Study Guide

Franklin Delano Roosevelt in FDR's First Inaugural Address

By Raymond Moley/Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Franklin Delano Roosevelt

I Just Can't Wait to Be King…er, President

The first few pages of FDR's bio read like the world's worst foreshadowing. When you read about how this guy grew up, you think, "Of course he was going to grow up to be president. There's not even any suspense here. Where are the will-he-or-won't-he stories about chopping down cherry trees?"

Here's what we mean:

Born into a wealthy New York family, Frankie D. was groomed to be a success, attending the prestigious Groton School followed by a four-year stint at Harvard University. His passion for politics flamed to life when Theodore Roosevelt, his fifth cousin, became the 26th president of the United States.

Because obviously Teddy was every boy's role model: he was an outdoorsman and war hero, wore the world's greatest 'stache, and once gave a speech after being shot (source).

And Teddy's enthusiasm for change had a profound effect on little Franklin…with one big difference. While Teddy was a Republican (and later a Bull Moose, which was the actual name of an actual political party), FDR was a lifelong Democrat.

Standing Head and Shoulders Above the Competition…Even From a Wheelchair

FDR's political career began in the New York State Senate where he picked fights with "Boss" Tweed and the cronyism of Tammany Hall, a Democratic mainstay in New York politics. He then jumped to Washington and was appointed assistant secretary of the Navy, much like his idol Teddy Roosevelt. A buzz began building around the talents of this young politician, to the point that he was named as the vice presidential candidate for the Democrats in the 1920 election. They lost big time. Disappointed, Roosevelt moved back to New York.

Then disaster struck. The future president was diagnosed with polio, a debilitating disease that paralyzed Roosevelt from the waist down. He spent years in rehabilitation and eventually learned to walk short distances with the aid of a cane or leg braces.

But a little thing like paralysis couldn't keep FDR from metaphorically walking tall. In fact—to continue the metaphor—by this point in his career, FDR was basically running like Usain Bolt.

After several well-received Democratic convention speeches, he was persuaded to run for governor of New York and won by a 1 percent margin, proving every vote counts. His progressive ideals and the public's general disgust for the Republican party due to their mishandling of the Great Depression helped vault FDR into a second term as governor, and as 1932 rolled around, the Democratic candidate for president.

We all know how that one turned out.

A World at War, a President at the Height of His Powers

But the world seemed intent on throwing FDR pretty much every available curveball. Polio? Hmm. Didn't slow him down. How about a depression? No? Still going strong? How about a massive world war, then?

Yes, we're talking about World War I's terrible sequel: World War II.

Once the long-simmering tensions of the Axis powers exploded into full-on war in Europe, Roosevelt again moved away from the foreign policy of the past. For much of its history, the United States had maintained an isolationist stance, basically leaving the rest of the world to its own devices. Even as Hitler started seizing territory, Congress believed neutrality was the way to go. But eventually, public outcry against Germany and Japan enabled the president to deliver aid and arms to the only major power left standing: Great Britain.

Roosevelt spoke of America being the "arsenal of democracy" during his fireside chats. By 1941, he was able to pass the Lend-Lease Act, a program through which aid and other supplies could be sent to Great Britain, Russia, China, and several smaller Allied powers. This was novel not only because it went against America's typical isolationist stance, but there were no expectations of ever being repaid the money.

This was truly a fight for global survival.

Legacy: Leaving His Cousin's Memory in the Dust

And even though Roosevelt died before he could celebrate the end of World War II, his legacy was definitely celebrated when peace was finally declared. Because this guy helped America get from the rags of the depression to the riches of post-war calm.

After all, FDR steered the country through turmoil to the beginning of the Pax Americana. He came into office at perhaps its lowest moment and with many reassurances coaxed the fires of industry to life again. His "New Deal" for America's workers served as the backbone of what today are essential government services. The creation of federal deposit insurance resuscitated the entire banking industry and helped people cautiously begin believing in the economy again.

Roosevelt's 12-year tenure redefined the American presidency and what people could expect of their government. And though his idol Teddy could've beaten him in a fight (and had a cute stuffed bear named after him), FDR's contributions to the country enabled him to step out from his cousin's shadow. Take that, TR.

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