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Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Franklin Delano Roosevelt served as the thirty-second president of the United States from 1933 to 1945. During his unprecedented four terms in office, Roosevelt established himself as a towering national leader, leading the United States out of the Great Depression through the active involvement of the federal government in the national economy. The federal government grew dramatically in size and power as Congress enacted Roosevelt's New Deal program. As president, Roosevelt was responsible for the creation of Social Security, federal labor laws, rural electrification programs, and myriad projects that assisted farmers, business, and labor. During World War II Roosevelt's leadership was vital to rallying the spirits of the citizenry and mobilizing a wartime economy. Nevertheless, Roosevelt was a controversial figure. Many economic conservatives believed his programs owed more to state socialism than to free enterprise.
Roosevelt was born on January 30, 1882, in Hyde Park, New York, the only son of James and Sara Delano Roosevelt. The young Roosevelt was taught to be a gentleman and to exercise Christian stewardship through public service. He graduated from Harvard University in 1904 and in 1905 wed Eleanor Roosevelt, the niece of his fifth cousin, President Theodore Roosevelt.
Roosevelt attended Columbia University Law School but left without receiving a degree when he passed the New York bar exam in 1907. In 1910 Roosevelt was elected to the New York Senate as a member of the Democratic Party. Reelected in 1912, he resigned in 1913 to accept an appointment from President Woodrow Wilson as assistant secretary of the Navy. For the next seven years, Roosevelt proved an effective administrator and an advocate of reform in the U.S. Navy.
Roosevelt was nominated for vice president on the 1920 Democratic party ticket. He waged a vigorous campaign in support of the presidential nominee, James M. Cox, but the Republican ticket headed by Warren G. Harding soundly defeated Cox and Roosevelt. After the election Roosevelt joined a Maryland bonding company and began investing in various business schemes.
Roosevelt's life changed in August 1921, when he was stricken with poliomyelitis while vacationing at Campobello Island, New Brunswick. Initially, Roosevelt was completely paralyzed, but over several years of intense therapy, he made gradual improvement. His legs, however, suffered permanent paralysis. For the rest of his life, he used a wheelchair and could walk only a few steps with the help of leg braces.
Eleanor Roosevelt believed her husband's recovery depended on his reentry into New York politics. She attended meetings, made speeches, and reported back to him on the political events of the day. By 1924 Roosevelt was at the Democratic National Convention nominating Governor Alfred E. Smith of New York for president. Smith, who lost the presidential elections in 1924 and 1928, showed Roosevelt the ways of New York state politics and pushed him to run for governor in 1928. A reluctant Roosevelt won by a narrow margin, but soon was governing as if he had won by a landslide. With the stock market crash of October 25, 1929, the United States was thrown into a national economic depression of unprecedented severity. As governor, Roosevelt set up the first state public relief agency and tried to find ways to spark an economic recovery. His landslide reelection in 1930 made him the logical candidate to face the Republican president Herbert Hoover in the next presidential election.
Roosevelt was nominated for president on the third ballot of the 1932 Democratic National Convention. During the campaign Roosevelt called for the federal government to take action to revive the economy and end the suffering of the thirteen million unemployed people. Hoover advocated a more limited role for the federal government in the national economy. Roosevelt easily defeated Hoover and brought with him large Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress.
Roosevelt took office on March 4, 1933, at a time when the economy appeared hopeless. In his inaugural address he reassured the nation that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." He proposed a New Deal for the people of the United States and promised to use the power of the executive branch to address the economic crisis.
During his first hundred days in office, Roosevelt sent Congress many pieces of legislation that sought to boost economic activity and restore the circulation of money through federally funded work programs. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) provided unemployment relief and an opportunity for national service to young workers, while promoting conservation through reforestation and flood control work. Federal funds were given to state relief agencies for direct relief, and the Reconstruction Finance Company was given the authority to make loans to small and large businesses.
The centerpieces of Roosevelt's New Deal legislation were the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) of 1933 (7 U.S.C.A. § 601 et seq.) and the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) of 1933 (48 Stat. 195). The AAA sought to raise farm prices by giving farmers federal subsidies if they reduced their agricultural production.
The NIRA was a comprehensive attempt to manage all phases of U.S. business. It established the National Recovery Administration (NRA) to administer codes of fair practice within each industry. Under these codes labor and management negotiated minimum wages, maximum hours, and fair-trade practices for each industry. The Roosevelt administration sought to use these codes to stabilize production, raise prices, and protect labor and consumers. By early 1934 there were 557 basic codes and 208 supplementary ones. In 1935, however, the Supreme Court struck down the NIRA in A.L.A. Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States, 295 U.S. 495, 55 S. Ct. 837, 79 L. Ed. 1570.
In 1935 Roosevelt and the Congress passed the Social Security Act (42 U.S.C.A. § 301 et seq.), a fundamental piece of social welfare legislation that provided unemployment compensation and pensions for those over the age of sixty-five. More groundbreaking legislation came with the passage of the Wagner Act, also known as the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935 (29 U.S.C.A. § 151 et seq.), which recognized for the first time the right of workers to organize unions and engage in collective bargaining with employers.
Roosevelt handily defeated Republican Alfred M. Landon, the governor of Kansas, in the 1936 presidential election. In his second term, however, Roosevelt met more resistance to his legislative initiatives. Between 1935 and 1937, the Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional eight New Deal programs that attempted to regulate the national economy. Most of the conservative justices who voted against the New Deal statutes were over the age of seventy. Roosevelt responded by proposing that justices be allowed to retire at age seventy at full pay. Any justice who declined this offer would be forced to have an assistant with full Voting Rights. The assistant, of course, as a Roosevelt appointee, would be more likely to be sympathetic to the president's political ideals. This plan to "pack" the Court was met with hostility by Democrats and Republicans and rejected as an act of political interference. Despite the rejection of his plan, Roosevelt ultimately prevailed. In 1937 the Supreme Court upheld the Wagner Act in NLRB v. Jones and Laughlin Steel Corp. 301 U.S. 1, 57 S. Ct. 615, 81 L. Ed. 893, signaling an end to the invalidation of New Deal laws that sought to reshape the national economy. From Jones onward the Court permitted the federal government to take a dominant role in matters of commerce.
By 1937 the national economy appeared to be recovering. In the fall of 1937, however, the economy went into a recession, accompanied by a dramatic increase in unemployment. Roosevelt responded by instituting massive government spending, and by June 1938 the economy had stabilized.
During the late 1930s, Roosevelt had also become preoccupied with foreign policy. The rise of Adolf Hitler and Nazism in Germany, coupled with a militaristic Japanese government that had invaded Manchuria in 1933, created international tensions that Roosevelt realized might come to involve the United States. U.S. foreign policy had traditionally counseled against entanglements with other nations, and the 1930s had seen a resurgence of isolationist thought. Roosevelt, while publicly agreeing with isolationist legislators, quietly moved to enhance U.S. military strength.
With the outbreak of World War II in Europe in August 1939, Roosevelt sought to aid Great Britain and France against Germany and Italy. The Neutrality Act of 1939 (22 U.S.C.A. § 441), however, prohibited the export of arms to any belligerent. With some difficulty Roosevelt secured the repeal of this provision so that military equipment could be sold to Great Britain and France.
In 1940 Roosevelt took the unprecedented step of seeking a third term. Although there was no constitutional prohibition against a third term, President George Washington had established the tradition of serving only two terms. Nevertheless, Roosevelt was concerned about the approach of war and decided a third term was necessary to continue his plans. He defeated the Republican nominee, Wendell L. Willkie, pledging that he would keep the United States out of war. Roosevelt's margin of victory in the popular vote was closer than in 1936, but he still won the Electoral College vote easily.
Following his reelection, Roosevelt became more public in his support of the Allies. At his urging, Congress moved further away from neutrality by passing the Lend-Lease Act of 1941 (55 Stat. 31). Lend-Lease provided munitions, food, machinery, and services to Great Britain and other Allies without immediate cost.
The United States entered World War II following the Japanese attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941. Roosevelt rallied a stunned citizenry and began the mobilization of a wartime economy. In his public speeches and "fireside chats" on the radio, Roosevelt imparted the strong determination that the United States would prevail in the conflict. He met with Winston Churchill, the prime minister of Great Britain, and Joseph Stalin, the leader of the Soviet Union, several times during the war to discuss military strategy and to plan power-sharing in the postwar world. Roosevelt, who needed the Soviet Union's cooperation in defeating Germany, sought to minimize conflicts with Stalin over postwar boundaries in Europe.
In 1944 Roosevelt decided to run for a fourth term. Though his health had seriously declined, he wished to remain commander in chief for the remainder of the war. The Republican Party nominated Governor Thomas E. Dewey of New York for president, but again Roosevelt turned back the challenge, winning 432 electoral votes to Dewey's 99.
In February 1945 Roosevelt traveled to Yalta in the Crimea to meet with Churchill and Stalin. Germany was on the edge of defeat, but Japan's defeat did not appear imminent. Stalin accepted Roosevelt and Churchill's offer of territorial concessions in Asia in return for his promise that the Soviet Union would enter the war against Japan once Germany was defeated. At Yalta the leaders reaffirmed earlier agreements and made plans for the establishment of democratic governments in eastern Europe. The Yalta agreements were not clearly written, however, and therefore were open to differing interpretations by the Allies. Within a month after Yalta, Roosevelt sent a sharp message to Stalin concerning Soviet accusations that Great Britain and the United States were trying to rob the Soviets of their legitimate territorial interests.
Early in the war, Roosevelt decided that an effective international organization should be established after the war to replace the League of Nations. At Yalta, Roosevelt pressed for the creation of the United Nations as a mechanism to preserve world peace. A conference attended by fifty nations was scheduled to begin on April 25, 1945, in San Francisco, California, to draft a United Nations charter. Roosevelt had planned to attend, but his health had steadily declined since the 1944 election.
Instead, Roosevelt went to his retreat in Warm Springs, Georgia, where he had begun his rehabilitation from polio in the 1920s. He died there on April 12, 1945. Vice President Harry S. Truman succeeded Roosevelt. On May 7 the war in Europe ended with Germany's surrender; four months later, on September 2, Japan also surrendered, ending the war in the Pacific.
Jenkins, Roy. 2003. Franklin Delano Roosevelt. New York: Times Books.
Kline, Stephan O. 1999. "Revisting FDR's Court Packing Plan: Are the Current Attacks on Judicial Independence So Bad?" McGeorge Law Review 30 (spring).
McElvaine, Robert S. 2002. Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press.