Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Who is the Real FDR?

Franklin Delano Roosevelt makes the list of most popular US presidents for many. Is he truly the man many affectionately reflect on?

Nov 10, 2023By Kassandre Dwyer, M.Ed History

franklin delano roosevelt real fdr


Franklin Delano Roosevelt, fondly known as FDR to the American people, is remembered as a favorite president by many. Serving almost four terms, more than any other president, he saw the country through the Great Depression and much of World War II. His New Deal brought hope to many Americans as they worked to improve the economy and marched into war. His public health struggles gave him humanity and helped develop an effective polio vaccine and the March of Dimes. But nobody’s perfect. Who’s the real man behind the timeless image?


A Comfortable Childhood

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A young FDR with his mother, Sara, via Encyclopedia Britannica


FDR’s story began not in Washington DC but in New York State. He was born to James and Sara Roosevelt in 1882, spending most of his childhood in Hyde Park, about fifty miles north of New York City. Franklin was an only child, and his mother, though she was known as a woman with an independent streak, was especially dedicated to him. Franklin’s young life was one of relative luxury, though the family lived it quietly. He was educated at home via private tutors until the age of fourteen when his parents sent him to the prestigious Groton Preparatory School in Massachusetts. This school for boys intended to make young men mentally and physically tough; the aspiring gentlemen took care of the less fortunate and were prepared for a life of public service.


After graduation, FDR attended Harvard University. Just a few weeks after his enrollment, his father passed away from a chronic heart condition. Following this loss, Roosevelt threw himself into his time at Harvard, particularly his social life and extracurricular activities. His grades were average, but he finished his education in three years. He later attended Columbia Law School, though he didn’t graduate, and was admitted to the New York Bar in 1907.


What’s Next?

young franklin delano roosevelt
A young Roosevelt, via Encyclopedia Britannica


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During this time at Harvard, FDR developed an interest in politics, becoming particularly inspired by his fifth cousin, Theodore Roosevelt, who would serve as US president from 1901-1909. Although Theodore was a Republican and FDR declared himself a Democrat, Franklin admired and wished to follow his cousin’s example.


Another distant cousin caught FDR’s eye during his years at Harvard: Theodore’s niece, Anna Eleanor, known as Eleanor. They had been acquainted with one another as children and grew to be friends and romantic partners as adults. When Franklin announced that he was ready to marry Eleanor, his mother, still very close to her son, begged him to wait one year. The couple conceded but would marry on March 17th, 1905, with President Roosevelt walking the bride down the aisle. After his marriage and completion of the bar exam, FDR began working as a clerk at a New York law firm. Between 1906-1916, Franklin and Eleanor had six children, one of whom would die in infancy. Their five surviving children were Anna, James, Elliot, Franklin Jr, and John.


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The Roosevelt Family, via the Philadelphia Inquirer


Though Franklin and Eleanor would stay married for the duration of his life, and she played an important role throughout his presidency, their relationship was not all sunshine and roses. FDR had an affair with his secretary Lucy Mercer, which Eleanor discovered in 1918. She gave Franklin a choice: end the affair or end their marriage. Realizing what a scandal a divorce would cast on his political life and ambitions, FDR ended his relationship with Mercer.


Franklin’s widowed mother also cast a pall on his marriage. With her husband gone, the lonely woman became almost obsessive with her only son, meddling in all parts of his life. Her domineering personality made it difficult for FDR and Eleanor to truly become independent and close to one another.


Entrance Into Politics

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Roosevelt in 1937, via Encyclopedia Britannica


In 1910, FDR broke into politics and was elected to the New York State Senate. Despite his alliance with the Democratic party, he was chosen in his traditionally Republican voting district. He was re-elected to this position in 1912.


President Woodrow Wilson appointed him Assistant Secretary of the Navy in 1913, a role he would hold until 1920. He loved and knew a great deal about the ocean and often grew impatient with his superior, Josephus Daniels, whom he considered less knowledgeable. 1920 was an exciting year for Roosevelt, as he was tapped to become the Democratic Party’s nominee for Vice President of the United States. He ran as the running mate of James Cox, who was soundly defeated by Warren Harding. Despite this loss, FDR still hoped for a future in politics as he returned to the private sector, accepting a position with a financial firm.


Life Turned Upside Down

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The Roosevelt home on Campobello Island, via National Park Service


The Roosevelts had a summer home on Campobello Island, New Brunswick, Canada, and it was here that FDR found his life forever changed. In August of 1921, after enjoying a day outdoors swimming and hiking, Franklin went to bed and awoke feverish and with a numb feeling in his legs. He was then diagnosed with poliomyelitis, or polio for short, a viral infection that is more common in children but still an affliction that affects adults.


Polio begins with fever, muscle pain, and spasms but often progresses to paralysis, which is what happened in Roosevelt’s case. Polio was a prevalent disease in the 1920s, with no cure or vaccine. He became very ill and, for a while, was completely paralyzed. Many people expected his political career to be over, including his mother, Sara. However, Franklin just seemed to grow more determined to succeed. He was supported by Eleanor and advisor Louis Howe as he convalesced and planned to return to politics. Eleanor helped by becoming a presence and speaker at political events, in a way serving as her husband’s eyes and ears, keeping him current on political happenings. She also started to get interested in certain causes on her own accord, particularly human rights causes.


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A prescription for Roosevelt’s leg braces, circa 1926, via the FDR Library


FDR slowly recovered so that he was able to be more mobile, though he would never regain full use of his legs. Throughout the rest of his life, he would move with help from wheelchairs, crutches, braces, and canes. However, he had a “youthful resilience and vitality” that attracted people to him and demonstrated that not even polio could keep him down. He worked to gather financial support for polio awareness and other suffering patients, his work eventually leading to the creation of the organization we now know as the March of Dimes. Though he would not live to see a successful vaccine, the public attention his affliction brought to polio was a key contributor to its development.


FDR Coming Back Stronger

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FDR, with his dog Fala in his lap and 3-year-old Ruthie Bie at his side, in Hyde Park, New York; via the National Park Service


In 1928, Roosevelt ran for and won the governor’s office in New York. It was a difficult time for America, as the Great Depression would begin with Black Tuesday at the end of 1929. Roosevelt would work to put reforms such as lower taxes for farmers and the establishment of more public works in place, earning him a reputation as a liberal reformer. This would help him win re-election in 1930, something that was extremely difficult for a political figure in the Depression Era. He became a rising star in the Democratic Party and was a frontrunner for the presidential nomination in 1932, which he secured. In 1932, he handily beat incumbent Herbert Hoover and became the 32nd president of the United States.


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A portrait of FDR, via the National Park Service & Library of Congress


Throughout his campaign, Roosevelt spoke of a “new deal” for Americans, and in the early days of his presidency, he began to define what this New Deal would actually entail. During the first hundred days of his term, he and his cabinet presented Congress with an array of measures intended to stem America’s struggles and help right the economy. The New Deal made progress almost immediately, particularly when it came to stabilizing the fears of the American people. With his “fireside chats,” weekly radio broadcasts sent into the homes of millions, FDR was able to reach the citizens of his country on a level like no other president had before and help quell their fears.


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Signing the Agricultural Adjustment Act, 1933, via Encyclopedia Britannica


Roosevelt’s Administration created a number of “alphabet agencies,” such as the National Recovery Administration (NRA) and Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), designed to aid people and get them back to work. FDR and his efforts were unique in the world of American politics in that they were approved and appreciated by almost everyone, from the poor to the wealthy, from farmers to people in business. He was easily reelected to a second term.


Career Challenges

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Giving a radio broadcast in 1934, via Encyclopedia Britannica


Though tackling the Great Depression was a challenge in itself, the low point in FDR’s political career came partway through his second term. The Supreme Court was unhappy with several of the measures Roosevelt had pushed and enacted as part of his New Deal efforts, declaring some unconstitutional. In addition, he helped campaign against some political rivals during the 1938 congressional election. Unfortunately for FDR, many of these incumbents ended up getting reelected, and he was faced with working with enemies he had created. A slight recession happened during this time, bringing fears to some that the Depression was returning.


A World At War

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Meeting with Henri Girard, Charles de Gaulle, and Winston Churchill at the Casablanca Conference, 1943, via Encyclopedia Britannica


At the conclusion of his second term and into his third, FDR watched as many of the United States’ allies struggled in a world war. All four of his sons joined the US armed forces: one in the Marines, two in the Navy, and one in the Air Force. The United States officially planned to stay neutral in World War II, but in 1940, as Britain and France began to struggle against the Axis Powers, Roosevelt’s government began sending a great deal of aid in the form of weapons, money, and other supplies. However, the United States would not become officially involved in World War II until December 8th, 1941, after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor the day before. Throughout the war, FDR continued to set a precedent of being actively involved in the country’s events, requiring future presidents to also take an active role in their duties.


The End of an Era

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An honor guard with FDR’s casket in the East Room of the White House, The White House Historical Association


Sadly, Roosevelt would not survive to see the conclusion of World War II despite his run as the longest-serving US president. On April 12th, 1945, he was sitting for a portrait at his home in Warm Springs, Georgia, his favorite presidential retreat, when he collapsed. He died from a cerebral hemorrhage, a devastating form of stroke. His vice president, Harry Truman, took his place that very day, sworn in as acting president. The world was stunned by FDR’s loss, and hundreds lined the train tracks as his body was carried back to Washington DC, then to Hyde Park, New York, where he was buried on April 15th.


A Legacy Intact

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Driving with a pet, via Encyclopedia Britannica


Despite his premature death, Franklin Roosevelt left a legacy that is still remembered today. He was not a perfect man, but he forever reshaped the office of the presidency of the United States. Not only did he change the level of involvement the president engaged in throughout his term, but he forever changed the image of the president through the eyes of the American public.

Author Image

By Kassandre DwyerM.Ed HistoryKassie is a farmer with a passion for history who has a day job teaching middle school social studies in her hometown. In addition to earning NBCT certification and M.Ed. in History, she holds an M.Ed in Curriculum & Instruction and a B.S. in Sustainable Agriculture/Animal Science. She is particularly interested in telling the stories of often overlooked historical perspectives or hidden truths, and is especially intrigued by the history of America’s Indigenous peoples, war, and the “wild west.”