The man who remade America

Like most (all?) of you, I have no memory of the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a 1 percenter born in privilege and raised on the banks of the Hudson River about 90 miles north of New York City. 

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 32nd U.S. president

Like some (few?) of you, I am aware of the astonishing accomplishments of the only man elected president four times. (Thanks to the 22nd Amendment, that can never happen again.) FDR did more to shape America than any president since George Washington. 

I knew much before visiting his birthplace and home in Hyde Park, N.Y., which he graciously donated to the National Park Service as a gift to the American people he loved and served. Despite his vast wealth and elite upbringing, he had a common touch and an uncommon way of communicating with the American people. His optimism and faith in America were undeniable and contagious. 

I knew a lot about his achievements, but when I saw them displayed in a timeline and backed by documents and film strips, it had an unexpected impact on me. I knew he was a great president, but I did not know how great.

Here is a Top Ten list of what I regard to be his greatest achievements as president:

10 – The Agricultural Adjustment Act, designed to help farmers keep their land.

 9- The Rural Electrification Administration to light areas of deepest poverty.

 8- The National Labor Relations Act, to protect the rights of labor.

 7- The minimum wage law.

 6- Unemployment insurance.

 5- In the Depression, he tells Americans, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” and launches the New Deal. Americans buy into it. 

 4- Policies reduce unemployment by almost 10 percent in his first year as president.

 3- The Securities and Exchange Commission. 

 2- Social Security.

 1- The Allies victory over the Axis powers. 

There were many more, plus some demerits — such as trying to pack the U.S. Supreme Court (an idea that seems to have some currency today), and forcing Americans of Japanese ancestry into detention camps. I said he was great, not perfect.

I visited his homestead, known as Springwood, Tuesday with my daughter and learned a lot about the Roosevelt family and estate here in the mountains. The visit was her idea as she lives in the general area and when I visit we like to explore and learn.

Father and daughter at rear of FDR’s home

She’s probably drawn to FDR as he can be thought of as an early version of Bernie Sanders, and daughter is a Berner. 

The first Roosevelt arrives in the New World in 1649 and becomes a successful merchant, followed by others who expand the fortune in real estate, railroads and industry. They buy the 110-acre estate in 1867 for $40,000 and later expand it to 1,500 acres. FDR orders half a million trees planted (some of which sadly obscure the view of the Hudson from the house). Like I said, he wasn’t perfect.

A $20 pass ($16 for seniors, ahem), covers a guided tour of the main house and an unguided tour of the first presidential library (and museum) with many artifacts of Roosevelt’s life and presidency.

FDR (and his wife Eleanor) are buried in front of a large, but unadorned, marble headstone located in the rose garden between the main house and the library/museum. FDR’s grave is marked by a small American flag, almost too modest for the man.

Last resting place of Eleanor and FDR. (Photo: Stu Bykofsky)

The main house has 35 rooms and almost all are open to view, including his office with the wheelchair that was kept out of public view. FDR was stricken with polio in 1921, and he never walked again, a secret even kept from guests to his home. The press knew, of course, but never revealed it. It was a different era.

He was elected governor of New York twice, and then president, unable to even stand on his own. He had bulky braces that allowed him to stand, the podium from which he spoke was bolted to the floor. It was a grand deception and we are better off for it.

The tour required some walking and stairs-climbing, which was a little challenging because I am on a cane.

For me, more challenging was the notion that a man from such stupendous wealth had developed such a keen affinity for the everyday American.

That might have been the greatest thing about our 32nd president.  

31 thoughts on “The man who remade America”

  1. Stu, my “reading” list this summer was highlighted by listening to the Nigel Hamilton biographic trilogy of FDR. The author is British, and surprisingly argues that FDR far surpassed Winston Churchill in vision, leadership and accomplishment. The first book, Commander in Chief, is premised on the concept that FDR took his constitutional responsibility as Commander in Chief literally. This is unprecedented in American history; not even Lincoln took personal charge of me military strategy. The author suggests that FDR learned as Undersecretary of the Navy In WW1 that waging war was too important to leave exclusively in the hands of professional soldiers. He believed that millions of unnecessary casualties occurred because the generals unwisely prolonged the situation, incorrectly believing that a military victory was possible.

    FDR becoming an actual Commander in Chief is both historically unique and surely among his most important accomplishments.

    1. Yet he was so shortsighted that, as sick as he was and so close to death, he never informed his vice president, Harry Truman, about the Manhattan Project and the development of the atomic bomb. That information came as a total surprise to Truman in 1944 when he became president upon Roosevelt’s death.

    2. A very interesting point. FDR set the strategy but allowed military to choose the tactics. He selection of Eisenhower was inspired. Ike had little battle experience, but had thw perfect temperament to deal with all allies.

  2. I was 8 years old when FDR died. I cried when I heard the news. I had intended to vote for him when I was 21…. I was also 14 years old before I learned he could not walk !!! The owner of the radio station where I worked starting at age 16, was the first person I knew who did not vote for FDR. He called him a communist !!!

  3. Stu I agree with your comments. I too thought he was a great president. One question though I had heard that during the war Hitler loaded many Jews on boats. The U.S. turned these boats away. Interestingly enough the Dominican Republic accepted boatloads of Jews.

  4. Roosevelt was a great president, but there are nagging doubts about him that just won’t go away. E.g., did he know about the Japanese threat to Pearl Harbor and keep it secret so as to get America into WWII? And did some of his actions actually prolong the Great Depression rather than ameliorate it? But his worst mistake was underestimating Josef Stalin, which led to the Cold War and (Churchill’s brilliant words) the “iron curtain” that imprisoned much of Eastern Europe for so many years.

    1. Knowledge of 12/7 attack is conspiracy that simple logic would explode. Prolong the Depression? Name the policy. Trust Stalin? Neither he nor Churchill trusted him. He was a necessary evil to defeat the#1 evil, Hitler.

      1. The Agriculture Adjustment Act (1933)a d the National Industrial Recovery Act (same year), to name just two actions of his that had good intentions but hurt the economy. So far as Pearl Harbor is concerned, it seems odd to many that several high-level Japanese codes were broken, yet Pearl Harbor came as a ‘complete surprise’ to the USA. And whose brilliant idea was it to let the Russians enter Berlin ahead of the Americans, who were poised to do so but prevented by Eisenhower (at Roosevelt’s insistence). The smartest man in the whole war was Douglas MacArthur, who refused to let the Russians into Japan, thus preventing that nation from being partitioned as was Germany.

        1. Your issue was Dec. 7. I will happily demonstrate how ludicrous the conspiracy is over the lunch or dinner we have yet to schedule. Open to discussion of other issues, bur “Roosevelt knew” was the big one. Even bigger than “Bush knew” (or, even better, 9/11 was an inside job).

          1. Hey, you asked the question “Prolong the depression? Name the policy.” So I did. And I didn’t say Roosevelt knew about Pearl Harbor, just that 78 years later, there still are some who say so.

  5. He died when I was 12. Didn’t know much about politics then, but my parents told me about his accomplishments and what a good President he was. And I remember reading a lot about him in the newspapers. I thought then, and still do, that he was the best president ever. Sure others have been good, but overall do not have as many (in my mind) accomplishments affecting/effecting the American public.

  6. Stu,
    A timely piece for me now reading William J Bennetts’ AMERICA, THE LAST GREAT HOPE VOL 2. He too shares your views of FDR, and expresses his admiration. I’m right in the middle of WW II. Highly recommend no matter your politics.
    Happy you enjoyed your visit!! You gotta work on your daughter with the Bern thing.
    Love your Blog!

  7. Stu – glad you made it to the Hudson River Valley…. the land of the “gilded age” mansions. We visited FDR’s home & library (not enough time on our schedule to fully absorb all that was there), Vanderbilt and Rockefeller estates, even the home of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”‘s author, Washington Irving, Really enjoyed the entire trip, including boat tour on the Hudson from Newburgh. Bob

  8. In his 1984 best seller, ” The Abandonment of the Jews” author David S. Wyman documents what he called “Roosevelt’s greatest personal failure”: his administration not only failed to do anything anything to rescue Europe’s Jews from , Hitler’s Holocaust, it actively and deliberately blocked any rescue attempts,or efforts to relax the immigration restrictions in place during that period, while dishonestly claiming publicly otherwise, until confronted by a political scandal in 1945 that threatened to expose this duplicity. Regardless of his other accomplishments this remains the greatest stain on his legacy.

    1. Thanks for the info, Bob. I contemplated writing about FDR’s decision not to bomb railways leading to the CONCENTRATION CAMPS (this is for AOC) but I thought it would be too much of a deflection.

      1. Somebody bombed the railways because my dad was a POW (captured at the Bulge) and in his memoirs he talks about the night bombers hit the Stalag where he was being held and a bomb hit the building next to his and killed all the prisoners.

        1. Sounds like a POW camp rather than an extermination camp. It might have been a mistake, it might have been a commander deciding to drop his bombs rather than take them home. This is an anecdote. I can’t say what it means.

  9. I was born one month after his passing, but reading about what he accomplished during his administration has caused me to believe he was the greatest President. Now we have an absolute horror of a president whose wants to turn the U.S. Into a facist dictatorship. He is following the Hitler playbook to a T.

  10. FDR signed Executive Order 6102 on April 5, 1933. This required Americans to turn in their gold. Their property was confiscated without due process. Talk about a tyrant! The government set the price it paid at $20 an ounce. Three months later the price of gold jumped to $35 an ounce.
    FDR signed Executive Order 9061 on February 19, 1942. This allowed 120,000 Japanese Americans to be rounded up and incarcerated in concentration camps. J. Edgar Hoover opposed FDR’s repellent exercise in tyranny.
    FDR started the FCC and imposed license limitations on radio. It didn’t take long for broadcasters to get the message. NBC, for example, announced that it was limiting broadcasts “contrary to the policies of the United States government.”
    It’s easy to understand why Mussolini was an FDR fan.

  11. Stu – my daughter (age 33) has also become a Bernie Bot. You can lead them to water….

    In this particular case, she got let to the Kool-Aid fountain provided by Bernie, and then drank some.

  12. I visited last spring for the first time. I was in awe as I walked through the home knowing who had been there and the history that was made. As I sat in the movie in the visitors center, I started to cry thinking that the office that FDR inhabited for so long doing such great things was now temporarily occupied by that guy. I was truly moved by the experience and saddened by how our society devalues history. great piece

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