Portrait of FDR as a Young Man: How He Became a Radical

Roundup: Talking About History
tags: FDR



Harvey J. Kaye is professor of democracy and justice studies at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay. He is the author of Thomas Paine and the Promise of America and the forthcoming The Fight for the Four Freedoms: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great. Follow him on Twitter: www.twitter.com/HarveyJKaye

What made Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the wealthy son of Hudson River valley aristocrats, the liberal, indeed, the radical he became? When and where did he develop the ideas, sensibilities, and commitments that would propel and enable him to mobilize Americans to pursue the great democratic labors of the New Deal and lead the nation in a war against European Fascism and Japanese Imperialism and for the Four Freedoms—freedom of speech, Freedom of religion, Freedom from want, Freedom from fear—which he proclaimed in January 1941?

Both FDR’s friends and biographers have speculated on the origins of his progressivism. His “chief of staff” Judge Samuel Rosenman said that Roosevelt’s democratic politics seemed built into his very being, into the very “heart and soul of the man, in his love of people, his own sense of social justice, his hatred of greed and of exploitation of the weak, his contempt for the bully—whether it was a Hitler or a Mussolini or an owner of a sweatshop, or an exploiter of child labor.” But most historians have ended up subscribing to the view of FDR’s Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, who knew Roosevelt from his days as a New York state senator (1911-13) and served him both in Albany when he was governor of New York (1929-1933) and in Washington all the way through the 12 years of his presidency (1933-45)....

In Young Mr. Roosevelt: FDR’s Introduction to War, Politics, and Life, historian and biographer Stanley Weintraub does not attend to the question of what made Roosevelt a small “p” progressive. Rather, he focuses on what made him an effective War President—that is, he tells us of Roosevelt’s experiences and actions at the Department of the Navy during World War I and how they prepared him to later serve as Commander in Chief. Doing so, Weintraub tells us a lot. Readers will enjoy his narrative and the details he affords, for they address both FDR’s public and private lives....




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