living with Franklin’s mother, Sara, for the next 36 years. Sara Roosevelt was: domineering, possessive, rude, dismissive, and otherwise decidedly unpleasant.
Franklin Roosevelt had been educated at Groton and Harvard, where he was never known as an especially bright student. Soon after his marriage, Roosevelt entered Columbia Law School. He never graduated from there, but he did manage to pass the New York State Bar Exam.
In 1910, Roosevelt made his first foray into politics, winning a seat in the New York State Senate. By 1913, Roosevelt’s stature had risen to the point that he was named Assistant Secretary of the Navy by President Woodrow Wilson. Franklin Roosevelt was now in the same position that Theodore Roosevelt occupied before the Spanish-American War.
During his time in this job, Franklin had an affair with his secretary, Lucy Mercer. When Eleanor discovered this, she offered to divorce Franklin. Ultimately, they both decided it would be a bad idea politically. Eleanor chose from then on to support her husband politically, but not conjugally. It turned out to be one of the most powerful marriages in American political history. Eleanor constantly steered her husband onto a more leftward course, one that was far more liberal than people would anticipate coming from a wealthy scion of Dutchess County.
Roosevelt was nominated by the Democrats as their Vice Presidential candidate in 1920, but lost badly. A Republican wave carried Warren Harding into office. Just one year after the election, Roosevelt’s life changed dramatically.
In August of 1921, while vacationing at his summer home in Campobello, New Brunswick, Roosevelt contracted what was widely considered to be a case of polio. (Late in 2003, some doctors cast doubts on this diagnosis and suggested that Roosevelt actually had contracted Guillain-Barre Syndrome.) Whatever the cause, Roosevelt would never have full use of his legs again.
Roosevelt could have (and at times very much wanted to) gone into retirement. But, Eleanor Roosevelt, along with aide Louis Howe, encouraged Franklin to remain involved in politics. Roosevelt began extensive physical therapy at Warm Springs, Georgia. (He ended up buying the facility.)
In 1924, Roosevelt made his political comeback when he was able to walk (using very heavy leg braces and some assistance) to the podium at the Democratic National Convention in New York City to deliver a nominating speech for New York governor Al Smith.
Smith didn’t get the nomination in 1924, but he would four years later. This meant that New York would need to have a new governor. Smith suggested that Roosevelt run for the office. Jenkins portrays Smith as a schemer who figured that he would lose the Presidential election in 1928 (which he did) , but could use his pliable friend Roosevelt in Albany as a a tool for him to remain on the national stage. Jenkins believes that Smith also figured that Roosevelt may not have lived through his first two-year term.
But, the plan went awry. It turned out that Roosevelt had ideas of his own about how to be governor. And these ideas didn’t involve Al Smith. The two friends would become bitter rivals for the rest of their lives. Smith would be one of the leading conservative critics of Roosevelt on the Democratic side.
As the Great Depression grew worse and worse during 1932, it was becoming clear that the Democrats were going to be able to win the White House from the extraordinarily unpopular incumbent Herbert Hoover.
Roosevelt was the leader on the first two ballots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, but did not have the necessary 2/3 majority that the Democrats required. Speaker of the House John Nance Garner along with Al Smith each had enough votes to create a deadlock.
But, some behind the scenes maneuvering got Roosevelt the nomination. Breaking with tradition, Roosevelt flew from the Governor’s Mansion in Albany to Chicago (which took over nine hours in 1932) to accept the nomination in person. Prior to this, candidates just waited at home to be told that they had been nominated. Garner was given the Vice Presidential nomination.
The election of 1932 was not close. Roosevelt won 57% of the popular vote and 472 electoral votes. The Democrats (and the allied Farmer-Labor Party) picked up 101 seats in the House and 13 in the Senate. Change was in the air. However, Roosevelt would not inaugurated until March 4, 1933, the last inauguration on this date. The country had to wait until then to find out what Roosevelt’s plan would be to solve the economic crisis that was only growing worse.
Roosevelt refused to meet with Hoover to discuss plans to bolster the banking system, which was hovering on collapse. There was growing unease that the country could lapse into chaos and social disorder. Unemployment was around 25%.
As it turned out, Roosevelt’s First Inaugural Address turned out to be one of the most famous speeches of the 20th Century. (Newsreel footage linked here.)
This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, 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.
Roosevelt was inaugurated on a Saturday. Banks were closed on Sundays. And on Monday, Roosevelt ordered all banks in the United States closed for the week to allow the Treasury to examine their books to assess their solvency. Roosevelt convened Congress on March 9, and one of its first acts was to pass legislation that actually made Roosevelt’s actions legal. Banks began to reopen in the next two weeks.
Then, a flurry of activity came from the White House and was passed by Congress. Acronyms ruled the day. There was the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps), AAA (Agricultural Adjustment Act), TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority), and Roosevelt’s most prized program, NRA (National Relief Administration). All of these actions (and there were far more than I will detail here) represented unprecedented government actions regarding the economy. Farmers were paid to not plant crops. Young unemployed men were put to work on government projects. Wage and price controls were instituted. These programs were called, after a term used in Roosevelt’s 1932 campaign, “the New Deal.” (Additionally, the 18th Amendment, which had established Prohibition was repealed by the 21st Amendment late in 1933. So, Americans could now both be poor AND drunk at the same time LEGALLY.)
In the short term, the economy improved a little. However, since it was close to rock bottom, that was not much of an accomplishment. Roosevelt’s programs faced opposition from all sides. Some Republicans accused Roosevelt of unfairly trying to fix the economy by taking money away from the prosperous. There were also demagogues from the extreme right, such as Father Charles Coughlin, a Detroit priest who had a radio show that excoriated Roosevelt for falling in with Jewish-controlled moneyed interests. There was also Senator Huey Long of Louisiana, who mixed wide scale corruption in his home state with populism. Long wanted to “Share the Wealth” although he gave little details on what his plan was. There was also Charles Townsend, a California physician, who devised a plan where elderly Americans (over 60) would receive $200 a month (which they would be required to spend in 30 days) paid for by a national sales tax.
Coughlin was eventually muzzled by his local bishop. Long was assassinated in Baton Rouge. Townsend’s plan was preempted by Roosevelt’s Social Security program, which started off paying only $20 per month in benefits.
An even bigger problem for Roosevelt was the Supreme Court. Nine of Roosevelt’s New Deal programs went to the Supreme Court and, on seven occasions, they were ruled to be unconstitutional.
Even with these problems, Roosevelt had little trouble getting reelected in 1936. The Republicans nominated Kansas Governor Alf Landon. It was the biggest Electoral College wipe-out in American history in any contested election. Roosevelt won 523 electoral votes (and over 60% of the popular vote) to just 8 for Landon. The Democrats ended up with an 80-16 margin in the Senate and a 347-88 margin in the House. The Senate chamber didn’t have enough room to put all the Democrats on one side of the chamber; so, some Senators had to sit on the wrong side of the aisle.
With this majority, Roosevelt could have accomplished even more, but he wasted his political capital on a battle with the Supreme Court. Roosevelt, not wanting his New Deal legislation tossed out by a majority Republican court, came up with a plan to add justices to the Court. Roosevelt proposed that the President be allowed to appoint one extra justice for each sitting member on the court who was 70 1/2 years old or over, with a maximum of six. Publicly, Roosevelt said that his plan was simply a way to ease the workload for the Supreme Court. However, almost the entire nation saw it as an encroachment on the Judiciary by the Executive Branch.
The plan was bottled up in the Senate. Even some of Roosevelt’s staunchest supporters wouldn’t go along with it. Senate Majority Leader Joseph T. Robinson died amidst the legislative wrangling. Also, the Supreme Court, perhaps fearing strong public opinion against it, began to uphold most of the reworked New Deal legislation. Finally, many of the justices began to retire. In the end, Roosevelt appointed eight Supreme Court justices while in office, including two justices who would shape the court for decades after in Hugo Black and William O. Douglas. (Jenkins also mentions that some of the justices would have retired earlier, but one early piece of New Deal legislation cut the pension for Federal judges in half.)
Although Roosevelt now had a friendly Supreme Court after a fashion, he ran into an unfriendly economy. The economy slowed down again in what was termed “The Roosevelt Recession.” Roosevelt took a different tack now. He and his advisers believed that the economy needed massive amounts of Federal government support. The budget deficit soared (by 1938 standards) to record levels. Taxes went up. Whether or not this plan worked is debated among economists to this day. (Or this minute. Just get two economists together and ask them about it. Report back to me.)
As a backdrop to all of this was the increasingly tense state of international affairs. Germany had become a Nazi state under Hitler and had rearmed and was taking over territory (Austria and the Sudetenland) and starting wide-scale persecution of Jews. Japan was asserting its dominance in Asia and the Pacific, having already taken over Manchuria. Italy, not wanting to get left out of the action, decided to attack Ethiopia.
When World War II finally began in 1939 with the German attack on Poland, Roosevelt somewhat vainly hoped to keep the United States out of the fray. Roosevelt even made a speech where he promised “not to send your sons into any foreign wars.” There was still a strong isolationist movement in the United States, led by Charles Lindbergh among others.
Because world tensions were so high, and also because the Democrats didn’t have any candidates on the horizon, Roosevelt allowed himself to be drafted for an unprecedented third term. Henry Wallace would be the new Vice President. The Republicans nominated Wall Street lawyer Wendell Willkie, who didn’t oppose most of the New Deal, but did feel that Roosevelt had not run the economy efficiently. Willkie fared a little better than Landon, but still lost badly.
As we know, the United States didn’t stay out of the war. Roosevelt slowly moved the United States over to the British side of the war. First, he traded American destroyers for long-term leases on numerous British naval bases. Then, he developed a plan known as Lend-Lease, where the United States would send ammunition, tanks, and planes to the British. At the end of the war, the British could give them back, or, if the material was destroyed, they could be paid for. It is not believed that the British sent much back unused, or had any money left at the end of the war to pay for what they used.
The United States was finally pushed into the war by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Roosevelt asked Congress for declaration of war against Japan, which passed almost unanimously. Hitler then decided to honor a treaty he had made with the Japanese and had Germany declare war on the United States. The United States reciprocated and now the United States was now faced with fighting a war all over the globe. Also, the United States was now on the same side as the Soviet Union, which would prove problematic for the next 60 years or so.
In recent years, much has been written and aired about World War II. The History Channel seems to be dedicated to programs about it. So, I won’t be offering much more about the conflict. (It’s just like your high school history class where the teacher tries to jam World War II into one lesson on the second to last day of school. Also, did World War II end the Depression? Discuss amongst yourselves and report back to me.) But, I will point out some of the parts of Jenkins’ book that I found odd.
First of all, Jenkins referred to Roosevelt’s plan to intern Japanese-American citizens living on the West Coast to camps further into the interior as “disruptive.” That’s one way of putting it. Jenkins also defended Roosevelt’s treatment of refugees, asserting that the United States took in more Jewish refugees than any other country. Whether Roosevelt’s efforts were enough is not addressed by Jenkins.
Jenkins also looks at Roosevelt from a European perspective. And, for someone living in Great Britain, Roosevelt looked like a savior. Jenkins marveled at how much abuse Roosevelt took in the American press during the war. But, in many respects, it was just politics as normal in the United States.
In 1944, Roosevelt’s health began to decline. His blood pressure had soared to dangerously high levels. He was suffering from hardening of the arteries. Doctors reported that he looked gray and suffered from lassitude. Nevertheless, Roosevelt decided to run for a fourth term. His opponent would be New York governor Thomas Dewey. Roosevelt decided to drop Wallace from the ticket and replace him with Missouri Senator Harry S Truman. It isn’t believed that Roosevelt was looking for a replacement in case he passed away. Roosevelt probably felt that he had a better chance to win with Truman on board, rather than the increasingly erratic and extreme left-leaning Wallace. Roosevelt won, although by a smaller margin than in 1940. Roosevelt’s fourth inaugural was a brief ceremony, ostensibly for wartime decorum, but also because his health was so poor.
Roosevelt had run a strenuous campaign, which had taxed his health even more. But, he knew the war was coming to an end. In February of 1945, he traveled all the way to the Crimean port city of Yalta for talks with Churchill and Stalin. Roosevelt, although younger than both Churchill and Stalin, looked considerably older. The postwar state of Europe was beginning to be mapped out. And the map would end up being quite favorable to Stalin and the Soviet Union. Roosevelt and Churchill were unable to guarantee a democratically elected government in Poland after the war, as well as stop Soviet incursions into the Baltic States. The only “concession” Stalin had to make was to agree to attack Japan 90 days after the surrender of Germany.
Upon his return to the U.S., Roosevelt addressed Congress about the conference. For the first and only time, Roosevelt sat down to give his speech before Congress. His health wouldn’t allow him to stand up with braces for any extended period. That speech was on March 1, 1945. Six weeks later, on April 12, 1945, in Warm Springs, Georgia, Franklin Roosevelt died of a massive stroke.
Harry Truman became President. On July 16, 1945, the first nuclear weapon was successfully tested in New Mexico. On August 6, 1945, an atomic bomb was detonated over the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Roosevelt’s time was gone, or was it?
We are still living with the New Deal. There is still Social Security. There is insurance for bank deposits. The Tennessee Valley Authority still provides power to a large portion of the country. Many of the people reading were not alive while Franklin Roosevelt was in office. But, more so than any other President, his legacy is one that we cannot escape.
Other stuff: Franklin Roosevelt was buried at his family home in Hyde Park. It is now part of the Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site. The Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum is nearby. Eleanor Roosevelt is buried alongside her husband. There is a Franklin Delano Roosevelt National Memorial along the National Mall in Washington, DC.
Eleanor Roosevelt was reportedly 5’11” which made her the tallest First Lady in history until she was matched by Michelle Obama. Before his illness, Franklin Roosevelt stood 6’2″.
Roosevelt’s first Vice President, John Nance Garner, died 15 days shy of his 99th birthday on November 7, 1967. He is the longest-lived Vice President. Of the four people who ran against Roosevelt for President, three of them outlived him: Herbert Hoover (died at age 9o in 1964), Thomas Dewey (died at age 69 in 1971), and Alf Landon (died at age 100 in 1987.) Wendell Willkie died in 1944 at age 52 of a heart attack.
Only two members of Roosevelt’s Cabinet served through all four administrations: Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes and Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins. The last surviving Cabinet member from Roosevelt’s administration was his first Postmaster General, James Farley, who passed away in 1976. Farley resigned his job in 1940 because he didn’t believe that Roosevelt should have run for a third term.