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NATIONAL BESTSELLER - "A model presidential biography... Now, at last, we have a biography that is right for the man" - Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post Book World

One of today's premier biographers has written a modern, comprehensive, indeed ultimate book on the epic life of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In this superlative volume, Jean Edward Smith combines contemporary scholarship and a broad range of primary source material to provide an engrossing narrative of one of America's greatest presidents.

This is a portrait painted in broad strokes and fine details. We see how Roosevelt' s restless energy, fierce intellect, personal magnetism, and ability to project effortless grace permitted him to master countless challenges throughout his life. Smith recounts FDR's battles with polio and physical disability, and how these experiences helped forge the resolve that FDR used to surmount the economic turmoil of the Great Depression and the wartime threat of totalitarianism. Here also is FDR's private life depicted with unprecedented candor and nuance, with close attention paid to the four women who molded his personality and helped to inform his worldview: His mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt, formidable yet ever supportive and tender; his wife, Eleanor, whose counsel and affection were instrumental to FDR's public and individual achievements; Lucy Mercer, the great romantic love of FDR's life; and Missy LeHand, FDR's longtime secretary, companion, and confidante, whose adoration of her boss was practically limitless.

Smith also tackles head-on and in-depth the numerous failures and miscues of Roosevelt' s public career, including his disastrous attempt to reconstruct the Judiciary; the shameful internment of Japanese-Americans; and Roosevelt's occasionally self-defeating Executive overreach. Additionally, Smith offers a sensitive and balanced assessment of Roosevelt's response to the Holocaust, noting its breakthroughs and shortcomings.

Summing up Roosevelt's legacy, Jean Smith declares that FDR, more than any other individual, changed the relationship between the American people and their government. It was Roosevelt who revolutionized the art of campaigning and used the burgeoning mass media to garner public support and allay fears. But more important, Smith gives us the clearest picture yet of how this quintessential Knickerbocker aristocrat, a man who never had to depend on a paycheck, became the common man's president. The result is a powerful account that adds fresh perspectives and draws profound conclusions about a man whose story is widely known but far less well understood. Written for the general reader and scholars alike, FDR is a stunning biography in every way worthy of its subject.

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User Review  - msaucier818 - LibraryThing

Another fantastic book by author Jean Edward Smith. He has moved to near the top of my favorite historical writers. This book covers the life of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and does an admirable job of ... Read full review

LibraryThing Review

User Review  - twp77 - LibraryThing

Jean Edward Smith's biography of FDR is one of the most complete and compelling reads on the life of one of the greatest presidents of the United States. Largely chronological, Smith's biography keeps ... Read full review



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About the author (2008)


Some thought the Roosevelts were entitled to coats of arms. Others thought they were two steps ahead of the bailiffs from an island in the Zuider Zee.

THE ROOSEVELTS WERE an old but relatively inconspicuous New York family. Their wealth derived from Manhattan real estate, the West Indian sugar trade, and thrifty investment. The men in the family married well: indeed, much of the Roosevelt inheritance descended on the maternal side. Yet for six generations the family had produced no one of significant stature. Suddenly, in the seventh generation, this "dynasty of the mediocre" (in the words of the New York Herald Tribune) erupted with not one but two of the most remarkable men in American history.

The common ancestor of Franklin and Theodore Roosevelt--"our very common ancestor," as TR phrased it--was Claes van Rosenvelt, an obscure Dutchman who landed in New Amsterdam in the 1650s.2 His only son, Nicholas, was a prosperous miller. He in turn fathered two sons: Johannes, the progenitor of the Long Island branch of the family that produced Theodore; and Jacobus, founder of the Hudson River strain from which Franklin descended. Johannes''s heirs were merchants and traders. The descendants of Jacobus--James in English--remained closer to the soil, farming initially in upper Manhattan, then living the life of gentleman farmers along the Hudson.

James''s son Isaac (Franklin''s great-great-grandfather), a sugar refiner, was briefly active in the Revolutionary cause, helped draft New York''s first constitution, and proved a solid but silent member of the Federalist phalanx led by Alexander Hamilton at the state convention that ratified the United States Constitution. With Hamilton he founded the Bank of New York and served as its president from 1786 to 1791.

The Roosevelts avoided flamboyance, moved cautiously, and did not become involved in public affairs unless they had to. As charter members of the city''s original elite they enjoyed inherited social status, a self-contained lifestyle, and a profound sense of entitlement. Isaac''s son James (1760-1847) went to Princeton, followed his father into the sugar-refining business, dabbled at banking, bred horses, and in 1819 purchased a substantial tract of land fronting the Hudson north of Poughkeepsie. There he built a large house, which he called Mount Hope, and assumed the life of a country squire. His son, another Isaac (1790-1863), also went to Princeton, trained as a physician at Columbia, but declined to practice medicine. The sight of blood was unbearable to him, and he could not tolerate the sound of suffering. Instead, Isaac turned inward. He lived with his parents at Mount Hope, where he devoted himself to raising exotic plants and breeding horses. A charitable relative described him as having "a delicate constitution and refined tastes." The fact is, Dr. Isaac was a recluse, a hypochondriac paralyzed with fear of the everyday world.

To the family''s surprise, Dr. Isaac, at the age of thirty-seven, announced his intention to marry Mary Rebecca Aspinwall, the sprightly eighteen-year-old daughter of their neighbors, the John Aspinwalls. For three generations, the Hudson River Roosevelts had been a family of declining enterprise, content to husband the money they inherited. That was not the case with the Aspinwalls, a hearty, acquisitive, seafaring family from New England. Together with their partners, the Howlands, the Aspinwalls dominated the shipping industry in New York. Their clipper ships, including the record-breaking Rainbow, were familiar in the ports of every continent, and the firm easily adjusted to the advent of steam. The discovery of gold in California in 1848 proved an even greater bonanza for the company, which held a monopoly carrying passengers and freight between the East and West coasts via its steamship lines and the Panama Railroad--which it had pioneered.

Rebecca Aspinwall brought Yankee vigor to the sluggish Roosevelt gene pool. "Thus the stock kept virile and abreast of the times," FDR wrote in a Harvard essay on the family.5 The infusion was overdue. Dr. Isaac had no house of his own, and it was to his parents'' home at Mount Hope that he took his bride in 1827. The following year a son was born, christened James in the Roosevelt tradition of alternating "James" and "Isaac" for the firstborn son from generation to generation. James, the president''s father, was the third of that name in the line. Not until four years after James''s birth did Dr. Isaac establish a home of his own. At Rebecca''s insistence, and with a generous dollop of Aspinwall money, he purchased a large plot of land immediately across the Albany Post Road from Mount Hope and constructed a rambling gabled house with deep verandas. He named it Rosedale and planted shrubbery so thickly that the house was forever shrouded in shade. As one chronicler of the family has written, "it was a quiet place, quietly furnished, quietly lived in," and it was here that James grew up, an only child for the first twelve years of his life.

Franklin''s father was not only a Roosevelt but an Aspinwall. After graduating from Union College in 1847 and before matriculating at Harvard Law School, he asked his parents'' permission to undertake a European grand tour. Dr. Isaac objected. Wandering through Europe would be dangerous, he told James. Sickness and disease lurked everywhere, and there were unmistakable signs of political unrest. But Rebecca supported the idea, and eventually Dr. Isaac yielded. From November 1847 until May 1849, Franklin''s father traveled through western Europe and the Holy Land. Family legend has it that while in Italy he briefly joined the redshirted legion of Giuseppe Garibaldi, fighting for Italian unification. FDR was fond of reciting the tale:

He became close friends with a mendicant priest--spoke only Latin with him--and the two of them proceeded on a walking tour in Italy. They came to Naples and found the city besieged by Garibaldi''s army. They both enlisted in this army, wore a red shirt for a month or so, and tiring of it, as there seemed to be little action, went to Garibaldi''s tent and asked if they could receive their discharge. Garibaldi thanked the old priest and my father and the walking tour was resumed by them.

Upon his return from Europe, James entered Harvard Law School, graduated in 1851, was admitted to the New York bar, and for two years clerked with the prosperous Wall Street firm of Benjamin Douglas Silliman.8 In the meantime Grandfather James died, leaving the bulk of his estate, including Mount Hope and a fashionable New York brownstone, to his young namesake. Wealthy now in his own right, James chose not to practice law but devote himself to managing his investments and living the life of a Hudson River grandee. On April 23, 1853, at the age of twenty-five, he married Rebecca Brien Howland, a daughter of his mother''s first cousin and an heiress to another shipping fortune. They set up house at Mount Hope and later in the year sailed for England, establishing a pattern they would follow for the remainder of their lives. Slightly less than two years later a son was born, James Roosevelt Roosevelt, inevitably known as "Rosy," the president''s half brother.

James Roosevelt was a cautious investor who deployed his inheritance skillfully. But the Aspinwall spirit of adventure was not completely extinguished. He bet heavily on what West Virginians call the dark industries--coal and railroads--and for a few years his investments prospered. James became a director of the Consolidated Coal Company, the largest bituminous coal enterprise in the country, and the Delaware and Hudson Railroad and briefly served as president of the Southern Railway Security Company, a holding company that controlled most of the railroads south of the Potomac. But the Panic of 1873 intervened, the consortiums to which James belonged lost heavily, and he was soon shunted into the role of a passive investor.

Exactly what James did during the Civil War remains a mystery. He was only thirty-two when General Pierre G. T. Beauregard fired on Fort Sumter, yet he made no effort to join the struggle. FDR claimed his father served as a member of the Sanitary Commission, providing aid for wounded soldiers, yet documentary evidence is lacking.9 Theodore Roosevelt, Sr., James''s cousin and contemporary (and TR''s father), did not serve either, and was embarrassed by it for the rest of his life. James never gave it a second thought.

In the summer of 1865, while the Roosevelts were touring the Swiss Alps, Mount Hope burned to the ground. The cause remains unclear. Tenants blamed a faulty flue, yet there was a suspicion of arson. With the exception of an antique tea service and several Roosevelt heirlooms, all the family papers and possessions were destroyed. James and Rebecca were devastated but could do nothing. Rather than return immediately, they chose to remain in Europe for another year, wintering in the Saxon capital of Dresden. The richness of the city''s art treasures, its musical tradition, and its cosmopolitan sophistication attracted a large colony of foreign residents. In 1865, more than two hundred English and American families called Dresden their home.

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