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Franklin D. Roosevelt: Life Before the Presidency

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Franklin Delano Roosevelt was born to James and Sara Roosevelt in 1882. James was a land-owner and businessmen of considerable, but not awesome, wealth from New York. He likely joined the Democratic Party in the 1850s and identified with the party for the remainder of his life, although he voted for Republicans on a number of occasions. A widower, he married Sara Delano, who was twenty-six years his junior, in 1880. Sara, one of the five beautiful Delano sisters, came from a family of considerable means and was notable both for her aristocratic manner and her independent streak.

Franklin spent his youth near Hyde Park, about fifty miles north of New York City, on a large estate and farm tended by hundreds of workers. Insulated from the outside world and schooled at home by tutors until a teenager, Franklin had limited contact with his peers. Nonetheless, the family atmosphere was one of support and affection for the only child. Sara Roosevelt proved especially dedicated to Franklin, spending almost all of her considerable energies raising him. This unending devotion would continue throughout her long life, although not without deleterious consequences.

An Exclusive Upbringing

When Franklin was 14 years old, Sara and James sent him to the Groton School, his first serious schooling outside the home. Groton was an exclusive private school that educated the sons of some of the most wealthy and powerful American families. It aimed to instill in its students both mental and physical toughness and a desire to serve the public. Franklin's years at Groton were difficult. The school's rigorous social hierarchy rewarded boys who were good athletes or displayed a rebellious streak. FDR had neither quality, and he thus was never among the most popular of Groton boys, although his letters to his parents barely hinted at these failings. During his years at Groton, FDR grew quite admiring of his distant cousin Theodore Roosevelt, a close friend of Groton's rector and a rising political star in the Republican Party.

After graduating from Groton, FDR went to Harvard College in 1900. He had only been in school for a few weeks when his father, who had suffered from a heart ailment for the previous decade, passed away. At Harvard, Roosevelt threw himself into a wide array of extracurricular activities, helping his social standing but hurting his grades, which were mostly average. After receiving his undergraduate degree in 1903 he returned for a year of graduate work; more important, he became editor of Harvard's student newspaper, the Crimson. While at Harvard, FDR apparently declared himself a member of the Democratic Party, although he remained fond of then-President Theodore Roosevelt.

FDR also began paying more attention to members of the opposite sex. In his second year at Harvard, he proposed to a Boston heiress, Alice Sohier, who turned him down. He quickly turned his attentions to his distant cousin, Anna Eleanor Roosevelt (also known as ER). Eleanor was diffident, serious, and intelligent, as well as the niece of President Theodore Roosevelt, all qualities that won her several suitors. While they had been admiring acquaintances as children, Franklin and Eleanor fell deeply in love as young adults. One obstacle remained, however: FDR's mother, Sara, was so protective of her son that it is doubtful she would have approved of any possible match. When, in 1904, FDR revealed to his mother that he was in love with Eleanor and that the two planned to marry, Sara—who had not known of the courtship—insisted that they wait one year. Delayed, but not denied, Franklin and Eleanor married on March 17, 1905. President Theodore Roosevelt gave the bride away. Between 1906 and 1916, the Roosevelts had six children, one of whom died as an infant.A few months before his marriage, Franklin began law school at Columbia University. He attended for two years, never graduated, and displayed neither an aptitude nor a passion for the law. He did pass the bar, though, and worked for a few years at the New York City law firm of Carter, Ledyard, and Milburn. In 1910, however, fellow Democrats from upstate asked Roosevelt to run for political office. He quickly agreed. Although historians are unsure of FDR's precise motives for entering politics, a few reasons seem central. First, FDR truly disliked being a lawyer. Second, he enjoyed meeting new challenges and new people, both of which were integral to political life. Third, politics offered him the opportunity to be a leader, which appealed to his sense of self and conformed to his understanding of his role in the world. Finally, FDR's immense admiration for former President Theodore Roosevelt spurred him to try his hand at politics.

On the Rise

Roosevelt ran for the state senate from Dutchess County in upstate New York, a region dominated by Republicans. He was a good candidate because of his name, his family's wealth, and his seemingly endless reservoir of energy, which allowed him to campaign tirelessly on a clean-up-government platform. FDR won the race by over a thousand votes, the clear beneficiary of his own efforts and a split in the Republican Party between progressives and conservatives.

In the state senate, Roosevelt proved a staunch defender of the farmers in his district, who were mostly Republicans, and a determined opponent of the Tammany Hall political machine that essentially ran New York City's Democratic Party. He even went so far as to oppose Tammany's choice for the U.S. Senate seat, earning him the enmity of that powerful group of politicians. Roosevelt's politics in these years were essentially of the progressive, new nationalist variety. Like his distant relative, former President Teddy Roosevelt, he generally believed that the government had to play a role in creating and maintaining a fair and equitable society, and in protecting individuals from concentrations of economic or political power.

In 1912, FDR won re-election to the state senate and, just as important, forged a friendship with the political journalist Louis Howe, who would become his chief political adviser over the next two decades. FDR did not finish out his term, however. Roosevelt had backed the progressive governor of New Jersey, Woodrow Wilson, in his successful campaign for the presidency in 1912. Wilson noted FDR's support and wanted to find a place for the young Democrat in his administration. When Wilson's secretary of the Navy, Josephus Daniels, asked Roosevelt to serve as his assistant secretary, FDR accepted without hesitation. It was lost on no one that Teddy Roosevelt had been assistant secretary of the Navy in the first McKinley administration.

FDR loved being assistant secretary of the Navy. With Louis Howe as his assistant, Roosevelt oversaw the daily business of the Department of the Navy, including the ceremonial activities that FDR loved. But FDR also tried to shape the development of U.S. naval policy more generally—a prerogative traditionally of the secretary rather than the assistant secretary. Here, FDR emerged as a dogged advocate of a "big Navy," which won him his fair share of supporters among active and retired Navy personnel. During the world war in Europe, FDR consistently argued that the United States needed to improve its military capabilities. This position put him at odds with much of the Wilson administration, which feared any steps that might appear to violate America's declared neutrality. In 1917, FDR emerged as a forceful advocate of U.S. entry into the conflict. Once in the war, FDR supervised much of the Navy's contribution to the American effort.

Politics was never far from FDR's mind while working in Washington. In 1914, he tried (and failed) to win the Democratic nomination for an open New York seat in the U.S. Senate. He learned an important lesson, though: to succeed in New York politics he needed to mend fences with Tammany Hall. During World War I, Roosevelt endangered his political career in one other, much more significant, way as well. During his tenure in the Wilson Administration, FDR began a romantic relationship with Lucy Mercer, who was Eleanor's social secretary. In 1918, ER discovered the affair and offered FDR a divorce. He refused, in large part, because he knew that a divorcee could never succeed in American politics. He promised Eleanor that he would never see Mercer again—a vow he broke repeatedly later in life. While his political career was safe, his personal relationship with ER, already attenuated because she found being his wife stultifying, was further eroded; while they remained partners, they were no longer intimates in a loving and warm marriage. Eleanor set out to construct a life of her own, one in which she could find intellectual and emotional satisfaction with people other than her husband. Eleanor and Franklin's relationship was thereafter more of a political and social partnership than a loving and passionate marriage.

His service in the Wilson administration only augmented FDR's reputation among Democrats, and the party tapped him in 1920 as its vice presidential candidate. Although the ticket of FDR and presidential nominee James Cox lost in a rout to a Republican slate led by Warren Harding, FDR acquitted himself well, and his political future seemed bright. With the Democrats out of power, Roosevelt returned to the private sector, accepting a position as vice president of Fidelity and Deposit Company, a financial firm. His world, however, was about to be turned upside down.

Years of Pain and Comeback

During the summer of 1921, Roosevelt vacationed at Campobello Island, his treasured second home on the Canadian Atlantic coast. After a swim in the cold waters and a two-mile hike home, he went to bed very tired. The next morning he was feverish and his left leg felt numb. By the following day he was partly paralyzed from the abdomen down. He had poliomyelitis—a viral inflammation of the spinal column. "Polio" was a terrifying and rampant disease in the 1920s, a mysterious crippler with no cure. Franklin Roosevelt would never recover the full use of his legs and spent much of the rest of his life in a wheelchair. But through years of arduous and painful rehabilitation (and with the assistance of canes, leg braces, wheelchairs, and aides), he did regain some of his lost mobility, even learning to "walk" by using his hips to swing his atrophied legs forward. This partial recovery was remarkable, given the extent to which the disease had ravaged his muscles.

Eleanor and Louis Howe were invaluable to FDR during his convalescence, tending to his physical needs and offering him encouragement. But they followed the lead of their extraordinary patient. FDR maintained his upbeat, positive, and energetic attitude and seemingly never wavered in his belief that he would fully recover. His zest for life and confidence—always his defining characteristics—grew rather than shrank in the face of his trials. He displayed remarkable courage and an indefatigable will, of which Eleanor would later remark: "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."Roosevelt stayed active in politics during his long recovery, largely because of Howe and ER. Howe kept FDR abreast of the latest news and urged FDR to keep up extensive correspondence with leading Democrats. Just as important, Howe encouraged Eleanor to become more involved in New York's Democratic Party, where she could serve as FDR's legs, eyes, and ears. Such activities were a boon to ER, for they allowed her to work on the progressive causes in which she truly believed, providing her with a life of her own.

In 1922, FDR aided fellow Democrat Alfred Smith's campaign for the governorship of New York. Two years later, he supported Smith's unsuccessful bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. Smith earned the nomination in 1928, with Roosevelt's backing. Knowing FDR's popularity in New York, Smith asked Roosevelt to run for that state's governorship in the hope that FDR's candidacy would prop up Democratic support in the state. Republicans dominated the national elections that year and Herbert Hoover crushed Smith. (See Hoover biography, Campaigns and Elections section, for details.) Roosevelt, however, eked out a victory by one half of a percentage point and won New York's gubernatorial election.

As governor of New York, FDR was in a prime position to run for the White House. In truth, though, FDR's activities throughout the 1920s, along with ER's and Howe's help, had resuscitated his political career. His public appearances—he "walked" to the podium in 1928 at the Democratic National Convention to nominate Smith—helped dispel rumors about his illness. Just as important, FDR built alliances with Democrats from all over the nation during these years, especially in the rural South and West. He even mended fences with Tammany Hall (to which Smith was affiliated) and reached out to the local Democratic parties in the East, whose constituencies were largely urban, Catholic, and ethnic. These alliances would prove crucial in the future.

Governor Roosevelt and the Great Depression

Governor Roosevelt, though, had a more immediate problem on his hands: the Great Depression. The American economy of the 1920s, while prosperous, was fundamentally unsound. The economy did not collapse at once, nor for one particular reason. Historians have identified four interwoven and reinforcing causes of the nation's most severe economic crisis: the overly speculative and unstable foundations of the American financial sector; structural weaknesses in both American agriculture and industry; and the frailty of the international economy in the late 1920s and the early 1930s.

America's financial sector in the late 1920s was a house of cards. American businesses in the 1920s increasingly raised capital either by soliciting private investment or by selling stock. Over two million Americans poured their savings into the stock market, and many more into investment schemes. But there was little or no regulation of these companies and these supposed investment opportunities, nor much oversight of the process. Too often, Americans put their money into "get rich quick" schemes which had no chance of long-term financial return, or into companies that made no real profits—and sometimes no actual products!The stock market proved particularly volatile during the 1920s. It soared from 1924 through 1929; the New York Times index of industrial stocks grew from 124 points to 449 points in the summer of 1929 alone. Investors bought stocks "on margin," meaning they produced only a small down-payment and borrowed the rest from their broker or bank. As long as the stock increased in value, all was well. The investor would later sell the stock, repay the broker or the bank, and pocket the profit.

But as the economy slowed in 1929—with fewer consumer purchases, creeping unemployment, and higher interest rates—stock owners tried to sell, but found no buyers; the market tumbled. Two days in particular, October 24 ("Black Thursday) and October 29 ("Black Tuesday"), saw investors desperately trying to dump stocks. On the latter day, brokers sold over 16 million shares. The slide continued for more than two years, with one estimate claiming that investors lost nearly $75 billion."The Great Crash," as it came to be known, was only one cause of the economic depression that followed. American farmers suffered in the 1920s, with their income one-third of the national average. The chief problem was overproduction. American farmers benefited from new technologies that increased their productivity, but the glut of product, along with overseas competition, caused prices at market to drop precipitously. Farm earnings plummeted further when the economic crisis began in 1929 as urban areas lacked the income to purchase agricultural goods. With American farmers earning less, they could not pay their bills and mortgages. Rural banks failed without these payments, placing more pressure on a banking system already shaky, due to the stock market crash. After 1932, drought conditions plagued the Midwest, further compounding existing problems.

If the economic outlook looked bleak from the nation's fields, they appeared just as dreary from its factory floors. While industrial productivity and profits increased in the 1920s, wages remained stagnant. These profits, more often than not, were placed in the in the stock market or in speculative schemes, rather than re-invested in new factories or used to fund new businesses, both of which (theoretically) would create new jobs. The combination of agricultural woes and industrial stagnation conspired to grind America's economy to a halt in the early 1930s.

Moreover, the world economy was suffering from a general slowdown in the late 1920s. The Treaty of Versailles that ended the Great War required Germany to pay reparations to France and Britain, which, in turn, owed money to American banks. The German economy, wrecked by the war, could not sustain these payments, and the German government turned to the United States for cash. Europe's economic health, then, was built on a web of financial arrangements and hinged on a robust American economy.

Each of these factors helped create and sustain a severely unequal distribution of wealth in the United States, where a tiny minority possessed incredible riches. Five percent of the populace held nearly a third of the money and property. Over 80 percent of Americans held no savings at all. Moreover, the American economy depended upon consumption, but because of the stagnation in wages, the collapse of agricultural markets, and rising unemployment (all of which led to the growing gap between rich and poor), most Americans could not buy the products that made the economy hum. Wealthier Americans, by contrast, failed to spend their money, choosing instead to invest it. It was a consumer economy in which few consumed.

Between 1929 and 1933, 5,000 American banks collapsed, one in four farms went into foreclosure, and an average of 100,000 jobs vanished each week. By 1932, over 12 million Americans—nearly one-quarter of the workforce—were unemployed. Statistics alone, however, cannot tell the story of the "Great Depression." For tens of millions, it was a time of panic and poverty, hunger and hopelessness. The nation's will sagged and its future seemed, at least to some, in doubt.

President Hoover took substantive steps to alleviate the crisis, but accomplished little. His political fortunes sagged accordingly. In New York, Governor Roosevelt reacted slowly at first, hoping, much like Hoover, that the economy would turn around. When it did not, FDR determined that "there is a duty on the part of government to do something about this." He supported lower taxes for farmers and urged the state to develop public power utilities. As the depression deepened, FDR got the New York state legislature to pass a public works program for the unemployed and to grant relief to the needy. All of these actions established FDR's credentials as a liberal reformer.

Roosevelt won re-election in 1930, no mean feat for a governor serving during the Great Depression. President Hoover faced no such rosy outlook. As the Great Depression worsened in the early 1930s, Republican prospects for the 1932 presidential election withered. The Democrats, on the other hand, looked to the rising star of their party, Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Citation Information

Consulting Editor

William E. Leuchtenburg

Professor Leuchtenburg is the William Rand Kenan Jr. Professor Emeritus of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His writings include:

The White House Looks South: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson (Louisiana State University Press, 2005)

The FDR Years: On Roosevelt and His Legacy (Columbia University Press, 1995)

The Perils of Prosperity, 1914-32 (University of Chicago Press, 1993)

Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1932–1940 (Harper Collins, 1963)