A Man of Courage and Vision: Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Narrelle’s Column

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd President of the United States, was a man of courage and conviction. A bold and wise leader, President Roosevelt commanded our great nation during two of the most troubled periods of our history: the Great Depression and World War II. His vision of peace and global unity has inspired millions of people across the world.

Born on January 30, 1882, in Hyde Park, New York, Franklin Roosevelt began his political career when he was elected to the New York State Senate in 1910. In 1913, he was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy by President Woodrow Wilson. After unsuccessfully running for Vice President in 1920, he returned to New York to practice law.

In the summer of 1921, while on vacation with his family, Roosevelt was suddenly struck by a debilitating illness, diagnosed as polio. Permanently paralyzed from the waist down, Roosevelt refused to accept his disability and fought to regain the use of his legs. Searching for a cure, he purchased Warm Springs, a resort in Georgia, and turned it into a rehabilitation facility for those stricken by polio. Humbled and uncertain of his future, he witnessed firsthand the discrimination against people with disabilities and the plight of the impoverished citizens of the south. As he struggled to regain his self-confidence and strength, he became more cognizant of the social and domestic issues facing his country. Louis Howe, Roosevelt’s political advisor and friend, once stated that while he was recovering, Roosevelt “dwelt on many things that had not bothered him before. Lying there, he grew bigger day by day.”[1] In many ways, Roosevelt’s personal struggles prepared him for the challenges he would face as president. Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “I know that he had real fear when he was first taken ill, but he learned to surmount it. After that I never heard him say he was afraid of anything.”[2] In a time when disabilities like his were misunderstood and people with disabilities were shunned, Roosevelt overcame his disability and went on to prove to the world that a disabled person could accomplish just as much as anyone else.

Although most people did not expect him to return to politics, Roosevelt, with the help of his wife Eleanor and Louis Howe, reentered public life in 1924 by submitting Alfred Smith’s name for nomination for the presidency at the Democratic National Convention.  Four years later, in 1928, Roosevelt was elected Governor of New York. A year after his election as governor, on Tuesday, October 29th, 1929, the stock market crashed and the nation was plunged into the Great Depression. As governor, Roosevelt gained popularity for his swift and vigorous action to combat rapidly increasing economic troubles. The recovery and relief programs put into place by his gubernatorial administration were forerunners of the New Deal that would help lift the country out of the Great Depression.

In 1932, Roosevelt was nominated as the Democratic candidate for President. In his acceptance speech, he promised, “I pledge myself to a new deal for the American people,” a phrase that would later define his first two terms in the presidency. Roosevelt’s assurances of quick action and “Happy Days are Here Again” appealed to people who were tired of their government’s inaction and frustrated by their collapsing nation. Resentment and anger directed at the Hoover administration for the President’s weak response and inability to prevent the crisis helped to propel Roosevelt to the presidency. In 1933, at the height of the Great Depression, Roosevelt took the oath of office. Supported by braces on his paralyzed legs, he boldly declared that “[t]his great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” He went on to outline the roots of the economic crisis: the selfish and careless avarice of corporations. In many ways, these words outline the same issues that lead to our economic troubles today. Towards the end of his address, Roosevelt firmly compelled Americans to, despite the hopelessness of the current situation, hold on to the principles of democracy and freedom that make our country great. True to his words, America stayed true to democracy and led the fight for freedom in the next decade. In contrast, many other nations turned to dictators who began World War II. President Roosevelt’s First Inaugural Address is pertinent to all periods of history, but at the time, it was only a precursor of things to come.

When President Roosevelt took office in 1933, twenty-five percent of the American population was unemployed. President Roosevelt’s first action in office was to declare a national four-day bank holiday, which successfully allowed the banks time to recover and restored America’s faith in the banks. During the first one hundred days of Roosevelt’s presidency, Congress passed a record of fifteen bills. This legislation, known as the New Deal, had three goals: to provide relief for the unemployed, to promote economic recovery, and to reform the economic system. President Roosevelt formed many government agencies that created millions of jobs, including the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the Works Project Administration. Other organizations, such as the National Recovery Administration, focused on reforming unfair business practices to prevent another national crisis. In 1935, Congress passed the Social Security Act, which created a system of welfare relief that is still in place today. Through a series of radio addresses known as fireside chats, President Roosevelt restored American confidence by outlining the government’s course of action in simple terms. Although the Great Depression did not officially end until the beginning of World War II, President Roosevelt successfully restored American confidence and severely lessened the state of poverty and despair that had defined the country when he had taken office.

In 1940, President Roosevelt was elected to an unprecedented third term. Meanwhile, across the world, three dictatorships had risen out of the despair of the Great Depression: Adolf Hitler’s regime in Germany, Benito Mussolini’s regime in Italy, and a military regime in Japan. By 1939, war had broken out in Europe and Asia. Through the Lend-Lease Act, President Roosevelt provided “all aid short of war” to Great Britain and the Allies while formally keeping the nation’s neutrality until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. In his famous Infamy Speech, President Roosevelt announced to the nation: “Yesterday, December 7th, 1941, a day that will live in infamy, the United States was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.” That day, America declared war on Japan. Three days later, Italy and Germany declared war on America. By successfully collaborating with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Russian Premier Josef Stalin, President Roosevelt turned the tide of the war against the Axis powers. While still maintaining American confidence and patriotism, President Roosevelt led democracy to triumph through his successful collaboration with the Allies and his firm leadership among world democracies. By April 1945, victory was assured, but President Roosevelt would not live to see the day. On April 12th, 1945, President Roosevelt died after suffering from a massive stroke, only three months into his fourth term and twenty-six days before Germany’s surrender to the Allies. The world grieved at the loss of one of the greatest leaders the world had known.

Although World War II and the Great Depression defined his presidency, President Roosevelt’s legacy is not limited to these two crises. In 1941, during his State of the Union Address, President Roosevelt told the world of his vision of a “future founded upon four essential human freedoms.” These Four Freedoms are freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Although at the time these concepts seemed to merely be a method of persuading the American people to end the nation’s isolationism, the Four Freedoms symbolize hope for a better world where discrimination, poverty, and hostility will be nonexistent: the result of the “perpetual, peaceful revolution” that President Roosevelt envisioned. President Roosevelt declared, “That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation.”

The concept of the Four Freedoms led President Roosevelt to propose two policies: the United Nations and the Second Bill of Rights. The United Nations, a place where Roosevelt envisioned leaders could come together to resolve their issues without resorting to armed conflict, became a reality shortly after the end of World War II. With the Four Freedoms in mind, President Roosevelt proposed the United Nations, a replacement for the League of Nations, as an unbreakable coalition to fight the Axis Powers. Long after her husband’s death, Eleanor Roosevelt worked as a member of the American delegation to the United Nations, helping to draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Second Bill of Rights, proposed in President Roosevelt’s 1944 State of the Union Address, would guarantee the “equality in the pursuit of happiness” that had been inadequately granted by the Bill of Rights. The Second Bill of Rights, also known as the Economic Bill of Rights, would include the rights to employment, health care, education, social security, and housing. Unfortunately, President Roosevelt died before he could ensure the Second Bill of Rights, a step to ensuring freedom from want everywhere in the world, could become a reality.

Today, President Roosevelt is recognized worldwide as one of the greatest American Presidents and world leaders in history. Taking office at a time of national despair and destitution, President Roosevelt strongly commanded the American people to stand up and face their problems. He inspired confidence in them at a time when food and shelter was uncertain for a quarter of the nation’s population. Paralyzed from the waist down, he commanded the United States through the worst war in human history and inspired the nations of the world to come together for democracy. His vision of the Four Freedoms will prevail throughout the ages and the future founded upon them will become a reality. But many people will simply remember President Roosevelt as the bold leader who spoke to the American people over the radio in simple, assuring terms. Humanity will forever honor President Franklin Delano Roosevelt as a man who inspired confidence and courage and, through his actions and convictions, changed the course of history.

Works Cited
1.       “Franklin Delano Roosevelt.” American Experience. Public Broadcasting Service. September 18th, 2013. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/biography/eleanor-fdr/
2.       “Franklin Delano Roosevelt.” Wikipedia. September 18th, 2013. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. September 18th, 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Franklin_D._Roosevelt
3.       “Franklin D. Roosevelt.” White House. 2006. White House Historical Association. http://www.whitehouse.gov/about/presidents/franklindroosevelt
4.       “Biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt.” Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum. September 18th, 2013. http://www.fdrlibrary.marist.edu/education/resources/bio_fdr.html
5.       “American President: Franklin D. Roosevelt.” Miller Center. University of Virginia. September 19th, 2013. http://millercenter.org/president/fdroosevelt/essays/biography/1

[1] “Franklin Delano Roosevelt.” American Experience. Public Broadcasting Service. September 18th, 2013. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/biography/eleanor-fdr/
[2] “American President: Franklin D. Roosevelt.” Miller Center. University of Virginia. September 19th, 2013. http://millercenter.org/president/fdroosevelt/essays/biography/1

Narrelle is a homeschooled teen from West Palm Beach, Florida. In addition to writing, she enjoys singing in a choir and playing piano, and loves literature, politics, history, astronomy, and physics.

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