Roosevelt, Franklin Delano

(1882-1945)
   32nd president of the United States. Born in Hyde Park, New York, into a wealthy family, Franklin D. Roosevelt was educated at Groton School, Harvard, and Columbia University Law School. He briefly practiced law in New York City before entering the state senate as a Democrat in 1910. In 1913, he was appointed assistant secretary of the navy, a post previously held by his uncle, Theodore Roosevelt. His role in the navy enhanced his reputation, and after the war he was nominated as the Democratic Party’s vice presidential candidate to run alongside James M. Cox in the unsuccessful campaign of 1920.
   In 1921, Roosevelt developed polio, which left him severely paralyzed and threatened to destroy his political career. However, aided by his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, he fought to overcome the disability and in 1928 succeeded Alfred E. Smith as governor of New York. As the effects of the Great Depression began to tell, Roosevelt introduced measures to develop public electric power, reduce utility rates, and provide relief for the unemployed. He was reelected in 1930 and then defeated Smith and John Nance Garner to win the Democratic presidential nomination in 1932. He broke with tradition and flew to Chicago, Illinois, to accept the nomination. In his speech on 2 July, he promised “a New Deal for the American people,” and this quickly became the label applied to his New Deal program. His election campaign was impressively vague, but he projected a positive air and promised an “enlightened administration.” He was critical of Herbert Hoover for failing to balance the budget and increasing government bureaucracy.
   Roosevelt won a convincing victory with 57 percent of the popular vote to Hoover’s 40 percent and 472 Electoral College votes to 59. He did little between his victory and his inauguration but did survive Guiseppe Zangara’s assassination attempt in February 1933. However, declaring there was “nothing to fear but fear itself,” in his inaugural address in March 1933, he promised a wide-ranging program of measures to combat the deepening Depression. He followed up with a remarkable wave of action in what became known as the “First Hundred Days,” establishing the New Deal as a reforming administration of unheard-of proportions. The New Deal formed the basis of the modern welfare state and the framework of U.S. politics for the next half century, and Roosevelt served an unprecedented four terms, being reelected in 1936, 1940, and 1944.
   Roosevelt outlined the approach of the New Deal in a “fireside chat” on 28 June 1934, when he called for relief, recovery, and reform. In the “First New Deal,” the emphasis was on relief and recovery, and the deal witnessed a flood of legislation to halt the financial collapse (Emergency Banking Act), restore faith in financial institutions (Securities Act, Securities and Exchange Act), provide work for the unemployed (Public Works Administration, Civil Works Administration, Civilian Conservation Corps), encourage industrial and agricultural recovery (National Industrial Recovery Act, Agricultural Adjustment Act), and tackle problems of soil erosion, flood control, and regional poverty (Tennessee Valley Authority).
   This plethora of alphabet agencies marked a massive departure in the role of the federal government and established Roosevelt as one of those most significant figures in modern U.S. history. A “Second New Deal” from 1935 to 1937 had more emphasis on reform and is often seen as a move to the “left” in response to radical criticisms and the persistence of high unemployment and poverty. In addition to increasing taxes on wealth and business (Revenue Acts, Wealth Tax Act), relief was further extended in 1935 with the Works Progress Administration and National Youth Administration. Agricultural problems were further addressed by the Resettlement Administration in 1935, which was later replaced by the Farm Security Administration. Problems of poverty in old age and the issue of unemployment insurance were tackled with the Social Security Act of 1935, while conditions at work and the right to trade union membership were dealt with for the first time by federal government in the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 and Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. This reform came to an end due to increasing congressional opposition, particularly following Roosevelt’s attempt at “court packing” to alter the balance of the Supreme Court to protect the new legislation. Politics also became increasingly dominated by foreign affairs and the approach of war with Europe.
   Roosevelt moved the United States to support Great Britain in the conflict with Germany, through the Destroyers-for-Bases Agreement, the Lend-Lease Act, and the joint statement with Winston Churchill in the Atlantic Charter in 1941. Following the attack by Japan on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, described by Roosevelt as a “date which will live in infamy,” the president asked Congress for and received a declaration of war. As commander in chief Roosevelt headed the enormous mobilization of U.S. manpower and industrial might. “Dr. New Deal” was replaced by “Dr. Win the War,” and a wave of war agencies displaced many of the New Deal bodies. The war also effectively ended the Depression and brought full employment and job opportunities for women and African Americans. During the course of the war, Roosevelt headed discussions with the Allied powers—Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and China—and met with other leaders at the Moscow, Tehran, and Yalta conferences. He established good relations with both Churchill and Joseph Stalin, but critics later suggested that he failed to take a tough enough stand against the Soviet leader and created problems for his successors.
   Having defeated Republican candidate Wendell Willkie in 1940, the American people reelected Roosevelt in 1944 when he defeated Thomas E. Dewey. He died in office on 12 April 1945, leaving his vice president, Harry S. Truman, the unenviable task of following one of the greatest leaders in U.S. history.

Historical Dictionary of the Roosevelt–Truman Era . . 2015.

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