Well before 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt had established himself as the favorite candidate of progressive, or liberal, elements in the Democratic party. Yet he was in many ways an improbable progressive. Born on 30 January 1882 into a life of sumptuous privilege, he had passed as a young man through the rituals customary to the upbringing of sons of the Hudson River valley squirearchy: excursions abroad, instruction from tutors, preparatory school at Endicott Peabody's exclusive academy at Groton, Massachusetts, and attendance at Harvard.
Yet, even as an undergraduate, Roosevelt displayed remarkable qualities of leadership and political belief. He remained an extra year at Harvard to serve as editor of the Crimson, the student newspaper. In an undergraduate essay on the decline of the once-famous Dutch families of New York, he made an exception of the Roosevelts. "They have never felt," he wrote, "that because they were born in a good position they could put their hands in their pockets and succeed. They have felt, rather, that being born in a good position, there was no excuse for them if they did not do their duty by the community."
Impelled by that sense of noblesse oblige, Roosevelt set out almost immediately after his graduation from Harvard on a career of public service. He drew inspiration from the example of his fifth cousin, Theodore Roosevelt. With uncanny and Jewish immigrant political machines and labor unions of the northern cities; states' righters battled centralizers; prohibitionist "drys" warred against opposing "wets"; reformist progressives clashed with old-fashioned conservatives. To a far greater extent than Republicans, who tended to be more homogeneous socially and like-minded politically, Democrats contained among themselves the many contentious forces that pulsed in the precision he retraced the path to the White House that Theodore had blazed, serving first as a New York state legislator (1910–1913), then as Woodrow Wilson's assistant secretary of the navy (1913–1920), and as governor of New York (1928–1932).
Stricken by polio in 1921, Roosevelt spent the next several years trying to recuperate, though he never regained the use of his legs. His disease became, in a sense, a political asset. Rising to eminence from birth in a humble log cabin evidenced the indomitability of character of other presidential aspirants; Roosevelt, denied that proof, found its equivalent in his struggle against paralysis. So thoroughly did he triumph over his handicap that many Americans, even after his many years in office as president, remained unaware that Roosevelt could neither walk nor stand unassisted.
Even during the gravest period of his illness, Roosevelt remained politically active, working to modernize the ramshackle organizational structure of the Democratic party and to move it in a progressive direction. "The Democratic Party is the Progressive Party of the country," he said in 1924, and two years later he explained that "a nation or a State which is unwilling by governmental action to tackle the new problems, caused by immense increase of population and by the astounding strides of modern science, is headed for decline and ultimate death." Those sentiments were strikingly at odds with the free-market philosophy of 1920s Republicanism and with the Jeffersonian origins of his own party, but they showed Roosevelt's fidelity to the principles of the early-twentieth-century progressive movement that his cousin Theodore had so colorfully led.
As governor of New York, Roosevelt tried to put those principles into practice. He called for the state government to take an active role in developing the St. Lawrence River waterway. He championed reforestation and other resource-management projects under state direction. He proposed legislation to improve credit facilities for farmers and to protect women and children factory workers. In 1931, in telling contrast to the timid response that the Hoover administration made to the problem of unemployment, Roosevelt established the state's Temporary Emergency Relief Administration to provide jobs to victims of the depression.
Democrats knew that they had an excellent opportunity to recapture the presidency from the battered Hoover in 1932, and Roosevelt was clearly the preferred candidate of the progressive wing of the party. But he was not without opposition, particularly from old-guard elements led by John J. Raskob, the enormously wealthy and powerful national party chairman, and from southern Democrats who rallied to the candidacy of Speaker of the House John Nance Garner, a Texan. At the crucial moment in the balloting at Chicago, Garner threw his support to Roosevelt, who secured the nomination on the fourth round of voting.
Many observers were little impressed with the party's choice. One commentator opined that Roosevelt "would probably make the weakest President of the dozen aspirants." Columnist Walter Lippmann offered a judgment destined to become infamous as a monument of underestimation. Roosevelt, he concluded, was "a pleasant man who, without any important qualifications for the office, would very much like to be President." The venerable Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., came closer to the mark when he described Roosevelt as a man of "second-class intellect but a first-class temperament."
Unfathomably mysterious is the alchemy that shapes the temperament of leadership out of ordinary human clay, but in Roosevelt's case his aristocratic upbringing and long struggle against disability were crucial elements. He was almost preternaturally self-confident, restlessly active, unflaggingly optimistic, and endowed with a fine instinct for sensing the mood of the nation.
Roosevelt exhibited those qualities immediately upon receiving notice of his nomination. Shattering precedent, he flew to Chicago and gave the first acceptance speech ever delivered to a presidential nominating convention. "I pledge you, I pledge myself," he declared to the assembled delegates, "to a new deal for the American people." But the campaign that followed also seemed to confirm the truth of Holmes's judgment about the nominee's intellectual limitations. Though Roosevelt conscientiously listened to the advice of a "brain trust" of economic nationalists, including Rexford G. Tugwell, Raymond Moley, and Adolf A. Berle, Jr., historians have sought in vain to discover in his 1932 campaign speeches a consciously wrought blueprint for the New Deal. He never mentioned later landmark developments such as the Social Security Act or the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). Much of his attack on Hoover focused on the incumbent's alleged determination to expand the federal government and to be "the greatest spending Administration in peace times in all our history"—accusations given a sharply ironic ring by later events.
Roosevelt's warm, ebullient, yet comforting personality contrasted irresistibly with the hapless Hoover's efforts to portray his opponent as a confused and vacillating "chameleon on plaid." On election day, 8 November 1932, Roosevelt rolled up an impressive victory with 22,809,638 votes to Hoover's 15,758,901. He carried all but six states, for an electoral college count of 472 to 59. He pulled into office with him sizable Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. Roosevelt thus began the longest presidency—three times reelected, twelve years in office—in American history.
Roosevelt's first election marked the last time that a four-month interval separated a president's election and inauguration. (Since 1937, presidents have been inaugurated in January.) The wait in this case was especially long and cruel. The downward-spiraling depression sucked the entire nation's banking and credit structure into its vortex. Nearly five thousand banks failed between 1929 and 1933, wiping out billions of dollars of savings. As the crisis thickened, panicky depositors accelerated their withdrawals from savings accounts, further jeopardizing the precarious liquidity of many institutions. The governor of Nevada ordered a "bank holiday" in October 1932 to slow the vicious cycle. The governor of Michigan followed suit in February 1933, and by inaugural eve, banks had barred their doors in thirty-eight states. Outgoing President Herbert Hoover tried several times to secure President-elect Roosevelt's agreement to various emergency measures, but Roosevelt warily refused to commit himself. On the very morning of the inauguration, the governors of New York and Illinois announced the closing of banks in their states, the twin pillars of the nation's financial edifice. A few hours later, the New York Stock Exchange stopped all trading in securities. This was the grim setting for Roosevelt's inauguration and the occasion for his famous admonition that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."