Study Guide

Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) Biography

  • Biography

    If you had met Franklin Delano Roosevelt when he was a boy, you would probably never have guessed that he would grow up to be the "peoples' president." FDR was born in the lap of luxury at Springwood, the Roosevelt family estate in Hyde Park, New York.

    FDR's family was very, very wealthy. They divided their time between Hyde Park, a townhouse in New York City (traveling back and forth in their own private railroad car), and their summer home in Maine. In many ways, Franklin had a normal upper-class upbringing for his place and time: private tutors at home, riding lessons from an early age, jaunts with daddy in the woods to hunt, kill, and collect rare birds. Little Franklin, however, was also something of a mama's boy. While most wealthy mothers of the time gave their children to nurses and governesses to raise, Franklin's mother Sara took personal control of his life, clothing him in dresses and kilts until he was eight years old and even bathing him herself. According to one letter, Franklin didn't take his first bath alone until he was nine! Under Sara's watchful eye, young Franklin learned French and German from an early age, and could write in German by the time was six.

  • Childhood

    For the first eight years of his life, FDR was educated by private tutors. At age nine, he attended his first school, not in Hyde Park but in Bad Neuheim, Germany, where his parents were living temporarily. That's right…the president who led the United States during World War II went to school in the country he would later conquer. Talk about irony. 

    Once he began school, Franklin learned that he was a popular kid. From a young age he seems to have been quick, outgoing and gregarious, and he used these qualities to his advantage. One of his teachers later described him as a "bright young fellow" who quickly made lots of friends. In his first year at Columbia, Roosevelt got B's, C's and a D. There you go, kids - you can get a D and still be president. Who knew? After two years, he passed the bar, dropped out of law school, got a job as a lawyer and never looked back.

  • Eleanor Roosevelt & Lucy Mercer

    Franklin's childhood may have been filled with discipline and rules, but does it explain his transformation from rich kid to man of the people? The fact that he wasn't spoiled surely played a role, but there were other influences that showed him what life was like on the other side of the proverbial tracks.

    One person who surely had an impact was his wife. Like FDR, Eleanor Roosevelt was the product of a wealthy, high-society New York family—in fact, the same wealthy, high-society New York family. Eleanor was also a Roosevelt by birth, Franklin's fifth cousin once removed. When the two married in 1905, cousin and President Theodore Roosevelt presided at their wedding, observing to the groom, "Well, Franklin, there's nothing like keeping the name in the family."blank">Louis Howe convinced them to stay together. Divorce would almost certainly have ended FDR's political career.

    After Lucy, Eleanor and FDR were never the same. Their relationship became largely a marriage of convenience and both seem to have had multiple affairs before FDR died. Franklin's affair with Lucy never became public, although she and FDR began seeing each other again in 1941. They continued their relationship right up until Roosevelt's death in 1945. And when Franklin D. Roosevelt died while on holiday in Georgia, it was Lucy, not Eleanor, who was at his side.

  • Early Political Career

    After passing the bar exam, FDR went to work for a law firm in New York City that represented some of the most powerful big businesses in the country, including Standard Oil. However, he had no intention of remaining a lawyer for long. In 1907, he mapped out a path to the presidency that closely mirrored what actually happened over the next 25 years of life. As a Harvard classmate who worked with Roosevelt remembered, "he described very accurately the steps which he thought could lead to this goal. They were: first, a seat in the State Assembly, then an appointment as Assistant Secretary of the Navy…and finally the governorship of New York. 'Anyone who is governor of New York has a good chance to be President with any luck,' are about his words…"

  • Polio

    FDR encountered his biggest hurdle in the summer of 1921. After swimming in the waters near his family's home in Maine, he contracted a crippling disease that left him paralyzed from the waist down. At the time, his physicians thought the disease was polio. More recently, doctors who have re-examined his medical records have suggested that Roosevelt's affliction might have been another disease, Guillian-Barré syndrome. Roosevelt's time in Georgia, as much as anything else in his life, may have helped him understand what it meant to live without, and to envision, a government that could play a more supportive role in ordinary peoples' lives.

    Although FDR never regained use of his legs, he regained most of his ability to move the rest of his body. And in 1929—after sitting out for most of what had been a horrible decade for Democratic politicians due to his disease—he continued on the path he'd laid out 22 years earlier by becoming the 44th Governor of New York. Then, after only three years in that office, he announced his candidacy for his final goal: President of the United States.

  • 1932 Election

    In hindsight, FDR might look like a shoo-in for the 1932 presidential election. The campaign unfolded during the darkest days of the Great Depression, and Roosevelt's opponent, Republican incumbent Herbert Hoover, was the man many Americans (perhaps unfairly) held personally responsible for their misery. Five thousand banks had failed, and by the end of the 1932, one third of the nation's workers were unemployed. In the countryside, farm income had declined from $12 billion in 1929 to just $5 billion. Children went hungry in both the coal-mining counties of West Virginia and the big cities of the northeast, yet farmers in the Midwest were destroying mountains of surplus crops that they couldn't sell on the market because prices had collapsed (cf. The Grapes of Wrath). The economy had ground to a halt, and America was suffering.

    The Democrats, who had elected only one president since 1896, knew they had a great chance at victory, and thus competition for the party's nomination was fierce. When FDR emerged victorious, he flew by plane to Chicago to accept the nomination in person, the first candidate ever to do so. In the closing words of his acceptance speech, Roosevelt promised "a new deal to the American people," without specifying exactly what that "new deal" would be.

    Over the coming months, FDR and his team ran an incredibly well-organized campaign. He also worked to project a public image of health and vigor, trying to allay the fears that his paralysis had made him physically unfit to serve as president. Nine days after winning his party's nomination, he rented a boat with three of his sons and sailed it up the coast to New England, with a press boat filled with reporters and photographers in tow.blank">landslide, capturing 57% of the popular vote and forty-two of the forty-eight states. His optimism, enthusiasm, and the unappealing alternative of another Hoover administration convinced an embattled nation to put a second Roosevelt into the highest office in the land.

  • First 100 Days

    Once in office, FDR set to work immediately. His "New Deal," it turned out, involved regulation and reform of the banking system, massive government spending to "prime the pump" by restarting the economy and putting people back to work, and the creation of a social services network to support those who had fallen on hard times.

    Between 8 March and 16 June, in what later became known as the "First Hundred Days," Congress followed Roosevelt's lead by passing an incredible fifteen separate bills which, together, formed the basis of the New Deal. Several of the programs created during those three and a half months are still around in the federal government today. Some of Roosevelt's most notable actions during the Hundred Days were:

    • A national bank holiday: The day after his inauguration, FDR declared a "bank holiday," closing all banks in the country to prevent a collapse of the banking system. With the banks closed, Roosevelt took measures to restore the public's confidence in the financial systems; when the banks reopened a week later, the panic was over.
  • Second New Deal

    Although FDR had forged a broad, progressive coalition during his 1932 campaign, by 1935 it seemed to be fraying at the seams. The most progressive members (like the outspoken Senator Huey Long) argued that the New Deal didn't go far enough, while wealthier business interests were opposed to what they saw as a government takeover of the economy.

  • Fireside Chats

    How did one man transform the government so radically, and so quickly? Witchcraft? Sorcery? Perhaps, but one secret to Roosevelt's success was his "fireside chats," thirty speeches he gave over the radio (and later TV) during his presidency. In his fireside chats, FDR spoke directly to the American people as if they were close friends. The chats were crucial to building support for the New Deal and, later, to mobilizing the nation for World War II. Many Americans came to feel like they were partners in their government with a man whose warm and understanding voice came right into their living rooms. As one businessman later said, "My mother looks upon the President as someone so immediately concerned with her problems and difficulties that she would not be greatly surprised were he to come to her house some evening and stay to dinner."blank" rel="nofollow">World War II—the second major crisis of FDR's presidency—that would finally and completely lift the nation out of the Great Depression. Out of the frying pan and into the fire. 

  • Pearl Harbor

    In 1938, FDR wasn't yet sure what to make of Hitler. At home, Roosevelt faced strong pressure not to get involved in Europe from isolationists in Congress. While Roosevelt saw the potential for danger, he didn't yet know whether or not Hitler simply wanted a bit more land, or whether he actually wanted a war with the whole world.blank" rel="nofollow">Pearl Harbor, plunging the US into the war. Congress declared war on the Axis Powers, and FDR officially became a wartime president.

  • At War

    FDR spent the last four years of his life—from 1941 until his death in 1945—as a wartime president. Those four years are the stuff of legend (read more about it in Shmoop History). By the war's end, the United States had left the Great Depression behind and become one of the most powerful nations in the world.

    During the war, Roosevelt deployed all of the talents he had used domestically to lead the war effort. He used the fireside chats to explain the war to the American people and enlist their support in helping win it. He also used the close relationships he had built with the press to give him wiggle room in which to make difficult decisions. And he used the relationships he had built with the country's European allies (especially his friendship with Winston Churchill) to both plan the war and the world order that followed.

    FDR's record during the war was not flawless. Today, his decision to imprison thousands of Japanese-Americans is probably viewed as his most controversial action. In 1942, responding to fears of a Japanese invasion of the American mainland in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attack, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. 110,000 Japanese-Americans were given a week to dispose of their property, rounded up and sent to camps in the desert.blank" rel="nofollow">New Deal rallied behind his leadership of the war effort.

  • Death

    Although Franklin Delano Roosevelt led the country for twelve years, he never saw the peaceful prosperity he worked to create. Years of disease, stress and constant cigarette-smoking took their toll. In March of 1945, Roosevelt traveled to his resort in Warm Springs, Georgia, to rest. On 12 April, he suffered a massive brain hemorrhage and died at the age of 63.

    FDR's legacy is immense. He led the nation through two of the greatest crises in its history, he expanded the power of the presidency, and he created new agencies that transformed the federal government and, in the process, its relationship with its citizens. Alongside Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, many consider him to be one of the influential presidents in American history.

    Ultimately, FDR was not trapped by the privileges and opportunities of his patrician upbringing. Instead, he found the confidence and optimism with which to lead the nation through two great crises. A consummate politician, he pulled the strings of government by giving everyone what they needed—the press, the people, and the Congress. He was not without his shortcomings—the internment of Japanese-Americans, and the failure to prevent the Holocaust chief among them—but he is remembered as a great president because he became what Americans needed most: an optimistic, decisive, and able leader, who could both inspire and get things done.

    In the end, much of his success seems to have stemmed from his upbeat personality and from his ability to play the political game. As a friend observed, Roosevelt picked politics for his career, and enjoyed it, "just as one enjoys a game that one has always liked and learned to play well."

    • Family

      Father: James Roosevelt, Sr., 1828-1900, businessman from a wealthy family; inherited a large fortune
      Mother: Sara Ann Delano, 1854-1941, also from a wealthy family, also inherited a large fortune
      Half-brother: James "Rosy" Roosevelt, Jr., 1854-1927, his mother was James's first wife, Rebecca Brien Howland

      Wife: Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, 1884-1962, also FDR's fifth cousin once removed
      Daughter: Anna Roosevelt Halstead, 1906-1975, writer, newspaper/magazine editor, philanthropist
      Son: James Roosevelt, 1907-1991, military officer, businessman, and politician
      Son: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jr., 1909-1909, died in infancy
      Son: Elliot Roosevelt, 1910-1990, military officer and author
      Son: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jr., 1914-1988, military officer and politician
      Son: John Aspinwall Roosevelt, 1916-1981, businessman and politician

    • Education

      High school at Groton School, Groton, MA, 1896-1900
      Undergraduate degree from Harvard College, Cambridge, MA, 1903 (officially class of 1904)
      Two years at Columbia Law School (never graduated), New York, NY,1905-1907

    • Work Experience

      Lawyer, Carter, Ledyard & Milburn, New York, NY, 1907-1910
      New York State Senator, 1910-1913
      Assistant Secretary of the Navy, 1913-1920
      Governor of New York, 1929-1932
      President of the United States, 1932-1945