Eleanor Roosevelt: The Early Years
Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was born on October 11, 1884, in New York, New York, into a wealthy and privileged family with colonial roots. She was the niece of Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., 26th president of the United States. She was the cousin and wife of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the 32nd president, who died shortly after being elected to his fourth term. She was the longest serving First Lady in US history.
Eleanor Roosevelt's mother died of diphtheria in 1892, when Eleanor was eight years old. Her father, to whom she was devoted, died of alcoholism two years later. Orphaned and insecure, the painfully shy Eleanor was sent to live with her maternal grandmother, Mary Hall. In 1899, after years of private tutoring, her grandmother sent Eleanor to Allenwood, a progressive girls' boarding school in London, England. There, the school's director, Mme. Marie Souvestre, recognized Eleanor's keen intellect. Eleanor's self-confidence grew and she became a well-liked leader among her classmates.
In 1902, Eleanor returned reluctantly to New York to make her social debut. She became involved as well in volunteer settlement house and social work, activities that reflected the service philosophy of Allenwood. It was during her debutant year that she met and fell in love with her fifth cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt of Hyde Park, New York. The Roosevelts became engaged in November 1903, and were married in March 1905. President Theodore Roosevelt gave his niece away.
The young couple settled in New York City, near the home of Franklin's formidable mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt, who dominated virtually every aspect of their lives for years to come. The Roosevelts' first child, Anna, arrived that year, followed by two sons—James in 1907, and Franklin, Jr., in 1909, who died shortly after his birth. Between 1910 and 1916, Eleanor gave birth to three more sons, Elliott, Franklin, and John.
In 1912, Franklin won election to the New York state senate. His new position required leaving New York City and establishing a home in the state capital at Albany, far from the indomitable Sara Delano. Years later Eleanor would recall,
“For the first time I was going to live on my own. I wanted to be independent. I was beginning to realize that something within me craved to be an individual.”
During the next two years, Eleanor would closely observe Franklin as he fought the corrupt Tammany Hall political machine. In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson appointed the ambitious Franklin Assistant Secretary of the Navy. The Roosevelt family moved to Washington, DC, where Eleanor's political education continued. She began to take on a more public role and to understand more fully her responsibilities as Franklin's “political helpmate.”
With the United States' entrance into World War I, Eleanor's volunteer commitments, club work, and settlement activities claimed an ever more significant part of her time and energies. Her considerable skills as a leader, organizer, and manager became more evident. She reached out to, coordinated, and when necessary created networks of women's organizations to accomplish political goals. “I became,” she wrote later, “more determined to try for certain ultimate objectives. I gained a certain assurance as to my ability to run things, and the knowledge that there is joy in accomplishing good.”
In 1920, the Democratic Party nominated Franklin for Vice President to run with its presidential candidate, Ohio Governor James M. Cox. They ran against Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge. It was during that ultimately unsuccessful presidential campaign that Franklin's chief press officer and close advisor, Louis Howe, became Eleanor's friend, colleague, political mentor, confidant, and champion. One of Eleanor's biographers wrote that during this time, with Howe's encouragement, Eleanor “was traveling, not drifting, away from the conventional life expected of women of her social class.” She had become, in the words of the New York Times, a woman who “speaks her political mind.”
In the summer of 1921, Franklin contracted poliomyelitis while vacationing at their home on Campobello Island in New Brunswick, Canada. Despite Eleanor's devoted nursing and his extraordinary efforts to regain the use of his legs, Franklin never again walked unaided. For the rest of his life, he was confined to a wheelchair and forced to rely upon heavy iron braces and crutches.
At first, it appeared that his political career was over. Indeed, his mother and Louis Howe both advocated that Franklin retire to Hyde Park to protect his now fragile health. Eleanor, on the other hand, encouraged him not to withdraw from politics. To keep the Roosevelt name alive in political circles, Eleanor expanded her own political activity. Gradually, Franklin regained sufficient emotional and physical strength to return to politics. In 1928, he was elected Governor of New York. He was reelected in 1930. In 1932, his success as governor brought him the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected President of the United States in November 1932. He was inaugurated on March 4, 1933. He was subsequently reelected and then elected again to unprecedented third and fourth terms. Throughout his long presidency, Eleanor was “the President's eyes, ears, and legs.” She traveled across the country as he could not, observing the conditions she saw and reporting back to him what the American people told her about their lives and needs, their fears and hopes. In so doing, Eleanor Roosevelt contributed to the success of New Deal programs and at the same time, transformed the role of First Lady.
Critical Thinking Questions
- What pressures and motivations may have affected Eleanor Roosevelt's choices before and during her time as First Lady?
- What roles do or could presidential spouses have, officially and unofficially?