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Both beloved and hated during his presidency (in office 1933–1945), Franklin Roosevelt expanded the powers of the U.S. government, instituted a number of regulations and reforms to give Americans a “new deal,” and helped preserve Western liberal democracy by aiding Britain during World War II, which created a bulwark against later Soviet aggression.
As the only child of James and Sara Delano Roosevelt, a noted, wealthy family, Franklin had a privileged, sheltered youth. While a student at the exclusive Groton School in Massachusetts, Franklin developed a sense of social responsibility. He graduated from Harvard University in 1904 and then attended Columbia Law School, where he was indifferent about grades. He dropped out of law school upon admission to the New York bar in 1907 and worked three years for a Wall Street law firm.
Personable and outgoing, Franklin married a distant cousin, the shy Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, on 17 March 1905. Her uncle, President Theodore Roosevelt (also Franklin’s cousin), gave the bride away. They had six children, one of whom died in infancy. The Roosevelts stayed active in New York social circles but at the same time devoted considerable energy to the plight of the less fortunate. Although a Democrat, Franklin admired the progressivism of his cousin Theodore and decided early upon a political career. He started by winning a seat as a Democrat in the New York state senate in 1910.
Roosevelt quickly built a reputation as a reformer by taking on the state’s Democratic political machine. For his support of Woodrow Wilson at the hotly contested 1912 Democratic National Convention, Wilson appointed him assistant secretary of the navy. Roosevelt served from 1913 to 1920 and gained considerable administrative experience. The Roosevelt name and his progressive image won him the party’s vice-presidential nomination in 1920 on the ticket with the conservative Ohio governor, James M. Cox. Roosevelt mounted a vigorous campaign defending Wilson’s advocacy of U.S. membership in the League of Nations. The Democrats were soundly defeated, but Roosevelt never lost sight of the ideals behind the League.
In 1921, Roosevelt contracted poliomyelitis and permanently lost the use of his legs. Although he could have retired to the family’s Hyde Park, New York, estate, he refused to give up his aspirations for public office. Supported by Eleanor and others, he made his return to politics at the 1924 Democratic National Convention with a well-received speech called the “Happy Warrior” and won the New York governorship in 1928 by a narrow margin. His governorship drew on the progressive tradition of his cousin. Its accomplishments included the development of public power, civil-service reform, and social-welfare measures such as relief for the unemployed. Reelected by an overwhelming margin in the 1930 gubernatorial election, Roosevelt soon emerged as a viable opponent to run against the politically vulnerable Herbert Hoover in 1932. By capturing both the Southern and the progressive party elements of the Democratic Party, Roosevelt won the party’s presidential nomination and pledged to give the American people a “New Deal.”
In July 1932, Roosevelt’s Brain Trust, a group of advisors recruited from New York’s Columbia University, assembled to examine the causes and remedies of the Great Depression. Free from the pressures of a political campaign, they began planning new government programs to help ease the economic burden in the face of economic collapse. Although he provided no specifics about the New Deal, Roosevelt did discuss conservation, relief, social insurance, and cheaper electricity. Given a choice between the grim, dour Hoover and an exuberant, confident Roosevelt, Democratic voters gave Roosevelt an overwhelming victory in November.
Roosevelt’s New Deal program consistently made agricultural recovery and conservation top priorities. The Civilian Conservation Corps and other land management agencies restored lands ravaged by erosion and built recreation facilities in the national parks and forests. The Tennessee Valley Authority, which brought cheap electrical power to millions, focused on improving the living and working conditions of folks living in that area. In addition, the New Deal sought to rationalize the business system by temporarily ending bitter economic warfare through the National Industrial Recovery Act and its fair practice codes. The New Deal also ended child labor and introduced unemployment insurance and a social security program that guaranteed income for retired Americans. It encouraged the growth of industrial unionism and national legislation to define maximum hours and minimum wages.
Not everyone supported his programs. Emergency expenditures for relief poured millions into the economy, leading to record federal deficits even though he had promised a balanced budget. If Congress or the courts balked at his programs, he used his executive powers to enact them. Some accused him of introducing a socialist agenda or of undermining free-market capitalism. He deflected the criticism well enough to win a record-breaking four terms.
In the 1930s, economic recovery took precedent over foreign policy. Nevertheless, the president sought to improve relations with Latin America through his Good Neighbor Policy. He had hoped to keep the United States out of World War II, which began in Europe in September of 1939, but when the New Deal began winding down, he turned his attention to foreign affairs. Adolf Hitler’s stunning victories in Western Europe prompted Roosevelt’s decision to seek a third term in 1940. Gradually he moved the United States towards a war footing through various programs to arm Britain and the Soviet Union. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 and Germany’s declaration of war the next day ended American neutrality.
During World War II, Roosevelt and British prime minister Winston Churchill personally determined Allied military and naval strategy in the West. To prevent a repeat of the problems after World War I, Roosevelt insisted on an unconditional surrender. He relied a great deal on the powers of personal persuasion, believing that he could control Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and foster Soviet-U.S. cooperation through a newly created United Nations. Instead, after the war Stalin imposed Soviet-style communist governments throughout Eastern Europe. The strain of wartime leadership sapped Roosevelt’s health. He died on 12 April 1945 of a cerebral hemorrhage.
Both beloved and hated during his presidency, Franklin Roosevelt transformed the nation by expanding the powers of the federal government. In the face of the potential collapse of the capitalist system, Roosevelt ushered in the welfare state, in part by managing the economy in order to achieve publicly determined ends. By aiding Britain in World War II, he helped preserve Western liberal democracy and created a bulwark against later Soviet aggression. In the process, he converted the Democratic Party to majority status through its appeal to urbanites, minorities, and working-class voters, and made it the party of liberal reform in the twentieth century.
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- Hamby, A. L. (2004). For the survival of democracy: Franklin Roosevelt and the world crisis of the 1930s. New York: Free Press.
- Henderson, H., & Woolner, D. (Eds.). (2009). FDR and the environment. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
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