Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Champion of Freedom


By Conrad Black

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Franklin Delano Roosevelt stands astride American history like a colossus, having pulled the nation out of the Great Depression and led it to victory in the Second World War. Elected to four terms as president, he transformed an inward-looking country into the greatest superpower the world had ever known. Only Abraham Lincoln did more to save America from destruction. But FDR is such a large figure that historians tend to take him as part of the landscape, focusing on smaller aspects of his achievements or carping about where he ought to have done things differently. Few have tried to assess the totality of FDR’s life and career.

Conrad Black rises to the challenge. In this magisterial biography, Black makes the case that FDR was the most important person of the twentieth century, transforming his nation and the world through his unparalleled skill as a domestic politician, war leader, strategist, and global visionary — all of which he accomplished despite a physical infirmity that could easily have ended his public life at age thirty-nine. Black also takes on the great critics of FDR, especially those who accuse him of betraying the West at Yalta. Black opens a new chapter in our understanding of this great man, whose example is even more inspiring as a new generation embarks on its own rendezvous with destiny.



I wish to thank first George (Lord) Weidenfeld, for inspiring me to write a biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt at all, and my wife, Barbara, for enduring unimaginable inconvenience and boredom throughout the life of this project.

For reading all or important parts of the manuscript, I wish to thank, apart from Barbara Black: Corelli Barnett, Christopher Breiseth, Anthony Beevor, William F. Buckley Jr., Henry A. Grunwald, Simon Heffer, Roger Hertog, Paul Johnson, George Jonas, Sir John Keegan, Henry A. Kissinger, John Lukacs, Robert Morgenthau, Frank Pearl, Andrew Roberts, Arthur Ross, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Simon Sebag-Montefiore, Brian Stewart, William Vanden Heuvel, George Will, Tom Wolfe, David Woolner, and Ezra Zilkha. I tried to follow virtually every suggestion they made and am deeply indebted to all of them.

Christopher Breiseth, William Vanden Heuvel, and David Woolner were also very helpful in facilitating access to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, as were the personnel of that library and of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute.

For research and assistance in organizing the material, I am grateful to Janice Akerhielm, Adam Daifallah, Joan Maida, Rosemary Millar, and Kennan Moody.

My agent, Morton L. Janklow, was an early and constant source of wise counsel and support, and I wish also to thank for their encouragement and helpfulness in various ways Robert Hopkins, Mary (Lady) Soames, Ion Trewin, and Ed Victor.

My editor, William Whitworth, has been kind, patient, and thorough beyond all praise or duty. His unfailing good humor has made this often abrasive process a delight, at least for me. I hope our intense e-mail relationship graduates eventually to our actual meeting. Whatever this book’s shortcomings now, they are a fraction of what they would have been without Bill Whitworth’s attentions.

The publisher, Peter Osnos, and his colleagues at PublicAffairs, Robert Kimzey, Paul Golob, Clive Priddle, Gene Taft, David Patterson, Melanie Johnstone, and Vicky Dawes, have been a joy to work with even in the most difficult circumstances produced by crucial publishing deadlines. Ginny Carroll’s work with the endnotes is all that has avoided chaos in that area; she is a heroine.

I am very grateful to all of the above.


The Predestined Squire 1882–1932


“I Like You and Trust You and Believe in You . . . and Golden Years Open before You”

(President Theodore Roosevelt to his sixth cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, when Franklin became engaged to the President’s niece, Eleanor Roosevelt, 1904)


THE ASTONISHING LIFE of Franklin Delano Roosevelt began with great difficulty following a labor of over twenty-four hours on January 30, 1882. He finally emerged after the use of chloroform, blue and still and weighing an imposing ten pounds. The family doctor successfully applied mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to the infant. He proved at once and always to be tenacious of life. His father recorded the arrival of “a splendid, large, baby boy.”1

Mrs. Roosevelt was confined to her bed for a month, and was advised that she should not have another child. Most of Sara Delano Roosevelt’s ample energies and ambitions would for nearly sixty years be focused on her son.

Though young Roosevelt’s passage into it was difficult, the world of his affluent and affectionate parents was genteel. He was born at Springwood, the family home overlooking the Hudson River at Hyde Park, New York. James and Sara Roosevelt were among the fifty or so families that had commodious estates along (mainly) the eastern bank of the majestic Hudson, where it flowed slowly by Westchester and Dutchess counties, especially from Rhinebeck to Tarrytown—from seventy-five down to fifteen miles north of New York City. Washington Irving had made Sleepy Hollow, near Tarrytown, famous with the legends of Rip Van Winkle and Ichabod Crane.

The Roosevelts were not the senior residents, an honor that went to earlier Dutch families such as the Schuylers and Van Rensselaers. And they were far from the wealthiest, distantly trailing the Astors, the Belmonts, the Vanderbilts, and eventually the Rockefellers and others in much grander homes. But they were comfortable, distinguished, and gentle people. In New York City, where they also had a home, they formed part of the Knickerbocker society described in the novels of Henry James and Edith Wharton.

All his life Roosevelt would be profoundly dedicated to the area around his home, compiling and studying obscurely detailed local histories and endlessly fascinated with the minutiae of local life. “I miss our river . . . Why is it that our River and our countryside seem so to be a part of us?” he wrote in the nineteen-thirties to his intimate cousin, Margaret Suckley. He convinced himself that a stand of timber near the driveway on his property was a primeval forest that antedated Henry Hudson and so described it eventually to the illustrious visitors he attracted to his house in the thirties and forties.2 Franklin Roosevelt would early learn and never forget the distinction between new and old money.

The first Roosevelt in the new world was Claes Van Roosevelt, who emigrated to Nieuw Amsterdam in 1650, and the first Delano was Philippe de la Noye, a Huguenot arrival at Plymouth in 1621. It was among Claes Van Roosevelt’s grandsons that the branches that gave twentieth century America two of its greatest leaders emerged; Franklin Roosevelt was descended from Jacobus (James) Roosevelt, and Theodore Roosevelt was descended from his brother Johannes.

There was a widespread theory, circulated largely in anti-Semitic circles in the thirties, that the Roosevelts were originally Jewish. In a famous letter in 1935, Franklin D. Roosevelt responded to a written question on this point from a Jewish scholar (Philip Slomovitz) that it was of no interest to him what the religion of his Dutch ancestors might have been, he only hoped that they were people “of good character and believers in God.”3

The Roosevelts prospered in Manhattan real estate, dry goods, and the importation of sugar from the West Indies. They intermarried with good and wealthy families (a practice that continued even unto some of FDR’s erratic children, though not with their ancestors’ stubborn attachment to the indissolubility of marriage).

The most noteworthy of the eighteenth-century Roosevelts was “Isaac the Patriot,” a well-to-do sugar importer who voted for independence at the provincial assembly in 1776 because of unreasonable taxation and had to flee New York when the British occupied the city. He moved to Dutchess County, where his family remained. He was one of the authors of the constitution of New York, a Federalist ally of Alexander Hamilton, and one of the founders, with Hamilton and others, and for a time the president, of the Bank of New York.

Philippe de la Noye came to the New World unsuccessfully pursuing Priscilla Mullens, a woman who would also be the subject of the attentions of the famous parliamentarians Myles Standish and John Alden. His enthusiasm unrequited, he found another wife, and one of their sons, Jonathan Delano (as the name had become), fought with such distinction in King Philip’s War (with the Indians, 1675–6, which killed one-sixth of the male colonists in New England) that he was rewarded with an 800-acre grant of land. Included in the grant was the coastal village of Fairhaven, near New Bedford, Massachusetts. His grandson, Warren Delano, started a sailing career in the early nineteenth century, shipping agricultural products to Britain, the Canary Islands, and the Gulf of Mexico, and became a successful ship owner. Warren’s son, Warren Delano II, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s maternal grandfather, was born at Fairhaven in 1809.

At the end of the War of 1812 Warren Delano was detained on the high seas for two weeks by the British. This may have been the beginning of a durable family resentment of the British Empire. This prickly Yankee competitiveness was sometimes present even in the thoughts of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. (During the South African War, his sympathies would be entirely with the Boers.) As a scion of New York squires he was always an Anglophile. Yet as the descendant of New England seafarers, he felt a tinge of civilized rivalry.

Warren Delano II, inspired by his father’s swashbuckling, launched himself on a career as an oriental trader when he shipped out to China in 1833. He made a substantial fortune with the principal American company in the China trade—Russell, Sturgis of Boston. He was inconvenienced by the Opium Wars of 1838–1842, which led to the cession of Hong Kong to Britain. His sympathies were with the Chinese over the British, provided Americans could continue to do what had angered the decrepit Chinese authorities in the first place: export opium and sell it in large quantities in China.

The latter-day Roosevelts, including Franklin, were not happy that much of their inherited millions came from the derring-do of the Delanos in the opium trade. When this was referred to by Westbrook Pegler, one of the premier muckrakers of the American media in the 1940s, FDR left it to a distant admiring relative, Daniel Delano, to offer a lame exculpation. Delano made the spurious claim that Warren Delano had been (and only during his second sojourn in China) the “special representative in China” of President Lincoln. Pegler’s allegations were held to “dishonor the memory . . . and integrity” of Lincoln.4

Not even FDR, who in his prime had few peers as an imaginatively self-serving rewriter of history, would have tried anything so implausible. When dogged with such allegations, he would judge it wiser to emphasize the romance of the clipper ships and maintain a decorous silence about the Delanos’ buccaneering past. There is no evidence that Abraham Lincoln was even aware of Warren Delano.

Warren Delano II happily returned to the United States in 1846 from his first stint in China. He had never liked China and was glad to be quit of it and to reinvest the proceeds of his work there in New York real estate, railroads, and various mining ventures. Warren’s younger brother, Franklin (after whom Franklin D. Roosevelt was eventually named), had married the granddaughter of America’s wealthiest man, John Jacob Astor, the beginning of a long association between the two families. Warren Delano built a splendid house, Algonac, twenty miles south of Hyde Park and on the western side of the Hudson, in 1852. “Algonac” was an Algonquin word for river and hill. In the Delano family it was long used as a synonym for good news. It was here on September 21, 1854, that Sara Delano, FDR’s mother, was born.

The progress of the Roosevelts in the first half of the nineteenth century had been rather more prosaic. James, the son of Isaac the Patriot, built a comfortable house at Mount Hope, on the Hudson not far from Hyde Park, in 1820. He led a tranquil life there and on South Street in New York City. His eldest son, the inevitable Isaac, was an eccentric who qualified as a medical doctor but declined to practice his profession because he was repelled by the sight of blood. He moved to Mount Hope when it was completed and lived a solitary and scholarly life there, gloomily pious, hypochondriacal, and reclusive. Samuel F. B. Morse, a neighbor, was among his few friends. His family (his father had ten other children from three wives) was startled when, in 1827, with negligible previous contact with the opposite sex, he married Mary Rebecca Aspinwall, the daughter of a wealthy shipping family, who was nineteen, barely half Isaac’s age. The next James Roosevelt, who would be Franklin D. Roosevelt’s father, was born of this improbable couple at Mount Hope, on July 16, 1828.

He would be a very different person from his academic and timid father. James Roosevelt was a natural gentleman, discreet, civilized, mannerly—never boastful, idle, garish, or overtly snobbish, but tasteful and discriminating. He had a restrained but active sense of humor and was worldly but profoundly attached to his community, where he filled a number of worthy little offices, such as town manager of Hyde Park, Episcopal church warden, and hospital governor. Through most of his adult life, other than during the Civil War, he was one of the 30,000 Americans who travelled in Europe each year, where he was everywhere received by prominent people. He was also easy, courteous, and generous with the humblest people.

Emboldened by parenthood, Dr. Isaac built himself a fine home, Rosedale, across the Albany Post Road from Mount Hope. Mr. James, as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s father was kindly known almost all his life, had a happy if lonely childhood. His parents doted on him. He was tutored at home until he was nine, was a day student at the progressive and gentle Poughkeepsie Collegiate School until he was thirteen, and then, shortly after the birth of a brother, John Aspinwall Roosevelt, was sent to Hyde’s School in Lee, Massachusetts. This was a more pious and regimented place than Poughkeepsie, where James had been able to see the reassuring rooftops of Rosedale three miles away, but James did well and enrolled in the University of New York in 1843.

His father had grave reservations about the corrupting influence of New York City, requiring that James live with his paternal grandparents on Bleecker Street. As Dr. Isaac had feared, Sodom and Gomorrah worked their influence on the impressionable young man: James and three friends were admonished for causing “disorder,” and failed to complete the year. Dr. Isaac, reasserting the virtues of less metropolitan places of study, sent him to Union College in Schenectady. This was a sort of cram school for turbulent freshmen, where the future president Chester Alan Arthur and Frederick Seward, son of New York’s governor, who was later secretary of state under Presidents Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, and Ulysses S. Grant, were also enrolled.5

James was one of the few students who lived off campus. He scandalized his father by joining a secret society that met in a tavern, but he did quite well and graduated in good standing in 1847. To the intense consternation of his father, he left almost at once for Europe on the conventional grand tour for the young offspring of the wealthy. James travelled in England, France, Spain, Germany, Italy, and even in the Middle East, causing great anxiety to the ever-fretful Dr. Isaac.

In a robust gesture, James Roosevelt, aged twenty, enlisted in the reunificationist army of the Italian patriot and military leader Giuseppe Garibaldi. Mr. James’s revolutionary career lasted for one rather boring and disorganized month. According to his son Franklin in 1941, Mr. James, with Garibaldi’s permission, retired from the Red Shirt forces, which had attracted volunteers from the idealistic youth of all Europe, a little like the international brigades in the Spanish Civil War nearly a century later.6

Mr. James then resumed a walking tour of southern Italy with an impecunious priest with whom he had been travelling. He returned to the United States in the spring of 1849 and enrolled in Harvard Law School in the autumn of that year. An intelligent and popular student, he passed easily through to graduation in 1851 as an LL.B. He was elected an honorary member of the most sought-after campus society, the Porcellian Club, two years after graduation.

From 1851 to 1853 James Roosevelt was a junior in the distinguished New York law firm of Benjamin Silliman, and used it as a springboard to business. In 1852, he became a director of the newly incorporated Consolidated Coal Company, of which his uncle, William Aspinwall, was a co-founder. Railroads were America’s most financially tumultuous and greatest growth industry. In his mid-twenties, Mr. James became general manager of the Cumberland and Pennsylvania Railway.

On April 27, 1853, Mr. James married his first cousin, Rebecca Brien Howland. After a honeymoon in Niagara Falls, they moved into Mount Hope, and in the autumn they went on the first of many extended visits they would take to Europe.

In London, James and Rebecca called upon the American minister, James Buchanan, who invited James to serve as his secretary at the embassy until the arrival of new personnel. James did so, beginning a tradition of Hyde Park Roosevelts working with Democratic presidents (as Buchanan became three years later) that would last over a century.7

When James’s first son was born in March 1854, James and Rebecca emphasized familiar insularity (and ended the practice of alternating the names James and Isaac each generation) by giving him the singular name James Roosevelt Roosevelt. (This was a more distinguished alternative to adding “Junior” to the boy’s name.) He was a jovial boy and man and was known from earliest days and all his life as Rosy. James and Rebecca took Rosy everywhere with them, including to Europe in 1865, after the Civil War. On this trip they travelled across the ocean with August Belmont. During a two-month stay at Le Havre, they met Count Alexandre Walewski, cousin of the French emperor, natural son of Napoleon I, and president of the French Legislative Assembly.8 In these times, even a moderately social and itinerant gentleman like James Roosevelt could meet virtually everyone in the Western world of any importance.

At Interlaken in September, James learned from a letter from his brother John of the destruction by fire of the family home at Mount Hope. James always believed that it was an act of arson by a tenant’s servant trying to disguise his own thefts of the Roosevelts’ property, but no charge was ever laid. Although a tea service was the only family heirloom saved, James and Rebecca determined to remain in Europe and proceeded to Dresden for the winter.

One of their neighbors there, with whom James struck up a warm friendship, was General George B. McClellan. Abraham Lincoln had dismissed McClellan as Union Army commander in 1862 and defeated him in the presidential election of 1864.

Despite Franklin Roosevelt’s later claim that his father had “rendered distinguished patriotic service” as a member of the Sanitary Commission succoring the wounded during the Civil War, there is no evidence that he did anything useful for the war effort. He may have done such work, or given logistical advice on the use of the railways and paid someone else to answer his draft call (as was perfectly legal), or by official oversight never have been called, but there is no evidence of any of it. Nor is there any evidence that his relative inactivity discountenanced him or his son. Passivity during the nation’s greatest national and martial crisis did trouble his friend and cousin, the senior Theodore Roosevelt and his son, the future president, who would never be accused of passivity.9

It is not clear when James became a Democrat. He was an old Whig in the tradition of the Roosevelts, and he remembered the tempestuous populism of Andrew Jackson, which outraged the Roosevelt elders as much as his infant cousin Teddy and his own unborn son Franklin would horrify many of their peers forty and seventy years later. When the Whigs ceased to present respectable candidates after General Winfield Scott in 1852 (defeated by Franklin Pierce), James opted for the Democrats, perhaps because of his friendship with Buchanan. They were at this point the more genteel party.

At about the same time James abandoned the derelict Whigs, he departed the implacably gloomy Dutch Reform Church of his father. For Dr. Isaac the end was always nigh, and for him it finally came in 1863, when he was seventy-three. James, who was a regular churchgoer but not an overly pious or fervent man, joined his wife in the more urbane Episcopal Church. Mr. James was for decades a vestryman and intermittent senior warden of St. James Episcopal Church at Hyde Park, a tasteful little neo-Gothic chapel where the pews were allotted more or less on the basis of social standing. The brass plaque “J. Roosevelt” adorned his places on the aisle in the third row. Franklin and the illustrious guests whom he would conscientiously conduct to St. James, including the Supreme Governor of the affiliated Church of England, King George VI, would make the little church world famous.

Dr. Isaac’s death had considerably enriched James and made him the head of his branch of the family. He had already been occupying Mount Hope. His brother John took Rosedale, and after the fire James was left to find a new country house. His first attempt was to buy John Jacob Astor III’s opulent Ferncliffe, but his bid was insufficient, so he purchased the modest but well-situated estate that he renamed Springwood, at Hyde Park.10 Here would be born America’s greatest leader since Lincoln. And here he was raised and always returned.

Mr. James was elected town supervisor of Hyde Park as a Democrat in 1871. Thereafter he was frequently asked to stand for the New York state assembly or senate and for Congress. He was interested in politics and gratified to be approached, but he always declined, to the great relief of Rebecca.

Although Mr. James had cast his lot altogether with the sedate builders and conservators of traditional fortunes and did not envy the new rich, he was tempted by the tremendous explosion of wealth in the harum-scarum financial and industrial growth of post-Civil War America. He was often an imaginative though not reckless investor, hoping to raise his fortune without altering the gracious tenor of his life as a Hudson River gentleman. His devotion to that life and his penchant for trans-Atlantic travel ruled out a full-time political career and prevented him from giving finance and industry the undivided attention required for conspicuous success in the cut-throat age of the robber barons.

He may have been a slightly inconstant financier, but he was a formidable master of Springwood. Athletic and stylish, despite the claim of one acquaintance that his mutton-chop whiskers made him look more like Lord Lansdowne’s coachman than like Lord Lansdowne, he was adept at all the appropriate sports. Mr. James was an accomplished skater, ice-boater, sailor, and fisherman, a fine horseman, a master of fox hounds, and commodore of the local yacht club. He was keenly interested in agriculture and forestry and was proud of operating Springwood’s farm (mainly trees, apples, horses, and hay) at a profit, though the accounting methods used to generate the profit may not have been rigorous.

Of all these interests, Mr. James was most interested in horses. He was a successful breeder of trotting horses and had an impressive array of horse-drawn vehicles. (Franklin had the four-foot tail of his father’s best trotter mounted on a bedroom wall in the New York governor’s mansion and in the White House.) Mr. James was a relentless improver of his property. He built Springwood up over decades from a little more than a hundred acres that he bought in 1866 to over a thousand, while expanding the house from Victorian farmhouse to a not especially well-proportioned thirty-room semi-Georgian residence. It eventually became a pleasant house, but was never grand or sumptuous. Save for the renown of the eventual occupants, the entire contents, from the stuffed birds in the entrance hall to the last overstuffed sofa and straight-backed chair, would not be worth one of their more prosperous neighbors’ tapestries or dinner services.

The Roosevelts, whether at Hyde Park or Oyster Bay, were rugged and hardy, mens sana in corpore sano, practitioners of the strenuous life, refined and adequately learned but, except possibly for Teddy, not intellectual. They were gentlemen farmers and sportsmen. For the pharaonic opulence of the Gilded Age they lacked the means and probably the inclination. Such access to it as they ever enjoyed would be through marriage, neighborliness, and, finally, high political office. They disparaged the ostentation of the Vanderbilts, in particular.

Mr. James endured serious commercial disappointments in the 1870s. He invested in Thomas Scott’s Southern Railway Securities Company, which controlled the lines between Richmond, Atlanta, New Orleans, and Memphis. Scott was one of the principals of the Pennsylvania Railway and a precursor of E.H. Harriman, James J. Hill, and other great railway financiers. He made James Roosevelt president of the S.R.S.C. in 1872.

In September 1871, the prominent Philadelphia bank Jay Cooke & Company abruptly collapsed, generating a panic in financial markets. Thomas Scott’s grand scheme, reliant on inflated stock values, imploded a few weeks later. James Roosevelt resigned amid the debacle on October 3, 1871. There was no suggestion of the slightest impropriety on his part.

Even though Scott’s Southern Railways Securities Company failed, the whole episode was a costly but affordable success for the Pennsylvania Railroad, which Thomas Scott represented, because it enabled further consolidation of rail-lines and a tighter cartel. For James Roosevelt and other outside investors, however, it was a severe setback.11

In the spring of 1875, Consolidation Coal, after being severely shaken by the repercussions of the Cooke fiasco, was the subject of a shareholders’ revolt that swept out James, his uncle, William H. Aspinwall, and his subsequent in-law, Warren Delano II. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad exploited the unfavorable conditions to take control of Consolidation, which it profitably retained for many years.12 Mr. James had not invested—and never did invest—more than he could afford to lose, and he retreated to Springwood, sobered but not chastened.

His last great scheme to catapult himself into the ranks of America’s wealthiest industrialists was an isthmian canal project in Nicaragua, in competition with the Ferdinand de Lesseps initiative in Panama, which failed financially in the late 1880s. Mr. James worked on this for fifteen years and relied heavily on his friendship with President Grover Cleveland, but the Nicaraguan project finally collapsed in 1899. Mr. James was a perceptive investor but lacked the intense concentration and killer instinct to make a huge fortune. (His investment decisions were, however, almost Midas-like compared with some of the ideas in which Franklin would invest in the twenties.)


On Sale
Mar 13, 2012
Page Count
1328 pages

Conrad Black

About the Author

Conrad Black was the chairman and chief executive officer of Hollinger International Inc., among whose newspaper holdings are the Daily and Sunday Telegraph and the Spectator in London, the Chicago Sun-Times, and the Jerusalem Post. He is the author of two previous books published in Canada and became a member of the British House of Lords as Lord Black of Crossharbour in 2001. He divides his time between London, Toronto, and New York.

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