Franklin D. Roosevelt - America's Greatest President?

Seminar Paper, 2002

8 Pages, Grade: 1


Franklin D. Roosevelt - America’s Greatest President?

”If the New Deal is a success”, a friend said, ”you’ll be remembered as the greatest American president.”

”If it fails I’ll be remembered as the last one” Roosevelt replied.1

In 1996 a group of distinguished American historians rated Franklin D. Roosevelt, the 32nd President of the United States, one of the country’s greatest. He shared his place with George Washington and came second only to Abraham Lincoln.2

Roosevelt’s contemporaries were less unanimous about the president who served four consecutive terms from 1933 until he died in office in 1945. His supporters saw him as a political Robin Hood, establishing a social welfare system and ensuring that the poor and disadvantaged in American society were cared for. His critics viewed him as a power hungry Sheriff, dastardly advancing his individual interest in a successful career.

These contrasting views about Roosevelt reflect the complexity of his character and also how multifaceted his policies were. Both issues can tell us about the ingredients of the success of America’s longest serving president. They can tell us about a man born in 1882 and struck and left paralysed by polio at the age of 39 but who, nevertheless, managed to pursue a political career. About a man who lead the United States through two of the most significant crisis of the 20th Century, namely the Great Depression and the Second World War.

The first difficulty encountered is finding an appropriate definition of the term ‘great’. The introductory quote suggests that greatness is related to the success of specific policies. Another definition advocates the view that greatness is the ”degree in which an individual has affected the course of lives of not only millions of his contemporaries but also many generations thereafter”3. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., the conductor of the 1996 rating of American Presidents, proposed measuring greatness by viewing whether presidents ”possess (…) a vision of an ideal America”4. However, the participating historians in his survey were left to rate the presidents according to their individual classification of greatness.

Taking these diverse opinions into account it is reasonable to define a great president as a person with exceptional talents and achievements, as well as an outstanding personality and a high popularity rating. Hence, the general theme to be analysed in this paper is what combination of personal and political skills contributed to Roosevelt’s standing as one of the greatest of American presidents. This will be done by considering three core issues.

First, the paper will look at Roosevelt’s personality and how his upbringing and the events in his life effected and formed specific character traits. Which aspects of his personality made him so popular and successful will also be considered.

The second aspect to be analysed are Roosevelt’s policies and to which degree they were influenced by and reflect his personality. In addition, Roosevelt’s use of political skills and tactics in a period characterised not only by ”the emphasis on personality (but also by) the changeability of public mood”5 will be considered.

Finally, other factors, which contributed to Roosevelt’s exceptional standing in history, will be examined, the question being would his personal and political skills have been sufficient to form the ingredients of his success.

Francis Perkins, the first woman in the American Cabinet and Secretary of Labor under Roosevelt, described the President as ”the most complicated human being I ever knew”6. However, the circumstances into which Roosevelt was born were less intricate than his personality. The only son of a wealthy lawyer and financier, James Roosevelt, and his wife Sara, Franklin experienced a very privileged childhood. He travelled extensively, attended Groton private school and Harvard where he studied political history and government. Graduating in 1904, Roosevelt followed in his father’s footsteps and enrolled in Columbia Law School. It was during his time there that he married Eleanor Roosevelt, a distant cousin.7

Roosevelt’s social background and upbringing had imprinted a sense of noblesse oblige in him, which contributed to shaping his character and led him to advocate social policies. He felt he was obliged to return something to a society which had enabled him to lead a privileged and comfortable life style.8 This character trait became apparent when Roosevelt decided, after having worked as a lawyer for three years, to enter the public service. In 1910 he made his debut on the political stage on which he would one day play the leading role.

The Democratic Party had asked the self-confident young Roosevelt, who appeared to ”unafraid of power and responsibility”9 to stand as candidate for the position of New York State Senator. Roosevelt had originally only been nominated due to his famous family name and his relation to the then governing Republican President Theodore Roosevelt. Critics gave Roosevelt little chance of winning as he lacked political experience and was standing for a seat that had not been in Democratic hands for 32 years.10 Being an ambitious character, a trait often interpreted as arrogance and snobbishness, Roosevelt campaigned extensively and intensively. He won and his political career began to skyrocket.

After having served as New York State Senator for two terms, Roosevelt was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy in 1913 under Woodrow Wilson, and Vice-Presidential candidate in the 1920 election. The Democrats lost and in 1921 Roosevelt was struck by polio. It seemed to put a devastating end to a promising career and his goal of becoming President. Unable to use his legs and bound to a wheelchair Roosevelt initially saw no future in his career as a politician. He considered it unlikely that the public would ever give overwhelming support to a physically disabled person. Hence, Roosevelt refused to re-enter the political arena until he would be able to walk again. For seven years he experimented with different methods, exercised rigorously, determined not to accept his fate. According to observers he was ”the stubbornest man alive”11. These character traits were hugely important in his achievement of political goals during his presidency.


1 David Grubin, FDR (United States, 1995), 94 minute

2 Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. ”Rating the Presidents: Washington to Clinton”, Political Science Quarterly, vol. 112, no. 2 (1997), p. 189

3 Gerald D. Nash, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (New Jersey, 1967), p.3

4 Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. ”Rating the Presidents: Washington to Clinton”, Political Science Quarterly, vol. 112, no. 2 (1997), p.186

5 Richard Neustadt, Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents (New York, 1991), p. 6

6 Francis Perkins, The Roosevelt I Knew (New York, 1946), p.3

7 William A. DeGregorio, The Complete Books of U.S. Presidents (New York, 1984), pp.478-505

8 David M. Kennedy ”Franklin D. Roosevelt” in Henry F. Graff (ed.) The Presidents (New York, 1996), p.426

9 John M. Blum, The Progressive Presidents (New York, 1982), p.109

10 David Grubin, FDR (United States, 1995), 35 - 40 minute

11 Gerald W. Johnson, Dictator or Democrat? (New York, 1941), p.291

Excerpt out of 8 pages


Franklin D. Roosevelt - America's Greatest President?
Macquarie University
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ISBN (eBook)
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463 KB
Roosevelt, USA, New Deal
Quote paper
Dr. Belinda Helmke (Author), 2002, Franklin D. Roosevelt - America's Greatest President?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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