Biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt
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The biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt by Jean Edward Smith is the story of a great man written by a great narrator. FDR was published in 2007 and became a national bestseller. At the beginning of the book there is a list of historical works written by Smith, among them the biographies of such prominent figures of American history as Ulysses Grant, John Marshall and Lucius D. Clay. Such considerable list of works proves that Jean Smith is a prominent researcher of history and a talented biographer. And the last biography written by him depicts the life of the thirty-second President of the United States – Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The following essay provides an analysis of this book, describes its distinctive features and points out how the author depicts the most crucial events of Roosevelt’s life and career.
Smith begins FDR with a preface and a very powerful and strong statement:
Three Presidents dominate American history: George Washington, who founded the country; Abraham Lincoln, who preserved it; and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who rescued it from economic collapse and then led it to victory in the greatest war of all times.
This phrase reveals the attitude of the narrator to Franklin Roosevelt and determines the tone of the subsequent description of his personality. Obviously, Smith treats Roosevelt as one of the most influential and talented American politicians of all times. Nevertheless, the author managed to keep the historical objectivity while depicting his character in the FDR.
Indeed, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was an outstanding president who ruled the country during the unprecedented term of 13 years and helped his nation to cope with the greatest challenges in its history – the Great Depression and the Second World War. Therefore, a plenty of writers and historians tried to depict his life and political career, and there exist dozens of his biographies written at different times. Some authors attempted to write a multivolume, totally comprehensive biography of FDR, whereas others tried to concentrate their attention on the specific matters of Roosevelt’s life and career. However, the distinctive feature of FDR is that Smith managed to cover all the life of the President, including the history of his family, his political career and details of his personal life, in a bit more than 600 pages (other more than 200 pages are dedicated to footnotes). Of course, there are some shortcuts because it is impossible to take into account all details in such a relatively small book. Nonetheless, FDR is far from suffering the lack of comprehensiveness. Actually, such pithiness makes this book available and interesting for an ordinary reader. Due to the narrative talent of Smith, the reading of FDR is pleasant and exciting. Even if a person is bad at in history, the book is highly understandable because the author presents facts very consistently. However, this book is targeted not only at the wide public and random readers. FDR is also valuable for historians. Thus, Smith paid attention to the issues of Roosevelt’s biography that were usually ignored by other writers. For example, he dedicated a considerable part of the book to the relations of President with the most important women in his life: his mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt; his wife Eleanor Roosevelt; Lucy Mercer, the love of his life; and Missy LeHand, his longtime secretary and companion. The author pays a lot of attention to various factors that shaped FDR’s personality, and one of the central themes of the book is – how the man from the richest class of the American society managed to get such an enormous and sincere support from average Americans.
The book is divided into 26 chapters which cover the whole life of the President. These chapters are dedicated either to the most crucial periods and events of Roosevelt’s career or to the matters his personal life and history of his family. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was born January 30, 1882, in one of the oldest and richest Dutch families in New York State, and some of his ancestors and relatives were also engaged in politics. The future president was studying in the elite school, and then he got a bachelor’s degree in history at Harvard University. After that he was studying law at Columbia University in New York. Neither teachers nor classmates pointed out his extraordinary abilities; he was an average student without brilliant intelligence. The mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt had a great influence on young Franklin. The majority of his biographers describe her as a very authoritative and powerful woman, but Smith portrays her in a new light. The writer focuses on the crucial positive impact the mother made on the future President; Smith states that she was Franklin’s support and shaped his strong confidence, which helped him to govern the country in the hardest times of its history.
Franklin Roosevelt married quite early, when he was 23. His wife, Eleanor was the niece of the President Theodor Roosevelt. They had six children, but their marriage was far from happy. While describing the relations of the President and his wife, Smith says: “Eleanor and Franklin were strong-willed people who cared greatly for each other's happiness, but realized their own inability to provide it.”
In fact, Eleanor was not the love of Roosevelt’s life; this place in his heart was occupied by his social secretary Lucy Mercer. Smith believes that the feeling they had to each other was true and pure love and pays attention to the impact which their induced split had on the Franklin’s personality. The point is that in 1918 Eleanor found the package with love correspondence between her husband and Lucy. She asked for divorce, but Roosevelt was aware of the consequences of such action to his political career. Therefore, he made a hard decision to break up with Lucy. Paying attention to this event, the author wants to emphasize that ceasing relations with Lucy, even prior to polio, made Roosevelt’s character tougher and more resistant.
Franklin Roosevelt entered politics in 1910 shortly after completing his studying. Firstly, he became the member of the New York State Senate, and then in 1912 he was reelected to this post. He supported Woodrow Wilson at the Democratic National Convention, and as a reward in 1913 Wilson appointed him the Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Roosevelt occupied this position until 1920. Despite being not the best student, he turned out to be an excellent administrator and manager. The experience he got while serving in this office proved extremely valuable when he was the Commander-in-Chief during the Second World War. In 1920 the Democratic Party nominated Roosevelt for the position of vice-president, but it was not the best time for Democrats, and they lost the election.
In 1921, the event that had an enormous influence on Roosevelt’s personality happened. While vacationing on Campobello Island, he got sick with polio, which led to paralysis. However, this terrible disease did not break the will of the future President. On the contrary, it made him more persistent to the external challenges and strengthened his character. Moreover, it made him more sensitive to the grief of others. He established a foundation in Warm Springs, Georgia, which aimed at providing assistance to people affected by polio.
Then Roosevelt came back to the politics, and in 1928 he became the Governor of New York. The Great Depression and the evident crisis of the Republic Party created an excellent opportunity for Franklin Roosevelt to become the President, and he was elected to this position in 1932. Since that time he enjoyed an enormous support of the majority of Americans and was reelected three times. Smith describes Roosevelt’s first hundred days in office in details and pays a lot of attention to the implementation of crucial economic reforms that saved the US from collapse. The First Hundred Days was the period of the most active lawmaking process initiated by Roosevelt and his political team. New legislation helped to launch banking and monetary reforms, to reorganize agriculture and create new working places. These decisive actions by Franklin Roosevelt contributed to countering economic stagnation and led rapid improvement of the economy. In general, Smith admires Roosevelt’s political talent which he revealed during his presidency, but the author does not forget to point out some blunders Roosevelt made while holding office. For example, the author provides a critique of the President’s attempt to expand the Supreme Court by offering position to judges who would support the New Deal and his actions to balance the national budget at the expense of economic gains received during the first years of the New Deal. Furthermore, Smith emphasizes that during Roosevelt’s presidency no legislation was implemented to enhance civil rights, especially the rights of racial minorities. However, he explains such behavior by the fact that the influence of the South in the Congress was quite strong, and FDR had to ignore some racial issues in order to pass broader legislation in the social sphere.
The last chapters of the book are dedicated to the Roosevelt’s leadership during the World War II. The author states that FDR managed to lead the country during the war even better than Abraham Lincoln did during the Civil War. Roosevelt was brilliant in choosing his generals. He offered higher positions to George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower because he realized that they would perform their functions perfectly. Nevertheless, while describing FDR’s inspiring leadership, Smith keeps an eye on the President’s bad health. The author supposes that Roosevelt replaced Henry Wallace by more reliable Harry Truman at the position of vice-president because he was certain that he was choosing the next president. Admiring the political will of the President, Smith sometimes neglects the depiction of the most important events of the War in which FDR played a crucial role. For example, he tells about the conference in Yalta only on a few pages. The book ends without any proper conclusion, Smith gives the readers an opportunity to think about Roosevelt’s personality and draw their own conclusions.
Considering everything discussed above, one should admit that the book FDR by Jean Edward Smith is an excellent combination of historical objectivity and writing talent of the narrator. Smith managed to portray the life of one of the most influential Presidents of the United States quite comprehensively in a relatively small book. The author explores various factors that provided an impact on the personality of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and describes the most important persons who shaped his character in a new light. Despite the fact that Smith admires Roosevelt’s political talent and strong will, he does not lose the sense of objectivity and tries to analyze FDR’s political career critically.
How did the events from your biography fit into our study of American History?
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the leader of the United States during one of the hardest period of its history – the 1930s and the beginning of the 1940s. Discovering his biography helps to establish a more complex view on such challenging events of the American history as the Great Depression and the participation of the US in the World War II. Moreover, Franklin Roosevelt implemented the New Deal – one of the most revolutionary courses of economic reforms in the whole American history. In fact, during his presidency, the USA won two crucial victories. The first one is the victory over economic crisis and instability, and the second one is the victory in the World War II. Therefore, it is hard to overestimate the role of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the history of the US.
How did this book help you understand this person and his/her importance in our History?
This book is a very comprehensive research of Roosevelt’s life. It helped me to discover a lot of new details about this President. I learned more about various factors and particular persons who shaped his personality. I think that the most valuable information I learned from this book was about specific actions that FDR did during his political career. For example, it was very useful to discover more about the implementation of the New Deal and the US strategy during the War. Moreover, it was quite interesting to read the critique of some actions taken by FDR.