Franklin Delano Roosevelt, America’s 32nd President, was born to a life of luxury and success in New York, which was aided by his personal charisma and intelligence.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945) was born to a privileged family with a long, widespread heritage of great Americans in Hyde Park, New York (North of New York City). He came from a wealthy, successful family with a vast history and many famous members, including, most famously, former President Theodore Roosevelt (though he was only Franklin’s 5th cousin).
Named for his mother’s uncle Franklin Delano, young Roosevelt was afforded a somewhat easy life, though he worked hard both socially and academically. His privileged upbringing allowed him to take frequent trips overseas, which helped him become knowledgeable in German and French, and he attended fine private schools.
While attending Harvard University, Roosevelt became enamored with his then-President distant cousin Theodore, who became his political hero (despite the fact that FDR would later enter politics as a democrat – Theodore’s progressive policies were well aligned with the later Democratic party in many ways), and he also met his future wife, Theodore’s niece, Eleanor.
1905 saw Roosevelt enter Columbia Law school and marry Eleanor (though they would have a rocky, troubled marriage which some would say was one of “convenience” rather than love, marred by adultery). He dropped out of Columbia two years later after passing the bar exam and became a corporate lawyer at a firm on Wall Street.
New York State Politics
Three years after leaving Columbia, in 1910, Roosevelt took his first step into public life, testing the waters, so to speak, for his later political career, when he ran for state senate in his home district of Hyde Park. Despite being a prominently Republican district, Roosevelt – a staunch democrat by this point – won narrowly on the strength of his family name and the fact that this was the year of a Democratic landslide throughout the country during the midterm elections of President Taft’s term in office.
Roosevelt served only three years in Albany, supporting progressive and reform policies which sought to oppose the machine-dominated politics of New York during that time.
Resigning in 1913, Roosevelt’s fame and popularity had grown enough that he was offered a job by then-President Woodrow Wilson.
FDR as Assistant Secretary of the Navy
It was a position which had, two decades earlier, on the eve of the Spanish American war, been held by his distant relative, Theodore Roosevelt. FDR took the position in 1913 and served in this capacity until 1920.
Like Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin attempted to increase the Naval forces of America considerably and worked to shape the department, especially as the world (and America) approached the first World War.
After the war, Roosevelt was put in charge of demobilizing the Navy, though he fought to ensure that the department was not dissolved completely. He was instrumental in ensuring that a proper navy force was maintained during the interbellum period, which helped America to prepare even for a war which was not yet on the horizon.
Roosevelt resigned this position in 1920, once again, to make an attempt at taking the next step up the political ladder.
Life Between Political Victories
With his success in the Navy department, Roosevelt became a strong candidate for a national campaign. He was chosen by the Democratic party to run for Vice President in 1920, alongside Ohio Governor James Cox. Though the campaign was unsuccessful against Warren G. Harding (an even more popular Ohioan), Roosevelt gained even greater national recognition as a result, and his political career certainly was not irreparably damaged.
Nevertheless, after this loss, Roosevelt briefly left politics, moving once again into practicing law in New York. It was at this point in his life – in the summer of 1921, specifically – that Roosevelt was tragically stricken with a disease which left him partially paralyzed and wheel-chair bound for the remainder of his life. While this disease has popularly been presented as having been Polio, there is good evidence that it may have been a similar illness called Guillain-Barre syndrom.
Undaunted by these physical challenges, Roosevelt remained active in supporting other Democratic politicians even while not running for office himself, and remained a dominant figure in the party whose opinion was instrumental in shaping the political debate.
After helping elect Alfred E. Smith to the Governorship of New York between 1922 and 1926, Roosevelt became a prime choice to replace the outgoing Governor when he ran for President in 1928 (only to lose to Republican Herbert Hoover).
Roosevelt narrowly won the Gubernatorial election, and became a very successful two-term governor of the state of New York (his reelection was by a very wide margin).
1932 Presidential Candidate
His political career having been generally successful, and with America falling deeper and deeper into the Great Depression which had dogged Hoover’s entire Presidency, Roosevelt had become a dominant figure in his party, and the perfect candidate to take advantage of the Republican party which so many American’s blamed for their financial woes.
In campaigning against Hoover, one might be surprised that Roosevelt actually attacked the incumbent President from the right, accusing him of having caused rapid deflation with his “liberal” economic policies and the dramatic, rapid, and expensive growth of government.
A charismatic and intelligent speaker who had a proven track record in politics, Roosevelt won the election in 1932 with a majority of 57% of the popular vote and a win in all but six states. His election ushered in an entirely new era in American politics, and his record 3+ terms in office would become one of the defining periods in 20th century America.
- “Franklin Delano Roosevelt.” American Presidents: An Online Reference Resource.
- “The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression.” Amity Shlaes. Harper Perennial, 2007.