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Franklin D. Roosevelt

FDR's Early Years

Important Terms, People, and Events

Roosevelt's Entry into Politics

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was born on January 30, 1882. He was so sickly that he almost did not survive, and his worried parents held off naming him for two months. His father was James Roosevelt, a graduate of Union College and Harvard Law School, though not a practicing lawyer. James lived a life similar to an English country gentleman, with a large estate at Hyde Park in New York. Sara Delano, from an family background equally distinguished as the Roosevelts, was James Roosevelt's second wife, and was separated from him by twenty years. His age and her difficulty giving birth to Franklin prevented them from having any more children, and Franklin grew up as their beloved only child. His relationship with his parents, especially his mother, was very strong. It was her unshakeable faith in him that many believe gave him the self-confidence that enabled him to succeed later in life.

French and German governesses educated Roosevelt until he was fourteen, and he spent most of his free time riding on the estate and playing by himself. He accompanied his parents on their travels to Europe and to all their social engagements. This youth spent in the company of adults helped him develop a charm that would prove indispensable later in life, but left him ill used to being around children his own age. This proved to be a drawback when his parents sent him away to the Groton School, a recently opened school that had the backing of many of the leading men in America, such as J.P. Morgan. Roosevelt's experience at Groton was a personal disappointment because of his inability to win over his peers as he had won over his parents and their associates. It may have been the bitter memories of his years at Groton that made FDR determined to become a leader at Harvard, which he entered at the turn of the century. Unlike many of his fellow classmates, who were used to living the life of the idle rich, FDR set the pace with his enthusiasm and energy. He studied subjects that would be of great use to him in his political career–history, government, economics, English and public speaking. He lived in one of the three-room apartments on Mt. Auburn St., nicknamed the "Gold Coast" because of the wealth of the residents. He sat at the Groton table at one of the eating houses of Cambridge and joined the Fly Club, one of Harvard's many exclusive organizations, when he was passed over by the more exclusive Porcellian Club. FDR cut quite a figure in Boston society, and was especially popular with the women. He was elected editor-in-chief of the Crimson, partly because of his enthusiasm and partly because his connections to the White House through the Roosevelt family allowed him access to stories other students could not get. Unlike his distant cousin Teddy Roosevelt's stellar academic achievements, FDR's grades were mostly Bs and Cs, and he was awarded the Phi Beta Kappa key later in life only as an honor.

It was during his late college years that FDR met and fell in love with Eleanor Roosevelt, a distant cousin whom he had first met at a family Christmas party in 1898. Eleanor had had a very different family experience from FDR. Her father had doted on her, but her mother had separated from him on account of his alcoholism. Her mother, who had once been a great beauty, mocked Eleanor for her plainness and favored her younger children. Both Eleanor's mother and brother died of diphtheria when Eleanor was eight years old, and she was sent to live with her grandmother. In 1894, two years later, her father died in a fit of delirium. Eleanor's unstable family life may have caused many of her anxieties about being unloved, unattractive, and unworthy of other people's affections. Despite the differences in FDR's and Eleanor's upbringings, both of them seemed to be driven by the same insecurity–they desperately needed the acceptance of those around them.

FDR asked Eleanor to marry him in 1903, a year before he had finished his degree at Harvard. His mother was heartbroken: she had doted on her son even more since his father's death, and she was reluctant to share him with a wife so soon. This attachment would continue through FDR's life. Sara Roosevelt supported the young couple while Roosevelt was struggling as a neophyte politician, and Eleanor, for the most part, had to bear the burden of her mother-in-law's constant company. The young couple was married in March of 1905 in New York, where FDR was attending law school at Columbia and Eleanor was working in one of the settlement houses. At the ceremony, Eleanor was given away by none other than her uncle, President Teddy Roosevelt himself. Eleanor and Franklin had five children: Anna, James, Elliott, Franklin, Jr., and John. Sara Roosevelt was the first of many women to cast a pall over the young couple's relationship. Although FDR never allowed his mother control's over his purse strings to affect his decision-making in his early years, Eleanor was very influenced by her stately mother-in-law, especially in the years before FDR's meteoric rise to the White House.

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