Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945)

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“Better the occasional faults of a Government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a Government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.” These words were spoken by Franklin Delano Roosevelt during his acceptance speech as the Democratic Party nominee for a second term as president of the United States [1]. They reflected his commitment to action by the federal government in responding to depression, poverty, hunger, and unemployment. By virtue of that commitment, he became perhaps the most popular president in American history.

Franklin Roosevelt was born on January 30, 1882, to James Roosevelt and Sarah Delano, at the Springwood Estate in Hyde Park, New York – now a National Historic Site [2]. Franklin was born into an old Anglo-Dutch family that had become wealthy through real estate, banking, shipbuilding, and other ventures, and thus enjoyed a privileged upbringing that included homeschooling, college preparatory training at the Groton School, and enrollment at Harvard University and the Columbia Law School. In 1907, he began working for a Wall Street law firm, but soon became more interested in a political career, following in the footsteps of his uncle Theodore Roosevelt.

By 1910, young Roosevelt – now affectionately known as FDR – had won a seat in the New York State Senate [3]. In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson appointed him Assistant Secretary of the Navy, a position FDR held through World War I. In 1920, Roosevelt was chosen to be Democratic candidate for Vice President on the ticket with James M. Cox, but they lost to Republican candidates Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge [4]. FDR suffered a far worse blow the following year, when he was paralyzed from the waist down by polio (or possibly Guillain-Barré syndrome) [5]. In subsequent years, FDR would frequently travel to Warm Springs, Georgia to soak in its therapeutic waters. During these years of illness and treatment, it is likely that FDR developed a greater sympathy towards the less fortunate – a sympathy that would influence his future policymaking [6].

Franklin Roosevelt eventually returned to politics and was elected governor of New York from 1928 to 1932. The Empire State was pivotal in national politics at this time, and FDR easily won the Democratic nomination for president in 1932. In his acceptance speech, he declared: “I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people. Let us all here assembled constitute ourselves prophets of a new order of competence and of courage. This is more than a political campaign; it is a call to arms. Give me your help, not to win votes alone, but to win in this crusade to restore America to its own people” [7]. The voters responded to this call, and FDR handily defeated President Herbert Hoover, taking the helm of state in March 1933 at the nadir of the Great Depression.

Roosevelt’s presidency (1933-1945) was marked by persistent action and experimentation. The array of programs he and his team of advisors created became known as the New Deal, and its “alphabet soup” of agencies included the CCC, TVA, WPA, FDIC, and many others. These programs helped millions of Americans survive the Great Depression, while laying the groundwork for a more stable and equitable economy. FDR was reelected in 1936 by the greatest margin of any presidential race, and then again in 1940 and 1944 (no other president has served more than two terms). President Roosevelt also led the nation through a second period of great hardship and global transformation, World War II.

Roosevelt died from a cerebral hemorrhage on April 12, 1945 at his “Little White House” home in Warm Springs. He was 63. In 1990, former President Ronald Reagan recalled FDR’s presidency: “He’d entered the White House facing a national emergency as grim as any the country has ever faced and, acting quickly, he had implemented a plan of action to deal with the crisis. During his Fireside Chats, his strong, gentle, confident voice resonated across the nation with an eloquence that brought comfort and resilience to a nation caught up in a storm and reassured us that we could lick any problem. I will never forget him for that” [8].

By the time of his passing, FDR and the New Deal had fundamentally transformed the role of the federal government in American life and economic affairs. This enlarged and more activist government set the stage for America’s post-war economic prosperity by virtue of its enduring infrastructure, better protections against bad business practices, and social insurance programs, and it is still benefitting us today.


(1) “Acceptance Speech for the Renomination for the Presidency, Philadelphia, Pa. June 27, 1936,” American Presidency Project, University of California – Santa Barbara, accessed November 29, 2015. (2) “Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site,” National Park Service, accessed November 29, 2015. (3) Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, “Biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt” and “Roosevelt Facts and Figures,” accessed November 29, 2015. (4) Ibid. (5) See, e.g., “New Study Questions Roosevelt’s Polio,” New York Times, November 1, 2003, accessed November 29, 2015. (6) See, e.g., “Roosevelt’s Polio Wasn’t A Secret: He Used It To His ‘Advantage,’” WBUR, National Public Radio, accessed November 29, 2015. (7) “Address Accepting the Presidential Nomination at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, July 2, 1932,” American Presidency Project, University of California – Santa Barbara, accessed November 29, 2015. (8) Ronald Reagan, Ronald Reagan: An American Life, New York: Threshold Editions, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1990, p. 66.

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