The Biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Placed among the three most esteemed U.S. presidents along with George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt served as the 32nd president of the United States. He was the only president elected to office four times. He successfully steered the country through two of the direst crises of the 20th century: The Great Depression and World War II. Regarding his presidency, biographer Jean Edward Smith wrote: “(it) brought the United States through the Great Depression and World War II to a prosperous future”.

Early Life

A photograph of Franklin Delano Roosevelt at age two and a half, illustrating typical gender neutral clothing at the time

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, also referred to by his initials FDR, was born on 30th of January, 1882 in the Hudson Valley town, New York City to James Roosevelt and Sara Ann Delano Roosevelt. James, his father, wrote in his journal that day: 

“At a quarter to nine, my Sallie had a splendid large boy but was unconscious when he was born. Baby weighs ten pounds without clothes.” 

Franklin Roosevelt was born to wealthy parents. His paternal ancestors were wealthy landowners and merchants, while his mother came from the Delano’s, also wealthy merchants and shipbuilders. His family’s privileged position in the society helped him grow up to become a person of an imperious nature. It perhaps led to the determination which he brought with himself to his political career. 

As any eminent family of the time, he had the privilege of traveling to foreign countries. His family traveled to Europe’s churches, palaces, museums and other cultural heritages. His tours helped him become fluent in German and French.

Roosevelt family’s renowned footing in the society permitted him to visit the white house with his father at just five years of age. Upon meeting him, the then president, Grover Cleveland, uttered the following memorable words 

“I have one wish for you, little man, that you will never be president of the United States.” 

The irony of this statement, however, was apparent when Roosevelt happened to not only become the president but to hold the position for the longest time in the history of the U.S.


Roosevelt in 1900, at the age of 18

After receiving education from private tutors at home, he went to Groton Preparatory School at 14 years of age where he was considered an average student. After graduating from Groton, in 1890, he enrolled in Harvard University. At Harvard, though a ‘C’ student, he managed to become the editor of the Harvard Crimson newspaper and a member of the Alpha Delta Phi fraternity. After receiving his degree from Harvard, he continued his education at the Colombia University Law School. He passed the bar exam in 1907 and went onto practicing corporate law in New York.

Marriage to Eleanor Roosevelt

Franklin D. Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt with Anna and baby James, formal portrait in Hyde Park, New York

While studying in Harvard, he met Eleanor Roosevelt, the niece of Theodore Roosevelt, who was serving as president at the time. They were distant cousins and got engaged during Roosevelt’s final year there. They got married on 17th March 1905. Their marriage resulted in them having six children; however, their second son, Franklin, died in infancy. Roosevelt knew that the support of his wife had helped him through many a difficult time, but that did not stop him from having an affair with Lucy Mercer.

black and white portrait of Lucy Mercer 

Despite Eleanor’s warnings, Franklin managed to have a secret affair and continued to see her. In fact, Lucy was one of the three persons present at the time of Franklin’s death in 1945.

Early Political Career

He found a passion for politics after realizing that law was not the career for him. Indeed, his prolific personality found the job rather tedious and inspired by his distant cousin President Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin started pursuing a career in politics. Though he was inspired by Theodore Roosevelt, he developed an affiliation with the Democratic Party, following the footsteps of his father.

In 1910, he decided to run for the New York Senate as a democrat at the age of merely 28 years. With the help of his acclaimed name and some enthusiastic campaigning in a district dominated by Republicans, he delivered himself a triumphant victory. He worked as senator diligently during the tenure and earned himself popularity by working in opposition to Tammany Hall. At that time, Tammany bossed and dominated the Democratic Party’s political machinery in New York. 

In the 1912 elections for senate, he was re-elected as a senator, after he established an alliance with Louis-Howe, who would later inspire and shape his political career. He earned recognition as an administrator, where he was serving as chair of the agriculture committee.

For supporting Wilson as a presidential candidate in the 1912 elections, Franklin earned the position as Assistant Secretary of the Navy. He specialized in business operations, passing bills, and working towards a large and efficient naval force. Franklin had an affection for the navy for a long time; he claimed to have accumulated a multitude of books on navy and read all except one. He was more enthusiastic than his boss in building the naval force. Not a single strike occurred during the seven years he held office, which helped him gain trust of the labor and union leaders.

Roosevelt as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, 1913

After losing the elections of the senate in 1914, Roosevelt learnt important lessons about politics and alliance. He lost the elections to a candidate backed by Tammany. After the loss, Franklin requested to be allowed to remain a naval officer – but on insistence by Wilson, he continued to serve as the Assistant Secretary of the navy and remained so during the World War. In 1918, he visited Europe to get helpful tips on the naval operations. On his way back, the influenza pandemic hit on board, killing many. Roosevelt became very ill but managed to survive this too. 

In the presidential elections of 1920, Roosevelt backed Hoover as a presidential candidate for the democrats, but to his dismay, Hoover publicly declared he was a republican. Roosevelt sought the 1920 vice-presidential elections. Though his nomination was a surprise since he had made abundant enemies throughout his political career, he was running mate for Ohio-based James Cox. Vigorous campaigning and supporting the U.S. entry into League of Nations did not help with his popularity, and they lost to the Republican candidates. 

However, Roosevelt took this as a lesson learnt and found opportunities for the next election. Also, this election saw the participation of Eleanor Roosevelt and her support which would go a long way for Roosevelt.

James Cox and Roosevelt in Ohio in 1920

Roosevelt returned to New York and practiced law. His career faced a major setback in 1921 when during a vacation at Campobello, he was diagnosed with Polio and lost his legs. Being an ambitious aspirer for political achievements, Franklin did not accept that he was now paralyzed. He sought various therapies in hopes to recover his lifeless legs. For some time, he resigned, being a polio victim. But, the support of his wife Eleanor and his political associate, Louis Howe, encouraged him to carry on with his ambitions. He managed to walk using crutches for small distances and was finally on the road to recovery; though he never completely gained the use of his legs.

In 1928, he fought for the spot of the governor of New York and was narrowly elected. This victory could be called a turning point. This gave him confidence that he was still in the political game. He believed in progress and made many possible projects during his administrative regime.

Presidential Elections

In 1929, the sudden crash of the stock market was inevitably blamed on the republicans, who were in the government then. Roosevelt seized this opportunity and decided to run for President in the upcoming elections. His positive approach and promises of relief to the masses and recovery of the economy were welcomed by the desperate Americans. Roosevelt’s charming personality wrapped it up and delivered a triumph over the Republican candidate Herbert Hoover. Franklin was the first democratic president since Woodrow Wilson.

In his acceptance speech, he repeated the promises he had made. He said, “I pledge you; I pledge myself to a new deal for the American people.” This led to the establishment of the New Deal Political System, where Roosevelt oversaw many reconciliations and endorsements from republicans. After a long time in history, democrats again controlled both houses of the congress. 

Roosevelt involved the American public in his policies, informing them and working on an optimistic mindset. His policies were considered haphazard, but they did manage to steer the crippling economy onto the road to recovery. His policy was referred to as the relief, recovery, and repair system.

Franklin’s popularity won him the second term in office through the 1936 elections. He continued to improve the economic system throughout his second term in office. He had not yet decided to claim the presidency for the third term, but the impending World War, made him realize that he was capable of dealing with it. And so he went for the elections for the third consecutive time. 

However, his fourth term was marred by the war’s politics. His speeches consisted mostly of establishing an alliance with the British in 1940.

He tried to keep America out of the war, only supporting the Anti-Nazi elements with aid and arms. But the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor shattered his hopes. From there, Roosevelt took the lead as a commander in chief. He developed strategies and carried out direct measures to defeat Germany. He advocated the formation of the United Nations during this time. America had also begun its work on acquiring atomic power.

Franklin Roosevelt signing the declaration of war against Japan (left) on December 8 and against Germany (right) on December 11, 1941

The stress of World War II had taken a toll on his health. In April 1945, he suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage and died a sudden death, which shook America to its core especially during a war struck era. His passing was a shock, for he had remained a successful and popular president for four straight terms.

The last photograph of Roosevelt, taken April 11, 1945, the day before his death

In U.S. history, most leaders have had a direct impact on shaping world politics. Franklin Roosevelt was one of those. He joined office during The Great Depression, which had a global impact, and later his policies framed the curse of World War II and its aftermath. 

Franklin Roosevelt was a man who had an optimistic approach to the problems faced by America. And with the help of his positive attitude, he catapulted America out of all the problems, leaving in himself a role model and a statesman for the new politicians to study and follow.