Franklin D. Roosevelt Essay

Franklin D. Roosevelt

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (January 30, 1882 – April 12, 1945) served as the 32nd President of the United States and was elected to four terms in office. He was the only President to be elected four times. He served from 1933 to 1945. Roosevelt pioneered the New Deal, which helped the United States overcome the Great Depression. He also directed the nation’s efforts to win World War II. He made the office of president the center of diplomatic initiative and the focus of domestic reform.

 Franklin Delano Roosevelt was born on January 30, 1882, in Hyde Park, in the Hudson River valley in upstate New York. Roosevelt grew up in an atmosphere of privilege. Roosevelt’s education at Groton and Harvard, his travels abroad, and his wide range of reading gave him superior grounding in Western cultural traditions. As a practical philosopher, he was typically American. His main ideas can be understood correctly only if the American point of view, or frame of reference, is kept in mind. His point of departure was naturally his own country, and very often his native Dutchess County. He had a deep and abiding love for America. This feeling was the driving force toward the two chief goals of his career-conservation of America’s resources and security for America’s people. The institutions and programs he supported were those he thought best for the United States in the twentieth century.

The fact that Roosevelt was an experienced practitioner of politics has been offered as the compelling reason why his views on public affairs should receive consideration. His involvement in politics, at the same time, created a serious obstacle to contemporary understanding of his ideas. He believed, as most Americans believe, in the party system, and he chose to work in the Democratic Party. (Thomas H. Greer, 1958).

Roosevelt, the master politician, worked hard to take the legacy of Lincoln away from Republicans to help garner support for the New Deal. Roosevelt was more involved in selecting Truman, albeit duplicitously. Dishonesty aside, FDR clearly made the better choice in Truman (Jack Lechelt, 2005).

In the contest for the State Senatorship from the Republican-dominated Hyde Park area in 1910, Roosevelt clearly indicated that his major interests were politics and public service, not law. His energetic, unorthodox, yet successful campaign offered a preview of future contests in which he would confound his foes and force from them reluctant praise. Roosevelt’s very strenuous campaign for the vice-presidency in 1920, in which he strongly defended Wilson’s League of Nations, indicated his basic understanding of the international responsibilities the United States had to assume after World War I (Bernard Bellush, 1955).

Roosevelt took the position as Assistant Secretary of the United States Navy under Woodrow Wilson in 1912. In 1914, he was defeated in the Democratic primary for the United States Senate by Tammany Hall-backed James W. Gerard. From 1913 to 1917, Roosevelt worked to expand the Navy and founded the United States Navy Reserve. To gain the Democratic nomination for the election, Roosevelt had to make his peace with Tammany Hall, which he did with some reluctance. Roosevelt was elected Governor by a narrow margin, and came to office in 1929 as a reform Democrat. As Governor, he established a number of new social programs, and began gathering the team of advisors he would bring with him to Washington four years later, including Frances Perkins and Harry Hopkins.

The main weakness of Roosevelt’s gubernatorial administration was the corruption of the Tammany Hall machine in New York City. Roosevelt’s strong base in the most populous state made him an obvious candidate for the Democratic nomination, which was hotly contested since it seemed clear that Herbert Hoover would be defeated at the 1932 presidential election. Roosevelt built his own national coalition with personal allies such as newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, Irish leader Joseph P. Kennedy, and California leader William G. McAdoo. The election campaign was conducted under the shadow of the Great Depression, and the new alliances created by the Depression. Roosevelt and the Democratic Party mobilized the expanded ranks of the poor as well as organized labor, ethnic minorities, urbanites, and Southern whites, crafting the New Deal coalition. During the campaign, Roosevelt said: “I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people”, coining a slogan that was later adopted for his legislative program as well as his new coalition.

As a New York politician, Roosevelt had more in common with upstate Republican farmers than with the Big Apple’s Democratic workers and their political leaders. Yet Roosevelt’s opportunism prompted him to cultivate AI Smith and support his presidential ambitions in 1924 and 1928. He was even prepared to do Smith’s bidding against the advice of his own swengali, Louis Howe, and support Smith’s campaign in 1928 by running for the governorship. In the event, Roosevelt not only ingratiated himself with the Democratic Party leadership but, as Governor of New York, assumed his predecessor’s status as ‘tribune of the urban working class’ and forged a position independent of the influence of Smith and party eminence John J. Raskob. Roosevelt’s manipulative abilities and his ‘stealthy bid for power’ go hand-in-hand. FDR was a master of ‘fudging’, ‘mediation’, and ‘bridging’. He obscured his stance on women’s suffrage and prohibition as a state legislator so as not to alienate his rural constituency and, as Governor, he managed to reconcile both urban and rural interests despite a full and innovative political agenda. The Roosevelt of this narrative practiced divide and rule, playing off advisers, agencies, and departments against each other in order to maintain personal control. That this tendency was also apparent in his private life may suggest that the key to his political skill was also the crucial feature of his personality. Roosevelt was the patrician as political boss. Not only did he imitate the modus operandi of the machine, he also appreciated how reform made good politics. Roosevelt’s liberal limitations are registered in his lack of enthusiasm for wealth redistribution and public housing, and one of the New Deal’s most celebrated achievements, the Social Security Act of 1935, is characterized not only as conservative but ‘inept’ because of its exceptions, applications, and lack of uniformity. In the 100 Days, for example, initiatives like the Thomas amendment and the Glass-Steagall Act came ‘from outside FDR’s administration’. (Stuart Kidd, 2005).

In March 1933, the U.S. was at the nadir of the worst depression in its history. A quarter of the workforce was unemployed. Farmers were in deep trouble as prices fell by 60%. Industrial production had fallen by more than half since 1929. In a country with limited government social services outside the cities, two million were homeless. The banking system had collapsed completely. Historians later categorized Roosevelt’s program as “relief, recovery and reform.” He blamed the economic downturn on businessmen, the quest for profit, and the self-interest basis of capitalism. After the 1934 Congressional elections, which gave Roosevelt large majorities in both houses, there was a fresh surge of New Deal legislation. These measures included the Works Progress Administration (WPA) which set up a national relief agency that employed two million family heads. However, even at the height of WPA employment in 1938, unemployment was still 12.5% according to figures from Micheal Darby. The U.S. economy grew rapidly during Roosevelt’s term. However, coming out of the depression, this growth was accompanied by continuing high levels of unemployment, as the median joblessness rate during the New Deal was 17.2 percent.

Roosevelt’s administration also saw significant changes to the income tax in the American tax system. Just prior to Roosevelt’s election in 1932, Congress passed the Revenue Act of 1932, increasing the top marginal tax rate on individual income from 25% to 63% and enacting a wide range of additional excise taxes. In 1936, the Roosevelt administration added a higher top rate of 79% on individual income greater than $5 million, and that rate was increased again in 1939.

Although Roosevelt was only 62 in 1944, his health had been in decline since at least 1940. The strain of his paralysis and the physical exertion needed to compensate for it for over 20 years had taken their toll, as had many years of stress and a lifetime of chain-smoking. He had been diagnosed with high blood pressure and long-term heart disease and was advised to modify his diet (although not to stop smoking). Aware of the risk that Roosevelt would die during his fourth term, the party regulars insisted that Henry A. Wallace, who was seen as too pro-Soviet, be dropped as Vice President. After considering James F. Byrnes of South Carolina and being turned down by Indiana Governor Henry F. Schricker, Roosevelt replaced Wallace with the little known Senator Harry S. Truman. In the 1944 elections, Roosevelt and Truman won 53% of the vote and carried 36 states, against New York Governor Thomas Dewey. On March 30, 1945, Roosevelt went to Warm Springs to rest before his anticipated appearance at the founding conference of the United Nations. On the morning of April 12, 1945, Roosevelt said ” I have a terrific headache.” He was to never speak again. The doctor diagnosed that he had suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage, and as Allen Drury once said “so ended an era, and so began another. Roosevelt’s death was met with shock and grief across the U.S. and around the world.

Of the many precedents, which Roosevelt established as president, one has received less notice than it deserved. On the morning of his first inauguration, March 4, 1933, he attended special church services at St. John’s with members of his family and Cabinet. He did this on successive inaugurations, as well as on special occasions-each time asking for divine guidance in the tasks ahead. It was symbolic of the religious faith which lay at the center of his outlook on life. He accepted Christian truths as naturally as his birthright. From the beginning of his political career, he looked upon social and governmental problems as basically moral in nature, and he came to identify his conception of “social justice” with Christianity itself. With his ethical approach to both religion and government, he saw no real conflict between Church and State.

Roosevelt, plainly, saw patterns in history. To him the universe was no chaotic swirl, devoid of meaning. At the same time, he rejected any notion of mechanical determinism. There was a divine purpose, according to which human wills co-operated with God in the making of a better world. As president, he felt he had a particular duty in the divine scheme of things, as had every other human soul. He believed that God was directly interested in and active in the world of men, and that God responded to prayer.

As governor, and later as president, he continued to see progress ahead as well as behind. This philosophic view, combined with a naturally sanguine disposition, made him a supreme optimist. Since the nation was compounded of people of diverse origins, worship of traditions would have divided Americans into distinct cultural groups. As he expressed it on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the Statue of Liberty, “The realization that we are all bound together by hope of a common future rather than by reverence for a common past has helped us to build upon this continent a unity unapproached in any similar area or population in the whole world. Because he believed in the future, he had a special feeling for young people, who would be the inheritors and makers of better days (Thomas H. Greer, 1958).

During his more than 12 years in the office of the presidency, Roosevelt reshaped America’s stand on foreign policy drastically. When FDR assumed his duties as president, the majority of Americans were firmly embedded in isolationist attitudes. As world events around him began to heat up, Roosevelt slowly emerged as a committed internationalist. He cautiously set out to educate the American public on the foreign dangers he perceived would have a negative impact on our domestic prosperity as well.

Roosevelt did not ignore the state of the home front while America was fighting the war throughout Europe and Asia. His appointment of the first lady to oversee this office as the assistant director to the OCD stresses the importance he placed on strengthening and protecting America at home (Sondra Pena, 2005).

President Franklin D. Roosevelt promised reformers that national health insurance would someday be enacted but at the same time reassured opponents by suggesting that no drastic action would be taken. He spoke at the Conference on Economic Security in Washington DC on November 14, 1934-“Whether we come to this form of insurance soon or later on, I am confident that we can devise a system which will enhance and not hinder the remarkable progress which has been made and is being made in practice of the professions of medicine and surgery in the United States”–Franklin D. Roosevelt.

He added that he did not know “whether this is the time” for extensive federal legislation, either for national health insurance or for old-age insurance. The Social Security Act, on the contrary, would establish a permanent system that needed broad political and popular support.

Historians have assumed that Roosevelt’s cautious approach to national health insurance was a direct result of the medical profession’s opposition as represented by the American Medical Association (AMA). In his message to Congress of June 8, 1934, Roosevelt announced that the social insurance system he envisioned would be “national in scope” to provide all Americans with a “safeguard against misfortunes which cannot be wholly eliminated in this man-made world of ours”. Roosevelt appointed the Committee on Economic Security (CES). Chaired by Frances Perkins, the CES consisted of four cabinet members and Harry Hopkins.

His most famous legacies include the Social Security system and the regulation of Wall Street. His aggressive use of an active federal government reenergized the Democratic Party. Roosevelt built the New Deal coalition that dominated politics into the 1960s. During the war years, Roosevelt’s messages on national health insurance remained ambiguous. Even though he publicly called for the extension of social security “to provide protection against the serious economic hazard of ill health,” he merely endorsed a hospital construction bill (Jaap Kooijman,1999).

After 1938, Roosevelt championed re-armament and led the nation away from isolationism as the world headed into World War II. He provided extensive support to Winston Churchill and the British war effort before the attack on Pearl Harbor pulled the U.S. into the fighting. During the war, Roosevelt, working closely with his aide Harry Hopkins, provided decisive leadership against Nazi Germany and made the United States the principal arms supplier and financier of the Allies who defeated Germany, Italy and Japan. Roosevelt led the United States, as it became the Arsenal of Democracy, putting 16 million American men into uniform.

On the home front his term saw the end of unemployment, restoration of prosperity, significant new taxes and controls, 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans sent to relocation camps, and new opportunities opened for African Americans and women. As the Allies neared victory, Roosevelt played a critical role in shaping the post-war world, particularly through the Yalta Conference and the creation of the United Nations. Roosevelt died on the eve of victory in World War II and was succeeded by Vice President Harry S. Truman.

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s record on civil rights has been the subject of much controversy. He was a hero to large minority groups–especially Blacks, Catholics and Jews. Blacks and Indians fared well in the New Deal relief programs, although they were not allowed to hold significant leadership roles in the WPA and CCC. Critics of Roosevelt questioned not only his policies and positions, but also the consolidation of power that occurred because of his lengthy tenure as President, his service during two major crises, and his enormous popularity.

It is clear that Roosevelt seriously believed in outdoor recreation as a necessity of the good society. His concept of the good society was no cold abstraction, but a definite and realizable goal-the true object of American history and aspiration. (Thomas H. Greer, 1958). Throughout his presidency, Roosevelt maintained a seemingly ambiguous position on national health insurance. He promised the medical profession that he would keep medicine out of politics, but he never denounced national health insurance altogether. He kept the reformers believing that he was on their side in the battle with the AMA, telling them that the “same old crowd that has fought us so often is still at it … and only death will mend their ways.(Jaap Kooijman, 1999).

References:

1)         Bernard Bellush ; 1955; Franklin D. Roosevelt as Governor of New York; Publisher: Columbia University Press. Place of Publication: New York. Page Number: 4.

2)         Jaap Kooijman ; 1999; Soon or Later On: Franklin D. Roosevelt and National Health Insurance, 1933-1945; Journal Title: Presidential Studies Quarterly. Volume: 29. Issue: 2. Page Number: 336. COPYRIGHT 1999 Center for the Study of the Presidency; COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group

3)         2) Jack Lechelt ; 2005; Franklin D. Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln: Competing Perspectives on Two Great Presidencies. Journal Title: White House Studies. Volume: 5. Issue: 1. Page Number: 119+. COPYRIGHT 2005 Nova Science Publishers, Inc.; COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group.

3) Sondra Pena;2005; Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Formation of the Modern World; Journal Title: White House Studies. Volume: 5. Issue: 2. Page Number: 278+. COPYRIGHT 2005 Nova Science Publishers, Inc.; COPYRIGHT 2006 Gale Group.

4) Stuart Kidd; 2004; Franklin D. Roosevelt. Contributors: – author. Journal Title: History Review. Issue: 49. Page Number: 54+. COPYRIGHT 2004 History Today Ltd.; COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group.

5) Thomas H. Greer; 1958; What Roosevelt Thought: The Social and Political Ideas of Franklin D. Roosevelt; Michigan State University Press. Place of Publication: East Lansing, MI.; Page Number: 11.

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