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A Lonely Member of the Gentry
THE HUDSON VALLEY BOY
Born January 30, 1882, and raised on an estate in Hyde Park, on the Hudson River in upstate New York, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a true American aristocrat. That is to say, he came from an "old money" family long secure in their social status. For over two centuries, going back to the original white settlement of the area, a handful of families had owned huge parcels of land, built mansions that would have been envied by European counterparts (except that these were new), and interacted with locals as lesser beings. His parents were not nearly as wealthy as some extended family members because his father had lost heavily during the depression of the 1890s. But they had acres of fields, forests, greenhouses, barns, stables, icehouses, and of course servants, from house maids to farm hands. His mother and father set out for Franklin to be a young gentleman, and the families that he knew closely, Roosevelts and Delanos, were almost identical, old-line Hudson Valley clans of mixed Dutch, English or assorted other heritage.
Religion and philanthropy were watchwords for prominent members of these clans. Franklin would grow up an active Episcopalian, remain religiously involved in many ways and continue to enjoy hymn-singing throughout his life. His grandmother, matriarch of the wealthiest family in Newburgh, New York, served as president of the local Associated Charities. Adopting as its motto, "Not alms, but a friend," she was a woman determined to work toward the abolition of all poverty based on unemployment.
These relations also wielded great political power. A more distant ancestor, a sugar merchant, had helped draft the first constitution of New York State. Others included a legislator in the New York state assembly, horse breeders, ship owners, industrialists, and above all country gentlemen. His fifth cousin, Theodore Roosevelt, was already rising in power as New York police chief, mayoral candidate and dynamic political orator, when Franklin was still a teenager.
Compared to these powerful and dynamic personalities, Franklin, an only child, seems to have been shy. He spent his early years as much with adults, mainly his parents and his wealthy relatives, as with children his own age. He even wore long blond curls until he was five and dressed in what was known as a "Lord Fauntleroy" suit, the dandified outfit of the sons of the English aristocracy. His father, fifty-two years old at Franklin's birth, was old enough to be a grandfather, but when not engaged in business ventures, romped with his beloved son through the family estate, hiking, fishing and riding horses. On a business trip to Wisconsin, his father introduced Franklin to bird lore, part of the fascination with nature that the future president had through life. As he grew, his mother remained highly protective, determined to organize every detail of his young life. He was kept at home with tutors, out of school until age fourteen, then sent to Groton, a new prep academy full of other children of extreme privilege.
Groton was a curious place, founded and run by clergyman Endicott Peabody as a center for teaching morals as well as the usual subjects. Young Franklin had to adjust to the change from his sumptuous room in an estate to a cubicle separated from others by a cloth curtain, a tin basin to wash his face, and a rigid schedule set by authorities outside the family. Years later, he adopted daily rituals like using the same razor blade eight times by shifting the blade around for the sharpest edges, a habit that an assistant described as being similar to Franklin's mother saving string: lifelong Yankee habits that must have been reinforced at Groton as "Waste not, want not."
He had entered Groton two years after the rest of his class and faced a bit of ridicule as "Uncle Frank," marking him as a somewhat solitary figure. In time he adjusted, thanks in part to Peabody as a substitute father figure with the reputation of a "Christian Socialist," that is, someone urging upper class responsibility for the fate of the poor and disadvantaged. In this environment, young Franklin seems to have flourished in ways, taking part in the all-important sports competitions. His grades were not, however, especially good, and he remained somewhat of a loner. In Groton school debates, he took views almost exactly opposite those of cousin Theodore Roosevelt, who urged the American wars to conquer parts of the "backward" nonwhite world. Young Franklin argued against the U.S. invasion and occupation of the Philippines, and against the annexation of Hawaii much favored by sugar merchants. Roosevelt wrote to Peabody, years after graduation from Groton, that he counted it "among the blessings of my life that it was given to me in formative years to have the privilege of your guiding hand." It might be that the Franklin Roosevelt of the Depression years was the best pupil of Endicott Peabody after all.
Franklin entered Harvard in 1899 with a number of his Groton classmates. Although he wanted urgently to prove himself on the football field, at 146 pounds he was too light, and he left the freshman team after two weeks. He drove himself into other kinds of extra-curricular activities, including secretary of the Freshman Glee Club. He worked hard to make a mark at the Harvard Crimson, the campus newspaper (his clippings included a special interview with Theodore Roosevelt, visiting the school for a lecture). If he remained an indifferent student, outstanding in no subject, and failed to be invited to the most exclusive social club on the all-male campus, he registered in school for a fourth year (unnecessary with his Groton background) so he could edit the Crimson. There, his strongest editorials dealt with the Harvard football team and the behavior of the crowds at the games.
THE FAMILY, THE LAW AND THE DEMOCRATS
It was family life that changed most dramatically for the young man. His father died at seventy-two, after years of heart trouble, in December, 1900. Afterwards, his mother left the family estate for Boston, where she could live in an apartment close to her son. She soon had an emotional rival, of sorts, in his fifth cousin, Eleanor Roosevelt.
The two had "met" on the nursery floor when Eleanor was two and Franklin was five and she rode on his back. She had weathered an unhappy, insecure childhood, with her mother dead when she was only eight and her brother a few weeks after. Her father, an alcoholic, spent much of his time in sanitariums. Probably it was this difficult life that prepared her eagerness to accept a vision gaining popularity among many young women, that of a mission among the unfortunate. By nineteen, she taught in a settlement house and investigated working conditions of women on behalf of a group that would remain close to her heart, the Consumers League. For Franklin she was sweet, tall, and a niece of president Theodore Roosevelt. They fell in love quickly and married in 1905. He was twenty-two, she three years younger. Franklin's mother moved the couple into a New York house on East 36th St., then into a new house on East 65th St., next door to the twin townhouse that Sara Roosevelt had built for herself. The interference of a mother-in-law added to Eleanor's emotional insecurity with three young children to care for in the first five years of their marriage, and even from its early years, it was not an especially happy partnership.
Nor would Franklin Roosevelt have much succeeded as a lawyer—without being a Roosevelt. He seemed an indifferent student at Columbia Law School, but he joined a prominent Wall Street firm on the strength of family ties, played poker at the University Club and on weekends or summers kept up family connections back home like the Hudson River Ice Yacht Club and the St. James Episcopal Church. Bored and restless, armed with a powerful list of introductions to political officeholders, he was invited to run as a Democrat for the New York State Senate in 1910 from his home district. More than anything, he had the family name.
He won narrowly, in an upstate county that the Democrats had not carried in more than twenty years. The way that he won pointed in the direction of his future. He argued for clean government against the political bosses of both parties. And if he spoke poorly at first, he nevertheless seemed to voters a sincere young man who could talk with anyone face to face. It was a good year for Democrats nationally, and for himself as a particular kind of Democrat.
Why was he a Democrat rather than a progressive Republican, like Theodore Roosevelt, or even a conservative Republican? Outside of the Midwest and West, by this time, most liberals had all but given up on the Republican Party, while the Democrats appeared less tied to the South and to the white prejudice on the "race issue" than they had been since the Civil War. Besides, the New York Democrats were eager to get him. He supported shorter working hours for working women and children (voting for a restriction to a staggeringly long fifty-four hours per week), and more significantly, followed cousin Theodore in advocating the conservation of natural resources against the destructive demands of corporate plunderers.
He moved the young family to a mansion near the state capitol of Albany, and quickly found a battle within the Democratic Party, or it found him. Tammany Hall, with generations of clout alongside its reputation for crookedness, was determined to dominate the state legislature, using the Democratic party as its tool. A minority of Democrats refused to go along. Roosevelt, only twenty-nine, became the leader of this rump group, negotiating quietly but also swiftly gaining a national reputation for fighting "bossism." He won no great victories here, except the admiration of his constituents and of liberal- minded readers around the country. These were quite enough.
In one term, he avidly supported the interests of his farming constituency along with clean government, but he made his mark in moral concerns and assistance to the unfortunate. He opposed prize-fighting, then viewed by many reformers as a horribly violent "sport," and his opposition to legalized racetrack betting won the support of the National Christian League for the Promotion of Purity. He supported woman suffrage on the same basis as his support for purer milk for poor children. But he increasingly came to favor more broadly-aimed bills like workmen's compensation. The national mood was swinging in this direction, even if Democrats in many places, the South especially, defended the rights of mill owners and others to offer whatever conditions and pay the desperately poor populations would agree to take.
Re-elected in 1912, he won by a wider margin, and in his district actually ran ahead of the Democrats' presidential and gubernatorial candidates. With his popularity and emerging instinct for political leadership, he introduced motions in the new legislative session to protect farmers in various ways, but also to protect woodlands against exploitation and devastation. Along with his support for protective labor legislation, Roosevelt was already assembling planks in the future New Deal platform. He was on his way in other respects as well.
The four-cornered race for the presidency in 1912 had two major reformers on the ballot: former locomotive fireman, Eugene V. Debs, running his strongest Socialist campaign, and Teddy Roosevelt, also running a strong campaign on the so-called "Bull Moose" (or Progressive Party) ticket. It was a high point of indignation at corrupt politicians and broad public popularity for social progress. Franklin turned aside from his cousin in order to support Woodrow Wilson, the former president of Princeton University, moderately progressive on many issues although deeply committed to racial segregation. The outcome showed that only a candidate with an established machine could win the White House, but Roosevelt's four million votes and Debs' 900,000 suggested the public was ready for change even with Wilson at the helm. Franklin wanted as high an appointed office as possible, and got it: Assistant Secretary of the Navy.
ANOTHER MR. ROOSEVELT GOES TO WASHINGTON
Even as a college boy, Franklin had urged a larger Navy, and now he was in a position to help create it. Lobbying groups for steelmakers and shippers naturally wanted it as well, but so did labor's Samuel Gompers, chief of the American Federation of Labor. A bigger Navy meant more potential union jobs, the marriage of war and commerce that would repeatedly reshape the national economy in the generations ahead. Roosevelt's skill lay in formulating policies at once effectively coordinating purchases and also bringing jobs back to his home state. His mistake was to jump from this influential position back into the electoral arena, in the only failed political campaign of his life: for U.S. Senator from New York in 1914. He had earlier flirted with the idea of running for New York's governor but failed to get the needed backing. He also considered running for the U.S. Senate as a Progressive rather than a Democrat, or running for both nominations simultaneously. In the end, he chose once more to be a Democrat pure and simple. But sly politician Woodrow Wilson characteristically backed the Tammany candidate, who beat Roosevelt badly in the primary. Roosevelt learned that he could not buck the machine.
Back in Washington, he warned Woodrow Wilson in 1916 that "We've got to get into this war," and joined the propaganda blitz to persuade an uncertain public that the conflict was not a battle between empires for more control of the world, as it obviously seemed to be, but something far more ethical. Did Roosevelt himself believe that the United States had the duty as well as the strength to emerge from the conflict as the most powerful nation, military and commercial, on earth? Was he swept away, perhaps influenced by his always bellicose cousin, Theodore, in the wave of patriotic eagerness for combat? It doesn't seem that he asked himself these questions.
Meanwhile, Progressives like Robert M. La Follette of Wisconsin, unsuccessful rival to Theodore Roosevelt's nomination on the Progressive Party ticket for 1912, joined socialists, pacifists and leaders of the woman suffrage movement in urging that the U.S. stay out of any European conflict. Franklin wanted badly to lead troops into battle once the U.S. had declared war in 1917, but instead was assigned to inspect naval stations. If he grew troubled by the unprecedented raids, government arrests and prosecutions of labor, radical and peace organizers during and shortly after the war—the first of the twentieth century "Red Scares"—he seems to have put such issues aside for his own ambition.
For one moment, the Red Scare almost touched did him. Woodrow Wilson's Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer directed suppression of antiwar newspapers and organizations, highlighted by the mass arrests of radical labor activists and infiltration of social movements by the new Bureau of Investigation (the future FBI). One branch of anarchists responded by striking out against the powerful. Among a series of bombs delivered to Wall Street financiers, one blew up across the street from the Roosevelts, hurling debris onto their doorstep.
Franklin may have had his own reasons other than career and conscience for not speaking out against the continuing wave of repression. In fall, 1918, returning from Europe, he contracted Spanish influenza and, as his wife unpacked his things, she discovered love letters that he had written to her own social secretary, Lucy Mercer. He barely avoided a divorce (according to a later account by his son Elliott, Franklin's mother had threatened to cut off his access to family assets). Meanwhile, he was nominated in a losing cause, for vice-president behind the mediocre James M. Cox, in the 1920 race. He declared himself a domestic reformer, but he and Cox also sought to win the public to Woodrow Wilson's dream of American involvement and leadership in a League of Nations. Public revulsion at the pointlessness of the war overwhelmed their effort.
LIVING WITH DISABILITY
In summer, 1921, he contracted what was soon diagnosed as poliomyelitis at Compobello, the family's summer home off Canada's New Brunswick coast, and never regained the use of his legs. Later generations of medical historians believe that it was a different, less common disease with similar symptoms, since "polio" most often struck children rather than adults. Whatever the actual illness, the story of the disabled politician is one of the most important in modern American political history.
His mother urged him to abandon politics entirely. That he chose to make it his life can be seen as proof of someone overcoming their disability through determination. He pressed onward, through decades of physical therapy and the use of heavy steel braces or standing with the help of others holding onto him. This physical weakness doubtless further deepened in Roosevelt a sympathy for those betrayed by life's misfortunes but still eager to make themselves good Americans.
Excerpted from FDR AND THE NEW DEAL FOR BEGINNERS by PAUL BUHLE, Sabrina Jones. Copyright © 2010 Paul Buhle. Excerpted by permission of Steerforth Press.
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