The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
— Franklin D. Roosevelt
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, often referred to by his initials FDR, was a Democratic statesman and political leader who served as the 32nd president of the United States from 1933 until his death in 1945. He directed the federal government during most of the Great Depression, implementing his New Deal domestic agenda in response to the worst economic crisis in U.S. history.
Franklin Roosevelt was born on his family’s estate on the Hudson River in Hyde Park, New York on January 30, 1882, to businessman James Roosevelt and his second wife, Sara Delano Roosevelt. Both of his parents came from wealthy old New York families who were well-educated and prominent members of New York society. Franklin’s father purchased the 110-acre estate in 1867 and named it Springwood. Young Franklin would spend much of his life on the estate and would eventually be buried there. It is a National Historic Site today.
The only child from his father’s second marriage to Sara Delano, young Franklin was doted on by his mother and lived a privileged life. In addition to their estate in Hyde Park, the Roosevelts also had a house in New York City and summered on Campobello Island in New Brunswick, Canada. As a young boy, Franklin made frequent trips to Europe and became fluent in German and French. As a youth, he learned to ride, shoot, row, and play polo, lawn tennis, and golf. He learned to sail and when he was just 16 years old and his father gave him a sailboat.
His parents and private tutors provided him with his early education, some of which took place in Germany at the age of nine. From 1896 to 1900, he attended Groton School, a prestigious preparatory school in Groton, Massachusetts and afterward, received a BA degree in history from Harvard in 1903.
In the meantime, Franklin’s father died in 1900 and his fifth cousin Theodore Roosevelt became President of the United States in 1901. Theodore’s vigorous leadership style and ambitious reforms made him Franklin’s role model and hero.
On March 17, 1905, Franklin married his fifth cousin, Eleanor Roosevelt, who he had been courting since 1902. Eleanor was the niece of Theodore Roosevelt and the pair had known each since childhood. The couple married in New York City and Eleanor’s uncle, President Theodore Roosevelt, stood in at the wedding for Eleanor’s deceased father. Franklin’s mother, Sara, who was very possessive of her son, fiercely resisted the marriage, because she thought Franklin was too young. However, she did not dislike Eleanor, and when the marriage took place in spite of her feelings, she invited the couple to live with her on the Springwood estate in Hyde Park. Sara also built a pair of townhouses in New York City, one for Franklin and Eleanor, and another next door, for herself. Franklin and Eleanor would eventually have six children, five of whom survived infancy.
The same year he was married, Franklin entered New York’s Columbia University to study law. After passing the bar examination in 1907, he left school without taking a degree. Afterward, he practiced law with a prominent New York City law firm for three years.
In 1910, he entered politics and was elected to the New York State Senate as a Democrat in 1912. After supporting Woodrow Wilson’s candidacy, he was appointed the Assistant Secretary of the Navy in 1913, a position he held until 1920. After doing well in this position, he was nominated for vice-president by the Democratic Party in 1920 on a ticket headed by James M. Cox of Ohio. However, Cox lost to Republican Warren Harding and Roosevelt returned to private life.
While vacationing in New Brunswick, Canada in the summer of 1921, Roosevelt contracted polio and was left permanently paralyzed from the waist down. He then sought refuge at Springwood, where his strength slowly returned. After much rehabilitation and with the encouragement and help of his wife, Eleanor, and other leaders, he soon resumed his political career. In 1928, he was elected the governor of New York.
In the meantime, the Great Depression had begun and Roosevelt made bold efforts to combat it in New York, enhancing his reputation. He soon began to campaign for the presidency and in 1932, he won the nomination as the Democratic Party candidate for president. He campaigned energetically calling for government intervention in the economy to provide relief, recovery, and reform. His activist approach and personal charm helped to defeat Herbert Hoover in November 1932 by seven million votes. This would be the first of four terms in which Roosevelt would serve.
Franklin Roosevelt took the oath of office on March 4, 1933. During the four months between Roosevelt’s election and his inauguration, the Depression worsened. By that time, there were 13,000,000 unemployed and almost every bank was closed. Of those that remained open, withdrawals were restricted. Farm income had fallen by over 50% and an estimated 844,000 non-farm mortgages had been foreclosed on. Industrial production had plummeted and the pace of factory closings accelerated. Roosevelt faced the greatest crisis in American history since the Civil War.
In his first “hundred days,” he proposed, and Congress enacted, his New Deal programs to alleviate the suffering of the nation’s huge number of unemployed workers, bring recovery to business and agriculture, relief to the unemployed and to those in danger of losing farms and homes, change to the financial system, and other reforms to propel the nation out of its Depression. Within a very short time, banks reopened and direct relief saved millions of people from starvation.
The New Deal program was based on “socialistic” tendencies that the power of the federal government was needed to get the country out of the Depression. Although public support was widespread, not everyone agreed with Roosevelt’s agenda, arguing that the federal government had no place spending millions on public works, going into debt, and regulating business and industry. Others thought that the New Deal did not go far enough and that the federal government should take over the banks and industry. Roosevelt responded with new programs of reform including Social Security, heavier taxes on the wealthy, new controls over banks and public utilities, and an enormous work relief program for the unemployed.
Roosevelt easily defeated Alfred M. Landon in 1936 and went on to defeat by lesser margins, Wendell Willkie in 1940 and Thomas E. Dewey in 1944. He thus became the only American president to serve more than two terms.
By 1939, World War II had broken out in Europe and Roosevelt was concentrating increasingly on foreign affairs. At this time, New Deal reform legislation diminished, though the ill effects of the Depression would not fully abate until the nation mobilized for war. In the early years of the war, the United States remained neutral, though aid was provided to Britain, France, and China. However, when France fell in 1940, Roosevelt’s policy changed dramatically and Congress enacted a draft for military service.
The Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on December 7, 1941, changed everything. The very next day, Congress declared war against Japan. Three days later Germany and Italy declared war against the United States; and Congress, voting unanimously, reciprocated. This brought the nation fully into the global struggle.
During the war, priority was given to the western European front and by April 1945 victory in Europe was certain. The war officially ended with an invasion of Germany by the Western Allies and the Soviet Union, culminating in the capture of Berlin by Soviet troops, the suicide of Adolf Hitler and the German unconditional surrender on 8 May 1945.
But, by that time President Franklin D. Roosevelt would be dead. The unending stress and strain of the war had literally worn him out.