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Franklin Roosevelt Biography

Though he was instinctively cautious and conservative, Franklin Roosevelt presided over nothing less than a social and ideological revolution in America in the 1930s. He came to the Presidency in the midst of the greatest economic and social crisis America had ever faced, and in his unprecedented third and unfinished fourth terms, he proved to be a charismatic wartime leader, despite the caution that had marked his entry into the war. In some ways he was an unlikely revolutionary. Born into a wealthy family of English and Dutch extraction in the Hudson Valley and educated by private tutors at home and in Europe, as well as at Groton, Harvard, and Columbia University Law School, Roosevelt was deeply interested in his ancestors, particularly the Dutch ones, and was active in societies that promoted the Dutch colonial heritage and architecture. He has been called a "country squire with a difference." The difference was that Roosevelt confided even when he was at Harvard that he intended to seek a career in pubic life. He married his earnest and talented distant cousin, Eleanor, his godfather Elliott Roosevelt's daughter and Theodore Roosevelt's niece, in 1905. Eleanor was interested in settlement houses and various other Progressive causes, and interested Franklin in the plight of the urban poor. Theirs was to be one of the most successful political partnerships of the twentieth century, though they were never completely happy in their personal relationship. Elected to the New York State Senate in 1911, Roosevelt set out to help farmers in upstate New York. In a move that foreshadowed the "Brain Trust" he developed in his White House years, consulted not only with the State Grange, but with Liberty Hyde Bailey, a renowned professor of agriculture from Cornell University, to help him in drafting legislation to assist farmers in cooperative marketing practices and in obtaining low-cost loans for farm improvements. Roosevelt also showed an interest in social welfare in urban settings and in social justice issues.

Roosevelt signed on early to Woodrow Wilson's campaign for the Presidency in the Election of 1912. When Wilson was elected, Roosevelt became Assistant Secretary of the Navy. At the time, Roosevelt's thinking was colored by Theodore Roosevelt's; he was something of an imperialist. He favored building a powerful navy and engaging in military intervention abroad, particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean. Roosevelt's thinking on these matters changed during his time with Wilson, and with the flexibility that was to characterize him throughout his life, he easily shifted positions, becoming an advocate for some form of a League of Nations that could broker diplomatic solutions to global problems.

Undaunted by an attack of poliomyelitis, which left him crippled in 1921, Roosevelt ran for the governorship of New York in 1928 and won. When he was reelected by a vast majority in 1930 he became a likely candidate for the presidential Election of 1932. When he was in office, Roosevelt's program, which he called the "New Deal", became the most ambitious legislative agenda in U.S. history, exceeded only by Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society" programs in its legislative endeavors.

Roosevelt had a rare rhetorical ability, and a personal presence that made him a compelling and inspiring figure. Roosevelt's resounding pronouncement that Americans had nothing "to fear but fear itself" in his first inaugural address was followed by a tidal wave of legislation that gave Americans renewed hope for their future. Roosevelt openly said that he was experimenting. During the election and in the months before he took office, Roosevelt surrounded himself with a "Brain Trust" of Columbia University professors. As President, he assembled a cabinet of the best and brightest advisors he could find. These included Frances Perkins as Labor Secretary, Henry A. Wallace as Agriculture Secretary, and Harold Ickes as Secretary of the Interior. Roosevelt's "Fireside Chats" on the radio maximized the possibilities of mass communication. Roosevelt came into people's living rooms as an avuncular family friend, while his commitment to "persistent experimentation" was deeply reassuring. Asked about his philosophy, Roosevelt replied that he was a "Christian and a Democrat," and that that was all the philosophy he needed.

The Hundred Days of Roosevelt's first term produced monumental pieces of legislation, including the Emergency Banking Act, the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA), and the National Industrial Recovery Administration (NRA). The second Glass-Steagall Act (the first had been passed in 1932) separated investment banking from commercial banking, and created the FDIC. The Federal Relief Administration (FERA) under the direction of Harry Hopkins, a social worker from New York, helped keep people fed until relief measures could take effect. Roosevelt set up a Public Works Administration (PWA) and, in November, 1933, a Civil Works Administration (CWA). During Roosevelt's term, the Tennessee Valley Authority which could assist in flood control, economic development, and rural electrification was created. In 1934, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) began its oversight of the stock market.

Despite all of his efforts, the Depression persisted. Roosevelt also ran afoul of both monied elites, who felt that he had betrayed his own class, and left-wing figures like Charles Coughlin, Francis Townsend, and Louisiana's charismatic Senator Huey P. Long. Townsend actually proposed a pension plan for the elderly that would have given $200 a month to all citizens over the age of 60. Roosevelt's most effective challenge on the left came from Long , whose "Share Our Wealth" philosophy held that an unequal distribution of wealth lay at the heart of America's problems. Meanwhile, on the judicial front, Roosevelt ran afoul of a conservative Supreme Court that struck down the NRA in 1935 in Schecter v. United States. Roosevelt's response to his setbacks and critics was to forge ahead. The "Second New Deal" represented a dramatic shift to the left on Roosevelt's part. The Wagner Act; also known as the National Labor Relations Act, favored organized labor and gave it a court of appeal through the National Labor Relations Board. A Social Security Act in 1935 reflected the impact of both Francis Townsend and Huey Long, and was a pivotal moment in the creation of a modern welfare state.

In foreign Policy, Roosevelt engaged in few initiatives in his first term. He recognized the Soviet Union in 1933. He also developed a "Good Neighbor" policy toward Latin America with Secretary of State Cordell Hull. Roosevelt and Hull were attempting to repair the damage done by military intervention in Latin America, some of which Roosevelt himself had supported in his days as an Assistant Secretary of the Navy under Woodrow Wilson. A Pan-American Conference was held in December, 1933, and in 1934 Congress repealed the Platt Amendment, which had claimed the right to intervene in Cuban affairs. Despite these conciliatory gestures, the United States maintained a coercive stance toward Latin America, signaled by its military base at Guantanamo Bay and in various covert efforts, some of which have been revealed by the recent release of classified documents.

Throughout the 1930s Roosevelt was aware of the looming threat of fascist regimes in Europe and in Asia. American sentiment was resolutely isolationist. The United States declined, for example, to intervene on behalf of the Spanish government during the Spanish Civil War, even though the forces of General Francisco Franco, the government's adversary, were known to be receiving aid from the fascist governments of Germany and Italy. Only in 1940, when Hitler's march through Europe seemed to be unstoppable, did public sentiment shift in favor of intervention in Europe. Having won an unprecedented third term, Roosevelt prepared for war. He had already persuaded Congress to amend the Neutrality Act of 1935 to allow the Allies to purchase weapons on a cash-and-carry basis. The Lend-Lease Act of 1941 authorized Roosevelt to "lend, lease, or otherwise dispose of" arms and other military equipment to the Allies. In August, 1941, Roosevelt and Winston Churchill met off the coast of Newfoundland. Their meeting took place in secret, but their joint press release became known as the Atlantic Charter. It focused on post-war economic collaboration, national self-determination, and the right of all humans to live in "freedom from fear and want." Roosevelt finally declared war only after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December, 1941. As a wartime president, Roosevelt proved to be as canny a leader as he had been in his quest of economic recovery, though, like Wilson, he chose to enter the war very late. He maintained his desire for a body that would broker diplomatic solutions to international problems, and remained committed to working with the Soviet Union. Roosevelt was very ill during the last year of his life. He died in April, 1945, only a few months after winning a fourth term

Though his policies were to have such wide-ranging effects on America's stature abroad and on domestic policy, Roosevelt tended to be impatient with ideologies and theories. When Roosevelt's efforts to foster economic recovery through New Deal legislation ran afoul of the Supreme Court, he attempted to alter the composition of the Court. His efforts to reorganize-detractors called it an attempt to "pack"-the Supreme Court were a major and damaging miscalculation during his presidency. Some of Roosevelt's decisions--the interment of Japanese Americans and the United States's failure to intervene on behalf of Jews in Hitler's Germany raise questions about his administration, as well. In a real sense, however, Roosevelt was the architect of America from 1932-1968, and Presidents Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson all worked within his model, though they also expanded it.