Knowing the Presidents: Franklin D Roosevelt

Franklin Delano Roosevelt 1882-1945

Thirty-Second President, 1933-1945

Personal Information

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was born January 30, 1882, the only son of wealthy parents James and Sara Delano Roosevelt (although his father had a son from a previous marriage).

Roosevelt began studying at Harvard University in 1900 where he earned his degree in three years. During his last year at Harvard, he became engaged to Theodore Roosevelt’s niece, Eleanor Roosevelt, who was also his distant cousin.

They married on March 17, 1905, and went on to have one daughter and five sons, one of whom died in infancy.

In 1921 Roosevelt was diagnosed with polio and became paralyzed in each of his extremities (although he would eventually regain the use of his arms, his legs never fully recovered). While his mother tried to persuade him to give up his career, his wife Eleanor urged him not to abandon his political dreams.


In 1932, the topic of highest importance to Americans was the Great Depression, giving Democrats an advantage in securing Franklin D. Roosevelt’s place in the White House.

Roosevelt’s campaign introduced Americans to the New Deal that would become his signature government reform, one promising that government policies would help Americans emerge from the economic depression. Four years later, Roosevelt held up his New Deal as the best option for the American citizen.

With the advent of the Great Depression, the 1932 election would inevitably represent a dramatic shift in political power. While Republicans had primarily dominated the presidency for decades, it was clear that citizens were desperate for change.

In 1932, his opponent—the incumbent Herbert Hoover—blamed the economic depression on external causes. Hoover was unpopular to the point that Roosevelt’s campaign strategy was simply not to do anything that would distract from that unpopularity.

In 1940, Roosevelt broke the tradition set by George Washington by running for a third term. The advent of Nazi Germany sealed his determination to seek the presidency again, despite the disapproval by many of this break with tradition. Roosevelt famously stated, “You don’t change horses in midstream.”


Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected president in the aftermath of the worldwide financial crisis triggered in part by the Wall Street Crash of 1929. The Great Depression soon achieved a depth and duration unparalleled in modern economic history.

Facing one of the greatest challenges in American history—world war—Roosevelt helmed the government during the era just before World War II through the prosecution of the war to final victory in 1945.

By organizing the armed forces and establishing America as the arsenal of democracy, Roosevelt switched from “Dr. New Deal” to “Dr. Win the War.” Diplomatic challenges meant meeting with Churchill and Stalin in order to set the parameters of both wartime cooperation and the post-war world.

Major Acts

Roosevelt’s creation of multiple new governmental agencies within his New Deal program was unprecedented and set the stage for later presidents to take on added responsibilities and work both within and around the federal bureaucracy.

Roosevelt’s impatience with precedent led to a political misstep, the “Court Packing” bill of 1937. Angered by the Supreme Court over rulings limiting his New Deal programs, he proposed expanding the Court, “packing” it with friendly justices. Roosevelt’s high-handedness convinced die-hard opponents that he was a threat to the government and democracy itself.

During the Depression, Roosevelt directed the resources of the government toward the welfare of the American people.


Roosevelt’s mastery of mass media—first radio and then film and newsreels—presaged how chief executives could use the media to speak directly to the American people. His “fireside chats” in particular endure as a model of astute presidential messaging.

Roosevelt’s New Deal was held together by the force of his charismatic personality, strong will, and his control of the government. This hands-on approach would dominate politics for much of the postwar era.

American Liberalism—as a defining ideology of our society—was codified as governmental practice under Roosevelt. There has been little divergence from the template he set in terms of state intervention in the private sector, including business regulation and social welfare legislation