On January 30th, 1882, Franklin D. Roosevelt was born on a cold and snowy evening at his family home in Hyde Park New York to Sara Delano Roosevelt. After being in labor for more than 24 hours, the doctors believed that the cause was lost and administered chloroform to calm her. Forty-five minutes later, Sara delivered a 10-pound boy who was blue and not moving. The doctor blew air into his lungs and the newborn began to cry. He would be named Franklin Delano after his mother’s uncle. Because of the difficult birth, the boy would be Sara’s only child.
Roosevelt was privately educated, at home, until age 14, when he was accepted at Gordon Preparatory School in Massachusetts. All of his education was reared in being a gentleman and assuming responsibility for those less fortunate and exercising Christian stewardship through public service. These values instilled at such an early age most certainly shaped his policy’s and leadership as President.
In 1900, Roosevelt entered Harvard University and it was during this time that he fell under the spell of his fifth cousin, 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 distant cousins became engaged during Roosevelt’s final year at Harvard, and they were married on March 17, 1905.
Eleanor would later open her husband’s eyes to the deplorable state of the poor in New York’s slums. Roosevelt attended Columbia University Law School. After passing the New York bar exam, he went to work as a clerk for the distinguished Wall Street firm of Carter, Ledyard, and Milburn. Motivated by his cousin Theodore, who continued to urge young men of privileged backgrounds to enter public service, Roosevelt looked for an opportunity to launch a career in politics. In 1910, at age 29, Roosevelt was elected to the New York Senate and his political career would take off from there, however, not before suffering a major setback.
Paralysis Before Presidency
In August 1921, while Roosevelt was on vacation at Campobello Island, New Brunswick, Canada, his life was transformed when he was stricken with poliomyelitis or polio. He suffered intensely, and for some time he was almost completely paralyzed. Unable to pursue an active political career as he recovered from polio, Roosevelt depended on his wife to keep his name alive in Democratic circles. Although initially very shy, Eleanor Roosevelt became an effective public speaker and an adroit political analyst under Howe’s tutelage. As a result of her speaking engagements all over New York state, Roosevelt never faded entirely from the political scene, despite what seemed to be a career-ending affliction. And in 1928, he was urged to run for Governor of New York and won! He proved to his constituents that his illness did not take away his youthful resilience and vitality that they had grown to believe and trust.
The Great Depression was the major issue he would deal with as Governor. He concentrated on tax relief for farmers and cheaper public utilities for consumers. He also focused on mobilizing the state government to provide relief and to aid in economic recovery. Success with these policies would pave the way to his Presidency.
In 1933, Roosevelt was elected the 32nd President of the United States and would be the ONLY President elected to the office four times. He led the Country through two of the greatest crises of the 20th Century: the Great Depression and World War II.
Roosevelt’s First and Second terms were consumed with pulling our Country out of the Great Depression. He promised that within the First 100 Days of his Presidency he would provide relief to the country and did this through his New Deal Plan. Two major pieces of legislation can be attributed for the success of his First 100 Days: Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) and the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA). The AAA established the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, which was charged with increasing prices of agricultural commodities and expanding the proportion of national income going to farmers. The NIRA was a two-part program: One part consisted of a $3.3-billion appropriation for public works, to be spent by the Public Works Administration (PWA). Had this money been poured rapidly into the economy, it might have done much to stimulate recovery. The other part of the NIRA was the National Recovery Administration (NRA), whose task was to establish and administer industry wide codes that prohibited unfair trade practices, set minimum wages and maximum hours, guaranteed workers the right to bargain collectively, and imposed controls on prices and production. By 1937 the economy had recovered substantially, and Roosevelt, seeing an opportunity to return to a balanced budget, drastically curtailed government spending. By 1938 the New Deal was drawing to a close and by 1939 foreign policy was overshadowing domestic policy.
Roosevelt’s Third and Fourth terms were consumed by World World II. On December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, destroying or damaging nearly the entire U.S. Pacific fleet and hundreds of airplanes and killing about 2,500 military personnel and civilians. On December 8, at Roosevelt’s request, Congress declared war on Japan; on December 11 Germany and Italy declared war on the United States.
Roosevelt would see the war through until the end on D-Day, June 6th, 1944. On this night, President Roosevelt went on national radio to address the nation for the first time about the Normandy invasion. His speech took the form of a prayer and it read, as follows:
“My fellow Americans: Last night, when I spoke with you about the fall of Rome, I knew at that moment that troops of the United States and our allies were crossing the Channel in another and greater operation. It has come to pass with success thus far.
And so, in this poignant hour, I ask you to join with me in prayer:
Almighty God: Our sons, pride of our Nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity.
Lead them straight and true; give strength to their arms, stoutness to their hearts, steadfastness in their faith.
They will need Thy blessings. Their road will be long and hard. For the enemy is strong. He may hurl back our forces. Success may not come with rushing speed, but we shall return again and again; and we know that by Thy grace, and by the righteousness of our cause, our sons will triumph.
They will be sore tried, by night and by day, without rest-until the victory is won. The darkness will be rent by noise and flame. Men’s souls will be shaken with the violences of war.
For these men are lately drawn from the ways of peace. They fight not for the lust of conquest. They fight to end conquest. They fight to liberate. They fight to let justice arise, and tolerance and good will among all Thy people. They yearn but for the end of battle, for their return to the haven of home.
Some will never return. Embrace these, Father, and receive them, Thy heroic servants, into Thy kingdom.
And for us at home — fathers, mothers, children, wives, sisters, and brothers of brave men overseas — whose thoughts and prayers are ever with them–help us, Almighty God, to rededicate ourselves in renewed faith in Thee in this hour of great sacrifice.
Many people have urged that I call the Nation into a single day of special prayer. But because the road is long and the desire is great, I ask that our people devote themselves in a continuance of prayer. As we rise to each new day, and again when each day is spent, let words of prayer be on our lips, invoking Thy help to our efforts.
Give us strength, too — strength in our daily tasks, to redouble the contributions we make in the physical and the material support of our armed forces.
And let our hearts be stout, to wait out the long travail, to bear sorrows that may come, to impart our courage unto our sons wheresoever they may be.
And, O Lord, give us Faith. Give us Faith in Thee; Faith in our sons; Faith in each other; Faith in our united crusade. Let not the keenness of our spirit ever be dulled. Let not the impacts of temporary events, of temporal matters of but fleeting moment let not these deter us in our unconquerable purpose.
With Thy blessing, we shall prevail over the unholy forces of our enemy. Help us to conquer the apostles of greed and racial arrogancies. Lead us to the saving of our country, and with our sister Nations into a world unity that will spell a sure peace a peace invulnerable to the schemings of unworthy men. And a peace that will let all of men live in freedom, reaping the just rewards of their honest toil.
Thy will be done, Almighty God.
Declining Health and Death
Roosevelt had been suffering from advanced arteriosclerosis for more than a year before the Yalta Conference. By the time of his return from Yalta, however, he was so weak that for the first time in his presidency he spoke to Congress while sitting down. Early in April 1945 he traveled to his cottage in Warm Springs, Georgia—the “Little White House”—to rest. On the afternoon of April 12, while sitting for a portrait, he suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage, and he died a few hours later. Roosevelt is buried alongside his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, in the Springwood Garden of his childhood home in Hyde Park, New York.
After being afflicted with polio and becoming paralyzed, Roosevelt never abandoned hope that he would regain the use of his legs. In 1924, FDR visited a rundown spa in Warm Springs, Georgia where it was said that the buoyant mineral waters had therapeutic powers. After six weeks, he was convinced that he had made more progress in his rehabilitation than at any time in the previous three years. He built a home for himself at Warm Springs. In 1926 when the spa faced hardship, he purchased the facility for $200,000, creating a therapeutic center called the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation. It opened its doors to patients from all over the country, providing medical treatment and an opportunity to spend time with others suffering the effects of polio.
Even under the demands of the Presidency, Roosevelt regularly visited Warm Springs for treatment and rest, becoming known to the patients as “Dr. Roosevelt.” But the growing demands on the facility, and the increasing number of patients being treated there, required more money than FDR alone or a small number of contributors could provide. At the suggestion of a public relations consultant, business magnate and FDR political ally Henry L. Doherty launched the National Committee for Birthday Balls that sponsored a dance in every town across the nation, both to celebrate the President’s birthday but also to raise money for the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation.
The first Birthday Ball was held in 1934, with 4,376 communities joining in 600 separate celebrations that raised over one million dollars for Warm Springs. Future Birthday Balls continued to raise about a million dollars per year, with contributions split between Warm Springs and the local communities where the balls were held. Roosevelt would go on to hold 12 Birthday Balls until his death in 1945.
In 1938, FDR created the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, not only to help Warm Springs but also the victims of polio throughout the country. To increase awareness of the campaign, radio personality and philanthropist Eddie Cantor took to the air waves and urged Americans to send their loose change to President Roosevelt in “a march of dimes to reach all the way to the White House.”
Soon, millions of dimes flooded the White House. In 1945, the annual March of Dimes campaign raised 18.9 million dollars for the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. Ultimately, the March of Dimes (as the National Foundation became known) financially supported the research and development of a polio vaccine by Jonas Salk in 1955, eradicating the disease throughout most of the world by the 1960s.
Franklin Roosevelt’s dedication to finding a cure for polio benefited millions of children worldwide. But it was the participation of Americans across the nation in Birthday Balls that made the campaign a success. Their hard work and financial support supported the development of new methods of treatment to improve the lives of those stricken with polio and the creation of a vaccine to protect future generations from its devastation. Although the Birthday Balls ended in 1945 with the death of President Roosevelt, both of their legacies live on in the March of Dimes.
Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Franklin-D-Roosevelt/Relations-with-the-Allies, obtained January 30, 2023.
Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, https://www.fdrlibrary.org/fdr-birthday, obtained January 30, 2023.
Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, https://www.fdrlibrary.org/d-day, obtained January 30, 2023.
National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/places/burial-site-of-franklin-and-eleanor-roosevelt.htm, obtained January 30, 2023.