Franklin D. Roosevelt

A Rendezvous with Destiny


By Frank Freidel

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The acclaimed one-volume biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt, praised by Doris Kearns Goodwin as "brilliant…a magnificently readable saga."


Also by Frank Freidel


The Apprenticeship


The Ordeal


The Triumph


Launching the New Deal


Nineteenth-Century Liberal














COPYRIGHT © 1990 BY Frank Freidel


Back Bay Books/Little, Brown and Company

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All photographs (following page 376) are reprinted courtesy of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Hyde Park, New York.

First eBook Edition: November 2009

ISBN: 978-0-316-09241-8

Chapter 1


IF, as Franklin D. Roosevelt's parents had wished, he had grown up to become another Hudson River Valley aristocrat, managing the family estates, meeting civic and charitable obligations, and serving as vestryman of his church, there would have seemed nothing memorable in his rearing. It would have been of no wider interest than that of his older half-brother, James Roosevelt Roosevelt, an estimable socialite. Indeed, Franklin Roosevelt did mature to fill all the expected functions, to become, as one of his most ascerbic critics called him, a country squire, but with a difference.

Roosevelt came of age with firm roots in both the reform movements of the progressive era and the genteel Grover Cleveland conservatism of the late nineteenth century. He was in the tradition of both the social justice movement and the mugwumps. His wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, impatient for the quick righting of wrongs, was well aware of the conservative side of her husband. Once during World War II when the Roosevelts were bidding farewell to Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Roosevelt commented as they waved that Churchill was hopelessly Victorian. Mrs. Roosevelt thought to herself, "You too, Franklin, are much in the nineteenth century." 1

Eleanor Roosevelt was correct; in some ways Roosevelt was a nine teenth-century figure like Disraeli and the Tory aristocrats in Victorian England, so certain of themselves that they dared undertake reforms. He was indeed anchored in the attitudes and traditions of the Roosevelts and the Delanos during the years of his upbringing, the last two decades of the nineteenth century. These views, with an emphasis upon the obligations of the well-born to aid those less fortunate than themselves, served as a base of belief. In his case they also gave him the self-assurance to innovate daringly on the premise that he was thus implementing the fundamentals he had learned at home and in his schooling.

Roosevelt, optimistic by nature, never doubted the mission of the American people and their great destiny. American history was so immediate and personal to him that he frequently illustrated it with stories of his forebears. They were patricians living on a comfortable estate at Hyde Park, New York. Together with their numerous relatives and friends they were the Hudson River counterpart to the landed gentry of England, secure in the financial means and social standing that had been theirs for generations. Roosevelt grew up with a strong sense of their lasting role in the community and the nation.

The Roosevelts early became established as successful merchants in New York City. The first of them, Claes Martenszen Van Rosenvelt, who arrived from the Netherlands in the seventeenth century, was, together with his son Nicholas, the common ancestor of Franklin Roosevelt and of Theodore Roosevelt and his niece Eleanor. The Hyde Park line began with the third generation, Jacobus Roosevelt, upon whose Dutch Bible Franklin D. Roosevelt took his oath of office as president. 2

Because the original spelling of the name was Van Rosenvelt (from the rose field), questions arose in both friendly and anti-Semitic circles whether the family was originally Jewish. In 1935, Roosevelt replied in response to one query, "In the dim distant past they may have been Jews or Catholics or Protestants—what I am more interested in is whether they were good citizens and believers in God—I hope they were both." 3

By the time of the American Revolution the Roosevelts were prosperous sugar refiners. Roosevelt, in 1939 when accused of being pro-British and pro-French, resorted to family tradition to try to prove otherwise, "that the Roosevelt family, in the West Indian sugar business was compelled to contend many years against the British and French interests in those Islands—and that is what made them revolutionists rather than Tories in 1776." So far as the French were concerned, Roosevelt was not being accurate—which again makes the story typical of his intermingling of family and history. 4

Roosevelt was rightly proud of the most notable of his ancestors, Isaac Roosevelt (1726–1794), who was one of the first New York State senators, responsible for the issuance of the state's paper money, president of the Bank of New York, and a Federalist who served in the conven tion that ratified the Constitution. A fine Gilbert Stuart portrait of Isaac hung in the living room at Hyde Park. Still, Roosevelt would have liked Isaac to have been a bit less conservative. In his last days, while working on a Jefferson Day address, he tried in vain to find a link between Isaac and Thomas Jefferson. 5

Although Roosevelt was well aware that his ancestry was predominantly English, more so than that of Theodore Roosevelt, he liked to emphasize his Dutchness. It was good politics. Being Dutch implied economic enterprise, resourcefulness, good citizenship, and democracy. It also stood for stubbornness, which Roosevelt possessed aplenty, and led him in time to refer to himself in private as an "old Dutchman." He was active in the Holland Society and the Netherlands-America Foundation, and was responsible for a renaissance of Dutch Colonial architecture in Hyde Park and its vicinity. On his last day of campaigning in 1944, speaking in Kingston, New York, he once more expressed pride in his descent from one of the original settlers who had served in the local militia. 6

In the nineteenth century, the Roosevelts moved to lands on the Hudson River about Poughkeepsie, where they assumed the role of country gentlemen. It was also the pattern of life of Warren Delano, who resided across the river near Newburgh and whose daughter Sara married James Roosevelt. Both Warren Delano and James Roosevelt maintained a serene, well-ordered existence within their families. Whether they were at home or traveling abroad, they seemed insulated against the pressures and unpleasantness of the everyday world.

Nevertheless, that world did absorb Warren Delano and James Roosevelt. Both were engaged in large enterprises. Delano won, lost, and rewon fortunes in the China trade, dealing in opium, and then became a heavy investor in Appalachian coal mines. James Roosevelt also invested in coal, but was primarily involved in railroads, serving for years as the vice president of the Delaware and Hudson, one of the coal routes. He too undertook daring business ventures, but less successfully than Delano. After the Civil War he became president of the first American holding company, which combined a number of lines south of Washington into what became the Southern Railway. It was a victim of the depression of the 1870s. Another of James Roosevelt's speculations was a company seeking to build a canal across Nicaragua, a project that involved much lobbying in Washington. It too failed, but even during the depression years of the 1890s the Roosevelt family still had adequate money; their life went on with no discernible change or outside intrusions.

Nor did the social status of the Roosevelts depend upon the size of their fortune. James Roosevelt's estate at the time of his death was about $300,000, while Cornelius Vanderbilt, who sat with him on the board of the Delaware and Hudson, left $72,500,000, yet the Roosevelts felt in no way socially inferior to the Vanderbilts. On the other hand, the contrast between the Roosevelt home with its rather simple comfort, and the nearby Vanderbilt mansion, as ostentatiously elegant as a royal chateau on the Loire, helps explain why Franklin D. Roosevelt never thought of himself as wealthy. 7

Into this setting Franklin D. Roosevelt was born, January 30, 1882. He was a healthy, happy youngster, the focus of his parents' attention. Sara Delano Roosevelt, twenty-six years younger than her husband, concentrated her considerable maternal energies upon this lone child of hers. Although there were servants and a nursemaid, she herself bathed and dressed her baby, and breast-fed him for almost a year. He was eight years old before he was permitted to take a bath alone. Until he was in his twenties, she kept the most minute diary record of his activities. His upbringing absorbed her, as indeed later she was to lavish her maternal warmth upon her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. But she did not smother him. Franklin did not grow up a momma's boy. In part this may have been because his parents were from time to time gone on long trips, when he was under the care of his nurse or his governess. Even more it may have been because, strong-minded and vital though she was, Sara expected the men around her to be strong also. She de ferred in all matters to her husband, and James Roosevelt played a con siderable part in the upbringing of his son.

James Roosevelt, middle-aged, and devoting only a minor part of his time to his profession, often spent his afternoons with Franklin, taking him sledding, fishing, and sailing. Franklin also accompanied his father on the rounds of the estate, learning about the management of land and the nurture of trees. These were to be lifelong interests. Also, from time to time Franklin traveled with his parents in the Roosevelt private rail-road car, rolling along slowly on inspection trips. It was the mode of land transportation he was always to prefer.

Until he was fourteen, Franklin D. Roosevelt lived a life of well-ordered routine, spending most of his time with his parents. He rose at seven, ate breakfast at eight, had lessons in the morning and afternoon, and enjoyed prescribed periods of recreation. From one governess he began to learn German when he was only six; from another he obtained a grounding in French that remained with him all of his life.

It was a sequestered life, in which his playmates were almost always countless cousins and the children from neighboring estates. It was also a highly routine existence, even in summers at Campobello Island, New Brunswick. Only once did Roosevelt ask for release from his routine, and when he returned from the day of freedom his parents permitted, he made no comment. Whatever loneliness or rebelliousness he may have occasionally felt he kept to himself, but that was in the family pattern. Twice in his teens when he suffered painful accidents, a gash in the head and the loss of a tooth, he tried to conceal them in order not to alarm his ailing father. The habit of being private about both his illnesses and his thoughts became embedded and lifelong. From his boyhood on, he wrote ingratiating letters to his parents, actually primarily to his mother, telling her what he knew she wanted to hear. While Sara Roosevelt more and more built her life around her son, he early learned to preserve some degree of independence.

Outwardly it was a happy, privileged existence. He had a passion for sailing, and became an accomplished skipper of the 51-foot Half Moon; in the winter there was iceboating on the Hudson. On his eleventh birthday he received a gun and began the large collection of birds that stands inside the entrance to the Hyde Park house. He read widely, and he added to the stamp collection that his mother had started as a girl.

Nine times, the first when he was three, there were interludes in Europe. He was taken to the English manors of friends and relatives, to the French Riviera, where he saw the exiled emperor of Brazil, and frequently to German watering places where his father took the cure. The summer he was nine his parents enrolled him for six weeks in a Volksschule at Bad Nauheim in the hope of improving his German. He was particularly impressed with the course in military geography that the new kaiser had introduced in German schools. During World War II he would reminisce that he had witnessed the growth of German militarism, but of course at his age had no awareness of the tensions and arms race that quarrels over empire were generating. He wrote a friend that he was in school "with a lot of little mickies… and I like it very much." The Europe he knew was that of the elite and seemed so placid and secure, he remembered, that visitors needed no passports and his father could meet any eventuality with a handful of gold coins he kept in the bottom of his trunk in case of an emergency.

The Roosevelts kept their son equally sheltered from the upheavals and excitement of the depression wracking the United States in the 1890s—the populist revolt sweeping the prairie wheat fields and the cotton South, Coxey's Army of unemployed marching to Washington to demand work relief, and the smashing of the Pullman strike. In the summer of 1896, while William Jennings Bryan was campaigning for silver inflation to aid the farmers, young Roosevelt, accompanied by a tutor, was on a bicycle tour of Germany.

Thus until the age of fourteen Roosevelt was reared in the sheltered world of the novels of Edith Wharton and Henry James. If there was something of the themes of Frank Norris in the careers of his grandfather and father in the China trade, railroading, and development of coalfields, he was not aware of it. He was so little in touch with the main flow of American life that he spoke English with a trace of foreign accent, and could not pronounce correctly the name of a city some miles to the north, Schenectady. 8

In the fall of 1896 a change came. Roosevelt began his education—at Groton School and in time Harvard University. While he continued to live the life of a patrician youth, remote from even middle-class America, he did become aware of the great issues being debated in the United States, and of the stirrings of reform that soon culminated in progressivism.

If President Roosevelt in some ways resembled the Tory reformers of Victorian England, it was the impress upon him of Rector Endicott Peabody of Groton School. He always credited Peabody with being one of the major influences of his life, leading him toward Christian service to the nation and those less fortunate than himself. Peabody, the son of a wealthy financier, had himself been educated in England, and in the 1880s tried to re-create in New England the equivalent of Thomas Arnold's Rugby to educate boys from leading families. He established an Episcopal school in which he combined a classical curriculum with Spartan living and strenuous sports. His emphasis was upon physical and moral vigor in the pursuit of religious and civic responsibilities. Peabody's ideal was Charles Kingsley, one of the founders of the Christian Socialist movement in England, and a model Tory social reformer. Peabody sought similar goals at Groton through his own exhortations, those of his staff, and even, on occasion, those of his glamorous friend Theodore Roosevelt. Peabody declared in 1894, "If some Groton boys do not enter political life and do something for our land it won't be because they have not been urged."

Despite Peabody's exhortations, wearers of the old school tie, whether from Groton or its several Episcopal counterparts, did not take over the government of the United States as had the graduates of elite English public schools that of Britain. By the mid-thirties only ten of the one thousand Groton alumni listed government as their occupation, but those ten included Bronson Cutting, Francis Biddle, Joseph Grew, Sumner Welles, Averell Harriman, Dean Acheson, and above all, Franklin Roosevelt.

At the time Roosevelt was a student at Groton, there was scant indication that he would become the most famous exemplar of Peabody's teachings. He was undistinguished, and indeed until his last year rather inconspicuous. Since he had entered two years late, friendships had already been formed among his classmates, who tended to look with some suspicion on this new boy with his strange accent, whose parents sent him Punch and the Spectator. Roosevelt concentrated upon staying out of trouble with his classmates in order to avoid their ferocious hazing. He soon acquired their accent with its broad "a" and inaudible "r," and retained it for life. Conforming to the Spartan routine and rigorous schedule of studies caused him no problem. He was a model in deportment as he had been at home, until he realized the other students suspected him of deficiency in school spirit. Thereafter he cautiously acquired a respectable number of "black marks." Sports were the only acceptable route to success, but Roosevelt, who suffered cuts and bruises, was too light to excel in football. Golf and tennis, in which he was outstanding, did not count. To have been conspicuous in academic work also could have brought the disapproval of peers, but Roosevelt did win the Latin prize and during his four years at Groton completed the first year of his college courses. Although he was not very popular, he managed to avoid trouble, overcame his shyness, and participated vigorously in student activities. He learned how to get along with his peers.

By his last year in the school, he had made some good friends and achieved sufficient standing among his classmates to be more relaxed. One classmate remembered, "He developed an independent, cocky manner and at times became very argumentative and sarcastic. In an argument he always liked to take the side opposite to that maintained by those with whom he was talking. This irritated the other boys considerably." On the other hand, the artist George Biddle, several years younger, recalled, "He was gray-eyed, cool, self-possessed, intelligent, and had the warmest, most friendly and understanding smile."

Few of Roosevelt's classmates could have realized how deeply Peabody and the masters impressed him with their advocacy of strenuous Christianity. Roosevelt attended Peabody's confirmation class. He accompanied one of the masters, the Reverend Sherrard Billings, to neighboring towns where Billings preached or paid charitable visits, and he joined the Missionary Society, which helped underprivileged boys at a summer camp and a club in Boston. One winter it was his responsibility to help care for an old black woman, bringing her provisions and fuel. Roosevelt's religion, like that of Peabody, was simple and unquestioning, rather than based upon complex theological argument. As president, he was to hold private church services before his inauguration and on other momentous occasions. Whenever possible he obtained Peabody to conduct the services.

While Roosevelt was at Groton he also first fell under the spell of his remote cousin Theodore Roosevelt. While Peabody's exhortations to service carried religious overtones, those of TR gave promise of excitement. "After supper tonight Cousin Theodore gave us a splendid talk on his adventures when he was on the Police Board." Franklin was so dazzled that he accepted Theodore's invitation to spend the Fourth of July at Oyster Bay, although he knew his mother would probably not approve.

Young Franklin would have liked to seek adventure and public service through a career in the navy. He loved ships and the sea. As a boy he had pored over old whaling logbooks in the Delano family attic at Fairhaven, Massachusetts, and was fascinated by his grandfather's adventures in the China trade. By the 1890s, an imperialist age, the modernized navy offered more challenges. Already he was reading Alfred T. Mahan's books extolling sea power, and cited them in a debate at Groton. When the Spanish-American War broke out, he plotted with friends to run away to Boston and enlist in the navy, but an attack of scarlet fever ended his dream. His parents frustrated his wish to attend Annapolis and become a naval officer. They decreed that he should go to Harvard and then law school to prepare to manage the family affairs. Already Roosevelt's plans for his future went much further. The Reverend Billings, writing in an era before inflation of recommendations, informed the Harvard admissions officer: "F. D. Roosevelt is a fellow of exceptional ability and high character…. He hopes to go into public life, and will shape his work at Cambridge with that end in view." 9

While Groton gave Roosevelt an impetus toward public service, Harvard provided him with some of the ideas he would bring to it. As was true of the young socialites in that era of the gentlemanly C grade, scholarship was near the bottom of priorities. Nevertheless, Roosevelt enrolled in substantial courses, many of them in economics and history, in which he was exposed to the new progressive concepts of the role of government in regulating the economy. He became a personal friend of Abram Piatt Andrew, one of the economics professors, who was later assistant secretary of the Treasury in the Taft administration.

Yet it would be easy to exaggerate the influence of the brilliant Harvard faculty upon Roosevelt. The few samples of his undergraduate writing that have survived are mediocre and uncritical. Extracurricular activities and social life were so much more important to Roosevelt that the wonder is his receiving passing grades, not his failure to dazzle his professors as did Walter Lippmann a few years later. The influence of Frederick Jackson Turner, exponent of the role of the frontier in American history, could not have been very marked even though Roosevelt did enroll in his famous course. For the first six weeks, Roosevelt was on a cruise of the Caribbean with his mother.

A greater ideological influence than Harvard was Theodore Roosevelt. The Hyde Park Roosevelts had put aside their traditional Democratic allegiance to cheer for TR when he ran for governor of New York in the fall of 1896. In 1900, when TR ran for vice president with William McKinley, Franklin joined the Harvard Republican Club and marched eight miles in a torchlight procession. In 1904, he cast his first ballot in a presidential election for Theodore Roosevelt.

What Franklin D. Roosevelt learned at Harvard that would be of later use in politics came less from the classroom than from extracurricular activities. He made friends more rapidly than at Groton, and while he still accepted the Groton standards, made a far wider circle of acquaintances than most of his social peers. A single disappointment rankled him; he failed to win election to the Porcellian, the most prestigious club, probably because of the scandalous behavior of his nephew, a Harvard student who married a dance-hall girl from the New York Tenderloin district. Eleanor Roosevelt thought the disappointment impelled him to be more democratic.

Whatever Roosevelt's deficiencies in sports, he began to emerge as a student leader, winning offices with regularity. His major undergraduate achievement was to become president for a semester of the Harvard Crimson. He wrote all the editorials, and for some years liked to de scribe himself as a former newspaperman, who through his editorials had fought for reforms at Harvard. That was a romantic exaggeration, typical of Roosevelt. Rather, he had drawn unfavorable comment for the extremity of his editorial demands upon the football team, and had sought no reform more drastic than the laying of boards on the muddy paths between Harvard buildings. There was no need for Roosevelt to enhance reality; he had functioned creditably as a college editor of that era. Shortly afterward, while in law school, Roosevelt modestly wrote that the major achievement of his editorship was a "signal triumph over the business end," cutting its share of the profits from a third to a fifth. He was competitive, eager to be a leader, and like many future politicians had begun to practice some of the fundamentals. In his geniality in dealing with the Crimson printers, a classmate recalled, he displayed "a kind of frictionless command." 10


On Sale
Nov 29, 2009
Page Count
710 pages
Back Bay Books