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Reading 1
Reading 3
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Determining the Facts

Reading 2: Physical Challenge and the Road Ahead

Within three years of finishing law school in 1907, Franklin Roosevelt entered political life. This is his public office time line or chronology:

New York State Senator — 1910, 1912
Assistant Secretary of the Navy — 1913
Democratic vice-presidential candidacy — 1920 (defeated)
Governor of New York — 1928, 1930 (a term was two years at that time)
President of the United States — 1932, 1936, 1940, 1944

A time line is like a calendar of history. Although it provides dates and events, it does not reveal the life experience of those years or what really happened to the individual who lived it. Franklin Delano Roosevelt lived his remarkable life on many levels or layers of experience. He was a husband, a father, and a son. He was a lawyer, but he loved architecture and was an amateur historian. While politics was an important part of his life, Roosevelt's character, formed at Springwood in his youth, would be transformed by illness and physical challenges.

The 1920 presidential campaign set Republican Warren G. Harding and his running mate, Calvin Coolidge, against Democrat James M. Cox and his vice presidential choice, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Cox and Roosevelt ran a hard race, but they were defeated by a seven million vote margin. Franklin Roosevelt remained optimistic. Roosevelt stayed active in Democratic politics and continued making public appearances. As president of the Greater New York Boy Scouts Council, he visited a Boy Scout camp at Bear Mountain State Park in New York on July 27, 1921. He then joined his wife, Eleanor, and their children at their vacation home on Campobello Island, New Brunswick, Canada. On August 10, 1921 he became feverish and ill, and over the course of several days gradually lost the use of his legs. The infantile paralysis (polio) virus had struck down the promising young politician. It is now thought that Roosevelt may have caught the polio virus at the Boy Scout camp and then carried it with him to Campobello. Although he was spared complete paralysis, which would have forced him to live out his life in an iron lung, he never walked again without assistance.

The recovery of Roosevelt's health came slowly. He spent that winter in the family's New York City house on East 65th Street. His mother, Sara Roosevelt, wanted him to retire to Hyde Park, but his wife, his doctor, and his political advisor, Louis Howe, all agreed with Franklin that he should not retire. Realizing that they had to keep Franklin in touch with political life, Louis Howe coached Eleanor, launching her into public life in 1922. She became her husband's eyes, ears, and legs, keeping him informed on all aspects of American life and politics. Women had voted for the first time in 1920, and these new voters were a ready audience for Eleanor Roosevelt. Her public contact and observations for Franklin continued throughout his lifetime, although she was criticized by some for her participation on his behalf.

In the spring of 1922, Franklin Roosevelt moved from New York City to Hyde Park for the fresh air and sunshine that he needed to recuperate. While at Springwood, his strength slowly returned. Franklin took prescribed walks on the long graveled driveway from the house a quarter of a mile to the Albany Post Road (U. S. Route 9) and back again. He used crutches, 14 pounds of metal leg braces, and a lot of upper body strength to move his legs along. He progressed a little further each day until he finally reached the gateposts. In later years, he thought that this exercise probably injured his health rather than helped it.

Eleanor Roosevelt writes of that time, "All that summer at Hyde Park, my husband struggled to do a great number of things which would make it possible for him to be more active." For the next seven years he continued every effort at physical rehabilitation. This search kept him moving from New York City to Hyde Park to Florida and eventually to Warm Springs, Georgia, where he discovered a retreat for polio physical therapy.

The first break in this routine of intense therapy came when he briefly re-entered public life in 1924. Franklin delivered the famous "Happy Warrior" speech nominating Governor Al Smith of New York for President at the Democratic National Convention. Delegates and citizens received him with acclaim not only for the speech, but also for his physical courage. Frances Perkins, later appointed by Roosevelt as the first woman in U.S. history to serve in the presidential cabinet, wrote, "Franklin Roosevelt underwent a spiritual transformation during the years of his illness.... The man emerged completely warmhearted, with humility of spirit and with a deeper philosophy. Having been to the depths of trouble, he understood the problems of people in trouble."¹

Continuing his physical therapy was most important to Roosevelt, for he found improvement to his health and paralyzed legs during his treatments at Warm Springs, Georgia. With this in mind, he returned to his efforts soon after the 1924 convention and continued until 1927. At that time, Governor Smith was running for president against Herbert Hoover, and he needed Roosevelt's help. Smith felt that Roosevelt was a strong candidate to win the state election and take over as Governor of New York. This would hold the state to the Democratic Party and secure the 45 electoral votes that Smith needed to win the 1928 election.

At first, Roosevelt flatly refused because he wanted to spend more time strengthening his legs. He did everything he could to avoid speaking to Smith, who was very persuasive. Roosevelt was in Warm Springs at the time and was flooded with letters, telegrams, and calls from Smith trying to change his mind. The fact was that the Democrats needed his help, and if he refused he might not be able to count on party leaders to support him in the future. He was forced to choose between his ambition and his physical therapy. When he accepted a call from his wife on Smith's behalf, the choice had been made.

Questions for Reading 2

1. The advantages of wealth and social position could not protect Roosevelt from illness or physical disability. In what ways do you think Roosevelt's private life changed after his limited recovery from polio? In what ways do you think his public life changed? Why? Describe how you might feel if such a thing happened to you. In what ways might your daily life and routine change?

2. Continuing in politics and public life after his illness was Roosevelt's choice. Why might he have made that choice rather than retire from public view as was customary for disabled people at that time? How do you think Roosevelt's family, including his wife, mother, and children, felt about his choice?

3. During Franklin Roosevelt's recovery from polio, Eleanor Roosevelt became his agent in public life and, in fact, began her own public career. What important constitutional event happened in 1920 which both Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt were able to use to their political advantage? Research and find out, specifically, some of the activities Eleanor Roosevelt undertook to assist her husband. What was Roosevelt doing while his wife worked on his behalf?

Reading 2 was compiled from Frances Perkins, The Roosevelt I Knew (New York: The Viking Press, 1946).

¹Frances Perkins, The Roosevelt I Knew (New York: The Viking Press, 1946), 29.


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