Trio who shunned a life of privilege

The Three Roosevelts

June 14, 2002

Peter Boyle looks at the exceptional impact of a flamboyant family on US history.

The three Roosevelts - Theodore, president from 1901-09, Franklin, president from 1933-45, and Eleanor, first lady, 1933-45 - made a collective contribution to American history in the 20th century that was unmatched by the members of any other American family. Each had an outsized personality, with foibles and flamboyance but also with a deep dedication to social welfare and human betterment. This joint treatment is an imaginative approach. It is splendidly written by James MacGregor Burns, renowned for his two-volume biography of FDR as The Lion and the Fox and The Soldier of Freedom , and Susan Dunn, professor of literature and the history of ideas. Their emphasis is strongly on the heroic and celebratory aspects of these figures.

Theodore Roosevelt was in some ways an eccentric maverick, with some traits of personality, such as his enthusiasm for military adventure, which crossed the border from eccentric to foolish and dangerous. But the emphasis here is overwhelmingly on the positive aspects of TR, relating how he challenged the values of his social class, rejected the life of comfortable affluence and dedicated himself to saving American democracy from usurpation by the monied plutocracy and to using government to help the weaker members of society.

The familiar details of TR's career are recounted - his service as police commissioner in New York city, member of the New York State Assembly, assistant secretary of the navy, from which post he resigned in 1898 to lead the Rough Riders in the Spanish-American war in Cuba. This won him celebrity and took him to the vice-presidency in 1900 and, following the assassination of president William McKinley, to the presidency in 1901 at the age of 42. The progressive reforms of TR's presidency are described at some length.

Among the generation to whom TR was an inspiration was his niece, Eleanor, and her distant cousin, Franklin. The authors place more emphasis on the impact of Theodore in the development of Franklin and of Eleanor than most previous accounts. Franklin followed almost exactly the same path as TR, as a member of the New York State Assembly, assistant secretary of the navy and vice-presidential candidate in 1920.

The authors attach no great significance to Franklin's party label, suggesting that he first ran as a Democrat because a vacancy arose in the party. Much more significant was Franklin's commitment to use government for the protection of the vulnerable. The liberal Democratic standpoint of the New Deal is presented as the direct linear descendant of the progressive Republicanism of the first decade of the century.

There is relatively little attention given to FDR's polio, which left him paralysed from 1921 for the rest of his life. The authors dismiss the idea that his disability threatened to end his public career.

Instead, the emphasis is on political and social issues. With the crash in 1929 and the ensuing depression, FDR's timetable for a presidential bid, which he had assumed would follow eight years of Herbert Hoover in the White House, was brought forward to 1932. The authors portray him as ambitious to seize the opportunity to run for president but also as at ease and confident in seeking the presidency, partly on account of his familiarity with a Roosevelt in the White House in his youth and his expectation that he would follow TR's footsteps sooner or later.

In keeping with Burns's earlier work on FDR as a lion and a fox, FDR is shown to be much more of a fox than TR. FDR had seen how TR had split his party on matters of principle and how as a result, despite TR's dynamic passion in the Bull Moose campaign in 1912, the election was lost. The authors show how FDR "dexterously brokered deals among political and economic factions". This same skill was demonstrated in foreign policy, as FDR showed great dexterity in guiding an isolationist America into the second world war. But the emphasis is placed on FDR's political pragmatism rather than on opportunism. FDR is portrayed as clearly principled in his general stance, which, for example, won him the bitter hatred of the holders of great wealth, whom he denounced, while his foreign policy was geared to taking America into a crusade for freedom against tyranny and evil.

The book deals with the personal lives of the three Roosevelts, especially the relationship between Franklin and Eleanor. The authors largely follow the account by Joseph Lash, showing how Eleanor, a shy and socially awkward girl, centred her life on Franklin, when, somewhat surprisingly, this glamorous and self-assured relative courted and married her.

But the book brings out that even in these early days, when Eleanor's life revolved around her home and her five children, Theodore's influence helped to awaken some of Eleanor's ideas on social injustice. In 1917, Franklin's affair with Lucy Mercer had a shattering effect on Eleanor and although the marriage continued, especially since divorce would have destroyed Franklin's political career and caused him to be cut off financially by his mother, the relationship was fundamentally altered.

Eleanor became increasingly committed to social causes and feminist issues. Her relationship with Franklin mellowed and became one of warm friendship, though a further blow was suffered when in the last year of his life Franklin, without Eleanor's knowledge, had about a dozen meetings with Lucy, and Lucy, not Eleanor, was at his bedside when he died on April 12 1945. Eleanor braced herself for her life alone, which she devoted to good causes in the United Nations as well as at home, until her death in 1962.

The authors have a splendid story to tell, and they have told it with great vigour in the grand sweeping style. The subtitle is perhaps an overstatement: that the Roosevelts were "the family that transformed America". But, as the book certainly demonstrates, these three remarkable Dutch-Americans from a socially privileged background in the Hudson Valley made an extraordinary impact on American history in the 20th century.

Peter G. Boyle is senior lecturer in American history, University of Nottingham.

The Three Roosevelts: A Biography of the Family that Transformed America

Author - James MacGregor Burns and Susan Dunn
ISBN - 1 903809 08 8
Publisher - Atlantic Books
Price - £25.00
Pages - 678

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