The Presidents of the USA



Franklin Roosevelt
The longest and one of the most acclaimed presidencies in American history. He led the United States, with absolute success, out of the Great Depression and later in victory World War II.

Born Jan. 30, 1882, Hyde Park, N.Y.
Political partyDemocrat
Education • Harvard College, A.B., 1903
• Columbia Law School, 1904-7
Military service none
Previous public office ♦ New York Senate, 1911-13
♦ assist. secretary of the Navy, 1913-20
♦ Governor of New York, 1929-33
Died Apr. 12, 1945, Warm Springs, Georgia
picture of Franklin Roosevelt

Early Life

Roosevelt was descended from a wealthy family of Dutch settlers and was a fifth cousin of President Theodore Roosevelt. He was educated by private tutors, then at the elite Groton School and at Harvard College, where he studied history and became editor of the student newspaper, the Harvard Crimson. He studied law at Columbia University but did not graduate. He married his fifth cousin Eleanor Roosevelt, passed the bar, and began to practice law in New York City in 1908.

Political Career

Two influences that helped his public career were his distant kinsman Theodore Roosevelt, whose niece Eleanor he married in 1905, and Woodrow Wilson, whom he served as assistant secretary of the navy during the First World War

In 1910 Roosevelt won election to the state senate from rural Duchess County (a seat that no Democrat had won since the Civil War). He was appointed assistant secretary of the navy in 1913 by Woodrow Wilson and served until 1920. That year he won the Democratic Vice Presidential nomination and campaigned strenuously for the League of Nations and Treaty of Versailles, but he was defeated. The following year, while vacationing at his family retreat on Campobello Island in Canada, he came down with polio. For the rest of his life he was paralyzed below the waist, though he went through arduous rehabilitation at a spa in Warm Springs, Georgia.

Roosevelt remained an important figure in New York Democratic politics. He attended his party's national conventions in 1924 and 1928, both times giving nominating speeches for the “Happy Warrior,” Al Smith. Although Smith was crushed in 1928, in part because he was a Roman Catholic, Roosevelt spoke out against religious intolerance and won the governorship of New York.

As governor, Roosevelt lowered taxes and electric rates and created a state power authority, state parks, and state highways. In 1930, in the midst of the depression, he created the first state public relief agency and the first system of unemployment insurance. He was reelected by the greatest landslide ever received by a New York gubernatorial candidate.

In 1932 Roosevelt won the Democratic nomination for President. He flew to Chicago and became the first Presidential nominee in U.S. history to deliver his acceptance speech in person. “I pledge you, I pledge myself,” he told the delegates, “to a New Deal for the American people.” He defeated Herbert Hoover by a landslide. Riding his political coattails, the Democrats increased their majorities in the House and Senate.


Roosevelt's 1932 election and the three that followed brought into power the New Deal coalition: white Protestant Southerners, Northern Jews and Catholics, blacks, labor union members, and small farmers. That coalition would convert the Democrats into the majority party, dominate the Presidential elections (with only two exceptions) through the 1960s, and control most of the Congresses into the 1990s.

The New Deal, though sometimes contradictory in detail and uneven in impact, restored national morale and remolded the landscape of American life. In particular, it established the responsibility of government to maintain a high level of economic activity, to provide for the unemployed and the elderly, to guarantee workers unions of their own choosing, to prohibit antisocial business practices, to protect natural resources, and to develop the Tennessee Valley and other undeveloped regions.

As Roosevelt took his oath of office, there were millions unemployed, farmers and home owners had seen their land or homes foreclosed, industrial production was sinking, and thousands of banks had been closed by state governors to prevent a run on their deposits. “Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” Roosevelt told the American people in his inaugural address, “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

He took measures to end that fear. He declared a bank holiday to end the run on deposits, then got Congress to pass an emergency banking bill to regulate banks. Only those that were declared solvent were allowed to reopen. By executive order he took the nation off the gold standard to protect dwindling Treasury reserves from people who wanted to exchange dollars for gold, which they thought would be more valuable in hard times. The bank panic was over.

Roosevelt began his administration with the “hundred days” of emergency legislation. Banking deposits were guaranteed by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, restoring depositor confidence. An Economy Act permitted the President to cut federal employees' salaries and veterans' pensions. The Federal Emergency Relief Administration gave states funds to provide public works jobs to the unemployed, and the Civilian Conservation Corps gave work to young people. The Home Owners Loan Corporation helped home owners avoid foreclosures. The Farm Credit Administration provided funds for farmers in the growing season; the Farm Mortgage Refinancing Act provided them with loans to make mortgage payments; and the Agricultural Adjustment Administration helped stabilize farm prices by limiting production and establishing marketing quotas. The National Industrial Recovery Act allowed industrial producers to stabilize prices and restore production. The Tennessee Valley Authority built 30 dams that provided cheap power for farms and industry and better agricultural techniques to parts of seven states in the poverty-stricken Tennessee Valley. The Works Progress Administration funded artists and writers and photographers to undertake public cultural projects such as painting murals in government buildings.

Roosevelt continued his recovery program by creating more New Deal agencies, such as the Securities and Exchange Commission to regulate financial markets, the Federal Communications Commission to regulate telephone and radio (and later television), and the National Industrial Relations Board to regulate labor-management relations. He got the national government involved in public housing, rural electrification, public service jobs, unemployment insurance, and old-age pensions.

Although Roosevelt did not lift the nation out of the depression, his active and energetic leadership and his ability to restore public confidence helped alleviate the worst suffering. In 1936 he won an easy victory against Republican Alf Landon, winning a greater percentage of the popular vote than in 1932.

In Roosevelt's second inaugural address he pledged to relieve the poverty of “one third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.” To do so, he moved against the Supreme Court, which had declared several recovery laws unconstitutional. Roosevelt proposed to “pack” the court with an additional appointee for every justice over the age of 70—giving him six new appointments. Members of Congress, even those from his own party, were reluctant to see Roosevelt dominate the court.

Roosevelt's court-packing plan was defeated in Congress in 1937. He would later appoint enough justices to secure a firm liberal majority on the court. But after the court-packing fight, a conservative coalition of Southern Democrats and Republicans in Congress blocked most of Roosevelt's New Deal proposals.

Roosevelt maintained strict neutrality in European affairs until the summer of 1939. But after a trip to the United States by the British king and queen, he recommended that Congress amend the neutrality laws to allow nations that might go to war with the Axis powers (Germany, Italy, and Japan) the right to buy supplies from the United States. After Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, Roosevelt initiated a “cash and carry” policy to arm the British. The British paid cash and carried the goods away in their own ships.

In the summer of 1940 Roosevelt began a national preparedness program, had Congress give him authority to draft troops, and raised the ceiling on the national debt. In September, using an executive order to bypass the Senate's advice and consent power over treaties, Roosevelt concluded a “destroyer deal” with Great Britain: in return for providing the British with 50 old destroyers useful for submarine warfare, the United States received the use of British military bases in the Caribbean.

Because of the ominous international situation, Roosevelt broke with tradition and accepted a unanimous third nomination for President. He promised the American people, “Your sons will not fight in a foreign war,” and he defeated Republican Wendell Willkie. In his State of the Union address in 1941, he put forth his vision of a postwar world when he enunciated the Four Freedoms: freedom of speech and expression; freedom of every person to worship God in his own way; freedom from want; and freedom from fear.

In 1941 Congress passed the Lend-Lease Act, which provided military assistance to Great Britain and the Soviet Union. The United States, in the President's words, became the “arsenal of democracy” against the Axis dictatorships. Although Roosevelt gave “shoot on sight” orders to the navy against German submarines in the North Atlantic in 1941, landed U.S. troops in Iceland, closed Italian and German consulates, and froze Japanese assets in the United States, he did not ask Congress for a declaration of war because most Americans opposed it. In August 1941 Roosevelt met with British prime minister Winston Churchill to draft the Atlantic Charter, an eight-point plan on common principles of a democratic postwar world. The following month the U.S. Navy began to convoy British merchant ships carrying lend-lease supplies.

The Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor (in the Hawaiian Islands), on the Philippines, and on Guam, which all took place on December 7, 1941, led Roosevelt to ask Congress to declare war not only on Japan but on Germany and Italy as well. Early in 1942 a coalition of 26 nations subscribed to the Atlantic Charter. Following Roosevelt's suggestions, these nations called themselves the United Nations. In 1943 Roosevelt and Churchill called for an unconditional Axis surrender.

In June 1944 Allied troops under the command of General Dwight D. Eisenhower launched the Normandy invasion in France. With the war going successfully, Roosevelt received a fourth Democratic nomination and defeated Republican challenger Thomas E. Dewey.

In February 1945 Roosevelt traveled to Yalta in the Soviet Union to discuss plans for peace with Churchill and Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. Stalin and Churchill discussed spheres of influence for their nations, parts of Europe and the Middle East where they would have dominant political and economic influence. Roosevelt, in poor health, was not in a position to argue forcefully against them and in favor of the U.S. position of open markets and equal access for all the great powers. This led some critics to claim that Roosevelt had “sold out” the nations of eastern Europe to Stalin. While resting at Warm Springs, Georgia, in preparation for the San Francisco conference that was to create the United Nations, Roosevelt died of a cerebral hemorrhage on April 12, 1945.


Franklin D. Roosevelt's presidency was the longest and one of the most acclaimed in United States history. During his twelve years in office the New Deal helped to transform the structure of American government.

Roosevelt is the outstanding President of the twentieth century. In polls of historians, conducted variously since 1948, he has always been voted among the three greatest presidents in US history, Lincoln always coming first and Roosevelt or George Washington coming second. Roosevelt transformed the office of the President and, indeed, transformed the economic and social structure of the United States. He built the presidential office into a powerful and organized unit of government. He established the Executive Office of the President. He drew on many of the leading minds of the time. . He not only made the President the most powerful person in the USA, he also made him the most powerful elected official in the world.

Roosevelt achieved all this despite being confined to a wheelchair. His disability was hidden from the public. Roosevelt was a great showman. He knew how to charm. He also knew how to act and recognized a good idea when he saw one. He was not an original thinker, but he brought in a team of first-rate thinkers and drew on their ideas as he saw fit. Many New Deal measures had their genesis in congressional bills. Roosevelt picked them up, revised them, and presented them as his own creation.

He liked to be in control. He vetoed bills in order to demonstrate to Congress who was in charge. He appointed groups of advisers to provide advice on the same topic so that he could choose between them. He achieved a mastery of government unsurpassed in the history of the presidency.

Roosevelt's presidency has been subject to various revisionist interpretations, including those that argue that the New Deal should be credited to Congress and to Roosevelt's advisers, and that Roosevelt manipulated US entry into the Second World War. Such interpretations have not dented Roosevelt's standing. He is viewed as having been the right man for the right time — providing inspiration and leadership at a time when Americans cried out for it. His presidency has provided the benchmark for his successors.

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