Nation’s Father, People’s Friend
A Review of Jean Edward Smith’s FDR
Jean Edward Smith was born on October 13, 1932, in Washington D.C. He graduated from McKinley High School and from Princeton University in 1954. In 1964, Smith got his Ph.D. from the Department of Public Law and Government of Columbia University. From 1963 to 1965 he was an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College.
BY HAO BLAKE CHANG
George Washington founded and led the country; Abraham Lincoln maintained the Union; Franklin Delano Roosevelt held hands with the people through the Great Depression and the Second World War. In his inaugural speech, President Roosevelt stated, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”1 A father figure to the people, Roosevelt was one of the first presidents to use radio broadcast to connect with the citizens. Every Sunday evening, FDR hosted fireside chats with the general public. Roosevelt’s ability to lead the nation though one of the most difficult times in history reached beyond the expectation of many critics. Even though his reputation was slightly affected by his love affair with Lucy Mercer, Roosevelt’s confidence and determination overshadowed such humiliation. However, Roosevelt’s personality was not naturally instilled within him—his family history helped shape his characteristics and polio led Roosevelt to see eye-to-eye with the common citizen.
The Roosevelt family, whose history extended far into the early colonial times, started when Claes van Rosebvelt, ancestor of Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, landed in New Amsterdam in the mid-1600s. Two generations after van Rosebvelt, the family separated into two different branches, one located in Long Island and another in Hudson River. Franklin Roosevelt descended from the Hudson River family, which supported the Democratic Party. On October 7, 1880, Roosevelt’s father, James Roosevelt, and his mother, Sara Delano, exchanged their marriage vows at Algonac. Delano came from a strict and powerful family; her wealth allowed FDR to live an upper class life during childhood. Due to his old age, James Roosevelt put his son’s education in the hands of his wife, who was determined to raise Franklin Roosevelt as a Delano. At home, she taught him Latin, French, German, penmanship, arithmetic, and history. During vacations spent at Cambridge with his father, young Roosevelt picked up the habit to sail. According to Smith, “America’s confidence in FDR depended on Roosevelt’s incredible confidence in himself, and that traced in large measure to the comfort and security of his childhood.”2 In his political campaign, Roosevelt’s firm voice drew the attention of the people, and his personality was shaped by his mother’s strict discipline. Roosevelt’s love life started simply as a spark when he first saw Eleanor at a dinner party. Their love for each other grew over the years in secret until Eleanor announced their engagement on December 1st. They exchanged marriage vows on March 4, 1909 and settled in Albany.
During the campaign of the 1920s, Eleanor emerged in the public eye, and Howe recognized her potential. Howe saw that Eleanor represented the dutiful wife that appeared by her husband to look courteous and smile compassionately to the public. He thought that this would draw women voters to the Democrats. However, the campaign did not go as FDR hoped. After the failure of the campaign, FDR briefly left the political world and the Republican Party took power. In 1921, FDR faced a disease that would change his life. On October 28, 1921, Roosevelt was discharged from the hospital, where he was diagnosed with polio. Polio kept Roosevelt from returning to his political career and forced him to take a break in Warm Springs, Georgia. Those days in Warm Springs were an eye-opening experience for FDR as he met eye-to-eye with the common people. FDR experienced the hardships of the disabled and witnessed the poverty of the nation. Missy LeHand, a woman who loved him, stayed with Roosevelt in Warm Springs to help him overcome his restless days in Georgia. After some endless days, FDR reached his mental limit and decided to leave Warm Springs and return his focus back to his political career. On January 1, 1929, FDR took office as the governor of New York. Three years after becoming the governor of New York, FDR was nominated as the Democratic candidate for the presidency. Roosevelt left his campaigning to Howe and James Farley so that he could deal with the depression problem facing New York. He summoned the New York legislature in a special session to provide work and shelter for the unemployed. On August 28, 1931, FDR gave a speech to the legislature that marked the origin of the New Deal. Back to his campaign for presidency, FDR faced much scandal that arose within the party as one of the Democrats, Raskob, questioned FDR’s physical ability to lead a nation in such a gruesome time. Despite the put-down by Raskob, FDR managed to overcome the scandal and defeated Raskob’s challenge with the help of Howe, Ed Flynn, and Farley. FDR promised aggressive government action to deal with the Depression and to provide relief, reform, and recovery. In his campaign slogan, he stated, “I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a New Deal for the American people.”5
From the very first moment that FDR stepped into office, he was prepared with two proclamations. The first was to call Congress back to office for a special session and the second was to declare a national bank holiday. FDR was determined to restore citizens’ faith in banks as well as the government. Within his first 100 days, President Roosevelt passed a number of New Deal programs to relieve, recover, and reform the nation’s economy. FDR proved that he was more effective than previous 20th century presidents. According to Smith, on “Sunday evening, at the conclusion of his first week in the White House, FDR gave his first fireside chat.” Many citizens proclaimed FDR as a father symbol of the nation; President Roosevelt’s fireside chat was like a father who looked over a sick child. Through radio, FDR was able to talk to the nation, telling the people what had been done within the week and calming the citizens down. Even with people’s trust FDR was not a flawless president: within his New Deal programs, few plans were not rejected as unconstitutional. On the other hand, programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and Works Progress Administration (WPA) proved their power in bringing the economy in another direction as well as decreasing the rate of unemployment. Nevertheless, critics of the New Deal can never know if the direction FDR was heading could have brought the nation back onto its feet, because by the 1940s, World War II was ignited. The war played a major part in turning the economy around. The need for job and supply increases allowed the unemployed rate to go down, and an increase in money spending generated the money circulation. Even though FDR tried to keep the nation out of the foreign war, the United States was gradually sucked into the vortex of war. For the election of 1940, FDR was nominated to run for a third term; it was clear that President Roosevelt was determined to lead the nation through “In his campaign slogan, [FDR] stated, ‘I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a New Deal for the American people.’” war. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, Americans were in a patriotic mood to go to war. FDR’s determination to lead the nation through war sent him into his fourth term, even while his health slowly worsened; he held a meeting with Britain and Russia. After meeting with Churchill and Stalin, FDR’s health greatly declined. On the last day, Lucy visited him, and her face was the last thing he saw.
“He lifted himself from his wheelchair to lift this nation from its knee” —FDR was the president that brought about the change to help bring the nation back to its feet.6 According to Smith, Roosevelt is one of the three most important presidents in United States history. Smith points out that FDR was the one that the fallen nation needed to bring back hope and faith in the government’s decisions. Smith was not biased in writing FDR’s biography, as he discussed both Roosevelt’s failures and successes. He concluded that despite FDR’s errors, he helped the nation through a difficult time in its history. In FDR, Smith utilized a great deal of information from other historical sources; it clearly expresses the relationship between all the people that connected with Roosevelt. He described events that occurred from FDR’s love life to his nomination, as well as his diagnosis of polio to the political decisions in the presidency. Smith’s view of President Roosevelt is straight forward; even though FDR was not a perfect human being, he dealt with every situation he was faced with. In his book, Smith explains how a privileged person became the companion of common men.
Jonathan Yardley wrote in the Washington Post that Smith’s FDR is an example of presidential biography that shames all previous FDR biographies. Yardley believes that FDR and Eleanor had no ability to make each other happy. He also commented on Smith’s ability to draw forth the personal side of FDR and the common man. Yardley commented on FDR’s personality change when he was resting at Warm Springs. Professor Henry F. Graff commented that Jean Edward Smith presented new information about the New Deal: “He has dug more deeply into the Roosevelt collection of books and documents than all of his predecessors.”7 Graff knew that Smith conducted an overwhelming amount of research to write FDR, in which he covered every part of Roosevelt’s life in great detail. Professor Graff’s statements on FDR seem to be harsh and filled with disdain. Nevertheless, Jonathan Yardley and Professor Henry F. Graff both see Smith’s work as a magnificently well-organized book.
Overall, FDR by Smith was a well-written book that clearly shows the massive amount of resources that he included within the book. He credits the development of FDR’s character from both family influences and his diagnosis of polio. From beginning to end, Smith maintains the reader’s attention by including interesting facts about Roosevelt. Smith clearly states his thesis from the beginning of his book—that a privileged boy grew up to become the heart of the common man. Smith illustrates FDR’s life and relationships with those who supported him. Smith also wrote short biographies on other individuals such as Sara Delano, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Louis Howe within the book. His description of each individual is well thought-out; his writing technique draws readers into the book and allowed the audience to connect with the characters. Smith uses specific facts from the book that the audience never know; he clearly writes this book after a great deal of research. Within FDR, every event in the president’s life is in specific and illustrative. From the background of the Roosevelt family to his presidency, readers get a clear understanding of FDR’s life. Roosevelt was like a father who holds his child’s hand when the he is sick. As the nation was dwelling in the low ends, Roosevelt’s hope gave a final light in the cloudy sky. Despite his love affair and the failure of some New Deal plans, Roosevelt did more than President Hoover ever did. FDR had the confidence and determination to get things done without dwelling in one place. Smith showed that despite the effect of polio, President Roosevelt had the ability to fight and stand by the nation’s side when it faced the depression.
Critics of Roosevelt say that his New Deal plan would not have worked without the ignition of World War II. However, it did not matter whether or not the New Deal programs worked—it was the fact that FDR provided hope that Hoover and previous presidents did not provide. At least Roosevelt attempted to save the nation from the Great Depression. He accomplished more in a 100 days than Hoover did throughout his four years in office. Roosevelt connected to the nation as a leader and as a companion. His fireside chats took place on every Sunday provided comfort to the nation. His lack of focus on civil rights and progressive movements was not the highlight of his presidency. There are only so many things a person can do and FDR chose to focus his attention on one major issue rather than multiple small ones. During the Great Depression the economy was down, people were starving, citizens were unemployed, and cities were losing hope. FDR chose the right path by attempting to save the nation from losing faith in this economy.
Despite the fact that Franklin Delano Roosevelt is flawed, he still stands out as one of the three most inspiring president of United States. Within a 100 days in office, he did more than any of the 20th century presidents has ever done. Roosevelt’s New Deal program helped restore citizen’s faith in government. He symbolizes a father of a sick child as he did everything within his power to help revise the country. Even born as an upper class citizen, Franklin Delano Roosevelt became the hope of common people.
1: Smith, Jean Edward. FDR New York: Random House, 2008. 279
Hao Blake Chang fell in love with surfing at a young age. After 10 years, he was sponsored by Billabong and traveled the world seeking waves and competing in the World Qualifying Series, an international surf competition. His famous quote is “Surfing is not my job, it is my life.”
© 2010 Advanced Placement United States History. All rights reserved.