The Presidency of Franklin Roosevelt
Franklin D. Roosevelt was an American president like no other. He rose to the presidency through traditional political channels but unlike most presidents, he suffered a severe physical setback in his early years. Roosevelt became president at the height of the Great Depression, and was enormously popular with the people of America. He gave the people hope and a promise of change at a time when the world seemed to be falling apart. He also led our nation courageously through World War II until his death in 1945. Roosevelt was a fascinating president because although he endured declining health and an inability to walk, he was one of the strongest, most effective leaders our nation has ever known, as well as the longest serving president in our history. Roosevelt successfully led us through two incredibly challenging times and helped our nation emerge on top, and for that he deserves to be remembered as a hero.
As a youth, Franklin Roosevelt attended Harvard University and studied law at Columbia; in 1905 he married his fifth cousin, Eleanor Roosevelt (Biography.com). He practiced law in New York for three years, and in 1910 he was elected as a Democrat to the New York state senate (Biography.com). Following his reelection in 1912, he supported Woodrow Wilson in his presidential campaign (Biography.com). After Wilson was elected president, he appointed Roosevelt the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, the same position his idol Theodore Roosevelt had held (Biography.com). Roosevelt later ran for U.S. Senator for the state of New York and for vice president with James M. Cox, but was defeated both times (Biography.com). In 1921, at the age of 39, Roosevelt contracted polio and lost the use of his legs (Freidel). However, he never let anyone photograph him in a wheelchair, and indeed most of the nation never knew that he couldn’t walk (Freidel). In 1928 he was elected Governor of New York, and he was reelected in 1930 (Freidel; “Biography”). He became president in 1932 at the height of the Great Depression (Freidel).
The main issue in Roosevelt’s election to the presidency was the economy. Most people were tired of President Herbert Hoover, who was popularly viewed as having done nothing to help the American people during the Great Depression (“Franklin D. Roosevelt and the First New Deal”). Hoover felt that it was not the federal government’s role to provide direct assistance to the people; he felt that local community establishments and charities should do this instead (“Franklin D. Roosevelt and the First New Deal”). Roosevelt promised the people a “new deal,” and this became the title for his entire legislative package (History.com). Public mood demanded a change in presidents, and Roosevelt was the right man for the job.
But Roosevelt wasn’t just in the right place at the right time; he was also a master politician. Roosevelt was able to unite diverse members of the Democratic party by avoiding controversial issues and by choosing John Garner of Texas as his vice presidential running mate, securing the support of the South (“Franklin D. Roosevelt and the First New Deal”). He also forged alliances with titans of society like newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, Irish leader Joseph Kennedy, and California leader William McAdoo, which helped him gain popularity and public support (“Franklin D. Roosevelt and the First New Deal”). The Democratic campaign blamed Hoover for failing to end the Great Depression (“Franklin D. Roosevelt and the First New Deal”). Meanwhile, Roosevelt called for government intervention to provide relief, recovery, and reform, and he attempted to appeal to a broad range of voters, including Republicans (“Biography”; “Franklin D. Roosevelt and the First New Deal”). He also targeted the repeal of prohibition, arguing for the beneficial tax revenues from legalizing alcohol, and this stance further helped garner support (“Franklin D. Roosevelt and the First New Deal”). Roosevelt was very skilled at targeting a broad range of people and at addressing public sentiment, and these helped him win the election.
Hoover, in contrast, had a hard time defending himself as economic conditions worsened. Unemployment was at 23.6% and there was no end in sight (“Franklin D. Roosevelt and the First New Deal”). Roosevelt won the election with 57% of the popular vote, with a lead of seven million votes, and with the Democratic Party carrying all but six states (“Franklin D. Roosevelt and the First New Deal”; “Biography”). He led the poll in 2,722 counties, the most ever held by a presidential candidate until that time; of these, 282 had never before voted Democratic (“Franklin D. Roosevelt and the First New Deal”). In the Electoral College he received 472 votes out of a total of 531, where Hoover received 59 (“U.S. Electoral College”).
Roosevelt took office during the height of the Great Depression, and had to act quickly to prevent the nationwide crisis from deepening. In March 1933, when Roosevelt took office, 13 million Americans were unemployed and hundreds of banks had closed due to bank runs (Biography.com). In response, Roosevelt began his presidency by closing all banks in the nation for several days until reform legislation could be passed (History.com). He then started to give his popular “fireside chats” over the radio, where he spoke directly to the American people about the crises facing the nation (History.com). He restored the public confidence and after the passing of the Emergency Banking Relief Act, seventy five percent of banks were reopened within a week (History.com). During his first hundred days, Roosevelt would pass many more pieces of legislation to address the economic conditions plaguing the nation.
Roosevelt’s legislative package focused on addressing the various economic crises and providing work relief to the suffering people of America. He first gathered together a group of experts, called the “Brain Trust,” to advise him on economic issues (Biography.com). They helped him pass many pieces of legislation to address the economy: the Agricultural Adjustment Act inflated prices to help farmers; the National Recovery Administration regulated wages and prices; the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation insured bank deposits; and the Securities and Exchange Commission was established to regulate the stock market and prevent the abusive speculation that had led to the crash of October 1929 (Biography.com; History.com). The Civilian Conservation Corps, Public Works Administration and the Tennessee Valley Authority, among others, were instrumental in providing work relief to the unemployed, including artists, writers, and young males (Biography.com; History.com). Although none of these measures solved the Depression at the time, they helped soften the blow and many of them established safer economic practices, and still exist today.
In 1935 Roosevelt began a new wave of reforms which came to be known as the “Second New Deal,” which included such legislation as the Social Security Act, which was the first time Americans were provided with payments for unemployment, disability, and old age (History.com). He also initiated the Works Progress Administration, an enormous and ambitious program to employ the unemployed in the construction of public works projects (History.com). Congress also raised taxes on large corporations and rich individuals, to garner enough revenue to pay for all the legislative packages (History.com). Although Roosevelt did not solve the Depression with legislation, he put forth a massive effort to reenergize the economy and the American people, and in so doing also helped encourage better business and banking practices for the future. In the end, however, it was World War II that pulled the economy out of the Great Depression.
Immediately after fighting the Great Depression in America, Roosevelt was pulled toward fighting fascism in Europe. In 1937 Roosevelt started to warn the nation about the governments in Germany, Italy, and Japan (History.com). Once World War II started in September of 1939, he called Congress together to revise the Neutrality Acts and allow Britain and France to buy arms from America in what was called a “cash-and-carry” policy (History.com). After Germany invaded France in 1940, Roosevelt persuaded Congress to authorize more aid for Britain (History.com). In 1940 Roosevelt decided to run for reelection, even though there had been a presidential term limit established by tradition since George Washington; he felt that the brink of war was not the time to be changing leaders (History.com). He defeated Wendell Wilkie by almost 5 million votes in the election of 1940 (History.com).
Throughout the war, Roosevelt was very active in meeting with world leaders to coordinate the war effort and plan the post-war world. The Lend-Lease Act of March 1941 increased U.S. support of Great Britain, and Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill met in August on a ship near Canada to discuss various war issues (History.com). The result was the “Atlantic Charter,” in which the two men developed the “Four Freedoms” upon which the post-war world should be founded: “freedom of speech and expression, freedom of religion, freedom from want and freedom from fear” (History.com). The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 led Roosevelt to ask Congress for a declaration of war against Japan (History.com). Roosevelt continued to meet with Churchill and with Soviet Union leader Joseph Stalin throughout the war, as well as relay events to the American people in his radio addresses (History.com).
In 1944 Roosevelt was reelected to a fourth term in office despite his ailing health (History.com). The war was finally turning in favor of the Allies, and in February Roosevelt met with Churchill and Stalin one last time in the Yalta Conference, where it was agreed that the Soviet Union could have a part of Eastern Poland, free elections would occur in Poland after the war, and Berlin would be divided into sectors ruled by the victorious nations (History.com). They also arranged for the creation of what became the United Nations, an international peace organization (History.com). When Roosevelt returned from Yalta, his health was so poor that in early April of 1945 he traveled to his cottage in Warm Springs, Georgia, where he suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage on the 12th (History.com). He was succeeded that day in office by his new Vice President, Harry Truman (History.com).
Franklin Roosevelt was a fascinating president because he led America through not only the worst economic depression in the history of the nation but also a world war, within a decade of each other (Biography.com). He was the first to establish unemployment insurance, old age insurance, deposit insurance, stock market regulation, and many more influential programs that have continued to today (Biography.com). More importantly, the programs that he established during the Great Depression thoroughly redefined the role of the U.S. government in the economy and the daily lives of its citizens. Americans came to view the federal government as having a responsibility to ensure the wellbeing of its citizens through good times and bad, and this expectation caused a shift in government policymaking. His role in World War II also helped establish the United States as a world power, a legacy that continued into the Cold War (Biography.com). His activist role as president set a standard for all presidents to come, who have ever since been evaluated on their performance during their first hundred days as a reference to Roosevelt’s astonishing feats (Biography.com). And all of these accomplishments emanated from a man whose ailing health did nothing to diminish his strength as a leader.
Overall, Franklin Roosevelt was a strong, capable, and invigorating American president. He rose through state and national politics to become a well-loved president despite suffering from polio for much of his life. Roosevelt became president during the extreme crisis of the Great Depression, and his New Deal programs were enormously popular with the anguished people of America. He also provided strong domestic and world leadership through World War II until his death in 1945. Roosevelt is fascinating because his capable and effective leadership redefined the role of the president and formed a standard for judging all future leaders of the nation. Roosevelt successfully led our nation through incredibly challenging times and for that he is remembered as a hero of American politics.
“Biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt.” Fdrlibrary.marist.edu. Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, n.d. Web. 29 March 2014.
“Franklin D. Roosevelt.” Biography.com. A+E Networks, 2014. Web. 29 March 2014.
“Franklin D. Roosevelt.” History.com. A+E Networks, n.d. Web. 29 March 2014.
“Franklin D. Roosevelt and the First New Deal.” Boundless.com. Boundless, n.d. Web. 29 March 2014.
Freidel, Frank and Hugh Sidey. “Franklin D. Roosevelt.” WhiteHouse.gov. White House Historical Association, 2006. Web. 29 March 2014.
“U.S. Electoral College: Historical Election Results 1789-1996.” Archives.gov. U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, n.d. Web. 17 April 2014.