' Skip To Content
Eleanor Roosevelt | Article

Biography: Franklin Delano Roosevelt

1935, Courtesy: Library of Congress

On the morning of March 4, 1933 an air of tense expectancy pervaded America. The country was experiencing its worst year yet of the Depression, the nation's banks had been closed, and most Americans felt as though their democratic institutions had failed. Yet that Saturday had a momentousness about it. It was the day of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's inauguration as president of the United Stateds. Americans gathered around their radios to hear the much anticipated inaugural address. They waited to hear if the new president had a solution to the national emergency. Escorted to the podium by his son, James, Roosevelt spoke the immortal words which would come to identify both his character and his Presidency: "the only thing to fear is fear itself -- nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance." Americans turned away from their radios with a new sense of hope, feeling as though they had finally met someone who would combat the Depression. Roosevelt had assumed the role which would lead many to worship him, some to despise him, and most to lean on him for years to come.

It was actually in 1912 that Roosevelt first distinguished himself as a person apart from the ordinary. He had been elected to the New York Senate in 1910; a remarkable feat for a Democrat within the Republican-controlled state. In opposing Tammany Hall's candidate for the United States Senate, Roosevelt gained significant attention as a dissident to machine politics. This surprised many including Louis Howe who was later to become Roosevelt's closest political adviser. Howe first regarded him, with his "patrician nose," privileged name, and aristocratic mannerisms, as a "spoiled silk-pants sort of guy." It was not until Roosevelt challenged party politics that Howe took the interest in him which would become a lifelong devotion.

Howe's first impressions were largely correct. Roosevelt had been born into a class of wealth and leisure. The Roosevelts and the Delanos had long been successful merchants whose descendants enjoyed a prominent place among the "gentry" of the Hudson River. Roosevelt was born in 1882 and grew up in Hyde Park, his family's sprawling estate in New York, as the only child of two doting parents. He was particularly close to his mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt. As was expected of a man of his social standing, Roosevelt received an education in the fashion of English gentry. As a child, he was privately tutored in French and Latin while accompanying his family on tours through Europe. At the age of 14, he was enrolled at Groton and four years later, at Harvard University. Following the track of an American "aristocrat," he entered Columbia's Law School in 1904 on the path to settling into a privileged and respectable law career.

Yet living the life of a lawyer soon bored him. He was admitted to the bar in 1907, but found himself much more attracted to politics. Inspired greatly by the political feats of his cousin, Theodore Roosevelt, the young Roosevelt ran for and won a position in the New York State Senate in 1910. Three years later, President Woodrow Wilson appointed him to the role of Assistant Secretary to the Navy, a position he would occupy until 1920.

Meanwhile, Roosevelt was beginning a family. He had married his fifth cousin, Eleanor Roosevelt, in 1905, and by 1920 the couple had had six children, of whom five survived infancy. Yet Franklin's mother, with her dominating manner and determination to be involved in all aspects of her son's life, posed significant problems for the intimacy and the independence of the couple. Eleanor and Franklin's relationship was damaged further by Franklin's affair with social secretary, Lucy Mercer -- Eleanor found their love letters in 1918 while unpacking Franklin's suitcase. She then presented her husband with a choice between a divorce and the termination of his affair. Heeding the reprimands of his mother and aware of the problems divorce would pose for a political career, Franklin ended the liaison. The result was that he and Eleanor's relationship became more of a partnership than anything else. They were "linked by indissoluble bonds but not lost in each other as husband and wife might sometimes be."

In 1921, while vacationing at his summer home on Campobello Island, Roosevelt was stricken with polio. The illness paralyzed his legs and forced him to limit his political activities. While many, including Sara Roosevelt, expected Roosevelt to leave politics forever, Eleanor and Louis Howe supported him on a path to recovery and political activity. Howe said of Roosevelt at this time, "He began to see the other fellow's point of view. He thought of others who were ill and afflicted and in want. He dwelt on many things which had not bothered him much before. Lying there, he grew bigger day by day."

Following in the career path, if not the partisanship, of his Republican cousin Theodore, Franklin was elected Governor of New York in 1928 as a Democrat. In that position he garnered enough popularity within the Democratic party to be nominated for president in 1932. Once elected, he declared a bank holiday, he used the radio to speak to the nation during his "fireside chats," and he introduced to Congress 16 pieces of significant legislation. Among the laws and agencies created were the National Recovery Administration (NRA), the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA), the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Although these programs never actually eradicated the Depression, Roosevelt's vigorous leadership was welcomed by the jobless, the homeless, Congressmen, and big businessmen alike.

After his re-election in 1936, events aided Roosevelt's expansion of federal power. After a conservative Supreme Court Justice resigned, Roosevelt was able to appoint a New Dealer to the position, the first of several which caused an overall court reorganization in 1937. He had been elected to an unprecedented third term in office when the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941 led the nation into the Second World War. As he did with the New Deal, Roosevelt again expanded the powers of government, this time with a massive mobilization of war-related industries which finally pulled the nation out of the Depression. In a series of high-level conferences throughout the war, he began planning what would become the United Nations.

Near the end of the war, Roosevelt's health began to fail rapidly. Five months before Japan's surrender to the Allied Powers, Roosevelt died of a stroke in Warm Springs, Georgia. Eleanor Roosevelt had been attending a fundraiser at the time and was devastated to learn that when he died, he was with the woman he had agreed never to see again, Lucy Mercer. To the American people, Roosevelt's death was a terrible blow. He had been president for more than 12 years and had carried them through two of the major crises of the 20th century. He was harshly criticized for considerable failures. These included not supporting anti-lynching legislation, signing the order which indiscriminately detained Japanese Americans in internment camps, and for not lending aid to the persecuted Jews of Europe. Yet immediately following his death, most Americans remembered him simply for the comforting way he had "spoken" to them through their radios and for the way he had assertively directed them like no other leader before.

Support Provided by: Learn More