President Franklin D. Roosevelt led the United States during both the Great Depression and World War II. Paralyzed from the waist down after suffering a bout of polio, Roosevelt overcame his disability and was elected President of the United States an unprecedented four times.
Dates: January 30, 1882 — April 12, 1945
Also Known As: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, FDR
The Early Years of Franklin D. Roosevelt
Franklin D. Roosevelt was born on his family’s estate, Springwood, in Hyde Park, New York as the only child of his wealthy parents, James Roosevelt and Sara Ann Delano. James Roosevelt, who had been married once before and had a son (James Roosevelt Jr.) from his first marriage, was an elderly father (he was 53 when Franklin was born). Franklin’s mother, Sara, was only 27 when he was born and doted on her only child. Until she died in 1941 (just four years before Franklin’s death), Sara played a very influential role in her son’s life, a role which some describe as controlling and possessive.
Franklin D. Roosevelt spent his early years at his family home in Hyde Park. Since he was tutored at home and traveled extensively with his family, Roosevelt did not spend much time with others his age. In 1896, at age 14, Roosevelt was sent for his first formal schooling at the prestigious preparatory boarding school, Groton School in Groton, Massachusetts. While at Groton, Roosevelt was an average student.
College and Marriage
In 1900, Roosevelt entered Harvard University. Only a few months into his first year at Harvard, Roosevelt’s father died. During his college years, Roosevelt became very active with the school newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, and became its managing editor in 1903.
The same year Franklin D. Roosevelt became managing editor, he became engaged to his fifth cousin once removed, Anna Eleanor Roosevelt (Roosevelt was her maiden name as well as her married one). Franklin and Eleanor were married two years later, on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1905. Within the next eleven years, they had six children, five of whom lived past infancy.
Early Political Career
In 1905, Franklin D. Roosevelt entered Columbia Law School, but left school once he passed the New York State Bar exam in 1907. He worked for a few years in the New York law firm of Carter, Ledyard, and Milburn and then in 1910, Franklin D. Roosevelt was asked to run as a Democrat for the state senate seat from Duchess County, New York. Although Roosevelt had grown up in Duchess County, the seat had long been held by Republicans. Despite the odds against him, Franklin D. Roosevelt won the senate seat in 1910 and then again in 1912.
Roosevelt’s career as a state senator was cut short in 1913 when he was appointed by President Woodrow Wilson as the Assistant Secretary of the Navy. This position became even more important when the United States began making preparations to join in World War I.
Franklin D. Roosevelt Runs for Vice President
Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted to rise in politics like his fifth cousin (and Eleanor’s uncle), President Theodore Roosevelt. Even though Franklin D. Roosevelt’s political career looked very promising, he did not win every election. In 1920, Roosevelt was chosen as the vice-presidential candidate on the Democratic ticket, with James M. Cox running for president. FDR and Cox lost the election.
Having lost, Roosevelt decided to take a short break from politics and re-enter the business world. Just a few months later, Roosevelt became sick.
In the summer of 1921, Franklin D. Roosevelt and his family took a vacation to their summer home on Campobello Island, off the coast of Maine and New Brunswick. On August 10, 1921, after a day spent outdoors, Roosevelt began to feel weak. He went to bed early but woke up the next day much worse, with a high fever and with weakness in his legs. By August 12, 1921, he could no longer stand.
Eleanor called a number of doctors to come and see FDR, but it wasn’t until August 25 that Dr. Robert Lovett diagnosed him with poliomyelitis (i.e. polio). Before the vaccine was created in 1955, polio was an unfortunately common virus that, in its severest form, could cause paralysis. At age 39, Roosevelt had lost the use of both of his legs. (In 2003, researchers decided it was likely that Roosevelt had Guillain-Barre syndrome rather than polio.)
Roosevelt refused to be limited by his disability. To overcome his lack of mobility, Roosevelt had steel leg braces created that could be locked into an upright position to keep his legs straight. With the leg braces on under his clothes, Roosevelt could stand and slowly walk with the aid of crutches and a friend’s arm. Without the use of his legs, Roosevelt needed extra strength in his upper torso and arms. By swimming nearly every day, Roosevelt could move himself in and out of his wheelchair as well as up stairs.
Roosevelt even had his car adapted to his disability by installing hand controls rather than foot pedals so that he could sit behind the wheel and drive.
Despite the paralysis, Roosevelt kept his humor and charisma. Unfortunately, he also still had pain. Always looking for ways to soothe his discomfort, Roosevelt found a health spa in 1924 that seemed to be one of the very few things that could ease his pain. Roosevelt found such comfort there that in 1926 he bought it. At this spa in Warm Springs, Georgia, Roosevelt subsequently built a house (known as “the Little White House”) and established a polio treatment center to help other polio sufferers.
Governor of New York
In 1928, Franklin D. Roosevelt was asked to run for governor of New York. While he wanted back into politics, FDR had to determine whether or not his body was strong enough to withstand a gubernatorial campaign. In the end, he decided he could do it. Roosevelt won the election in 1928 for governor of New York and then won again in 1930. Franklin D. Roosevelt was now following a similar political path as his distant cousin, President Theodore Roosevelt, from assistant secretary of the navy to governor of New York to the president of the United States.