THE ROOSEVELT ERA
By Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.
In his own time Franklin Delano Roosevelt was simultaneously the best loved and the most hated American president of the twentieth century -- loved by the mass of ordinary Americans; hated by those whose power and prestige were challenged by the man they called a traitor to his class. But love is more enduring than hate, and, as time passes, antagonisms subside. FDR is now generally recognized as the greatest president of the past century and, along with Washington and Lincoln, one of the three greatest presidents of American history.
The broad outlines of his story are familiar. He was born in 1882 into the Democratic branch of the Roosevelt family -- Hyde Park as against Oyster Bay. But his distant Republican kinsman Theodore Roosevelt was the political hero of his youth, and he fell in love with and soon married Eleanor Roosevelt, TR's niece. A reform Democrat, FDR fought Tammany Hall as a junior member of the New York state senate. In 1913 President Woodrow Wilson appointed him assistant secretary of the navy. His record in office was sufficiently impressive, along with his name, to gain him the Democratic vice-presidential nomination in 1920. After his party's defeat in the election, he returned to private life.
In August 1921 disaster befell him. At the age of thirty-nine, Roosevelt was stricken with poliomyelitis. His legs were hopelessly paralyzed, and, though to the end of his life he tried to recover their use, he never really walked again. The experience hardened his resolve, and, as Eleanor Roosevelt later wrote, gave him patience; also gave him, she said, insight into "what suffering meant." In 1928 he was elected governor of New York, and in 1932 he won the first of four elections to the presidency.
For all his surface geniality, openness and charm, Franklin Roosevelt was a highly complicated man. Robert E. Sherwood, the playwright and FDR speechwriter, spoke of his "heavily forested interior." Roosevelt was a soaring idealist in his ends and a canny, often tough, realist in his means. He was light-hearted and somber, candid and disingenuous, bold and cautious, decisive and evasive, vengeful and magnanimous. No one could ever be sure what was going on in that welcoming, reserved, elusive, teasing, spontaneous, calculating, cold, warm, humorous, devious, mendacious, manipulative, highly camouflaged, finally impenetrable mind.
Henry Adams once said that the president of the United States resembles the commander of a ship at sea: "He must have a helm to grasp, a course to steer and a port to seek." FDR, a skilled navigator schooled in the fogs, squalls and tides surrounding Campobello Island, knew when to tack and when to unfurl sails and race ahead. With all his maneuvering, he always had a course to steer and a port to seek.
He was also a great collector -- of stamps, of books and manuscripts, of naval paintings and prints, of Hudson River memorabilia, of silver, of antique furniture. His children inherited the collecting tradition, as evidenced in the catalogue of objects amassed by his youngest son, John Aspinwall Roosevelt.
When FDR became president in March 1933, the nation was deep in depression. More than a quarter of the labor force was out of work. The banking system was on the brink of collapse. The gross national product was half of what it had been a few years before. Karl Marx's prophecy that capitalism would be destroyed by its own contradictions seemed on the verge of fulfillment.
In despairing times, Roosevelt's eloquent inaugural -- "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself" -- instilled new hope. "The country needs," FDR had said during the campaign, "and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something." Aside perhaps from the part about frankly admitting failure, this was to be the creed of his administration.
His Hundred Days brought a torrent of experimental legislation aimed at relief, recovery and reform. "The nation, which had lost confidence in everything and everybody," the influential columnist Walter Lippmann soon wrote, "has regained confidence in the government and in itself." In FDR's first term, social security and unemployment compensation provided relief for the elderly and the unemployed. The Securities and Exchange Commission gave new protection to investors and new stability to the stock market. The Wagner Act guaranteed labor's right to bargain collectively. The Works Progess Administration enlisted the unemployed and the National Youth Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps the young for work of public benefit; especially notable was WPA's support for the arts. The Rural Electrification Administration brought electric power to American farms. The Soil Conservation Service combatted wind and water erosion and helped preserve farmland against destructive dust storms. The Tennessee Valley Authority promoted development, conservation and flood control in poverty-stricken southern states. And in his appointments and policies Roosevelt expanded opportunities for previously undervalued categories of American citizens -- women, Catholics, Jews, blacks. In short order, the New Deal transformed the social, political and economic landscape of American life.
But business leaders, accustomed in the 1920s to having everything their own way, resented interventionist government on behalf of the "forgotten man" (and woman). Many business people began to circulate vicious rumors about "that man in the White House" and his meddlesome wife. The conservative Supreme Court -- the once notorious "Nine Old Men" -- invalidated New Deal laws, driving Justice Harlan Stone to observe in wrathful dissent, "Courts are not the only agency of government that must be assumed to have capacity to govern... The only check upon our own exercise of power is our own sense of self-restraint."
Running for reelection in 1936, FDR sought to refresh the New Deal mandate. In a campaign address he condemned "government by organized money" as quite as dangerous as "government by organized mob." Never before in history, he continued, had organized money been so united against a presidential candidate. "They are unanimous in their hatred of me -- and I welcome their hatred." His audience exploded in applause. "I should like to have it said of my first administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match." More wild applause. "I should like to have it said of my second administration that in it these forces have met their master."
Carrying all but two states, Roosevelt in his second inaugural saw "one third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished." In words still relevant today, he said, "The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little." This was the abiding theme of his domestic policy. His objective was not, as opponents sometimes charged, socialism. It was rather to rescue capitalism from the capitalists.
But an ill-judged plan in 1937 to pack the Supreme Court provoked widespread opposition. And a high degree of unemployment persisted until the war when deficits created in the cause of defense proved the Keynesian compensatory-spending thesis by rapidly mopping up unemployment. The opposition of orthodox budget-balancers in Congress had prevented Roosevelt from running large enough peacetime deficits fully to revive the economy.
Long concerned by the aggressive programs of European dictators and Japanese militarists, Roosevelt began as early as 1936 to change American minds about their traditional isolationism. In accepting renomination in 1936, he discerned everywhere "a war for the survival of democracy." "The present reign of terror and international lawlessness," he said in 1937, had reached a point "where the very foundations of civilization are seriously threatened." If aggression continued, he said, "Let no one imagine America will escape."
War broke out in Europe when Germany invaded Poland in September 1939. Anne Morrow Lindbergh in her best-selling tract of 1940 contended that democracy was doomed, that totalitarianism was destined to succeed and that "there is no fighting the wave of the future." Her husband, the famous aviator, opposed aid to Great Britain and blamed the movement toward war on the New Dealers, the British and the Jews.
For a while the Lindberghs seemed to be right. By 1941 there were only about a dozen democracies left in the world. That same year FDR outlined his Four Freedoms -- Freedom of Speech and Expression, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, Freedom from Fear. His Lend-Lease Act committed the economic power of the United States to the support of Great Britain, then standing alone against Hitler. At the end of the year the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor terminated the angry debate between isolationists and interventionists.
Roosevelt turned out to be a superb war leader. He also dedicated himself to preparing the American people for an internationalist role after the war -- and at the same time to assure American predominance in the postwar world. In a series of conferences in 1944 he set forth blueprints for international organization (the United Nations), for world finance, trade and development (the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund), for relief and rehabilitation (UNRRA).
At the Yalta conference in 1945, Roosevelt and Churchill failed to save Eastern Europe from communism. That could hardly have been achieved by diplomatic methods alone. With the Red Army in control of Eastern Europe and a war still to be won against Japan, there was little the democracies could do to prevent Stalin from working his will in countries adjacent to the Soviet Union. But Roosevelt at Yalta persuaded Stalin to sign American-drafted Declarations on Liberated Europe and on Poland -- declarations Stalin had to break to achieve his objectives, thereby exposing to the world the nature of his regime.
The world of today, as I have written elsewhere, is manifestly not Hitler's world. The thousand-year Reich had a brief and bloody run of a dozen years. It is manifestly not Stalin's world. That world disintegrated as communism turned out to be a moral, political and economic disaster. Nor is it Winston Churchill's world. Empire and its glories have long since vanished into the past.
The world we live in today is Franklin Roosevelt's world -- a world in which most peoples aspire to the Four Freedoms. Of the towering figures who, for good or for evil, bestrode the narrow world sixty years ago, he would be the least surprised by the shape of things at the end of the century. For all his manifold foibles, flaws, follies, and there was a sufficiency of all of those, Roosevelt deserves supreme credit, not only as the president who led the republic triumphantly through the worst depression and the greatest war of its history, but as the twentieth-century statesman who saw most deeply into the grand movements of humanity.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt died on 12 April 1945 at the age of sixty-three. The Roosevelt era came to an end, but the Roosevelt legacy changed the world for decades to come.
ELEANOR ROOSEVELT AND VAL-KILL COTTAGE
The importance of Val-Kill Cottage to Eleanor Roosevelt cannot be over-emphasized. For more than three decades this modest Dutch-colonial home on the Hudson served the First Lady as a refuge and a retreat, a safe haven from the demands of her many humanitarian endeavors, a place of quiet beauty where she could reflect, write, plan and entertain family, friends and world leaders.
The idea for a cottage, separate from the main Roosevelt manor at Hyde Park, originated with Eleanor and two of her closest friends, Marion Dickerman and Nancy Cook, both educators, in 1924. As Eleanor later recounted, "Franklin was particularly interested," in the project, and "helped to design and build a stone cottage beside a brook where we often went to picnic during the first years after he was paralyzed. The brook was called Val-Kill, so we called the cottage Val-Kill Cottage" (Autobiography, p.143). The architectural drawings for the comfortable fieldstone cottage were prepared by Henry Toombs, of the firm of McKim, Mead and White. (Toombs also designed the Little White House at Warm Springs, Georgia.) The surviving drawings are annotated with suggestions by Franklin Roosevelt, who was determined that it be built in the old Dutch style of the Hudson Valley ("for stone at top of windows & doors copy old Dutch farmhouse"). Construction was completed in the summer of 1925.
The following year, a second, larger, building was erected nearby. Until 1936, this was the site of Val-Kill Industries, a small-scale factory established by Eleanor and her friends in which local farm workers were taught to produce fine replicas of early American furniture, pewter and weavings, in the hope of stemming the exodus of local farmers to large metropolitan areas in search of work. At Val-Kill Cottage, two miles from the main Roosevelt manor, Eleanor Roosevelt spent weekends and holidays from 1925 to 1936. And, when Val-Kill Industries was forced to close, she and her secretary, Malvina Thompson, took up residence in two apartments in the converted factory building.
During the tumultuous years of his Presidency, Franklin Roosevelt found the Hyde Park home a welcome escape from the pressures of his official duties; Val-Kill, during these demanding years, served Eleanor as an invaluable safe harbor. And after Franklin's death, it became her permanent home. She filled its cosy, comfortable rooms with furniture, art, many books and an array of framed photographs and artifacts of private significance. Some of these, like the two Bernard Gribble oil paintings (lots 213 and 214) had previously hung in the Roosevelt White House; other had even hung in the Governor's mansion in Albany, prior to 1933.
A wealth of these artifacts are offered in the present catalogue, plus letters, photographs and prints inscribed by Franklin and Eleanor to John A. Roosevelt and his family. Some exceptional associations are documented in these artifacts. For example, in 1960, former President Harry S. Truman inscribed a copy of Truman Speaks "with very best wishes and kindest regards to the First Lady of the World" (lot 46), and another old friend, Winston S. Churchill, inscribed to her a copy of his History of the English-Speaking Peoples (lot 30). With her busy schedule, Eleanor and Franklin were often separated, and their children, with active careers of their own, could spend less time at Hyde Park. For this reason, family photographs, often with a personal inscription, were extremely important to Eleanor: at Val-Kill, she displayed in her living room the large portrait of Franklin, by Salisbury, in a superb Cartier silver frame (lot 169), and a photograph of her husband at the tiller of his sailing yatch on his first outing after recovering from polio. This image, Franklin teasingly inscribed "for Captain Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, from Franklin D. Roosevelt, First Mate" (lot 166). In her desk at Val-Kill, Eleanor kept the striking Pach portrait of herself in her wedding gown, 1905; the typescript of Franklin's speech to political supporters, five days before the 1932 election which first sent them both to the White House (lot 165), plus other letters and ephemera.
In later years, following Franklin's death, Val-Kill was visited by an exceptional number of international leaders including Haile Selassie, Marshall Tito, Nikita Khruschev, Jawaharlal Nehru. In those same years, countless American political figures and notables--Adlai Stevenson, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Walter Reuther, to name a few-made their way to see and confer with the modest but iron-willed woman whom Truman had so aptly dubbed the "First Lady of the World."
In 1977, Congress designated Val-Kill a National Historic Site; today, it is operated by the National Park Service as an official project of Save America's Treasures, a partnership between the White House Millennium Council, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Park Service.