Franklin Delano Roosevelt was born to a life of privilege characterized by stability and opportunity. His father, James Roosevelt, was a well-to-do businessman, and his mother, Sara Delano (James’ second wife), was doting and devoted. Franklin, the couple’s only child, had an idyllic childhood that gave him a firm sense of self-confidence and an upbeat, charismatic personality. He was encouraged to pursue his interests and frequently traveled with his parents, although much of his early life was spent on the family’s country estate in Hyde Park, New York. At 14, he began attending the prestigious Groton Preparatory School in Massachusetts. He moved on to Harvard University in 1900. Late that same year, his father died after suffering a heart attack. Roosevelt and his mother continued to be close, and she remained highly involved in her son’s life, to the point of being overbearing at times, until her death in 1941, when Roosevelt was 59.
Roosevelt was an intelligent man but not an extraordinary student, finding more joy in working for the school newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, than in his studies. In 1905, after graduating from Harvard, he married a distant cousin, Eleanor Roosevelt, despite his mother’s opposition to the match. Eleanor became an influential force on Roosevelt; her interest in charity causes motivated him to use the positions he attained to protect the public good. The couple had five children who survived to adulthood; a sixth child died in infancy. Often preoccupied with work, Roosevelt was not a hands-on father, preferring to leave the parenting to his wife and mother. When he did interact with his children, he was warm, loving, and entertaining.
As Roosevelt was starting his family, he attended Columbia Law School and then began to practice law in New York, although he quickly switched to politics, a profession he found more stimulating. In 1910, he won a seat on the New York state senate. Little more than two years later, he was in Washington, D.C., working as assistant secretary to the navy in President Woodrow Wilson’s cabinet. Roosevelt still held this post when the U.S. entered World War I in 1917. The following year, he traveled overseas to inspect naval facilities but returned to the U.S. gravely ill from influenza. As Eleanor unpacked his belongings, she discovered love letters from her social secretary, Lucy Mercer. The affair nearly destroyed the couple’s marriage. They discussed divorce, but decided to stay together.
In 1920, Roosevelt was the Democratic vice-presidential nominee. Although the Republican ticket won the election, Roosevelt’s continued professional success seemed certain. But the following year, misfortune struck as he vacationed at Campobello, a Canadian island off the coast of Maine. There, he contracted poliomyelitis ( polio ) and became paralyzed from the waist down. For the rest of his life, he would be largely dependent on a wheelchair and would require help to stand. Due to his affliction, Roosevelt considered giving up politics. His mother pressured him to retire, but with Eleanor’s support, he resolved to continue his career. Just a few years later, in 1928, he was elected governor of New York.
During his two terms as governor, Roosevelt pushed for progressive reforms , which were sorely needed as the country began to sink into the Great Depression after the stock market crash of October 1929 . Once elected president in 1932, Roosevelt, who had run on a platform promising “a new deal for the American people,”quickly implemented experimental policies he hoped would provide relief for people during the economic crisis. One of his primary focuses was on job creation, as nearly one-third of American workers were unemployed when he took office. His national radio addresses, called “fireside chats,”allowed Americans to develop a personal connection to their leader and reassured them amidst hard times. Roosevelt was reelected in 1936, and won an unprecedented third term as president in 1940. By this time, the country had begun a slow economic recovery, but there was trouble abroad. Aggressive countries like Germany and Japan had sparked a second world war. Although many Americans opposed U.S. involvement, the country’s participation was assured after the Japanese bombed the American fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941.
Roosevelt did not live to see the war end. He died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage at his retreat in Warm Springs, Georgia, on April 12, 1945. According to presidential historian Robert Dallek, Roosevelt’s twelve years as president and his exceptional achievements—New Deal reforms that humanized the American industrial system and victory in World War II—established him as one of America’s three greatest presidents.