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Franklin Delano Roosevelt, popularly known as FDR, was born on January 30, 1882 at the family estate in Hyde Park, New York. His father, James, graduated from Harvard Law School, married, had a son, and took over his family?s rights in coal and transportation. Despite the fact that he lost a good deal of money in financial gambles, he remained wealthy enough to travel by private railroad car, to live comfortably on his Hudson River estate at Hyde Park, and to travel at length. After his first wife died, James waited four years to remarry to Sara Delano, a sixth cousin. She was also a member of the Hudson River aristocracy, and although she was only half of James? 52 years, she settled into their Hyde Park estate quite comfortably. The marriage worked well until it was broken by James? death in 1900.
Young Franklin Roosevelt had a secure and pleasant childhood. His half-brother was already an adult when Franklin was born, and so he had no rival for the attention of his parents. During the summer months he would travel with his parents to Europe, to the seaside in New England, or to Campobello Island off the coast of New Brunswick, where he developed a love for the ocean and sailing. Until the age of 14 FDR received his education from private tutors.
FDR?s most lasting educational experience was at Groton School in Massachusetts, which he attended from 1896 to 1900. Groton?s headmaster, Reverend Endicott Peabody, instilled the virtue of public service in Franklin, and this would be something that he would carry with him throughout his life. At Groton FDR was not academically outstanding, nor did he gain vast popularity,? Franklin struggled to fit in?but he was only a spindly five feet three inches tall, too slight for football, baseball, or crew, the only sports that really mattered at Groton. Tennis and golf, at which he excelled, were not considered important? (Miller 27). However he was liked enough for someone home-schooled his whole life, and FDR displayed his ability to adapt to situations. In addition, one of the most important virtues that FDR would ever attain came from his years at Groton: his belief that the children of the upper class had a duty to give back to the lesser fortunate.
FDR then went on to Harvard University, from 1900 to 1904, where he performed only slightly better than he had at Groton. Thanks to his tremendous preparation at Groton, however, FDR was able to complete his course study for his B.A. in 1903, only three years. During his fourth year he was editor of the Crimson, the college newspaper, but he was not admitted to the most prestigious social club. He did not receive much inspiration in the classroom, and he displayed no excitement about his studies.
While he was at Harvard FDR fell in love with Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, his fifth cousin once removed. Eleanor came from a troubled past, but grew up in the same aristocracy that FDR himself had. On March 17, 1905, the two were married. The marriage worked well enough, with Eleanor giving birth to five children within the first 11 years of their marriage. Having both been born into wealth, neither Roosevelt had any problem mixing with the aristocracy of the New York area. Despite often periods of unhappiness, Eleanor stayed true to Franklin for the 40 years of their marriage, even when she learned of an affair he was having during World War I. She proved to be one of his main supporters when it came to his political career.
Franklin attended Columbia Law School until spring of 1907, when he dropped out after passing the New York State Bar Examination. He then took a job with the Wall Street firm of Carter, Ledyard, and Milburn. Much of the firm?s practice was that of corporate law. Sick of his job as a law clerk, Franklin couldn?t wait to jump into politics, which he saw as having a sense of purpose. In 1910 Democratic part leaders sought him out as candidate for New York State Senate, as he had many assets, mainly cash. He agreed to run, and worked to campaign, as he had never done anything before. Acquiring a beat up old car he canvassed the district looking for votes, ?The car had no top and no windshield, and they wore raincoats when it rained and dusters on dirt roads. They spoke in milk stations, grange halls, in village streets, they rang doorbells and shook hands?? (Morgan 115). FDR quickly made a name for himself when he opposed the corrupt Tammany Hall, the political machine that ran New York at the time. With his reputation as a charismatic hard worker, FDR earned key positions in Woodrow Wilson?s administration. Appointed Wilson?s Assistant Secretary of the Navy by Josephus Daniels, then Secretary of the Navy, Roosevelt did an excellent job of gaining congressional support for the navy in World War I. In 1920 FDR was nominated as the vice presidential candidate on the Democratic ticket, running with James Cox, but they lost decisively to Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge.
The next year tragedy struck as Roosevelt contracted poliomyelitis, otherwise known as polio, which attacked his central nervous system and left him paralyzed in his legs. Although devastated physically by the disease, FDR became a mentally and emotionally stronger person because of the disease.
In 1924, FDR helped then governor of New York Alfred Smith gain the Democratic Presidential nominee. Smith then asked FDR in 1928 to run for his ticket on the governor ballot in New York, and Roosevelt agreed. FDR won the election for governor in an otherwise Republican year. At the time of this election, the US economy was largely unsteady, and Governor Roosevelt felt that a crash would come soon. In 1931, when the Depression was serious, Roosevelt became the first governor to set up an effective state relief administration. A very effective leader in New York, Roosevelt played the role of governor naturally, ?Roosevelt had a talent for governing. Whatever the office, he filled it with natural ease. By training and instinct, he knew how to handle the controls. He had the right mix of leadership and responsiveness? (Morgan 314). He also became a very persuasive speaker on the new instrument of radio, and he was reelected in 1930 by the largest margin in state history.
By the presidential election season in 1932, America?s heartache was worse than ever, and it showed no sign of lessening. FDR stood out as the most dynamic candidate for the Democratic presidential ticket, and he ran on the nomination against House Speaker John Nance Garner of Texas and former Secretary of War Newton D. Baker of Ohio. FDR did not win the ballot easily, and in fact Garner had to be promised a spot as the vice presidential candidate in order for Roosevelt to carry the nomination on the fourth ballot. Promising aggressive government intervention toward the Depression and a ?New Deal? for the American people, Roosevelt and Garner won the election in a landslide electoral vote of 472 to 59. In his first inaugural address, Roosevelt gave hope to the dispirited Americans, assuring them that, ?We have nothing to fear but fear itself.?
In the ?First Hundred Days? of his presidency, FDR passed through a vast amount of legislation topped by a reformed banking program. He adopted a newly organized Federal Emergency Relief Administration, and through the Civil Works Administration (CWA) of 1933-34 gave work relief to many. Also in 1933 Congress approved funding for the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC), and the Public Works Administration (PWA), all of which were drawn up by Roosevelt and his staff. His early New Deal also established the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), which guaranteed the bank savings of American families, and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which was created to further resource development and push away from private utilities. The two programs that FDR relied on in his first 100 days were the National Recovery Act (NRA) and the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA). The American people began to find strength in FDR, and support grew as 1933 came to a close, ?On the whole, despite the setbacks, uncertainties, and utter confusion of the summer and autumn months, the year 1933 witnessed a restoration of confidence in the future of the United States? (Robinson 117).
At the end of his first term in 1935, FDR pushed for reform in the areas that he had established when he first began his campaign for election in 1932: unemployment insurance, pensions for the elderly, limits on work hours, and massive public projects. These accomplishments led to his reelection to the presidency in 1936, again by a landslide margin of 523 to 8. This just went to show how popular the American people had made him, and how much support they gave him.
By the end of his second term Roosevelt had institutionalized the role of the federal government as the economic stimulator of the American financial system. However the programs and reforms that FDR brought to Washington did not help the country to fully recover from the depression. Instead it took World War II and its emergence into the situation, as Americans began a wartime effort to make supplies, that the US raised up out of the depression.
During World War II, FDR was able to use his ?lend-lease? policy to get around previous commitments of neutrality by the US and help to arm Britain and the Soviet Union as the Germans attacked. Responding to Japanese atrocities in Manchuria, FDR enforced an embargo on American oil and steel on Japan. As the Japanese government underwent a transition and a militant leadership took place, the controversy over Japanese intrusion in China and the US embargo resulted in extreme tensions. These restrictions meant that Japan did not have enough resources to fight the war, and the militant government speculated that an attack was the only alternative. Some historians believe that had Roosevelt not applied the embargo that Pearl Harbor may not have taken place, ?No amount of Rooseveltian charm and manipulative skill could change Japan?s realization of its actual situation, which, thanks to the trade embargo, was indeed dire? (Davis 313).
After his health began to fail those around FDR felt that maybe his political days were over, however the Commander In Chief ran again in 1944. Again an overwhelming majority elected him, but he died one year later in 1945, at the age of 63. Harry S. Truman, his vice president, took office, as FDR was laid to rest three days after his death at Hyde Park.
The two presidents of our past widely considered the greatest, Lincoln and FDR, instituted ?constitutional dictatorships? in wartime. Both used their constitutional sanctions, even when it meant going around Congress, to get things done in a time of peril. But both did so while at the same time holding free elections in which their opponents might have won the office. Through vast national support, Roosevelt was able to rekindle America?s spirit in itself, ?A man who could not walk became president of a country that had lost hope. With a simple set of beliefs- a belief that things could be improved, a belief in the Democratic process- he transmitted his own confidence to the nation? (Morgan 772). And the nation followed his lead.
Davis, Kenneth S. FDR: The War President 1940-1943. New York: Random House, 2000.
Miller, Nathan. FDR: An Intimate History. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1983.
Morgan, Ted. FDR: A Biography. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985.
Robinson, Edgar Eugene. The Roosevelt Leadership 1933-1945. New York: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1955.
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