Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

A Life in Brief

Faced with the Great Depression and World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt, nicknamed "FDR," guided America through its greatest domestic crisis, with the exception of the Civil War, and its greatest foreign crisis. His presidency—which spanned twelve years—was unparalleled, not only in length but in scope. FDR took office with the country mired in a horrible and debilitating economic depression that not only sapped its material wealth and spiritual strength, but cast a pall over its future. Roosevelt's combination of confidence, optimism, and political savvy—all of which came together in the experimental economic and social programs of the "New Deal"—helped bring about the beginnings of a national recovery.

In foreign affairs, FDR committed the United States to the defeat of the fascist powers of Germany, Japan, and Italy, and led the nation and its allies to the brink of victory. This triumph dramatically altered America's relationship with the world, guiding the United States to a position of international prominence, if not predominance. By virtue of its newfound political and economic power, as well as its political and moral leadership, the United States would play a leading role in shaping the remainder of the twentieth century.

Franklin Roosevelt also forged a domestic political revolution on several fronts. In politics, FDR and the Democratic Party built a power base which carried the party to electoral, if not ideological, dominance until the late 1960s. In governance, FDR's policies, especially those comprising the New Deal, helped redefine and strengthen both the American state and, specifically, the American presidency, expanding the political, administrative, and constitutional powers of the office.

Political Rise and Personal Tragedy

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was born in 1882 in Hyde Park, New York, to James and Sara Roosevelt. James Roosevelt was a land-owner and businessman of considerable, but not awesome, wealth. FDR grew up under the watchful eyes of his mother, whose devotion to her only child was considerable, and a host of nannies. At age 14, Franklin's parents sent him to the Groton School, a prestigious boarding school in Massachusetts. At Groton, FDR grew increasingly fond of his distant cousin, Theodore Roosevelt, a rising star in the Republican Party. FDR went on to Harvard College, where he spent more time on the college newspaper than he did on his studies. While at Harvard, FDR apparently declared himself a Democrat and began courting his distant cousin, Eleanor Roosevelt.

Franklin and Eleanor were married in New York City in 1905, a few months after FDR began law school at Columbia. Roosevelt had little interest in the law, however, and his attention soon turned to politics. He ran successfully for the New York State Senate in 1910 and was re-elected in 1912. In 1913, he joined the Wilson administration as assistant secretary of the Navy and played a key role in readying the United States for entry into the world war. FDR was roundly praised for his efforts and the leaders of the Democratic Party tabbed him as a Democrat to watch. Indeed, in 1920, the party named him its vice-presidential candidate. Although the ticket of James Cox and FDR lost, FDR's future seemed bright.

Tragedy struck, however, in 1921. Roosevelt contracted polio, a terrifying and incurable disease that left him paralyzed in his legs. Only through an arduous rehabilitation process—and with the support of his wife, his children, and his close confidantes—was FDR able to regain some use of his legs. In the 1920s, he invested a considerable part of his fortune in rehabilitating a spa in Warm Springs, Georgia, whose curative waters aided his own rehabilitation. In later years, the cottage he built there would be called "the Little White House." Though polio devastated FDR physically, his steely will seemed to grow stronger as he fought through his recovery. Eleanor later said of this time: "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."

Successful Governor and Presidential Candidate

FDR's political comeback began in earnest in 1928 when he won the governorship of New York. The crash of the stock market in October 1929 served as a harbinger of tougher times to come and led Governor Roosevelt to focus on combating the state's economic woes. FDR implemented a number of innovative relief and recovery initiatives—unemployment insurance, pensions for the elderly, limits on work hours, and massive public works projects—that established him as a liberal reformer. FDR's efforts also won him reelection as governor in 1930, a rare feat in the midst of depression.

By the presidential election season of 1932, the Great Depression had only worsened and showed no signs of abating. Democrats turned to FDR, a popular and successful two-term governor with a recognizable last name, to challenge President Hoover. Promising a "New Deal" for the American people, FDR was swept into office in a landslide. In his inaugural address, Roosevelt gave hope to dispirited Americans throughout the nation, assuring them that they had "nothing to fear but fear itself."

Fighting the Great Depression

President Franklin Roosevelt's "New Deal" fought the Great Depression on a number of fronts. In the famous "First Hundred Days" of his presidency, FDR pushed through legislation that reformed the banking and financial sectors, tried to cure the ills afflicting American agriculture, and attempted to resuscitate American industry. To meet the immediate crisis of starvation and the dire needs of the nation's unemployed, FDR provided direct cash relief for the poor and jobs programs. Roosevelt's reassuring "fireside chats," in which he spoke to the nation via radio about the country's predicament, calmed a worried public.

In 1935, FDR took the New Deal in a more liberal direction, overseeing the enactment of some of the most far-reaching social and economic legislation in American history. The Wagner Act allowed labor unions to organize and bargain collectively, conferring on them a new legitimacy. The Social Security Act set up programs designed to provide for the needs of the aged, the poor, and the unemployed, establishing a social welfare net that, at least theoretically, covered all Americans. By the end of his second term, FDR and his advisers insisted that the federal government should stimulate the national economy through its spending policies, a strategy that held sway for the next thirty years.

All of these actions, though, could not end the Great Depression. Only American mobilization for war in the early 1940s brought the United States out of its economic doldrums. Nor did New Deal programs, because they reflected the biases of 1930s American politics and culture, offer the same aid to all Americans; white men generally received better benefits than women, blacks, or Latinos.

Nonetheless, FDR did much to reshape the United States. With Roosevelt as its presidential candidate, the Democratic Party won again in 1936, signaling the beginning of 30 years of political dominance that extended long after FDR's death. With FDR in the White House, the federal government played a greater role than ever before in managing the American economy and in protecting the welfare of the American people. In short, FDR oversaw major and important changes in American politics and governance that would define life in the United States for most of the twentieth century.

World War II

In addition to changing life at home, Roosevelt permanently altered America's role in the world. Hamstrung in the 1930s by domestic economic woes and a strong isolationist bloc in Congress and the public, FDR confronted Germany and Japan only tentatively as those powers looked to establish dominance in Europe and Asia, respectively. Nevertheless, Roosevelt did extend massive amounts of aid to Great Britain as that nation successfully held out against the Nazi onslaught during 1940 and 1941 Working with America's allies in the Pacific, FDR also tried to contain the Japanese threat.

Japan's surprise attack on the American Navy at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 officially brought the United States into World War II. FDR proved a talented war-time leader and, by 1943, the United States military, along with its allies, had turned the tide against both Germany and Japan. But Roosevelt did not live to see the war's end., In April 1945, just weeks before the German surrender, the president collapsed and died of a cerebral hemorrhage.

Under Roosevelt's leadership, the United States emerged from World War II as the world's foremost economic, political, and military power. FDR's contributions to domestic life during his presidency were just as vital. While his "New Deal" did not end the Great Depression, Roosevelt's leadership gave Americans hope and confidence in their darkest hours and fundamentally reshaped the relationship between the federal government and the American people. FDR so dominated American politics that he almost single-handedly launched the Democratic Party into a position of prolonged political dominance.. During his tenure, FDR also lifted both the standing and power of the American presidency to unprecedented heights. More broadly, however, his New Deal programs, marked a substantial turning point in the nation's political, economic, social, and cultural life.