We went looking for one of the most influential only children of the 20th Century and decided that no one had done more to assure the survival of our country than Franklin Roosevelt.
Without President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s contributions to the 20th Century, none of us might be here today. Our parents and grandparents might have starved in the Great Depression or been slaughtered by Axis armies. It was Roosevelt who led the United States through a period of great turmoil, and as a result, assured the survival of democracy.
FDR was related by blood or marriage to 11 former presidents, and perhaps some of his political drive came as a result of his lineage. His “only child” status, however, may have been responsible for his tenacity and ambition, qualities that made it possible for him to accept and thrive on challenges that might have humbled a less resilient person.
Roosevelt was born on January 30, 1882, in Hyde Park, New York, to James Roosevelt and his second wife, Sara Delano Roosevelt. Franklin’s half brother from James’ first marriage was an adult by the time FDR was born, so Roosevelt was brought up as an only child. Doted on and sheltered, Roosevelt was thoroughly indulged, and like most upper class children of the period, he led a privileged life. There were summer vacations in Europe, the seaside in New England, and Campobello Island off the coast of New Brunswick. His education was provided by governesses and tutors until he was 14.
Roosevelt’s first encounter with formal education began when he left home for the Groton School in Massachusetts. There he was instructed in Christian ethics, the virtues of public service, and prepared for higher education. After Groton he went to Harvard, graduated in 1903, and subsequently attended Columbia Law School.
While at Harvard, Franklin fell in love with Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, niece of President Theodore Roosevelt and his distant cousin. The couple married on March 17, 1905, and had six children (one of whom died in infancy): Anna Eleanor; James; Elliott: Franklin Delano, Jr., and John Aspinwall. The aristocratic family moved easily among the upper classes in New York. Eleanor, however, was often saddled with the responsibility of tending to her domineering mother-in-law who had been widowed in 1900.
It wasn’t long before FDR started moving up through Democratic party ranks. By 1910, he had become bored with practicing law and sought excitement elsewhere. Roosevelt served in the New York Senate from 1911 until 1913, and at Woodrow Wilson’s request, became the Assistant Secretary of the Navy in 1913. In 1920, he was defeated in his campaign for the vice presidency, running on James M. Cox’s ticket. (FDR would later become the first defeated vice-presidential candidate to be elected president.) At that time, however, Roosevelt retreated to his law practice and served as vice president of the Fidelity and Deposit Company.
In 1921 Roosevelt suffered a bout with polio that confined him to a wheelchair but ironically added fuel to his already ambitious spirit. With assistance from Eleanor and Louis Howe, a newsman who became his most loyal aide, FDR re-entered the political ring stronger than ever and staged a political comeback at the Democratic National Convention in 1924. Roosevelt never wanted to be thought of as different because of his illness, and that commitment to “normalcy” never wavered. At the convention, FDR made his way up to the podium supported by braces on his legs, crutches, and his son Jimmy.
Despite physical adversity, FDR was a relentless campaigner. In 1928, he was elected to the first of two terms as governor of New York. (When he was re-elected in 1930, he won by 750,000 votes, the largest margin in the state’s history.) When it came time to work on his bid for President, Roosevelt focused on the need to assist the “forgotten man.” Although he had been brought up with great wealth, he had tremendous sensitivity to the needs of the less fortunate. He worked hard and drew strength from his advisors, particularly Eleanor, who was always one of the most important of them. In each of his campaigns and during his terms as President, Franklin used Eleanor as his legs. She ventured to places he couldn’t, saw what was going on first hand, and reported everything to her husband.) Ultimately, FDR reached his goal, the Presidency of the United States.
Beginning in 1932, the 32nd president of the United States was elected to four terms. Within 100 days of his inauguration on March 4, 1933, FDR launched the New Deal relief measures which began stimulating an economy that had become mired in the worst depression the country had known. FDR’s programs began putting people back to work and gave them hope that better times might be ahead. Roosevelt jump-started the moribund banking industry and delivered the first of 32 Fireside Chats designed to inspire Americans and lead them through dark times.
FDR established many of the government agencies we now take for granted, including the Social Security Administration, the Federal Communications Commission, and the Securities Exchange Commission. His firm, unwavering leadership helped this country win World War II. Most people probably don’t know that Roosevelt was the first president to appear on television (1939) and to visit an overseas war zone. He also appointed the first female ambassador to a foreign country (Ruth Bryan Owens, who served in Denmark) and the first female cabinet member (Frances Perkins, who served as Secretary of Labor from 1933 to 1945). Roosevelt understood the importance of image. Although he was the first, and as of yet only, president permanently confined to a wheelchair while in office, he never allowed his handicap to interfere with his mission. Not wanting to be thought of as “different,” FDR concealed his paralysis by overcompensating. In fact, of the 35,000 photos taken of FDR after his illness, only two of them show him sitting in his wheelchair.
As a president, FDR was both adored and reviled. Some Americans hated the changes he instituted while others revered him as a savior. Although Roosevelt was a consummate politician and deal maker, he knew what was right for the country and refused to make compromises that might jeopardize essential programs. When the United States entered the War in 1941, Roosevelt told the country that the only thing they had to fear was fear itself, and it often seemed that Roosevelt was the most fearless of all. His fighting spirit made him a great leader and a beloved president. Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945, leaving behind a legacy for which we will be grateful far beyond the 21st century.