President Franklin D. Roosevelt: Early Life, Career and Polio

About the early life and career of President of the United States Franklin D. Roosevelt, also how he got polio.


Career: No American President came from a more patrician background than Franklin Roosevelt. His mother's family claimed that they could trace their genealogy all the way back to William the Conqueror. Between them, the Roosevelts and the Delanos boasted no fewer than 12 Mayflower ancestors. As a boy, Franklin was educated by private tutors and he toured Europe 8 times before he was 16. At the proper time he attended Groton School (where 90% of the students were from Social Register families) and Harvard. Roosevelt was a mediocre student (maintaining a "gentlemanly" "C" average at Harvard) but a notable social success. His 5th cousin, Theodore Roosevelt, was then serving as President, and Franklin enjoyed a good deal of reflected glory. In his junior year, he was elected editor of the Harvard Crimson and wrote ringing editorials urging the football team to victory and lamenting the decline in school spirit. After graduation, he attended Columbia Law School, but was thoroughly bored by his studies there. He flunked several courses and dropped out before winning his degree, but he absorbed enough information to pass a bar-examination anyway and take his place in a fashionable New York law firm. When Roosevelt was 28, the Democratic leaders in his home district became interested in the handsome young lawyer with the famous last name. Only one Democrat had carried the district since 1856, and now the party needed a State senate candidate. The main qualification was that the nominee be wealthy enough to pay his own expenses in a hopeless cause. Roosevelt agreed to run, and then startled his neighbors with a flamboyant, person-to-person campaign in a red touring car. He won an upset victory, took his seat in Albany, and immediately identified himself with genteel reform elements. Though admirers have cited FDR's "courage" in defying the statewide Democratic machine, he was actually doing exactly what his overwhelmingly Republican constituents expected of him. In 1912, State senator Roosevelt was an early supporter of Woodrow Wilson's presidential bid, and when Wilson was elected, he was rewarded with a post in the new Administration. Roosevelt was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy-a position that his cousin Teddy had made famous some 15 years before. In the Navy Dept., FDR proved himself a skillful and aggressive administrator, with a knack for personal publicity. With the coming of W.W. I, the Assistant Secretary, long an advocate of increased naval power, gained stature as a prophet. In 1920, the 38-year-old Roosevelt was nominated by his party for the Vice-Presidency, in the hope that his famous name would attract Progressive Republicans to the Democratic ticket. Though Roosevelt and his running mate were crushed under the Harding landslide, FDR gained a reputation as a tireless and popular campaigner, and after the election his political prospects seemed brighter than ever.

All of that came to an end in August, 1921, while FDR was vacationing at his family's summer home at Campobello, in New Brunswick, Canada. While yachting with his sons, Roosevelt stopped to put out a forest fire on a small island, then refreshed himself with a swim in the icy waters of the bay. He suffered severe body shock, and that evening was overcome by a stab of pain and a chill. The next morning his legs failed him when he tried to stand up, and within 24 hours he was paralyzed from the waist down. He had contracted poliomyelitis, but it was more than a week before the doctors diagnosed his condition correctly. By that time, Roosevelt, aged 39, had been permanently crippled: He would never regain the use of his legs.

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