Franklin Delano Roosevelt served as president of the United States from 1933-45 during the Great Depression and World War II, two of the greatest crises in American history. He was born on January 30, 1882, in Hyde Park, N.Y. to wealthy parents and educated at Groton, Harvard, and Columbia University Law School. In 1905, he married Eleanor Roosevelt with whom he had six children and together they developed one of the strongest political partnerships in history.
In 1920 FDR ran for vice president on the Democratic ticket with James Cox. Although they did not win, FDR's spirited campaigning won him a following in the Democratic Party. He returned to his law practice but, in August of 1921, at the age of 39, he contracted polio. Paralyzed from the waist down, he would never walk again. In 1924, having discovered the restorative powers of the mineral waters at Warm Springs, Georgia, FDR established the Warm Springs Foundation, a pioneering center for the rehabilitation of polio patients.
During the years that FDR sought to recover the use of his legs, he remained active in the Democratic Party and in 1928 ran successfully for governor of New York. FDR established himself as a progressive governor and, in struggling with the consequences of the stock market crash in 1929, became a strong advocate of government intervention.
In 1932, with the Depression worsening, FDR decisively defeated incumbent Herbert Hoover by a wide margin. With a strong mandate, FDR moved quickly to establish a New Deal for the American people. During the first hundred days of his administration, Congress passed a series of landmark bills that created a more active role for the federal government, including the Emergency Banking Relief Act that stabilized the nation's ailing banks and reassured depositors. Believing that work programs were better than relief, FDR secured passage of legislation establishing programs such as the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA). In June 1934, FDR signed the Securities Exchange Act, which established the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to regulate the stock exchange. In 1935, Congress passed the Social Security Act and the National Labor Relations Act, two of the most important and enduring pieces of New Deal legislation. As important as the programs established by the New Deal were, FDR's ability to project an image of vigorous action and to connect personally with ordinary people through his informal radio talks, or "Fireside Chats," was equally important in helping the nation weather the Great Depression.
After winning re-election in 1936 in a landslide and frustrated that the Supreme Court was declaring some of his New Deal programs unconstitutional, FDR proposed expanding the number of justices on the Court. Many Americans, however, saw this "court packing" plan as an assault on a sacred institution. The defeat of the plan was the most embarrassing political setback of FDR's career.
In 1940, FDR ran successfully for an unprecedented third term with his attention focused increasingly on the war in Europe. Although his hands were tied by the deep isolationism of most Americans, FDR worked to prepare the nation for the eventuality of war. After his reelection in November 1940, he secured passage of the Lend-Lease program, which provided military assistance to Great Britain.
The United States finally entered the war when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. His abiding interest in naval ships and strategy and his experience as assistant secretary of the Navy helped him form a close working relationship with his military commanders. In December 1942, with many on the West Coast panicky about possible Japanese subversion or invasion, FDR signed an executive order authorizing the internment of Japanese living on the West Coast, many of whom were American citizens. As the war progressed and news of the Holocaust became more and more disturbing, pressure grew to address the urgent needs of refugees. In January 1944, FDR issued an executive order establishing the War Refugee Board, which aided in the rescuing of Jews and other refugees during the remainder of the war.
FDR began to envision the postwar world even before the United States entered the war. In January 1941, he outlined the "Four Freedoms" on which he hoped that world would be founded: freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. In August 1941, he met Winston Churchill for the first time, off the coast of Newfoundland, and they drew up the Atlantic Charter, a set of democratic principles that, symbolically at least, allied the two nations in the same struggle. Toward the end of the war, FDR worked with Churchill, Stalin, and other Allied leaders to plan the United Nations organization. Although he did not live to see its charter adopted, its creation was one of his enduring achievements.
In 1944, the tide turned, but the war was not won. FDR ran again and won a fourth term. Unknown to the public and apparently not fully recognized by himself, he was already seriously ill but he was determined to see the war through to its conclusion. After his return from Yalta, he died of a cerebral hemorrhage in Warm Springs, Georgia, on April 12, 1945.
Source: Frank Freidel, Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Rendezvous with Destiny (Boston: Little Brown, 1990), passim.
Recommended citation: Eleanor Roosevelt, John Kennedy, and the Election of 1960: A Project of The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers, ed. by Allida Black, June Hopkins, John Sears, Christopher Alhambra, Mary Jo Binker, Christopher Brick, John S. Emrich, Eugenia Gusev, Kristen E. Gwinn, and Bryan D. Peery (Columbia, S.C.: Model Editions Partnership, 2003). Electronic version based on unpublished letters. .
For more information, visit The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers home page at https://erpapers.columbian.gwu.edu/.
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