President's Day: Celebrating Roosevelt

Published February 20, 2023

Thirty-second President of the United States Franklin D. Roosevelt oversaw one of the most tumultuous times in American history, spanning from the Great Depression through most of the second World War. He won an unprecedented four presidential elections and is often remembered as one of the greatest American presidents. After contracting poliomyelitis (commonly known as polio) as an adult, he was also paraplegic and a wheelchair user, though his disability was not widely publicized during his life.

The road to presidency

Born to the wealthy Roosevelt family in 1882 in Hyde Park, New York, Franklin Delano Roosevelt had an active childhood, traveling frequently with his family, and was a distant cousin to former President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt Jr. After a brief law career, he entered politics first in 1910 in the New York State Senate and then as Assistant Secretary of the Navy under President Woodrow Wilson.

While on vacation in 1921, Roosevelt fell abruptly ill and doctors concluded that he had, at 39, contracted polio, which was usually seen in children. Though many other symptoms gradually abated, he remained paraplegic.

With the support of his wife Eleanor and their children, Roosevelt chose to return to his political career, despite his mother’s wishes. From 1929 to 1931, he worked as governor of New York; it was during his gubernatorial term that the Wall Street Crash occurred. Roosevelt took quick, bold actions to support struggling citizens as America fell into the Great Depression, which earned him much support during his presidential campaign in 1932.

Four terms

In March of 1933, Roosevelt was sworn in as President of the United States at the worst point in the Great Depression. A quarter of the workforce was out of work, farmers and banks were struggling, homelessness was rising. His first 100 days in office saw a flood of legislation as he enacted his New Deal programs, efforts focused on relief for the people, recovery of the economy, and reform to prevent another depression. Known for his persistence and optimism, Roosevelt invigorated the country and renewed hope with his efforts. He easily won re-election in 1936.

His second term saw the outbreak of war in Europe, and Roosevelt’s focus shifted from domestic to international affairs. Though America was nominally neutral and at peace, Roosevelt tried to extend aid to Britain, France, and their allies after Germany’s invasion of Poland. When France fell, more of America’s factories reopened to manufacture arms and provide aid, becoming an “Arsenal for Democracy,” as the President would often say in speeches. It was at this time that Roosevelt and Winston Churchill formed a secret correspondence to prepare and plan for war.

As the war spread, Roosevelt broke with tradition and ran for his third presidential term, the first to do so in American history. Campaigning on promises to keep America out of the war, Roosevelt won the election, but it was little more than a year later, in December of 1941, that he was forced to break those promises when Pearl Harbor was attacked and war was finally declared.

Roosevelt was an active Commander in Chief, heavily involved in military matters, and helped form the “grand alliance” against the Axis powers. He even paved the way for a peacekeeping organization to form after the war’s end, an effort that would later become the United Nations. Roosevelt’s efforts and leadership of America helped turn the tide of World War II, though not all was well. In the wake of Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt signed an executive order in 1942 that began the internment of Japanese Americans.

After the D-Day invasion in June of 1944 and as the Allied invasion of Germany approached, Roosevelt looked more and more towards plans for after the war’s end. His fourth presidential campaign focused on postwar efforts such as the United Nations, hoping to move America towards a more active role in the international community, and he won his unprecedented fourth election.

While victory approached, the war had taken a toll on his health and he had developed heart and circulatory problems. On April 12th, 1945, Franklin D. Roosevelt died after a stroke at age 63. Germany officially surrendered less than a month later, and the war officially ended on all fronts by September of that year.

Legacy

Roosevelt remains a legendary figure in American history for his leadership during the Great Depression and World War II. Though his presidency was imperfect, he nevertheless led the country through one of its darkest times, bringing back a sense of optimism, determination, and international involvement.

Historians debate how much the public knew about his disability and wheelchair, but it is known that Roosevelt learned to stand and walk with braces, a cane, someone’s assistance, or a combination thereof during public appearances. The staff and Secret Service went out of their way to prevent photographs of him in his wheelchair; to this day, there are only two known photographs of him using a wheelchair.

Yet even while he kept his own disability as private as possible, Roosevelt did much for the disabled community while in office. His social reforms included the Social Security Act of 1935 which provided benefits to, among others, blind people and children with disabilities. It was later expanded to include homebound disabled people and those needing vocational rehabilitation services. In the decades that followed, countless pieces of federal disability legislation have been enacted and built upon the foundation that Roosevelt created, including the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. For that, and for his countless other actions in office, Franklin D. Roosevelt remains beloved in the American mind and culture.

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