Saturday, November 12, 2016


We love Presidential Museums and Libraries. There are thirteen, and with our visit to the Franklin D. Roosevelt site, we have toured twelve of them. The only one we have left to go is the Gerald R. Ford site, which is actually divided between two places: the Library in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and the Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

The FDR Museum and Library is located in Hyde Park on the large estate where Franklin, the only son of wealthy parents, grew up.

One area of the museum gives information about Franklin's and Eleanor's ancestry and childhoods:

FDR's illustrious ancestors:

The 10 lb. baby boy referenced below is none other than FDR, and that's his bassinet on the right:

The picture on the left shows Eleanor (Franklin's 5th cousin) with her two little brothers, and the picture on the right shows her at age 14:

Franklin was 20 and Eleanor was 18 when they began courting. They were married in 1905, and Eleanor's uncle--President Teddy Roosevelt--gave away the bride.

I especially like this photo of the young couple sitting on the steps of Springwood, the family mansion, with Franklin pretending to knit with Eleanor's knitting needles:

Anna arrived in 1906, and James in 1908:

The Roosevelt's lost their next son, named Franklin Jr., in infancy in 1909, but they went on to have three more children, including another son named Franklin Jr.

L to R: Anna, Franklin Jr., FDR, James, Eleanor, Elliott, FDR's mother Sara, and John:

A major turning point in FDR's life was his bout with polio in the summer of 1921, which left him permanently paralyzed below the waist. He eventually learned to stand and could even walk short distances with the use of heavy braces and crutches, but he mostly tried to hide the paralysis from the public by staying seated.

Franklin's political career began in 1910, 11 years before the polio, when he was elected to New York's state senate at age 28.
Ten years after his election to the state senate he was the running mate of presidential candidate James M. Cox. Losing badly to Harding and Coolidge, Franklin nevertheless was transformed by the the election into a major political figure. He became governor of New York in 1929 and watched the Great Depression unfold.

President Hoover's focus on limited government and relief through private charities was failing:

It was time for a radical change, and FDR was a man of action:

And of course, the right hat was an important factor. FDR wore this "lucky" felt hat in each of his four campaigns.

Eleanor, who had no interest in being First Lady, nevertheless campaigned hard for her husband, especially targeting women, who had only held the right to vote for twelve years. No political wife had been as involved in the campaign as she was.

It must have worked. The 1932 contest against incumbent Herbert Hoover was a landslide for FDR, as can be seen in this map of the electoral vote:

Did you know that President-elect Roosevelt was the target of an assassin and that the mayor of Chicago died in the attack? I didn't!

It is interesting to think how the course of our nation might have been changed had one of the five bullets shot found its intended target.

Roosevelt wasn't inaugurated until March 4, 1933, much later than we swear in our new President now. Roosevelt and Hoover, once friends, now hardly spoke to each other, and the ride to the Capitol appeared to be quite tense. After that day they never spoke to each other again.

It was in his first inauguration speech that he spoke the words, "This great nation will endure as it has endured, will revive, and will prosper. . . . So , first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."
According to information in the museum, "The greatest applause came when Roosevelt said he would ask for wartime executive powers if Congress failed to act against the emergency. Eleanor found the crowd's reaction 'somewhat terrifying'--a frightened public seemed prepared to do anything FDR asked."

Multiple displays outline FDR's first term as President:

One of his most popular acts was to legalize "safe" beverages containing no more than 3.2% alcohol, which eventually led to the repeal of the 18th Amendment (Prohibition). Many Americans were very happy about that. I love these mugs decorated with the images of well-known Democrats: FDR, New York Governor Alfred Smith, and Democratic party chairman James Farley:

FDR made a lot of changes, and so there were a lot of displays. If we had read every word in the museum, we would have been there a week.

John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton are not the only Presidents known for their suspicious relationships with other women, and in the Roosevelts' case, Eleanor seems to be just as suspect as her husband:

The affair that started it all, however, was FDR's liaison with Lucy Mercer, Eleanor's former social secretary, which Eleanor discovered in 1918. After considering divorce (Franklin's mother supposedly threatened to disinherit him if he divorced Eleanor), the Roosevelts determined to stay together, but FDR continued to see Lucy, and his relationship with his wife became more a political relationship than a true marriage.

But I digress.

Other displays in the museum include information on many of the New Deal programs, including initiatives to employ artists and writers. A lot of the art and architecture we have seen in state capitol buildings came from this program. The museum has several New Deal art pieces on display:

Gradually, Roosevelt's visage began appearing in the strangest places!

One of America's most popular First Ladies, there was a lot of museum space dedicated to just Eleanor. I particularly loved reading about how she stood up for African Americans. She really was ahead of her time. In fact, when the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) refused to let African-American contralto Marian Anderson perform in Constitution Hall, their Washington, D.C. venue, Eleanor invited Marian to sing at the White House . . .

. . . and then she resigned from the DAR
Classy, classy, classy. (She accomplished quite a bit more than her husband, who provided economic assistance to African Americans through the New Deal, but did little to quell the racism that ran rampant all over the country.)

Eleanor came to the White House expecting to be primarily the Chief Hostess, but she quickly morphed into a new kind of First Lady, holding press conferences on political matters to which only female reporters were invited, traveling all over the world giving lectures and gathering information for her husband, writing a weekly syndicated newspaper column, hosting radio programs, and helping to shape and promote her husband's opinions.

One Roosevelt acquaintance said, "No one who ever saw Eleanor Roosevelt sit down facing her husband, and, holding his eyes firmly, say to him, 'Franklin, I think you should' . . . or 'Franklin, surely you will not' . . . will ever forget the experience."

Then along came the 1936 election for FDR's second term:
FDR's victory over Republican candidate Alf Landon (who carried only Maine and Vermont) was the biggest electoral landslide in American history.

By this point, the Roosevelts had become celebrities of the first order, and everyone wanted to meet them:

Meanwhile, things were heating up in Europe, beginning with Kristallnacht in November 1938:

Many Jews tried to flee the country, and sadly, the U.S. did little to help them. This policy sounds surprisingly familiar:

In 1939, the war in Europe was underway, and Americans were increasingly nervous. No Democratic candidate was coming forward, and Roosevelt seemed the be preparing for his retirement as he started work on a Presidential Library in Hyde Park. No President had ever run for a third term before, and at that time there was no two-term limit. The big question was, "Will Roosevelt run?" But he stayed silent as the sphinx. Roosevelt's secrecy inspired great works of art:

Well, FDR chose to run in 1940, and of course he won.

His Presidential Library was well underway, and he established an office in it, making the FDR Presidential Library the only one ever used by a sitting president. He spent 250 days here during World War II, and he made several of his Fireside Chat radio speeches from this room:

At the beginning of FDR's third term, there was quite a bit of anti-war sentiment, but the march toward world war could not be stopped:

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor changed public sentiment, and Roosevelt declared war:

The museum has Roosevelt's draft of his message to Congress, complete with his editorial changes. It's interesting to note that he changed "a date which will live in world history" to what has become the tag line for Pearl Harbor-- "a date which will live in infamy."  He was a good editor.

One thing quickly led to another, and soon the U.S. was in the war lock, stock, and barrel.

FDR strengthened connections to our allies, who had been waiting a long time for our help:

There is a sobering display about the Japanese internment camps, something Eleanor strongly opposed. She later wrote these words that are eerily applicable to today's anti-Muslim sentiments, "These people were not convicted of any crime, but emotions ran too high, too many people wanted to wreak vengeance on Oriental looking people. There was no time to investigate families or adhere strictly to the American rule that a man is innocent until he is proven guilty."

Of course there are displays about the home front and women's roles in the war:

The museum also provides visitors with the opportunity to do a bit of time travel. They can sit at this 1940s-style dining room table and push a button embedded in the table top to hear one of FDR's famous Fireside Chats come from the radio.

The museum has an excellent re-creation of the Map Room, a top-secret communications center FDR created on the ground floor of the White House from which he monitored and directed the war:

There are detailed maps of both the European and Asian theaters:

Whenever I see maps related to World War II, I feel compelled to pick out my mother's hometown of Pforzheim, northwest of Stuttgart, a city bombed in February 1945 as part of the final blitzes of the war:

I have seen many museum displays related to D-Day, but seeing it in the context of FDR's presidency and decisions was a powerful experience:

 . . . as were the displays about strategy meetings and peace negotiations:

 When I see these two iconic photos of the Big Three in Tehran (1943):

 . . . and Yalta (1945, two weeks before Pforzheim was bombed and just a couple of months before FDR's death):
I note that FDR is always seated in the center, always the man around whom others revolved. I note that he looks strong and healthy, as if he could get up and walk around, which of course he could not, but his power seems so tangible.

FDR was still alive when Germany's concentration camps were liberated. I would like to know more about his reaction to what was found when those gates were opened:

Imagine what it would have been like to have a presidential election at this critical time in U.S. and world history. Roosevelt had already been president for three full terms, and in his own words, "All that is in me cries out to go back to my home on the Hudson River, the avoid public responsibilities, and to avoid also the publicity which in our democracy follows every step of the Nation's Chief Executive."

But in spite of illness and the heavy burdens of leadership, FDR felt compelled to seek reelection in 1944, the first wartime Presidential election since the Civil War. His vice president, Henry Byrd, was not well-liked by moderates and conservatives, and so Roosevelt replaced him with a moderate from Missouri, Senator Harry Truman. FDR's opponent was another New Yorker, Governor Thomas Dewey, who would later challenge Truman in the 1948 election. FDR won, but by the smallest margin of his four elections.

 And then, the unthinkable happened. Just weeks away from victory in Europe, FDR died of a massive cerebral hemorrhage. Americans must have been stunned. Eighteen days later, Hitler committed suicide. Two days after that, German forces in Berlin surrendered, and five days later, all German forces had surrendered.

What a mix of emotions it must have been.

"The story is over," Eleanor Roosevelt said to reporters a few days after her husband's death. But as it turned out, Eleanor, who had felt so much reluctance to enter politics and public life, spent the rest of her life pursuing national and international causes, focusing particularly on civil rights and women's rights.

A fairly large section of the museum is dedicated to Eleanor's post-war activism, but this post is already way too long.


I can hardly wait to get into No Ordinary Time, winner of the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for History and written by Doris Kearns Goodwin, the author of one of my favorite books about President Abraham Lincoln, Team of Rivals. Goodwin uses interviews with people who knew the Roosevelts personally to reconstruct the President's and First Lady's lives, focusing most on the period between May 10, 1940, and FDR's death in April 1945. I'll be back with a review after I've read the book.


  1. Interesting times, interesting people. I didn't know about the assassination attempt, either. Incredible that Roosevelt could hide his polio--and his affairs. I've always liked Eleanor. I'm looking forward to your book review.

  2. Great blog about a great man and women. I am not sure, but I think our pet donkey Eleanor was named after the First Lady. I'm not sure if it was because of the facial resemblance or just a reflection of some political differences of opinion.

    1. Ha ha! I would have liked to have known your donkey. I'll bet she was strong-willed and stubborn! I have a granddaughter named Eleanor who has a strong stubborn streak. (Luckily, she doesn't resemble ER.)

  3. Nice post. I think Roosevelt's idea to start presidential museums and libraries was wonderful.