An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: The Presidents of the United States- Franklin D. Roosevelt

Oct 28, 2013 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

  1. Today we will look at Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the thirty-second president of the United States. When and where was this President born and when did he serve-(during what time period or event or series of events ?)

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was born on January 30, 1882, in Hyde Park, New York. His family was a wealthy one, and as such he was able to attend the exclusive Episcopal boarding school Groton in Groton, Massachusetts. As was the case with virtually all of his Groton classmates, Roosevelt then went to Harvard. At both Groton and Harvard, Roosevelt’s academic performance was in the average range. He graduated from Harvard in 1903 with a Bachelor’s degree in History, and then attended law school at Columbia. He proved able to pass the New York state bar examination before he graduated from Columbia, so he dropped out of school and went to work for a well-established law firm in 1908.

Two years later, Roosevelt agreed to run for the New York State Senate from his home district around Hyde Park. He was given little chance of winning, since the area had sent Republicans to the State Senate (with only one exception) since 1856. But Roosevelt proved to be an effective campaigner, and the fact that he was distantly related to Theodore Roosevelt added luster to his name. Roosevelt won, and became identified with the wing of the Democratic Party that sought to distance itself from the influence of the New York City political machine known as Tammany Hall. Roosevelt supported Progressive measures in the Senate, and gained stature with the electorate as a result.

He won reelection in 1912, and became the chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture. His second term in the Senate was an abbreviated one, however. Roosevelt had believed that Woodrow Wilson should be the Democratic nominee for president in 1912, and had backed his candidacy. In return, when Wilson became president he appointed Roosevelt as the Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Roosevelt handled his responsibilities ably, and by the end of Wilson’s presidency he had become one of the most promising young figures in the Democratic Party. As a result, he was chosen to be the vice-presidential candidate of the party in 1920.

Although the Democratic ticket lost the election, Roosevelt won high marks for his effectiveness as a public speaker. After the election he returned to the practice of law, but in August of 1921 he was stricken with polio. Roosevelt was paralyzed from the waist down, and most observers felt that his political career was effectively over. But Roosevelt chose not to simple retire from public life, learning how to stand upright with the aid of leg braces and crutches. He would not allow himself to be photographed getting in and out of his wheel chair, and as a result many people believed that he had overcome polio.

By 1924 he was able to attend the Democratic National Convention, and in 1928 he gave the nomination speech for Al Smith, the man who would be the Democratic candidate in the national election. In 1928 Roosevelt ran for governor in his home state of New York, winning by a very narrow margin. As governor, Roosevelt followed the same Progressive course of action that he had embarked upon as a New York State Senator. A few months into his term of office, the Great Depression started, and Roosevelt’s response was swift and comprehensive. For example, when he learned that many New Yorkers had become homeless as a result of the Depression, he ordered the state armories in New York City to be opened at night as shelters.

The acclaim that he received as governor made him a logical choice to be the Democratic candidate for president in 1932, and he did indeed receive his party’s nomination. The disastrous nature of the Great Depression in all likelihood made a victory for Roosevelt inevitable, but Hoover made things worse for himself through his seemingly unfeeling response to the plight of World War I veterans who had marched to Washington DC to try to get the government to give them bonuses they were due before the actual payment date. Roosevelt, by contrast, proved to be as effective on the campaign trail as he had been during his first foray into politics in 1910. Roosevelt won all but six of the states, and was inaugurated president on March 4, 1933.

  1. What was he MOST known for?

There are many things that Roosevelt is remembered for to this day. From his many New Deal programs to his “Fireside Chats” on the radio, Roosevelt’s name is indelibly etched into the collective memory of the nation. Perhaps the most important of these is the distinction of being the only president to ever win election to four consecutive terms. Starting with George Washington, no president had ever sought even a third term in office, but in 1940 Roosevelt decided to become the first person to attempt that feat. Roosevelt believed that the United States would have to become involved sooner or later in the Second World War, and felt that the nation would need him to lead it through that crisis.

Although some decried his decision to ignore the precedent established by Washington, the majority of the American electorate believed his continued leadership was necessary and re-elected him. They would then give him a fourth term in the election of 1944. After his death, Congress created a Constitutional Amendment that barred any president from serving more than ten years in office. Thus no one will ever match Roosevelt’s record of winning four presidential elections.

  1. What would you say were his strengths?

Of all the presidents, Franklin Roosevelt had perhaps the best sense of how to mobilize public opinion for his initiatives. He rarely adopted a position that was too far out of step with the attitudes held by the American people, and thus had an almost unblemished record of accomplishments in relation to his goals. Roosevelt was one of the most effective public speakers to ever serve as president, and was usually a good judge of character in terms of his appointments to office. Finally, he genuinely cared about people, an empathy that endeared him to the American people.

  1. What were his relative weaknesses- politically perhaps, personally?

Roosevelt hated bad news, and was averse to confrontations with people who held positions opposite to his. Because of this, individuals who met with Roosevelt often left the room believing that the president agreed with them. This led people to believe that Roosevelt had misled them during their meetings with him for his own purposes, and left people unsure where Roosevelt actually stood on crucial issues.

In this manner, a few crucial issues regarding the post-war world (such as the fate of Poland) were left unresolved at the time of his unexpected death in April of 1945.

  1. What would you say was his impact on the United States and possibly the world?

Roosevelt clearly was one of the most important presidents in our nation’s history. He took a nation suffering from its greatest economic calamity and put it on its path towards recovery. In a similar fashion, he saw the nation through the dark days at the beginning of the Second World War, and charted a course that would see us through to victory. It is safe to say that we might have a vastly different nation had it not been for him.

  1. In terms of his place in history- it seems to be secure- but could you summarize your views as a historian about him?

Historians have always felt that Roosevelt provided great leadership as president. As a result, since the first poll was conducted in 1948, historians have put him either second or third on the list of greatest presidents. Currently, he ranks only behind Abraham Lincoln. It will take a future president who has a record of extraordinary accomplishments to unseat Roosevelt from that lofty ranking.

  1. What would you say were his greatest accomplishments?

Unlike some other presidents that left behind a miniscule legacy, Franklin Roosevelt’s accomplishments in office are so numerous and significant that it is difficult to select just one. While some historians would cite his handling of the Great Depression as his greatest legacy, I would instead point to his leadership during the Second World War.

While not immediately recognizing the threat that posed to the world by the rise of Adolf Hitler to power in Germany, by the end of the 1930s Roosevelt had decided that only decisive action on the part of the United States could help overcome Hitler’s quest for world domination. Accordingly, he took decisive steps to try to prepare our nation for entry into the war that had started in Europe in 1939.

To his surprise, however, the United States was first drawn into war by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941. As we have already seen, the Japanese had invaded Manchuria in 1931, an action that drew only a tepid response from Hoover. But when the Japanese once again invaded Chinese territory in 1937, Roosevelt’s reaction was decidedly more negative. Roosevelt tried a number of methods for convincing the Japanese to abandon their campaign in China, but by 1941 nothing Roosevelt did had worked. Roosevelt then decided to prohibit the sale of petroleum to the Japanese, and action that he thought so drastic that the Japanese would have to acquiesce to his wishes.

Unfortunately, it led instead to the decision by the Japanese to attack the American Pacific Fleet, hoping to so devastate the American Navy that Roosevelt and the Americans would sue for peace. The Japanese badly underestimated the resolve of Roosevelt, who in one of the most memorable speeches ever in American history called upon the nation to seek to avenge the “Day of Infamy.”

Two days after the United States declared war on Japan, Germany declared war on us. Facing this grave challenge of a two-front war, Roosevelt inspired the nation to make the sacrifices necessary to overcome our formidable foes. He also proved invaluable in holding together the coalition of Allied nations fighting against the Axis powers. Had Roosevelt proved to be a less effective leader, the whole history of the world could have been vastly different.

  1. Could you provide a summary statement about our thirty-second President?

When Franklin Roosevelt was preparing his plan for creating Social Security, he was asked why he was suggesting that the funding should come from individuals, rather than from Congressional appropriations. Roosevelt replied that if people paid into the program, they would never allow Social Security to be repealed or even significantly altered. History has proven Roosevelt to be absolutely correct. Whenever the subject of privatization has come up, a groundswell of opposition from the American people has always stopped the effort in its tracks. This story demonstrates the political genius of Roosevelt—he understood the basic hopes, desires, and motivations of the American people better than any American president other than Abraham Lincoln.


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