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A welcome synthesis of the best modern scholarship on the Roosevelt administration, McJimsey's study portrays Roosevelt as a pluralist leader whose various New Deal programs empowered the American people to combat America's Great Depression at the grass roots by participating in programs for agriculture, industry, labor, the unemployed, and "underdeveloped" regions. During the depression, Roosevelt hoped to create a "cooperative commonwealth" that would create a strong America at home, as later during World War II he sought to create an international order based on allied cooperation and American leadership.
McJimsey pays particular attention to the political environment in which Roosevelt's presidency functioned and how it both created opportunities and limited his choices. Roosevelt, he shows, was often unable to avoid pluralism's pitfalls, as he found he had to work through corrupt city bosses, patronage-hungry congressmen, and profit-driven businessmen. Because he could not create a government that could predictably achieve his vision, observes McJimsey, he was repeatedly forced to maneuver and manipulate to hold the reins of power.
A separate chapter on Eleanor Roosevelt describes her emergence as a public figure and her advocacy of social causes, exploring how she acted on issues that Franklin hesitated to address. In addition, the book expands on previous treatments of FDR by analyzing important policy issues involving and affecting women and Native Americans. It also sheds new light on the policy changes of 1935 and 1937, the roles of FDR's close associates, and the ultimate impact of his actions on democracy.
Concise and refreshingly balanced, The Presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt portrays FDR as an unexpected proponent of decentralization, whose achievements were mixed: while the New Deal lifted the nation, its programs did as much to increase competition for special advantage as they did to encourage cooperation for the general welfare, while his wartime diplomacy ultimately failed to prevent the Cold War. The book contributes significantly to ongoing assessments of his presidential record while it renews our appreciation of his courage and vision.
FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT IN
The United States census of 1930 described a nation of nearly 123 million persons. That number represented a modest increase over the previous census and indicated that the country was settling into a period of stable growth after steady declines in immigration and birthrates. In less than thirty years, the center of the nation's population had swept across southern Ohio; for the past twenty years, it had crawled along in southwest Indiana and was expected to cross into Illinois during the next decade.
But it was not going to be a normal decade. Immigration declined nearly 90 percent, and the birthrate fell off by over a third. When the decade was over, the population had grown by less than half its previous averages. The population center was still in Indiana. The population's pattern had also changed. In a nation that had previously been moving from the farm to the city, the rate of urban growth had fallen off by 70 percent; rural nonfarm growth had stayed about the same, and farm growth had increased slightly.
These numbers were a response to a shock of uncertainty and fear that undermined Americans' confidence in their society. We now call that shock the Great Depression, a severe and prolonged time of high unemployment, low wages and prices, closed businesses, and ruined banks, a time when the nation's ability to produce not only slowed but dramatically declined. These were socially created difficulties, but most Americans did not blame their society; instead, theyblamed others and even themselves. Voices rose against "the big money men," "dishonest ... men at the head of this government," "good-for-nothing loafers," "bad managers," "poor providers," and so on. Persons evicted from their homes and apartments or foreclosed off their land lost both pride of ownership and pride in themselves. Such persons often contemplated suicide and occasionally did it. Here and there, resentments flashed into violence. On a freezing March day in 1932, protesting workers marched on the Ford Motor Company to be met with tear gas, dousing from fire hoses, and gunfire from the police. Four of the protesters were killed. A mob of Iowans abducted a judge who was conducting foreclosures on farm properties, threatened his life, and halted the proceedings. New Yorkers stormed two bread trucks and distributed their contents among themselves. In Washington, U.S. Army soldiers attacked a group of war veterans who had marched to Washington to lobby Congress to pay them a bonus.
Many avoided such sufferings, but even they saw the signs of uncertainty: apple and shoe-shine stands multiplying on city streets, strangers coming to their doors to ask for odd jobs soon after the freight trains had come through, lines that stretched for blocks at a place that had announced it was hiring, vacant storefronts, men and women sleeping in parks and under bridges and searching through trash and garbage cans. Who would plan a family when there were so many listless, hollow-eyed children in the schools, when so few jobs were available, when farm prices and factory wages returned so little for weeks and months of hard work?
More and more Americans diverted their energies from producing to surviving. Clothes were stitched and mended again and again, mothers extended meals with watery soups, farmers who could not sell their corn burned it for fuel. When fathers could not find work, mothers and sons went looking; daughters often stayed home to mind the house. People took their silverware and china to pawn shops and secondhand stores, explaining that the items were "just some extra things they had been intending to get rid of." The proprietors nodded and played along.
Such examples could be multiplied indefinitely—as they were among the 123 million Americans of the early 1930s. Indeed, this was what made them important. These experiences were common enough that they produced the result indicated by the census returns.
The social choices that affected the census results were reflections of fundamental weaknesses in the structure of American society. Although it was primarily an economic phenomenon, the depression was the product of weaknesses in American institutions. The triggering event was a crash in the stock market. In October 1929, the stock market, which had climbed steadily all year to astronomical levels, plunged in a series of free falls; by the middle of November, half the value of the stocks that made up the industrial index had been wiped out. The stock market collapse put great pressure on the nation's financial system, comprising banks and investment houses (often called "investment trusts"). Many of the investment houses, which made their money by buying and selling stocks, went down in flames, taking their clients' money with them. That left the nation's finances in the hands of a banking system that was not well prepared to deal with it. One component of the banking system was the Federal Reserve, composed of a central bank and member "national banks" that could draw on the central bank to maintain their capital and stay in business. In addition, there were large regional banks, such as the Bank of New York. Although they were members of the Federal Reserve System, they competed with it for prominence, especially by loaning out money. During the heady days of rising stock prices, much of this credit went into the stock market, where it was wiped out by the crash.
Although such a drop would have been bad enough, it would not have been a disaster if the nation's economic structure had been strong enough to absorb it. But it was not. The reason was that the third banking system, representing two-thirds of the nation's banks and about 40 percent of bank capital, consisted of relatively small, independent institutions that served a local, often rural, market and were no stronger than their local economies. Essentially, they depended on farm prices to stay in business. But during the 1920s, farm prices had been low and rural economies fragile. Rural and small-town bank failures accounted for over 80 percent of all failures during the decade. Rural economies depended on demand from the industrial cities and foreign countries. But two features of American economic practice had weakened these sources of support. Although American manufacturing productivity had increased dramatically during the decade, American wages had not kept pace. Some workers prospered, but their numbers did not grow enough to absorb the increased production, and the vast majority of workers did not keep up. This meant that American production was increasing while American consumption was stagnating. The nation had developed a mass production economy without mass consumption. Sooner or later, stock market crash or not, the economy was headed for trouble. Seeing their sales declining and their inventories accumulating, manufacturers cut production and laid off workers. This, in turn, reduced demand in the city for farm commodities and put pressure on rural banks as farmers failed to repay loans and cut back their purchases at local stores. The stage was set for a productive, prosperous economy to run in reverse.
The domestic economy might have found some relief from international trade, but it too was fragile. During the 1920s, the United States had begun to loan money to Germany so that it could make reparations to Britain and France, which used those payments to repay their war debts to the United States. In other words, American credit was supporting European economies by relieving them of the burdens caused by the war. If the United States withdrew its support, the European economies would weaken or collapse, thus drying up their markets for American products. Supplementing these loans were additional credits advanced by large American banks, principally the Bank of New York. These credits helped maintain the international gold standard as the basis of foreign trade and provided money for Europeans to buy American products. Loss of this credit would both depress trade and endanger the gold standard.
This was where the American stock market proved especially decisive. Even before the crash, American banks had been cutting back their foreign loans to profit from rising stock prices. When the crash came, American banks either failed entirely or called in their loans and decreased lending so they could stay in business. In rural areas, this created a locally destructive cycle in which banks foreclosed and dumped their holdings on the market for whatever they might bring, while anxious depositors, unable to get loans and worried that their banks might fail, withdrew their deposits. Internationally, the cycle was about the same; as American banks cut back their loans to Europe, European banks failed, and their governments abandoned the gold standard.
Lacking markets, American business began laying off workers. Some firms tried to cushion the shock with severance pay, company loans, production planning, and unemployment insurance funds, but the depression overwhelmed their efforts. Although there was no recognized authority to estimate the size of unemployment, the reality of growing joblessness manifested itself in the increasing pressure on the nation's social welfare agencies.
Before the twentieth century, relief for the poor had been administered by a combination of private charities and local government agencies, principally towns and counties. Early in the new century, however, states had begun to establish welfare boards, and by 1930, every state provided for the poor to some degree, primarily in the form of "pensions" to widows with children. Throughout these years, the private charities kept their distance, fearing that involvement with the state would compromise their efforts to improve techniques of social service and anxious to keep political patronage and corruption from infecting their work. During early years of the depression, private charities strove with energy and imagination to help the unemployed. Their campaigns to raise money for relief set records, and relief spending by cities, towns, and counties similarly mounted. New York City's total relief expenditures, both private and public, increased from $13.6 million in 1930 to $79 million in 1932. In theory, this permitted relief allowances of $6.6 million per month at a time when good estimates were that wage losses because of unemployment totaled $80 million to $90 million per month. During this time, the share of relief provided by public agencies far outdistanced that supplied by private agencies.
But the public welfare agencies were also losing the battle of relief. Local jurisdictions depended on property taxes, and their authority to borrow money was sharply limited by state law. As property values and business activity declined, revenues fell off. Financially pressed citizens opposed new taxes. Local governments became increasingly unable to help those who were suffering. Local jurisdictions often compounded the problem by requiring that individuals lose all their wealth before they could qualify for assistance. Thus continued the downward spiral of destitution and demoralization. At its national convention in 1932, the American Association of Social Work, the nation's largest society of private welfare organizations, called for welfare assistance from the federal government.
American churches struggled and survived, but with many casualties. Churches with new mortgages lost their properties. Between 1930 and 1934, collections fell off by half. Different Christian denominations fit the depression into their core theology. Mainline churches called it retribution for sin and preached repentance, but they suffered from their identification with dominant cultural values that were now being called into question. Roman Catholics looked for redemption through suffering and pointed toward the better life in the hereafter. Their numbers increased, although more slowly than in the previous decade. It was the Fundamentalist churches, which saw the depression as a forerunner of the Second Coming of Christ, that prospered. Church membership increased modestly overall, but the Fundamentalists made great gains. Pentecostal and Holiness sects preached faith in God's love for the individual and relief of his or her cares, and their membership grew because of it. Such messages represented the churches' best efforts against the depression, since their resources were far too skimpy to meet the economic need. Indeed, even before the depression, the missionary spirit of the majority Protestant churches had been in decline.
American schools also struggled and survived. The growth in the number of public schools, which had been dramatic since 1910, was reversed. School districts continued to rely on local funding for their support, but state and federal appropriations made up a larger proportion. Still, attendance remained constant, and graduation rates increased by over 50 percent. The income of the nation's colleges and universities dropped steadily between 1930 and 1934, especially from state and local support and from tuition. Colleges and universities tightened their belts by not replacing retired faculty, reducing the starting salaries of those they hired, lengthening the time before promotion, promoting without salary increases, and freezing the overall salary scale. Schools delayed maintenance and construction, reduced library purchases, and cut back support for faculty research. Student enrollments declined by nearly 10 percent. At the same time, public attitudes toward higher education remained positive. In 1937, a study by the American Association of University Professors concluded: "The same motives that drew students to the colleges and universities six and seven years ago still draw them.... No other institution has appeared with which young men and women can so readily identify themselves and derive the personal satisfactions that such identification brings."
Local service clubs proved resilient, their membership falling off sharply during the early years of the depression but rebounding to new highs by the end of the decade. For the most part, clubs such as Rotary, Kiwanis, and Lions provided their members a safe respite from the nation's economic trials and worries.
The underlying structure of American political life was its party system. The national tradition of two major political parties was by now long established. Although occasionally challenged by "third-party" or "reform" movements, the fundamental system remained intact. During the late nineteenth century, voter support, almost exclusively male, had run high. This was especially true in urban areas, where social and ethnic diversity created a variety of issues and elections were often decided by a few votes. After 1896, voter participation declined. Reformers injected state regulation into the voting process. Registration requirements, literacy tests, and longer residency requirements all complicated citizens' access to the polls. Voting rates plunged further after the Nineteenth Amendment gave the vote to women, most of whom had no tradition or experience with voting. Still, a major feature of voting was wealth. Historian Paul Kleppner estimated that an additional $1,000 in per capita income would increase voting in a given county by over 46 percent. Also significant was generational change. The children of late-nineteenth-century voters went to the polls at substantially lower rates than their parents had. But more than anything else, the decline in party competition undermined voter participation. The northern industrial cities began voting heavily Republican. In the southern states, the drive to exclude African Americans from politics produced all-white Democratic slates that faced little opposition on election day.
The national consequences of this party configuration had been a decade of Republican domination. In the three presidential elections from 1920 to 1928, the Republican candidate had carried so many states by landslide margins that the Democratic Party was left with little hope of recouping at the next election. In Congress, Republicans enjoyed a margin of twenty-five to fifty seats in the House and (with the exception of a three-vote margin between 1927 and 1929) fifteen seats in the Senate.
The American institutional configuration defined the problems of society and suggested some opportunities for addressing them. The nation's business structure seemed incapable of correcting itself. All the optimistic predictions for a short downturn had proved false, and conditions seemed to be worsening. The widespread suffering and anxiety and the large pool of previously inactive voters suggested the possibility of a popular groundswell that might invigorate governmental institutions to address the crisis. But any approach, whether by government or by other means, would be shaped by certain assumptions about social relationships, problem solving, and leadership. These assumptions can be called pluralism.
Pluralism had emerged in the 1920s. Best defined by the theories of social scientists, pluralism was a departure from earlier assumptions that society could be organized in a fixed and hierarchical fashion in order to "solve" society's problems. Pluralism assumed that life was too complex, varied, and dynamic to be so organized. The core values of pluralism did not look for final solutions but rather a continuous process of decision and action, action and decision. Similarly, they downplayed the role of expertise, reducing the expert from the leader who knew all the answers to the facilitator who helped others improve their answers. They forsook confidence in the ability of experts to predict certain effects from certain causes. Fundamentally, they abandoned the belief in large systems, in the idea that a society and its parts could be connected in chains of causes so that the particular led inevitably to the general, to a single point that embodied the essence and purpose of the parts. What was left was a society of parts that interacted with one another and formed larger wholes, but did so in unpredictable ways. This meant that there was no large truth, no paramount leader, no foreseeable future, no long run. It meant that social analysis needed to understand the parts, to look at the grass roots, the small society. It meant that societies developed in ways that were essentially historical, that were peculiar to time and place.
It did not mean, however, that there were no larger truths or wholes. There were, but they were formed through historical processes and assumed shapes that were unique to particular times. Noted political scientist Luther Gulick used the metaphor of the Venus de Milo. This famous statue was composed of many small grains of sand. But the grains did not form a larger grain of sand, they formed a particular work of art. The whole formed by the grains was greater than the sum of its parts. And the whole was different from other statues created at other times. Pluralism's political analysis treated government and society as continually interacting and being changed by those interactions. Chicago sociologist Robert Park, who in the 1920s developed an influential school of urban sociology, put it this way: "The thing which distinguishes an organism from a mere aggregation of individuals, or parts, is the capacity for concerted action—the disposition of the parts, under certain conditions, to act as a unit." It was this ability to act as a unit that made it possible for groups of persons to form wholes that were greater than the sum of their parts.
The vocabulary of pluralism defined terms such as region, community, commonwealth, and federation. These terms suggested a collectivity, but one whose parts either retained an important degree of autonomy or formed a larger whole that was different from other wholes.
As a guide to government policy, pluralism called for government to serve as a coordinator that facilitated problem solving by bringing together various perspectives, teams of experts who could address the multidimensional features of a given situation. Government policy could not be too general, centralized, or prescriptive. It had to value local conditions; its goal had to be to empower and enable those at the local, or grassroots, level to join for a common effort. Social units that worked in this way would prosper. The expression of pluralism in the nation's political experience would be the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Franklin Roosevelt was born to the seventh generation of Dutch immigrants whose last name means "rose field." An ancestor, Nicholas, had moved up the Hudson River from Manhattan to trap furs and trade with the Indians, a career that prospered and expanded. When Nicholas returned to New York, he became prominent in business and politics. The following generations of Roosevelts showed that they were devoted to their community, ready to protest intrusions on its interests, and equally determined to preserve the social order from which they prospered. They invested well, kept their noses clean politically, and displayed something of a family talent for marrying well. A particularly fortunate marriage to a sister of William Aspinwall, who was to become one of America's wealthiest merchant princes, led to the birth in 1828 of James, whose business ventures in coal and railroads gained him comfortable wealth.
Comfort seemed to be the measure of James. He married a daughter of his mother's first cousin and in 1865 relocated the family to Springwood in the southern part of the village of Hyde Park, New York. He established gardens, raised crops, imported dairy cows, and eventually produced enough to pay for the upkeep of a place in New York City. He became a vestryman and warden of St. James Episcopal Church and a manager of the state hospital, and he promoted the local public schools. After his wife died, his son moved nearby and introduced him to Sara Delano. She was nearing twenty-six, a slender, dark-eyed young woman with strong features. Had she chosen, she could have been something of a beauty, but instead she held herself in a manner that conveyed strength of character, serious purpose, and proper breeding. These were qualities honored and expected by her father, whom she adored and whose stern, narrow, judgmental views she never questioned. Sara and James married on October 7, 1880. They circulated in the closed, privileged world of their mid-Hudson River society and traveled to Europe. James doted on "my Sallie" and was attentive to her welfare. Sara was pleased by his attentions; deferred to him, as was the fashion of the day; and pursued her role as mistress of their home with bustling efficiency. In the spring, Sara became pregnant. On the evening of January 29, she began a prolonged and excruciating labor that almost ended tragically when the doctor administered too much chloroform and literally had to breathe life into her newborn son by mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Both son and mother soon recovered, and before James staggered off to catch his first sleep in more than twenty-four hours, he noted the arrival of "a splendid large baby boy," whom they would name Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
From the first, James and Sara incorporated Franklin into their lives. Sara breast-fed, bathed, and dressed him for the first year. They carefully selected nursemaids who accompanied them on their rounds of outings and travels. When he was a year and a half they visited Campobello Island, just across the Canadian border off the coast of Maine, and decided to establish a summer home there. A few months later they enrolled their son as a prospective student at the newly planned Groton School. They permitted Franklin to develop his interests and to play with others his age but expected him always to be a "gentleman," courteous, self-controlled, and dignified, tolerant and friendly toward his inferiors but careful never to descend to their level. He developed a gentlemanly deportment that often concealed a painful shyness and a fierce competitive spirit. If he was awkward in others' presence, he was determined to beat them in any competition. Among his peers, however, he asserted his authority, always giving orders because, as he explained to his mother, who was concerned that he was too bossy, "if I didn't give the orders, nothing would happen!"
The young man became a collector, beginning at age nine with postage stamps and continuing with birds' eggs and nests and eventually the birds themselves. An enthusiastic shooter, he set out to kill and mount an example of every species in Dutchess County, and by the time he was through he had collected some 300 specimens. He kept a careful record of his ornithological findings until he gave up the hobby in 1896; he was an avid stamp collector for the rest of his life. He developed an abiding love of the sea and became a strong swimmer. In his studies, he showed an ability to master languages and to retain factual information.
In these ways, Franklin Delano Roosevelt emerged from his boyhood an excellent example of his culture. His world was filled with people who were used to getting their way. They were achievers, not because the world owed them servility or even deference, but because the things they were able to do made life better. When Victorian Americans spoke about wealth they often used the word means, which conveyed the idea that money gave one the ability to accomplish something. More than anything, James and Sara's generation was made up of takers and users. They contrived ways of getting minerals out of the earth and from them fashioning the sinews of material progress. More important, they were organizers who invented ways of systematizing their environments, inventing mechanical contrivances whose parts meshed and that complemented other contrivances to create a world of convenience and power. They were also inventors of organizations, large bureaucratic structures that concentrated power at a central point and projected its interests and influence over vast areas. Theirs was a confidence of people who knew what they were doing and knew that it was for the common good.
From his early years, Franklin acquired a firm religious faith, taught by the Episcopal Church, that Jesus Christ had died to redeem the sins of humankind and that God had endowed the human soul with the ability to do good so that after death good persons would go to heaven. He was an optimist, based on his faith that God had created an order in the world that rewarded faith, goodwill, and effort. Essentially, Franklin Roosevelt sought to achieve the proper structure of power.
At age fourteen he entered Groton Academy. He compiled a very good academic record, performed poorly at sports, and seemed a bit too argumentative to some of his classmates. From there he enrolled in Harvard College. During his first term, his father died. Sara was devastated by the loss of the man to whom she had become thoroughly devoted. In his stead, she turned her affections and support to Franklin. Here was the first important power relationship that Franklin had to manage. A competitive person who believed that things worked best when he gave the orders, he was not inclined to yield to his mother's every direction. Yet he was a loyal, loving, and dutiful son who had limited himself to such independence as his parents had permitted him. And so he developed the art of appearing to yield to her and disguising his own purposes. If his deceptions failed, however, he would avoid conflict by giving up his position. Part of his strategy was to convince her of his manliness. At Groton and again at Harvard, he tried out for the football team. Failing to make the varsity, he played for the scrubs and peppered his letters home with comments on his various injuries, showing his hope that she would accept his growing to manhood.
At Harvard he offended some by his easy assumption of a superior social status and his soft, eager-to-please manner. But others knew him as a hard worker who took advantage of his opportunities, sympathized with the underdog, and wanted to be of service to society. He worked hard on the college paper, the Crimson, writing editorials encouraging more spirit at football games, more democracy in campus elections (that is, less slate-making by social clubs), and fire protection in the dormitories. Notably, he encouraged everyone to broaden their acquaintanceships, to learn more about their fellow students.
During his latter college years, Franklin met his fifth cousin, Anna Eleanor. In the fall of 1903, they became privately engaged. Sara disapproved of Franklin's choice and might well have disapproved of his choosing any woman over her. But Franklin prevailed against his mother's various attempts to delay the marriage, and on March 17, 1905, he and Eleanor were married. The bride, both of whose parents had died years earlier, was given in marriage by her uncle, President Theodore Roosevelt. After their honeymoon they returned to New York, where Franklin attended law school at Columbia University. Children rapidly followed, and by 1916 the Roosevelts were a family of seven.
Admitted to the New York bar in 1906, Roosevelt was hired by a prestigious city firm. By this time, however, he had decided that his career was to be politics. His first opportunity came in 1910 when the Poughkeepsie Democratic leadership offered him the chance to run for the state senate from Dutchess County. Accepting what seemed an impossible assignment, Roosevelt proceeded to carry on a vigorous campaign. Covering his district in a motorcar, something that no previous candidate had attempted, Roosevelt concentrated on the normally Republican farmer vote, denouncing the corrupt bossism of the state and local Republican Party organization. It was a Democratic year, but Roosevelt showed his own particular strength by emerging as the leading vote-getter on the ticket.
In Albany, his politics combined economic justice for the farmer with upstate distaste for city bosses. He tussled with New York City's Tammany Hall machine and supported a Progressive agenda that included low-cost loans to farmers, cooperative marketing, the conservation of natural resources, and the direct election of U.S. senators. Chairing the senate's Forest, Fish, and Game Committee, he collaborated with Gifford Pinchot, who had recently become the darling of Progressive conservationists in a struggle over resource management within the Taft administration, to revise the fish and game laws and to establish better forest management and fire protection policies. His aversion to Tammany blinded him to the ways in which the city Democrats were developing alliances with working people and, from those alliances, labor policies and welfare legislation. He failed to show up for the critical vote establishing a fifty-four-hour workweek for women and children—a misstep that caused the bill's major proponent, a labor reformer named Frances Perkins, to think him a poor choice for governor sixteen years later. Along the way, he made several tactical blunders, from which he gained an appreciation of Tammany's practical skills and the virtues of not alienating his political party base.
During this time his political ideas began to emerge. He essentially accepted the New Nationalist version of Progressivism, preached by "cousin Ted" in his campaign against the reactionary Republican Old Guard. The liberty of the individual, he said, had to give way to the liberty of the community, which in turn would no longer be defined by the sum of the wants of the population but by "scientific," rational leadership that assumed a basic harmony of interests in the community. Although they were sketchy and imperfectly stated, Roosevelt's ideas assumed that the good society was composed of functional groups, that each person had a role to play, and that it was society's job to give that person a chance to play it. The means to this end was regulation by government, and regulation was to be based on expert knowledge of humanity and society. Social knowledge determined the function of each person and group. In a sense, it determined the value of that person or group in the system of society. Regulation encouraged that group to act reasonably in carrying out its role so that the social system would work efficiently.
In 1912, Roosevelt's Progressivism led him to support Woodrow Wilson for the Democratic nomination. During his own campaign for reelection, he acquired the services of journalist Louis McHenry Howe. Gnomic, wizened, and asthmatic, and with a perpetually dirty-gray face and slovenly clothes liberally sprinkled with ash from an ever-present cigarette, Howe had become one of New York's most knowledgeable political journalists. He had long been searching for someone he might groom for the presidency, and when he met Roosevelt in Albany, he believed that he had found a likely man.
Roosevelt won reelection, but before he could serve, Wilson appointed him assistant secretary of the navy. Arriving in Washington, Roosevelt plunged into making the Navy Department more efficient. He molded his traits into tools of executive leadership. His assets were his energy, nimble mind, boldness, tactical flexibility, and self-confidence. He had the courage of a gambler to take risks on the future. He was impatient with abstractions and focused on the particulars of the present situation, was little inclined to self-examination or circumspection, did not lack audacity, and was quick to break with traditions if they would frustrate immediate objectives. He wanted more freedom to act decisively. He personally investigated blunders and failures, separating lines of authority, and reassigned jurisdictions. The navy would be as compartmentalized as everything else in the well-ordered Victorian home. He backed away, however, when labor objected to the introduction of the "Taylor" principles of scientific management into the navy yards, claiming that they would exert too much pressure on the workers and eliminate too many jobs. Now his goal was to produce a first-class navy, not to advance social or economic reform. He fell out of step with his chief, Josephus Daniels, as well as with President Wilson and a majority of the cabinet, by supporting an aggressive naval strategy to advance American interests, but in the process he won the confidence of the officer corps. He supported American intervention in Haiti to prevent European penetration of the Caribbean. When he visited Haiti he winked at the slave-labor methods by which the marine commander had built roads, called all Haitians who resisted American authority "bandits," and contented himself with seeing what his conquering army commanders wanted him to see and accepting their interpretations at face value. When the United States declared war in 1917, he displayed the Roosevelt family talent for entrepreneurship. He was impatient with procrastination and fiddling with small details. He was capable of large vision and of developing ways to achieve it. His principal objective was to create large amounts of naval craft to meet any contingency. He was a builder and a strategist—a taker and a user after the traditions of the "robber barons." His efforts also showed his stubbornness, his perseverance. He was a determined person. He employed his own architect and gave him a free hand in advising navy construction.
During this time he had an affair with Lucy Mercer, whom he had employed as Eleanor's social secretary and occasional housekeeper. In 1918, when he was recovering from influenza, Eleanor learned of the affair. Devastated, she offered Franklin a divorce, but Sara would not hear of it and threatened to cut him off if he left Eleanor. Divorce would have ended his political career; the Fundamentalist Daniels would have fired him, and the scandal would have hounded his every public act. Caught between love and political ambition, he resolved the conflict by lying to Lucy that Eleanor would not divorce him.
As the war ended and the presidential election of 1920 approached, Roosevelt and Howe began planning his presidential prospects. They mapped out a program of regulation of securities and railroads, highway construction, consumer cooperatives, labor's right to organize, profit-sharing, tax laws to prevent profiteering, and borrowing to finance public works as a safeguard against depression. The convention nominated James M. Cox of Ohio, with Roosevelt second. He campaigned vigorously, stumping the Midwest and the Plains. During the campaign, he acquired the services of a secretary named Marguerite "Missy" LeHand.
After Cox lost the election to Republican Warren G. Harding, Roosevelt spent several months defending his record as assistant secretary against partisan Republican queries. Finally, in July 1921, he traveled to Campobello to be with Eleanor and his children. After a particularly strenuous day, he was taken by a violent chill. After a restless night, he awoke to find that his legs barely functioned. As the day wore on, the pain grew worse. He knew that there was something very wrong.
What was wrong was poliomyelitis, which, accompanied by a raging fever and immense pain, deprived him of movement and dignity. It was a crisis that demanded all his resources and those of Eleanor and Louis Howe. They attained a proper diagnosis from a New York physician, who predicted a complete recovery, and bent their efforts to a regime of determined cheerfulness. Throughout the disease and its agonizing, frustrating, hope-denying course, Roosevelt exhibited great strength. He never complained about his pain and remained optimistic that he would fully recover. He believed that some of his muscles had survived the attack and could be "educated" to do the work that would restore him to normalcy. He rejected pity and treated others just as he had when he was well. He frankly acknowledged his condition, throwing back the covers to show his sons his withered legs, and giving them a lesson in anatomy by pointing out the various muscles. The savagery of his early symptoms had shaken him, because he had been helpless. During his months of relative inactivity, he continually asserted, against all evidence, that he was improving and would fully recover.
For the next years, Roosevelt concentrated on regaining his health. As he recovered, he found ways to battle and outwit his infirmity. He devised ways to fish, climb stairs, take books from the shelf, walk with leg braces and crutches, and ride horseback. When swimming in the warm waters off Florida seemed to help his condition, he looked for a location that he could visit regularly. That turned out to be Warm Springs, Georgia, an old, run-down health resort. Hoping to establish a national center to treat polio, Roosevelt invested heavily in its development. Eventually, the facility attracted other sufferers from the disease, whom Roosevelt welcomed and encouraged. Although he gained the ability to walk with a cane, with someone supporting him on the other side, only when swimming or sailing was he entirely free of his confining disability.
No one can say how, or even if, Roosevelt's condition affected his personality or his outlook on life. It seems clear that he feared being trapped in an enclosed space, such as an elevator, or being trapped in a fire. He also relished showing that he could overcome his limitations, especially by manipulating the hand controls on his motorcar to drive wildly about his Hyde Park estate, frustrating reporters and on one occasion terrifying Prime Minister Winston Churchill. He empathized with fellow polio victims and consistently did what he could to lift their spirits and look to the future with optimism. Once when he was governor, Roosevelt interrupted a tour of facilities along the state's canal system to speak with a boy whose leg was in a brace. A trooper helped the boy aboard the canal boat. Roosevelt examined his brace, showed him his own braces, and encouraged the boy to do his exercises and not become discouraged. "You can get along as well as your friends," he said, "in everything except running and jumping." The boy hugged and kissed Roosevelt and insisted on getting off the boat without assistance. At Warm Springs, Roosevelt mingled with the patients, accepting them, treating them as "normal," helping them overcome their doubts, fears, and shame.
The most obvious trait brought out by Roosevelt's illness was his inner courage. Somehow he had developed a sense that, left to himself, he could master any challenge. Whatever might befall him, he would still be Franklin Delano Roosevelt; nothing could alter or damage his inner core. Perhaps this belief had been shaped by the secure and loving nurture of his parents, perhaps by his comfortable advantages in the steady social order of the Hudson Valley, perhaps by his simple but unshakable religious faith.
What seems more problematic is the idea that his experience with polio enlarged his social sympathies. He acquired the social assumptions common to his era and class, but he seems not to have depended on them for his inner security. He could assume that most blacks would be servants but was not shocked by those who were not. He could tolerate and even enjoy anti-Semitic remarks but would not shun Jews as friends or collaborators. Throughout his life he would occasionally ascribe character and personality traits to ethnic groups and would appear to accept generalizations about a people's "national character," but he would never allow these alone to guide his sense of a just domestic or world order.
Anyone who tries to understand how polio affected Roosevelt's personality or character runs into the same problem when trying to understand how any of his experiences affected him. For all his inner strength, Roosevelt never developed a capacity for real intimacy. His inner self did not depend on others. Thus, he did not leave behind a true record of his inner nature: he composed no memoirs, and his private letters and occasional journals and diaries are notable for their consistent blandness. It seems clear that he needed people, but he needed them to help him accomplish his purposes. His personal attachments came and went. Because he had great inner strength and because he was able to convey strength to others, many people became devoted to him, and he could count on a core group that would work in his interest. It may be that polio enhanced this inspirational quality, but there is no way of telling.
During the early years of Roosevelt's illness, Louis Howe took charge of his political fortunes and enlisted Eleanor as his aide. Together they visited political rallies, gathered political information, and guarded his public image. As Eleanor broadened her acquaintance with these things, she made it a point to educate Franklin about them. Thus, Roosevelt, who had begun as a good-government reformer and moved to a business- efficiency Progressive, moved more and more into line with Tammany Hall reformers who wanted to provide for the safety and welfare of the state's working people. These sympathies led him to support Al Smith, the reform governor, whom Roosevelt nominated at the Democratic National Convention in 1924.
Throughout the decade, Roosevelt struck the pose of the party regular, bidding for party unity and harmony. He was so successful at this that when Smith won the nomination in 1928, Democratic leaders believed that Roosevelt had to run for governor if Smith was to carry New York. After a hesitation that was based on his belief that holding office would delay or even end his recovery, he accepted. Conducting a vigorous campaign in which he emphasized state issues that focused on agriculture and labor, he was narrowly elected in an overwhelmingly Republican year. Aware of Roosevelt's concern for his recovery, Smith had assumed that Roosevelt would be a figurehead governor whose moves would be directed by his aides and by Lieutenant Governor Herbert Lehman. But, encouraged by Eleanor, Roosevelt immediately grasped control of his own administration. It was the beginning of ill feeling between him and Smith. Facing Republican majorities in both houses of the state legislature, he suffered many defeats but used the time to appoint an able staff and to cement relations with the Democrats in the legislature.
In Albany, with his hands on executive power for the first time, Roosevelt established his credentials as a left-of-center reformer. Facing a Republican- controlled state legislature that was almost certain to defeat or water down his proposals, he used special commissions to publicize the need for laws that favored farmers and workers. For agriculture he was able to get through measures on tax relief (which shifted the burden from poor counties to rich counties) and pest control. As farm prices remained low and the hardships of the depression hit rural areas, he acquainted himself with the "domestic allotment" proposals of agricultural economists M. L. Wilson and Rexford Tugwell. He combined land reform with conservation by securing funds to purchase marginal farmland for reforestation. He advocated the development of public power from the proposed development of the St. Lawrence River and state ownership of transmission lines.
During the early stages of the depression, Roosevelt sat back and hoped that optimistic predictions of a quick recovery would come true. He even postponed recommendations for tighter regulation of the state's banking system until the collapse of the Bank of the United States created a public outcry for action. Later, as evidence mounted that conditions were worsening and that local and private resources were nearing exhaustion, he acted. He recommended unemployment and old-age insurance and convened a regional governors conference to discuss the idea. At his recommendation the legislature created the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration (TERA) to provide "home relief," payments that the unemployed could use to purchase necessities to maintain a basic standard of living, and "work relief" in the form of employment projects that would pay cash wages. Roosevelt appointed a board of directors and named Harry Hopkins administrative director. Under Hopkins's guidance, TERA upgraded relief standards in the towns and counties and had such a good record that when Roosevelt and the legislature recommended its continuation with a $30 million bond issue, the voters overwhelmingly approved.
In the meantime, Roosevelt was increasing his stature in the Democratic Party. When he moved to Albany, he balanced his appointments between supporters of former governor Al Smith and his own people. He brought in many who would move with him to Washington: Raymond Moley, Samuel Rosenman, Frances Perkins, and James Farley. Gradually, he drew away from Smith. In 1930, when Roosevelt was reelected by margins that exceeded any of Smith's, it was obvious that the two would part company. As the popular governor of the state with the most electoral votes, Roosevelt had become presidential timber with a claim on the prize that Smith, the defeated candidate in 1928, wanted. The two engaged in a statewide test of strength when Smith opposed a constitutional amendment that would authorize Roosevelt's reforestation projects. When the measure passed with 58 percent of the vote, Smith disingenuously declared that he was through with politics, and his supporters undertook a campaign to undermine Roosevelt's candidacy. By early 1932, Smith was a declared presidential candidate, and Roosevelt was going to have to fight for the nomination.
Roosevelt faced his own political liabilities. No man with a serious physical disability had ever sought the presidency, and his opponents were certain to question his stamina. As a Wilsonian internationalist who had supported the United States' membership in the League of Nations, he was open to attack from the powerful Hearst press. For some reason, a few journalists, including columnist Walter Lippmann, were inclined to dismiss him as a lightweight, as a pleasant fellow with no edge, despite his record of achievement and liberal policies. More tellingly, he found himself embroiled with Tammany Hall, this time over evidence of corruption in the mayoral administration of Democrat James J. Walker. The issue was important to Roosevelt, since Al Smith was strong in the Northeast and he needed to pick up support in the South and West, which looked with great suspicion on any presidential hopeful with Tammany Hall connections. His political career seemed to be circling back on him. In 1911 he had attacked Tammany and bungled; now another bungle might be politically fatal. For a while he temporized, drawing fire from the press, the liberals, and upstate leaders. As spring turned into summer and the convention neared, the Tammany issue lay unresolved.
Roosevelt did not let such matters divert him from his quest for the presidency. Louis Howe and James Farley set up a correspondence operation with Democrats around the country. A team of specialists pronounced Roosevelt physically fit. He announced that the United States should stay out of the League of Nations because it was taken up with internal European problems. He made speeches and radio talks criticizing the Hoover administration on various grounds. He worked with organization leaders in the South, the Midwest, and the Plains, picking up enough delegates to have a majority when the Democratic convention gathered in Chicago.
Roosevelt's problem was that under the convention rules it took two-thirds of the delegates to nominate a candidate. With Al Smith strong in the Northeast and Speaker of the House John Nance Garner of Texas holding his home state and California, there were enough votes outstanding to stymie his bid. To do this, however, his opponents needed to hang together long enough to convince the delegates that Roosevelt could not win and to start them drifting away in search of a more viable candidate, who most likely would have been Newton D. Baker, Wilson's secretary of war, a confirmed internationalist, and an economic conservative.
And so it might have happened. Convening in the evening, the delegates sat through the night as the nominating speeches droned on. It was dawn before the first of three ballots was taken, all of which showed Roosevelt well ahead and gaining, but still about ninety votes short of the nomination. When the convention adjourned and the exhausted delegates staggered out, it was obvious that the next ballot would be the last for Roosevelt. Farley and Howe decided to stake everything on turning Garner and approached Congressman Sam Rayburn, Garner's floor manager, who promised to "see what can be done." Both Garner and Rayburn were party men who had gone to the convention thinking that the choice would be Garner or Roosevelt. They feared nothing so much as a deadlocked convention. Garner authorized Rayburn to switch his delegates to Roosevelt. When Rayburn reported back that Texas would not switch unless Roosevelt took Garner as vice president, Garner accepted, willing "to do anything to see the Democrats win one more national election."
From the first, Roosevelt had decided to put the spotlight on himself. He rejected the tradition by which presidential nominees were advised of their good fortune by a committee of party leaders and boarded a plane for Chicago. There on July 2 he addressed the cheering delegates. To everyone—businessmen, farmers, investors, home owners, the unemployed and destitute—he promised support and relief. In the spirit of having broken with tradition, he pledged "a new deal for the American people." The words "new deal" were old and shopworn, but the next day when Sam Rosenman spotted an editorial cartoon with an airplane flying the banner "New Deal," the campaign and Roosevelt's presidency gained their identity.
By the time of his nomination, Roosevelt had assembled a team of advisers who came to be known as his "Brain Trust." Recruited by Roosevelt's counsel Sam Rosenman, they were college professors associated with New York's Columbia University and its associated women's school, Barnard College. Its principal figure was Raymond Moley, professor of public law and veteran of urban reform politics. It also included Rexford Guy Tugwell, professor of economics and an expert on agriculture and economic planning, and Adolf Berle, professor of law and an authority on corporate organization and finance. On the periphery of this core circulated influential businessmen and politicians, most notably Bernard Baruch, a wealthy speculator and self-styled authority on government finance and organization. During World War I, Baruch had headed the War Industries Board, which allocated materials for war production and balanced military and civilian claims on the economy. From this experience, he had attained an impressive reputation that subsequent scholarship has failed to sustain. Prominent political advisers included Senators James Byrnes of South Carolina and Key Pittman of Nevada, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The job of the Brain Trust was to provide ideas that Roosevelt could shape into a direction for his presidency. Because he was so accessible and so encouraging to those who presented ideas to him, some came to believe that they were engaged in a struggle for control of his thinking. But they were mistaken. Roosevelt was neither an absorber of information nor a coordinator of others' views; he was a taker and a builder who took ideas and people, tried them out, and found some useful place for them.
Roosevelt's method was to press his advisers and other interested parties to agree among themselves. He would encourage all viewpoints by saying that he was keeping an open mind, but when the time came, he would insist on a final statement that represented a consensus rather than a victory for only one side. This method established a direction of policy but embraced sufficient complexities and ambiguities to allow for adjustments to circumstances. It also often frustrated the advisers, especially the college professors used to having their way in discussions of ideas. "We never could really talk to Roosevelt," Tugwell recalled, "we had to talk with him. If we did not catch his interest, he would shift to another subject; if we did, it became a dialogue.... It might be only when I thought it over afterward that I knew he had not been convinced. It was an exchange, but there was not often any conclusion.... But all our talk was so fair and friendly that there was never a time when defeat was so definite that I finally gave up."
In one sense, Roosevelt's methods aided decision making. Any decision made with the expectation that it could be easily changed could be easily made. Nor at this stage was it necessary to fix the details of public policy. During this formative period it was more necessary to establish a general direction than to establish a specific program.
Policy decisions went hand in hand with political calculations. Roosevelt's political base was in the southern and western states, which during hard times had suffered the most and had been most hospitable to economic reform. During the Brain Trust deliberations, Roosevelt spoke of reforming the Democratic Party into a "progressive" party under a South and West alliance. Still, Roosevelt was wary of assuming a progressive stance too early. Progressives, he believed, were too individualistic. Their efforts lacked coordination and solidarity; they were good fighters, but not good soldiers. The conservatives knew how to stick together, and this kind of discipline caused Roosevelt to avoid moving too rapidly.
Politics also gave Roosevelt an ideological direction. Hoover's campaigning on the theme of American individualism encouraged Roosevelt to accept ideas that stressed cooperation, planning, and long-term solutions.
Roosevelt drew political lessons from Woodrow Wilson. Wilson's mistake, he believed, had been to waste his political capital too early in his administration. Thus Roosevelt was inclined to develop a comprehensive reform package and not to concentrate on only a few projects.
List of Abbreviations
1. Franklin Roosevelt in the Spotlight
2. A Hundred Days
3. Strategies for Economic Recovery
4. Strategies for Social Recovery
5. Resources for Recovery
6. Roosevelt's Political Base
7. Eleanor Roosevelt and a New Deal for Women
8. The Deal Reaches Its Limits
9. From Isolation to War
10. From Unity to Preeminence
11. Wartime Fruits of Pluralism
12. Ambiguous Victories
Posted March 19, 2001