FDR – the President the People Clung to Until his last Breath

On this day in 1940, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who first took office in 1933 as America’s 32nd president, is nominated for an unprecedented third term. Roosevelt, a Democrat, would eventually be elected to a record four terms in office, the only US president to serve more than two terms. Leading the Republic through the ravages of the depression and conflagration of WW2, he is seen by many historians as one of the greatest of our 45 Presidents.

Roosevelt was the only child of James and Sara Delano Roosevelt. The family lived in unostentatious and genteel luxury, dividing its time between the family estate in the Hudson River valley of New York state and European resorts. Young Roosevelt was educated privately at home until age 14, when he entered Groton Preparatory School; his training was toward the ends of being a socially conscientious gentleman.

In 1900 Roosevelt entered Harvard University, where he spent most of his time on extracurricular activities and a strenuous social life; his academic record was undistinguished. It was during his Harvard years that he fell under the spell of his fifth cousin, President Theodore Roosevelt, the progressive champion who advocated a vastly increased role for the government in the nation’s economy. It was also during his Harvard years that he fell in love with Theodore Roosevelt’s niece, Eleanor Roosevelt, who was then active in charitable work for the poor in New York City. The couple wed in FDR’s senior year.

Roosevelt then completed Columbia University Law School, finding work with a Wall Street law firm which left Roosevelt distinctly unstimulated. The young man looked for an opportunity to launch a career in politics, which came in 1910 when Democratic Party leaders of Dutchess county, New York, persuaded him to undertake a futile attempt to win a seat in the state senate. With the tacit blessing of his distinguished Republican Party cousin, Teddy, he campaigned strenuously and won the election in a stunner.

Not quite 29 when he took his seat in Albany, he quickly won statewide and even some national attention by leading a small group of Democratic insurgents who refused to support Tammany Hall machine pol Billy Sheehan for US Senate, the first of many profound and risky political fights he would wage in his career. By 1911, a less-genteel Roosevelt was supporting progressive New Jersey governor Woodrow Wilson for the Democratic presidential nomination of 1912 and advocating progressive policies. In that year he was reelected to the state senate, despite an attack of typhoid fever preventing him from making public appearances during the campaign.

For his work on behalf of Wilson, Roosevelt was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy in March 1913. Roosevelt loved the sea and naval traditions, and knew more about them than did his purported superior, Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels, with whom he was frequently impatient. After war broke out in Europe in 1914, Roosevelt became a vehement advocate of military preparedness, and following US entry into the war in 1917, he built a reputation as an effective administrator.

In the summer of 1918 FDR made an extended tour of naval bases and battlefields overseas. Seeking companionship outside his home life, it was at this juncture that the Roosevelt marriage became a partnership for politics and public policy rather than a romantic bond.

At the 1920 Democratic convention Roosevelt won the nomination for vice-president on a ticket with presidential nominee James M. Cox. He campaigned vigorously on behalf of American entry into the League of Nations, but the Democrats were crushed in a landslide to the Republican ticket of Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge. Shortly after, while on vacation at Campobello Island, New Brunswick, Canada, Roosevelt’s life was transformed when he was stricken with poliomyelitis.

Roosevelt suffered intensely, for sometime nearly completely paralyzed, and his mother urged him to retire to the family estate at Hyde Park. His wife and closest adviser Louis McHenry Howe, however, believed it essential he remain active in politics. For his part, Roosevelt never abandoned hope that he would regain the use of his legs, the malady re-shaped his entire world view, enhanced his empathy toward humanity, and he grimly fought on through a purposefully sunny exterior. 

During this phase, wife Eleanor kept FDR in the minds of Democratic circles, cris-crossing New York state for speaking engagements and mixers, evolving from a shy woman to a passionate advocate in her own right. In 1924 and 1928, Roosevelt himself made the nomination of Alfred E. Smith for US President; at the latter convention, Smith convinced FDR to run for governor.

As he traveled by automobile around the state that year, Roosevelt demonstrated polio had not destroyed his youthful resilience, and the promise of his earlier career. The more-seasoned FDR, now with a keen appreciation for life’s hardships, won by 25,000 votes. Roosevelt concentrated on tax relief for farmers and cheaper public utilities for consumers, and the appeal of his programs, particularly in upstate New York, led to his reelection in 1930 by 725,000 votes. As the depression worsened during his second term, Roosevelt moved further to the political left, mobilizing the state government to provide relief and to aid in economic recovery, and even convincing the GOP state house to approve aggressive, activist measures for relief.

FDR now stood at the head of ranks forming for the 1932 Presidential Election. On the third ballot at the convention, Speaker of the House John Nance Garner released his delegates to Roosevelt; Roosevelt then broke tradition by appearing in person to accept his party’s nomination. In his speech before the delegates, he declared “I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people.” 

On election day 1932, Roosevelt received nearly 23 million popular votes to incumbent Herbert Hoover’s nearly 16 million; the electoral vote was 472 to 59. In a repudiation not just of Hoover but also of the GOP, Americans elected substantial Democratic majorities to both houses of Congress. It would be a full 20 years before a Republican entered the White House as POTUS again; it had been 11 years since Roosevelt was hopelessly bedridden.

With the help of a “brain trust,” FDR’s unflagging energy, and the motivation to redress the dire needs of a nation, myriad measures were taken for the relief of an economically ravaged society. From the first 100 days, through the alphabet soup agencies, including the TVA, WPA, NRA and others, to the second New Deal in 1936, the free-fall of the country was arrested and reversed, and with it the lot of most Americans.

So, dear and patient reader, we at last find ourselves at 1940 and FDR’s unprecedented third-term, with the US facing even graver existential threats overseas. Not without detractors, Roosevelt was still much preferred by a grateful America to his GOP rival Wendell L. Willkie, 449 electoral votes to 82. The two-term threshold set by George Washington would only be breached once more, with FDR accepting the challenge of Democracy’s stewardship to his very last breath.

Author: Bill Urich

A tail-end baby-boomer, Bill Urich was born in Cleveland to a grade school teacher and her Navy vet husband, and reared in Greater Detroit. Working his way through school primarily at night, Mr. Urich holds a Bachelor’s in Journalism, Phi Beta Kappa, and a Juris Doctorate from Wayne State University. In his legal career he has acted as an assistant state prosecutor, city attorney, special prosecutor, mediator, magistrate, private practitioner and mayor of Royal Oak, a large home-rule city in Michigan. Mr. Urich continues in private practice and municipal prosecution, is on faculty to DePaul University, pens regular contributions to political publications, and remains active in selected campaigns and causes related to labor, social and criminal justice. A father of three mostly-grown sons, he spends his precious free time on family, friends, the pursuit of happiness, beauty and truth, three rescue cats, and fronting the rock band Calcutta Rugs from behind the drum kit.