My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the thirty-second President of the United States. The biography I chose with my selection process (reading reviews online and utilizing and this website- My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies) was… complicated. I actually read 3 different biographies of FDR, with the most influential on my far being Traitor to His Class by H. W. Brands. The others I read were FDR by Jean Edwards Smith and Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life by Robert Dallek. The latter two were good reads, but the style of Brands’s writing was much more to my taste. I’ll be focusing my reflection on his biography.
Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on that biography, and proceed to present my official ranking for the DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!!! The full list of the rankings with all the Presidents as well as comments on their careers, updated as I read through this list, may be found here.
Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt by H. W. Brands
Franklin Delano Roosevelt is perhaps the most important political figure in the history of the United States. Yes, arguments can be made for Lincoln or Washington or perhaps a few others, but FDR’s legacy must be acknowledged as looming large even into today.
From an early age, it was clear that Roosevelt had lofty aspirations, and his life of privilege set him up to chase those aspirations. The fortuitous timing of several of his runs for office also helped him on his way. For example, his first public office was won in part because the Republican Party of New York “was fracturing between the progressives and the standpatters” (61). This allowed a Democrat the chance a way through the stranglehold the Republicans had held upon the state. FDR’s move towards naval administration seems an odd stepping stone on the way to the Presidency, but it allowed him to schmooze with top military officials while also driving for major overhaul of the navy. FDR, more than perhaps anyone, helped drive the U.S. Navy into a modern force that could compete on a worldwide scale. This move seems unsurprising today, but at the time it was a radical shift to suggest challenging Britain’s supremacy of the waves (76). It would also seem prescient in the coming years, even though he himself (like many Americans) didn’t predict war in Europe.
Once the Great War did break out, FDR leveraged his position both to make the United States more fit to wage war and for his own political gain. Woodrow Wilson’s presidential victory allowed FDR to stay in office and observe how Wilson operated, letting support for the war build up over time instead of rushing to push the United States into war. FDR also thought about joining the military, seeing it as a potential step on the path to the Presidency, but ultimately was convinced by advisors to stay with the navy in order to help the greater war effort. The interim period, however, struck FDR with a major health crisis, believed at the time to be polio, from which he muscled himself back into American politics. After a stint as governor of New York, he ascended to the Presidency.
His Presidency began in a period of economic crisis, and he appointed powerful men to various offices in a patronage system, though throughout his tenure he seemed to trust his own decision-making far more than any of his advisors or cabinet members. This led to some infighting, but less corruption than other Presidents with similar dispositions suffered. The economic crisis was one FDR moved decisively to impact. He issued an executive order closing all banks in the United States for a “holiday,” which allowed additional time for the federal government to address the massive depression without having all the banks fail. The moves made included giving the President power to close banks and much more centralization of power through the Federal Reserve and its issuing of bank notes.
FDR also put forward the first New Deal that not only created hundreds of thousand of jobs, but also improved infrastructure across the country. This move would prove a stunning blueprint, showing that wise use of government resources could, in fact, provide not just relief and recovery, but also lasting, massive change on a national level. Dams, schools, and bridges were built across the nation, as well as any number of rural projects and roads. These moves were radical compared to previous Presidents’ proposals, but not radical enough for some of FDR’s fellow Democrats, some of whom strongly criticized him for not doing even more. Regardless, the New Deal reshaped America, not just its landscape–which it did–but also its prospects for hope for those impoverished.
The Second New Deal, after a powerful win in the mid-term elections, led to the establishment of Social Security. This program, of course, endures into today and continues to provide benefits that help millions of Americans every day. Later, FDR’s moves towards conservation enlisted millions of Americans to pave trails, plant trees, and make dirt roads all across America. From these programs alone, FDR would be moved to the upper echelon of American Presidents. His actions helped turn around a massively struggling economy. But of course, FDR also led the United States through World War 2.
FDR’s leadership through World War 2 showed, again, his insistence on direct leadership and control. Though he made the Joint Chiefs of Staff to help make final strategic decisions, even this was his own move to maintain control. FDR’s Presidency once again increased the power and prestige of the office, probably well beyond what was intended in the Constitution. That’s a debate for another day, but from certainly from McKinley on–and probably Lincoln and others before him–the Presidency’s power has increased astronomically.
FDR started the nuclear program, securing funds for it even before the United States had officially entered World War 2. FDR’s fireside chats with the nation helped ease tensions throughout his Presidency. He pushed private companies to become major industries of war. He created the G.I. Bill because he saw it as a step in giving all Americans the basic right to health care, housing, and jobs.
However, despite all of these goods domestically and abroad, it must be noted that FDR oversaw one of the worst direct moves by a U.S. President for human rights. At the outbreak of war, he gave in to pressure and his own prejudice to see Japanese people–even U.S. citizens–as direct threats to the security of the United States, despite very little evidence to support it. In response, he ordered more than 100,000 Japanese into concentration camps in the United States. Properties were seized, stolen, and sold, and many when they left the camps found that their American dream had been crushed into nothing. This black stain upon FDR’s legacy is yet another awful mark in the history of the United States.
In Brands’s biography of FDR, Eleanor looms large, and he notes the impact she had on her husband throughout his life. Truly she is an interesting person in her own right, and one wonders over the silent suffering she likely endured over FDR’s illness is one aspect, but even moreso was the man’s apparent adultery or at least attempts at the same. Nevertheless, whether it was love for her husband or her own political clout, she endured and made deep impacts not just from her own actions but from steering FDR in certain directions.
Overall, FDR’s impact on the United States could hardly be understated. His leadership in times of economic and political strife was powerful and decisive, though those decisions were not always for the best. His legacy paved a more progressive path for the United States that has met huge resistance even to this day. If there is a single thing to look at from his life, it is perhaps that he hoped to make things better, and he did so with no small amount of success. That legacy is stained by his decision to inter Japanese people in concentration camps. It shows that even the greatest of American Presidents still suffered from the stains of American sins of racism–sins we continue to need to labor against today.
Traitor to His Class is an exceptional biography. Brands does a fantastic job laying the groundwork of FDR’s early life and successes to show not just how they led to his later moves but also how they had an enduring impact on his life. I’d recommend it highly to those looking for a single volume read on FDR’s life.
FDR’s Original Ranking in THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES (Full and Updated List Here)
Franklin Delano Roosevelt (32nd President – Original Ranking #1)- FDR is a massively influential President whose push for more progressive policies not only helped stave off the worst of the depression, but also helped pull many millions out of destitution. His handling of many trials throughout his Presidency meant that policies rolled out that would eventually help all Americans, not just the wealthiest, and, sometimes, not just white people. Whether it is social security, various aspects of the economy, greater infrastructure, or wider influence from the President, FDR changed America for good. Today, we still live with many of the legacies FDR left us, and many of those still work–or at least do work that would otherwise not be done. It should be noted that FDR’s place at the top of this list can also be an indictment of the history of the American Dream. FDR’s decision to put 150,000 Americans in concentration camps due to political pressure cannot be excused. His track record on race is spotty. And yet, his impact on the United States cannot but be ranked among the top Presidents of all time. We should see this as a reason to continue to strive to be better, and to make America a place for all citizens to be equal.