Franklin Roosevelt as Governor of New York

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Before he was president of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) was governor of New York. In this lesson, we are going to examine FDR's governorship and see how it set the stage for his jump into national politics.

Governor Roosevelt

Franklin D. Roosevelt was president of the United States from 1933-1945, serving longer than any other person. He is primarily remembered for two things: bringing the USA through nearly all of World War II, and dealing with the Great Depression. Yeah, FDR had a lot on his plate throughout his presidency. During the Depression, FDR championed some of the most progressive policies the nation had ever seen, ranging from federal unemployment benefits to social security. But where did these ideas come from? Before he was president, FDR had a chance to test these policies in an important microcosm of the American nation: New York. From 1929-1932, FDR was the governor of New York, where he tested and tried the policies that would immortalize his name.

FDR as Governor of New York

The Election of 1928

Franklin D. Roosevelt was born into privilege and entered quickly into politics. By 1920, he was already a recognized member of the Democratic Party. In the 1920 election he secured himself a place as vice presidential nominee on the ticket of James Cox, the Democratic presidential nominee. Cox and Roosevelt lost that election; while FDR gained some popularity in the party, he stepped out of politics for a few years. Partly this was to deal with a (literally) crippling case of polio he contracted in 1921.

By the mid-1920s, FDR felt he had been inactive long enough to start putting serious effort back into his political career. As he struggled to regain use of his legs, he dug into his networks and reasserted his place in the Democratic Party (largely with the help of Eleanor Roosevelt). In 1924, he appeared at the Democratic National Convention to nominate New York's Governor Al Smith as president. Smith lost the nomination, but FDR's speech made him even more popular and gained him lots of support. Finally, in 1928 Al Smith won the Democratic nomination and convinced FDR to replace him as Governor of New York. FDR ran for the office and, while Smith lost the presidential election, FDR won his own race.

FDR with Al Smith

FDR as Governor

FDR was elected governor of New York in 1928. His term began in 1929 and he took to the office cautiously, not wanting to overexert his authority. Then, just a few months into his first year, the stock markets crashed and America plunged into the Great Depression. The man who was still learning how to be a governor was now in charge of saving one of the nation's most populous states from disaster.

Quickly abandoning the caution that characterized his first few months, FDR began asserting the need for the government to directly intervene into people's lives. This was a big deal. The 1920s had been all about limited direct government, and people were leery of centralized political authority. However, they were desperate for aid. FDR would later defend his increased executive power to the New York legislature by saying that ''when widespread economic conditions render large numbers of men and women incapable of supporting either themselves of their families…aid must be extended by the government…as a matter of social duty''.

That concept of duty was something that had been drilled into FDR in his schooling days by a headmaster who thoroughly believed that politicians had an obligation to protect the people. With the Great Depression ravaging New York, FDR would have a chance put that ideology into practice. With the people accepting a stronger centralized state executive, FDR pushed through progressive programs supporting relief efforts, union rights, an eight-hour workday for government employees, public power, and pension programs that the government contributed to.

By the end of his first term, FDR had made a distinct impression. He was willing to wield more power than most politicians were expected to, but he was also dedicated to putting that power towards the benefit of New Yorkers. FDR's policies focused primarily on the working class, a population neglected by 1920s politics. FDR ran for reelection in 1930 and the people demonstrated their favorable opinions on his policies by giving him a landslide victory.

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