Happy Birthday

franklin delano roosevelt
Associated Press

Happy Birthday, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Depression-Era and Wartime President

January 30, 2010
by Liz Colville
President during the Great Depression and World War II, Franklin Delano Roosevelt is widely regarded as one of the most influential U.S. presidents in history, spearheading the creation of many government agencies that still exist today.

Early Days

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was born on January 30, 1882, to Sara Delano and James Roosevelt on the family estate in Hyde Park, New York. According to the Franklin D. Roosevelt American Heritage Center’s extensive biography, the future president was born into wealth, his father a “landed gentlemen” who “dabbled in but usually devoted no great effort to business.” An only child, the young Roosevelt benefited from Swiss tutors and an otherwise “cosseted” life surrounded by adults.

Roosevelt attended Harvard University, becoming president of the student newspaper, “The Crimson,” and wooing his distant cousin, Theodore Roosevelt’s niece Eleanor. After earning his BA in three years, Roosevelt attended Columbia Law School and practiced law for three years at a New York City firm; he passed the bar exam without actually earning his law degree.

Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt married in 1905; they had six children, though only five reached adulthood.

Notable Accomplishments

Roosevelt launched his political career in 1910, when he ran for the New York Senate as a Democrat in his home constituency, which was traditionally Republican. Nevertheless, he won.

He was reelected to the State Senate in 1912, and went on to support Woodrow Wilson at the Democratic National Convention. He was rewarded for this endorsement by a cabinet appointment: Assistant Secretary of the Navy, a position he held from 1913–1920, and which helped prepare him for World War II. He was nominated for vice president alongside Democratic hopeful James M. Cox in 1920, but the pair lost to Republican candidate Warren G. Harding.

Roosevelt remained committed to politics; however, he contracted polio while on vacation in New Brunswick, Canada in 1921, which stymied his own career for some years. He endorsed New York Governor Alfred E. Smith for president twice, and in 1928, Smith nominated Roosevelt to succeed him as governor.

President Hoover fell increasingly out of favor during the Depression; meanwhile, Governor Roosevelt enacted programs that boosted New York’s economy. He was reelected in 1930, and in 1932, he secured the Democratic presidential nomination. His electoral strategy was “simple,” writes the American Heritage Center: to “avoid doing anything to alarm the electorate while allowing Hoover's enormous unpopularity to drive voters to the Democrats.” He succeeded.

Read Roosevelt’s first inaugural address (and the subsequent three) on C-SPAN’s American Presidents site. Roosevelt’s memorable oratory can also be heard in his “fireside chats,” weekly radio addresses that helped connect the president with the nation. These can be read on the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum site.

The Rest of the Story

As the country’s only four-term president, Roosevelt oversaw some of the darkest years in U.S. history, faced with the greatest economic depression the country had experienced as well as a world war. The University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs has a special “American President” site with numerous resources on Roosevelt, including “Key Events.” It lists many of the important bills, departments and agencies that Roosevelt created during his first term in support of his “New Deal” strategy to rebuild the American economy.

The section “Impact and Legacy” provides information about the president’s major accomplishments and the lasting effect of his tenure. The article notes that “while many of the situations that created opportunity and struggle for Roosevelt were “beyond his control,” his “responses to the challenges he faced made him a defining figure in American history.”

While Roosevelt’s tenure was the longest of any U.S. president, he died suddenly of a brain aneurism while still in office. He had been suffering from several conditions, including high blood pressure, heart “ailments” and bronchitis; the events of 1944 and 1945, including a fourth presidential campaign and the Yalta Conference, only exacerbated his ill health. In Warm Springs, Georgia, the president’s “favorite retreat” for decades, he collapsed while sitting for a portrait, and Harry Truman assumed the presidency.

The PBS American Experience documentary “FDR” is available for free on the PBS Web site. In it, several people recall a president who “championed the common man.” The documentary also discusses Roosevelt’s family and early life, his controversial decisions and key events during his presidency.

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