Man of Destiny

FDR and the Making of the American Century


By Alonzo L. Hamby

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From an acclaimed historian comes an authoritative and balanced biography of FDR, based on previously untapped sources

No president looms larger in twentieth-century American history than Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and few life stories can match his for sheer drama. Following in the footsteps of his Republican cousin President Theodore Roosevelt, FDR devoted himself to politics as a Democrat and a true man of the people. Eventually setting his sights on the presidency, he was elected to office in 1932 by a nation that was mired in the Great Depression and desperate for revival.

As the distinguished historian Alonzo Hamby argues in this authoritative biography, FDR’s record as president was more mixed than we are often led to believe. The New Deal provided much-needed assistance to millions of Americans, but failed to restore prosperity, and while FDR became an outstanding commander-in-chief during World War II, his plans for the postwar world were seriously flawed. No less perceptive is Hamby’s account of FDR’s private life, which explores the dynamics of his marriage and his romance with his wife’s secretary, Lucy Mercer. Hamby documents FDR’s final months in intimate detail, claiming that his perseverance, despite his serious illness, not only shaped his presidency, but must be counted as one of the twentieth century’s great feats of endurance.

Hamby reveals a man whose personality — egocentric, undisciplined in his personal appetites, at times a callous user of aides and associates, yet philanthropic and caring for his nation’s underdogs-shaped his immense legacy. Man of Destiny is a measured account of the life, both personal and public, of the most important American leader of the twentieth century.



I have a hazy memory of my mother and father, seated near the family radio, listening to a speech by Franklin D. Roosevelt, likely his last fireside chat, on January 6, 1945. I have a much clearer recollection of hearing the late-afternoon bulletin on April 12, 1945, announcing Roosevelt's death, and running to tell my mother.

Above that radio, for many years after the war, hung a wartime map of the world with pictures of Allied civilian and military leaders along its edges. Roosevelt at the top was the most prominently displayed. My parents taught me that he was the greatest of all American presidents. My mother always remembered his birthday and thought she knew his favorite song. (Could it really have been "Home on the Range"?) My father recalled that when his fortunes were at low ebb during the Depression, Roosevelt's speeches had bucked him up. As a teenager, I began a practice of making Christmas donations to the March of Dimes, Roosevelt's charity devoted to the treatment and eradication of polio. Some years later, as a professional historian writing about Harry S. Truman, I discovered that much of the controversy about HST revolved around a dispute over whether he was following the course FDR had charted.

A child of wealth and privilege, possessing unlimited will and ambition, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was destined to lead a nation large in population, rich in resources, and committed to a universalist ideology of liberal democracy. His twelve years in the White House culminated in the creation of what can justly be called an American century. This convergence of individual and national destinies created a large and complex story that remains essential to our understanding of the world in which we live today.

History is more than biography, but individual actors nonetheless chart its course. There are many accounts of Roosevelt's life, most of them either laudatory tributes or blandly noninterpretive narratives in which large themes get lost. No twentieth-century American lived a bigger or more consequential life. I have attempted to treat it fully but economically and from a point of view that acknowledges genuine achievements while recognizing large failures. I hope I have succeeded in bringing out its meaning without taxing the reader's patience.

A. L. H.

Athens, Ohio

January 2015

Part I

Becoming FDR

Chapter 1

"The Best People"

Family and Identity, 1882–1896

My dear Mama.


Thank you so much for the lovly soldiers. Brother Rosy may take a picture of our gardans because it looks so nice. We are going to have a big bush in our gardans and it's nearly two feet high. I take my rest evry day but I am not out much We have battles with the soldiers evry day. And they are so nice. Good bye dear Mama Your loving little


P.S. Give my love to papa and Uncle Frank and Aunt Laura.1

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was six years old when he wrote this letter to his mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt, in the spring of 1888. Franklin's birth on January 30, 1882, had been a near-run thing, accomplished only after his mother had undergone twenty-four hours of excruciating labor and the administration of chloroform; the ten-pound baby who emerged then required mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. The boy seems to have retained no buried sense of his precarious entry into existence. He lived contentedly in a safe, structured world, defined by the wealth and authority of his family.2

Roosevelts and Delanos, it seemed, had always been there, moneyed and prominent, quiet and steady, exemplifying the virtues of wealth, responsibility, and leadership. By the mid-nineteenth century, both families formed part of a well-defined, self-conscious stratum of the wealthy—"patricians," the "gentility," or the "Best People." They treated their inherited wealth as an annuity to invest carefully that it might produce sufficient income to sustain an affluent lifestyle. They served on boards of directors but rarely acted as hands-on managers. They supported charities. In politics, they generally advocated reform in the sense of honest, efficient, and frugal government. But few deigned to run for office.

Economically, by the mid- to late nineteenth century the American nouveau riche—the entrepreneurs and financiers who built empires, made tons of money, and flaunted their riches—had surpassed the Best People. The Astors, the Vanderbilts, the Carnegies, the Morgans, and slightly less luminous capitalists inevitably assimilated with them. Still, the distinction remained clear on both sides.3

The first of the American Roosevelts appears to have been a simple farmer from an island off the Dutch mainland, but his descendants prospered as merchants, bankers, investors in land, and sugar refiners. The Roosevelts maintained close family relationships throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Possessing modest to substantial wealth, they enjoyed status and esteem as members of the oldest families in New York, the Dutch-based Knickerbocker society.4

The Delanos traced their ancestry to French Calvinists (Huguenots) who had fled to the safety of Leiden in the Dutch Republic. In 1621, one of them followed the English Calvinist Pilgrims, who a year earlier had left on the Mayflower for America. His descendants found prosperity as shipbuilders, whalers, and overseas traders. Like the Roosevelts, the Delanos exemplified how early settlement, old money, and entrepreneurial talent over several generations would lead to a special social standing. Warren Delano II made a fortune in what the family later delicately called "the China trade"—selling opium to the Chinese, a dangerous but extraordinarily lucrative business. He married eighteen-year-old Catherine Lyman in 1843 and fathered eleven children with her.5

A formidable man, Delano dominated his offspring and enforced his will strictly, inspiring, as Sara Delano Roosevelt later put it, "equal parts of awe and fear." Prospective husbands for his daughters had to possess a strong character and a "competence" of at least $100,000, the equivalent of $1.5 million or more in the early twenty-first century.6

Franklin's father, James Roosevelt, led a pedestrian life compared to that of Warren Delano. Yet their families had similar roots and shared values grounded in the seventeenth-century Calvinism that had migrated from England and the Netherlands to the northeastern United States. The Roosevelt fortune had been made well before James was born in 1828; though not as grand as Warren Delano's, it was sufficient to sustain a comfortable life among the American gentry.

The usually dutiful son of a nonpracticing physician who preached straitlaced morality, James had displayed traces of rebellion and self-assertion. He insisted on attending the University of New York (now NYU), failed mathematics and Latin courses, and was sent home. Shipped off to Union College in Schenectady, he joined a so-called secret society that held its meetings in a local tavern. He achieved distinction as a student; graduating in July 1847, he delivered the class oration. Demanding a grand tour of Europe, he arrived as the liberal revolutions of 1848 broke out across the continent. In Italy, he served briefly in Giuseppe Garibaldi's revolutionary army. He returned home in May 1849, after an exciting year and a half.7

Harvard Law School followed, and James graduated with the class of 1851. Two years later, Harvard's most prestigious eating club, Porcellian, made him an honorary member. His talent and family connections won him a place with a prestigious corporate law firm. He made his country residence at Mount Hope, a Hudson River estate inherited from his grandfather.

By then, American capitalism was approaching what later development theorists would call a takeoff point. The age of steel and steam, embodied in railroads and the coal that fired their boilers, had arrived. The Roosevelts, aligned with their relatives, the Aspinwall and Howland families, built formidable business combinations in both industries. James became a partner and made the relationship intimate by marrying his second cousin, Rebecca Brien Howland, in 1853. Hardly out of law school, he was elected a director of the Consolidated Coal Company of Maryland. Soon he was also general manager of the Cumberland and Pennsylvania Railroad. Other such ventures would follow throughout his life.

James Roosevelt measured risk carefully, never put all his eggs in one basket, and scrupulously limited his liability, but he was more than a fusty collector of dividends and directorship stipends. He thought big and promoted visionary enterprises, wagering that the America in which he had come of age would develop into a mighty nation with global reach. After the Civil War, he and his relations built on their coal operations, establishing the Consolidation Coal Company, the nation's largest producer of bituminous coal. Separately, he and others partnered with Tom Scott, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad and a would-be rail monopolist, to establish a holding company designed to buy a controlling interest in the major trunk lines of the old Confederacy; Scott hoped to link these to his grand and ultimately unfulfilled project for a southern transcontinental Texas and Pacific Railroad. James made a substantial personal investment and was elected the company's president. The Panic of 1873 and the depression that followed put all these enterprises on the rocks.8

James's grandest and most daring speculation came in the 1880s and early 1890s: the Maritime Canal Company of Nicaragua proposed to build an Atlantic-Pacific canal through that Central American nation. The extent of his investment is uncertain. His greatest value to the company lay in his close relationship with Democratic president Grover Cleveland, whom he had supported generously. He moved his family to Washington, DC, during the winter of 1887 to lobby for a federal appropriation. Although a rational alternative to a canal through Panama, the plan ultimately ran afoul of the great depression of the 1890s and the vagaries of politics in both the United States and Nicaragua. Its stock eventually became worthless.9

Through it all, James received a consistent stream of income from other investments. First among them was the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company, which also operated railroads and anthracite coal mines. He served as one of its vice presidents and often used a private railway car for personal and business trips.

He and Rebecca lived much of the year at Mount Hope, wintered at their Manhattan town house, enjoyed long trips to Europe, exchanged visits with their extended families, and attended glittering social events. Their only child, a son, was born on March 27, 1854. His father, employing the Dutch equivalent of the English "junior," named him James Roosevelt Roosevelt. Inevitably, he became known inside and outside the family as "Rosy." Handsome, energetic, intelligent, and unserious, he would become a dashing young man, marry into the Astor family, and serve for a time as a junior member of the US diplomatic service.

In September 1865, Mount Hope burned to the ground while the family was away on a yearlong trip to Europe. James decided against rebuilding and bought an estate two or so miles up the east side of the Hudson River at Crum Elbow, just south of the small village of Hyde Park. It consisted of a large house, outbuildings, and 110 acres of farmland. He had the house modernized and furnished it elegantly. Over several years, he acquired adjoining land until he owned a thousand acres, some of it wooded, some of it pasture for purebred horses and cattle, much of it devoted to commercial farming. The house required eight to ten servants; the farming operation employed numerous additional workers. James called his little empire "Springwood." Rosy and his wife would eventually occupy a comfortable country home ("the little Red House") on the grounds.

James became a person of substance in the Hyde Park community and developed a life resembling that of an English squire. He took up membership in the local Episcopal congregation, St. James Church, where he was a vestryman and for a time senior warden. He also served as an overseer of the local public school and the county jail, won election to the town's board of supervisors, and became prominent for his charities. A fine horseman, he sponsored and led the annual Dutchess County hunt. As he moved into middle age, he looked the part of a man of distinction—fit but carrying a little extra weight, sporting mutton-chop whiskers, wearing tailored Scottish tweeds and a top hat. He became known to his employees and many of the townspeople as "Mr. James."

His politics were representative of those of the Best People with one exception—he was a Democrat. He had no truck with the radical Democrats of the West and the South who wanted to debase the dollar, attack business, and spend recklessly. Nor did he give more than token support to the Irish-based urban Democratic machines of the North, such as New York's Tammany Hall. Essentially, he was a Jeffersonian, believing in small, frugal government, low taxes, free trade, and sound money, even if he did not shy from federal subsidies for internal development. The New York politician he most admired, Grover Cleveland, epitomized this creed.

Mr. James and his Republican friends generally agreed on one point. Leadership in one's community was a gentleman's duty. Otherwise, politics was not a gentleman's business. He refused requests to run for Congress or the state legislature and even declined a diplomatic appointment from President Cleveland.

The Calvinist values James had learned as a child persisted. Thrift, hard work, and character, he declared in a talk to a church group, determined success in life. Only the poorest of the poor—the denizens of the Lower East Side in New York or the East End of London—born without a chance, living in squalor by necessity, were deserving objects of charity. It should come not simply from the rich but from those no more than a step or two above them, for with charity came redemption. This was classic Calvinism, characterized by a moral sense that all classes shared a common humanity. Mr. James's charitable works gave life to his admonitions and surely transmitted to his offspring some sense of the Best People's obligation toward the lower classes.10

James and Rebecca had hardly passed their fifteenth anniversary before her health broke. On August 21, 1876, her heart gave out. She was buried in the St. James Church cemetery at Hyde Park. After a long period of mourning, James began to look for a new wife. He was initially attracted to Anna ("Bamie") Roosevelt, the daughter of his fourth cousin and great friend, Theodore Roosevelt Sr. An appealing and sympathetic young woman, she was, alas, less than half his age. As nicely as possible, she rejected his proposal.

Shortly afterward, at a small dinner party held by Bamie's mother, James met Sara Delano. Warren Delano's seventh child, she had been introduced to society in January 1873, at the age of eighteen, a striking and attractive young woman, just two inches short of six feet tall, her fair skin contrasting fetchingly with her dark brown hair and eyes. Like Bamie, she was half James's age. He was immediately smitten. Sara, not yet having received a proposal from a wealthy young man and uncomfortably close to being an old maid, was attracted to him. Warren Delano, a longtime friend and business associate, swallowed whatever doubts he may have had. James was a good man. He possessed an abundant competence. Sara was willing to accept him as a husband. They would live just a few miles away.11

The pair married on October 7, 1880. He was fifty-two, she twenty-six. They took an extended honeymoon in Europe. By the time they returned home ten months later, she was well along in her first and only pregnancy. In later years, she would claim that their son was "a Delano, not a Roosevelt at all." Genetically or otherwise she passed along her father's characteristics of enterprise, daring, and a strength of will that verged on the domineering.12

The boy to whom she gave birth with such difficulty was a product of generations of intermarriage among elites. He could claim relationship to several Mayflower passengers, eight former presidents, and two future ones. He was distantly linked to Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and a seven-year-old English aristocrat named Winston Churchill. Both his mother and father were related by marriage to the Astors. From an early age he would have a strong awareness of his membership in these two large and important extended families.

The boy was also a product of two centuries of Calvinist piety, thrift, and capitalist enterprise on both sides. He, however, would be neither pious, nor thrifty, nor a capitalist enterpriser.


With James's consent, Sara decided the child would be named after one of her uncles, Franklin Delano. On March 20, 1882, he was thus christened at St. James Church. One of his godfathers was Elliott Roosevelt, the youngest son of Theodore Roosevelt Sr. and soon-to-be father of a daughter named Eleanor.13

Franklin's parents stood at the center of a stable and carefree world. Rosy, functionally more an uncle than a half brother, was a frequent presence, as was his son, "Taddy," three years older than Franklin. The Delanos came often; their estate, Algonac, was almost a second home. Despite his large, supportive family, however, in some ways Franklin's childhood was lonely. Without siblings, he lacked the constant companionship of other youngsters his own age. As a young man, he would make it clear that he wanted to father a large family.14

Franklin's early upbringing combined an ethic of responsibility with a sense of authority and leadership. In the company of other children, he tended to have a take-charge attitude. Years later, Sara recalled that he organized his playmates and was always prone to issuing commands. "Mummie," she remembered him saying, "if I didn't give the orders, nothing would happen!"15

James and Sara appear to have been exemplary parents, providing abundant personal contact and affection, along with order and structure. Young Franklin always had a nurse, but Sara breast-fed, bathed, and dressed him regularly. "I felt," she commented years later, "that every mother ought to learn to care for her own baby, whether she can afford to delegate the task to someone else or not." Indeed, she was perhaps excessively dutiful about this. At the age of eight and a half, Franklin would remark in a letter to his father, "Mama left this morning and I am going to take my bath alone." In the mode of the time, he wore dresses until he was five. For a few years Sara frequently dressed him in kilts, which she called his Murray suits after a late-medieval Scottish ancestor, John Murray, the Outlaw of Fala Hill. The Murray costume gave way to sailor suits that recalled the Delano family's maritime heritage. When Franklin was four, he, on a pony, and his father, on a horse, began regular morning horseback rides around the estate, masters of all they surveyed. They sledded and ice-boated in the winter, sailed in spring and summer.16

Another male role model entered Franklin's life as he moved toward young adulthood. Theodore Roosevelt Jr. ("Teedie" to the family at that time) had become a national figure—New York legislator, US civil service commissioner, New York City police commissioner, author of a torrent of books, and a prominent naturalist. Vigorous and outspoken, Ted, increasingly known as TR, was an exciting model of Victorian masculinity.

James and Sara gave Franklin about anything he wanted—a dog, a pony, a gun to shoot local birds, money to have the specimens stuffed and mounted, a display cabinet for them, expensive cameras and photographic equipment—and indulged him in whatever collecting whim he developed, whether naval prints or stamps. But entitlement demanded responsibility. Franklin had to take care of his dog and pony, use his gun responsibly, kill only one example of each bird species, and employ his camera to document family life and travels. More generally, mother and father taught him that life was about work and achievement, not idle pleasure—that much of the Calvinist ethic remained alive and well.

Travel was a regular part of life. The winter social season required a residence in Manhattan—first a town house on Washington Square, then one on Forty-Ninth Street, and finally an apartment in the Renaissance Hotel at Fifth Avenue and Forty-Third Street. To escape the summer heat, the family retreated to a large vacation cottage on the Canadian island of Campobello, just off the coast of Maine. There, in the Bay of Fundy, James, Franklin, and numerous guests sailed the family schooner Half-Moon.

Many years included an extended trip to Europe, accompanied by two or three servants. Such cosmopolitan mobility ultimately gave Franklin a greater firsthand knowledge of continental Europe than of the continental United States. Mostly vacation, the trips also provided an opportunity for James to pitch investment in the Nicaraguan canal project to wealthy acquaintances. Some time in England was mandatory. On at least one occasion, the Roosevelts visited the Duke of Rutland at Belvoir, with James riding to the hounds in the annual hunt.17

Franklin accompanied his parents on their stay in Washington in early 1887. James brought him to the White House to meet President Cleveland. As they prepared to leave, the president heaved his considerable bulk out of his chair, walked over to the boy, patted him on the head, and said in what must have been a weary voice, "My little man, I am making a strange wish for you. It is that you may never be President of the United States."18


Until age fourteen, Franklin was educated almost entirely at home, one-on-one, by a succession of seven governesses and tutors. They were competent to superior teachers, instructing him in a wide range of topics—French and German, Greek and Latin, history (ancient and modern), religion, science, mathematics, geography, and literature—and prepared him excellently for the elite schools he would later attend.19

The boy's only experience with public schooling came in Germany when he accompanied his parents in the spring of 1891 on one of their annual trips to the spa at Bad Nauheim. Sara sent her nine-year-old son to a Stadtsschule. "I go to the public school with a lot of little mickies and we have German reading, German dictation, the history of Siegfried, and arithmetic," he wrote to two of his cousins. "I like it very much." The term lasted only six weeks. Franklin's language seems to indicate that he found it and his schoolmates mostly amusing.20

By then, Franklin understood that his father was in Bad Nauheim because he was unwell. James had suffered a heart attack in late 1890. The best physicians could do no more than advise treatment at a spa. So he took the waters year after year, invariably feeling better after a month of relaxation and warm baths. In reality, of course, his condition slowly worsened. Until the very end, however, he was not an invalid. He continued his horseback riding until his final weeks, ten years after his first attack.21

It is hard to say how his father's slow decline affected Franklin. His mother may have told him, or perhaps he simply sensed, that James required peace, quiet, and special consideration. His parents were the two people of consequence in his life. He tried hard to please them—concealing a broken tooth, for example, to avoid spoiling an outing or, on another occasion, hiding a nasty cut on his forehead to avoid upsetting them. He was far less solicitous of the feelings of others.

As his mother would admit, despite her depiction of him as practically the perfect boy, he was a prankster. The pranks were relatively harmless. He inflicted perhaps the most consequential on his first full-time tutor at Hyde Park, Fraulein Reinsberg, a high-strung German woman. Slipping into her bedroom, he put effervescent powder into her chamber pot. When she used the convenience in the middle of the night, the resultant bubbling and hissing sent her screaming down the hall. Mr. James discerned that Franklin, who was eight or nine years old at the time, was probably behind the incident. When the boy confessed, his father, convulsed with laughter, told him to consider himself spanked and sent him away. Fraulein Reinsberg left the Roosevelts' employ in mid-1891 and eventually suffered a nervous collapse. In later years, Franklin recalled her as the governess he had driven to the madhouse. Two years later, Sara wrote of a successor, "Poor little Mlle Sandoz had such an upset tobogganing that she came home . . . quite black & blue. Franklin seemed to think it rather a joke."22


On Sale
Sep 22, 2015
Page Count
512 pages
Basic Books

Alonzo L. Hamby

About the Author

Alonzo L. Hamby is Distinguished Professor of History Emeritus at Ohio University. He is the author of several books, including Beyond the New Deal: Harry S. Truman and American Liberalism, Man of the People: A Life of Harry S. Truman, and For the Survival of Democracy: Franklin Roosevelt and the World Crisis of the 1930s.

Hamby also has received two National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowships, a Harry S. Truman Library Institute Senior Fellowship, a Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars Fellowship, and the Ohio Academy of History Distinguished Service Award. Born in Missouri, Hamby graduated from Southeast Missouri State University and earned his Ph.D. from the University of Missouri-Columbia.

Learn more about this author