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The Election of President Franklin D. Roosevelt: Events and Timeline

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  • 0:03 Who Was Franklin…
  • 0:43 Politics and Polio
  • 2:03 The Change Candidate
  • 4:23 Election Results
  • 5:34 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ryan Korn

Ryan taught elementary school and holds a master's degree in curriculum and instruction.

By 1932, the Great Depression was in full swing. Desperate, the American people turned to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In this lesson, we'll learn who FDR was, how he won the presidency, and what his victory meant for the future of the country.

Who Was Franklin Delano Roosevelt?

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, or FDR, was the 32nd President of the United States. He was born in 1882 as an only child to parents who both came from wealthy New York families. In fact, President Theodore Roosevelt was his fifth cousin. Growing up, FDR lived a very privileged life. He traveled to Europe regularly, attended prestigious schools like Harvard College and Columbia Law, and learned to play polo and tennis. In 1905, he married another fifth cousin, Eleanor Roosevelt, who would later become a well-respected advocate for women, African Americans, and human rights. Together the couple had six children.

Politics and Polio

In the early 1900s, FDR made a name for himself by opposing the corrupt politicians that controlled New York City and was soon elected to the New York State Senate. Shortly thereafter, in 1913, President Wilson appointed him Assistant Secretary of the Navy. During this time, he founded the Navy Reserve, helped to lead the Navy during World War I, and demobilized the fleet following the war. Based on his record and reputation, the Democratic Party chose him to be their vice-presidential candidate in 1920. However, President Harding soundly defeated his ticket.

One of the most life-changing events in the future president's life occurred in 1921 when he contracted polio, a devastating virus that caused FDR to become completely paralyzed from the waist down. Dejected and concerned about the future of his political career, FDR attempted numerous therapies over many years. In time, he taught himself how to walk using braces and a cane and how to downplay the severity of his condition with the press. This triumph over polio energized Roosevelt, both in his political ambitions and his desire to fight for the most vulnerable people. In 1928, FDR was elected Governor of New York, completing a monumental political comeback.

The Change Candidate

Another politician had also been elected in 1928: President Herbert Hoover. But by 1932, most Americans had come to blame him for the Great Depression or at the very least for not fighting it effectively. Roosevelt, now an enormously popular governor, led the charge. And they had ample ammunition, for although Hoover did take some measures to avert the economic calamity, the successful ones were insufficient and the unsuccessful ones backfired spectacularly.

For instance, the Hawley-Smoot Tariff Act, which was a tax on foreign products, was designed to protect American farms and businesses from foreign competition. Instead, the tariff ended up choking off international trade and deepening the depression. In addition, Hoover's mishandling of the Bonus Army rally, where World War I veterans marched on Washington to demand early payment of a bonus for having served, resulted in the deaths of four veterans, scores of injuries, and national outrage.

Perhaps worst of all for Hoover, the national unemployment rate in 1932 was 23.6%. The unemployment rate is the percent of a country's workforce that is looking for a job but cannot find one. People would often shout or throw things at him and his motorcade whenever he tried to campaign, and his speeches were typically pessimistic and depressing. Despite his efforts, Hoover's record and reputation were so damaged that a voter even sent him a telegram that read, 'Vote for Roosevelt and make it unanimous.'

FDR, by comparison, ran a vigorous campaign aimed at cementing his reputation as the change candidate, much in the same way that President Obama positioned himself in the 2008 election. For example, FDR was the first presidential candidate to accept his party's nomination in person. He also prepared his speeches for broadcast over the radio so that they would reach and inspire as many as possible.

As for campaigning, he used the popular song 'Happy Days Are Here Again' as his theme, met with large crowds, and constantly exuded confidence and optimism. Furthermore, he promised to use the power of the federal government in ways that Hoover would not, such as providing direct relief for farmers and more stringent regulations on businesses and financial markets.

Election Results

As you might imagine, the election was a blowout. Roosevelt won with 57.4% of the popular vote and 472 votes in the Electoral College, winning all but six of the 48 states. The voters also gave the Democrats control of both houses of Congress, the support and power Roosevelt would need to fight the depression. In just four years, Hoover, who had won the 1928 election by a similar margin, had lost nearly one-third of his voters to Roosevelt. It remains one of the largest shifts between two presidential elections in American history.

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