The Rise of Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Copyright © 2005-6, Henry J. Sage

FDR Speech

Franklin Delano Roosevelt is generally regarded as the greatest president of the 20th century. Regardless of how one feels about his politics, his programs, or his political career and legacy, one must acknowledge the tremendous impact that he had on the office of the presidency and on the nation. He presided over two of the most challenging periods in American history—the Great Depression and World War II. Although one might argue that Abraham Lincoln faced a greater challenge—a nation divided against itself—Franklin Roosevelt's contributions were nevertheless extraordinary.

FDR on the campaign trail

Franklin Roosevelt was an only child born into a wealthy family, a cousin of Theodore Roosevelt. Along with Martin Van Buren, the two Roosevelt's are the American presidents numbered among the descendents of early Dutch settlers in New York. Franklin was an only child, the son of a prosperous father, James Roosevelt, and a very doting mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt. Young Franklin grew up in the Hudson Valley, was educated by private tutors and then attended the Groton School in Massachusetts, where he was taught Christian responsibility by Endicott Peabody. From from Groton he went on to Harvard, where he lived an active athletic and social life, though he never stood out as a scholar. Interested in politics from the beginning, he enthusiastically worked for his cousin Theodore's presidential campaign in 1904 as a Young Republican at Harvard.

While at Harvard, Franklin became attracted to his fifth cousin, Eleanor Roosevelt, Theodore's niece, and the two of them eventually married, over his mother's objections. (As a doting mother, she never believed that anyone could be good enough for her boy, and Eleanor was known as the ugly duckling of the family.) Franklin and Eleanor were attracted to each other more intellectually than physically, and despite later troubles in their marriage, they invariable saw eye to eye or many subjects. During their engagement Franklin entered Columbia Law School, and later dabbled in the profession, though his real interest was always politics. Franklin and Eleanor had five children and the marriage seemed stable, although Sara Roosevelt meddled incessantly in the lives of her son and daughter-in-law.

In 1910 Franklin and made his first foray into politics, as a Democrat, with cousin Theodore's blessing. In a heavily Republican district, he was elected to the New York State Senate, which brought him to the attention of national Democratic leaders, including newly elected Governor Woodrow Wilson of New Jersey. When Wilson won the presidential election in 1912, he invited Franklin, who had pursued a progressive agenda in the New York legislature, to become assistant secretary the Navy, a post that had been previously held by his cousin Theodore under President McKinley. Roosevelt accepted, and became an excellent assistant secretary, involving himself deeply in the affairs of the Navy, in which he had great interest, and for which he had a great affection. (He even took vacations on warships, often fishing off the stern of a destroyer or cruiser.)

When the United States became involved in the First World War, Roosevelt was eager to serve, but Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels and President Wilson insisted that he remain in his post, where he would be far more valuable. As assistant secretary he traveled to Europe and visited the front lines, where he was appalled by what he saw of the horrific slaughter of the trench warfare. When he returned from the Europe, he was stricken with a serious case of flu, and while Eleanor was unpacking his bags, she discovered unmistakable evidence that Franklin had been having an affair with her personal secretary, Lucy Mercer. Eleanor offered to divorce Franklin, but as that would have ruined his political career, they stayed together, and although their marriage was never a romantic one thereafter, they eventually formed a unique and powerful political partnership.

In 1920 Franklin was named vice presidential candidate for the Democratic Party, and ran alongside Governor Cox of Ohio. Warren Harding easily won the election, but Franklin used the opportunity to broaden his political horizons, meet new people, and build support for his promising political career. Then, in 1921, he was struck with poliomyelitis, commonly called infantile paralysis, and for a time it seemed as though his public life might be over. But in an extraordinary show of courage, he fought the disease, underwent the rigors of physical therapy, and although he was never again able to walk unaided, he grew strong enough that with the help of braces on his legs and someone to guide him, he could maneuver himself in an upright position. He was thus able to keep his political hopes alive. Although his infirmity was obviously known to many—he spent most of his time in a wheelchair—the public had no knowledge of the fact that he could not walk unaided. Despite his crippled legs, he projected a robust physical appearance and unmistakable vigor.

In 1928, after he had nominated New York Governor Al Smith at the Democratic National Convention as candidate for president, Smith persuaded him to run for governor of New York, hoping that it would help him with his electoral contest. Although Smith was defeated, Roosevelt won a resounding victory and became governor of the nation's most powerful state. During his first year in office, the stock market crash of 1929 occurred, and the nation was soon plunged into the worst depression in its history. The Depression provided Governor Roosevelt with an opportunity to address the needs of his state, and he soon began experimenting with various programs of the kind that would become part of his New Deal program. Reelected by a wide margin in 1930, Roosevelt attracted national attention and became a clear contender for the Democratic nomination for president in 1932.

As a progressive, FDR worked hard for reform legislation, and instituted programs designed to help those suffering under the economic cloud. He also sought the advice of experts in the fields of labor, economics, law and social reform. Those advisers, many of whom were professors and writers, were soon dubbed Roosevelt's “Brain Trust.” He also built an effective team of leaders at the state level, including Frances Perkins, Henry Morgenthau, and Harry Hopkins, who, along with the Brain trust, would continue to serve him in washington.

By 1932 it was clear that Herbert Hoover had not been able to rise to the challenge of addressing the issues of the Depression satisfactorily, and the Democrats, eager to break the Republican hold on the White House, nominated Franklin Roosevelt as their candidate. Defying precedent, Roosevelt flew from New York to the Democratic convention in Chicago to personally accept the nomination. A powerful, vigorous speaker, Roosevelt set off on a campaign that swept him into the White House by a huge margin. The era of Franklin Roosevelt had begun.

Perhaps the most interesting speech of Roosevelt's career was his Commonwealth Club Address, which he made during the 1932 campaign. It reveals his political ideals quite clearly.

Roosevelt Biography

Twenties-Depression Home |Twenties | Depression| Updated December 12, 2013