Freedom: A History of US

Webisode 12. Segment 3
A New Deal

Franklin Roosevelt wasn't a prince, but when he was a boy he lived like one—See It Now - Young FDR in a big house with gardens, a pony, dogs, and lots of servants. That wasn't unusual for children of America's upper class. When Franklin was five years old, in 1887, his father took him to meet Grover Cleveland See It Now - Grover Cleveland, the first Democrat to be president in twenty-eight years. It must have been a hard day for Cleveland because this is what he told the boy: Hear It Now - Grover Cleveland "My little man, I am making a strange wish for you. It is that you may never be president of the United States."

Just tell a kid what you don't want him to do and he will go for it. So it may have been that day that Franklin first got the idea that he would like to be president. By the time he was twenty-nine-years-old, he was elected New York state senator. Then President Woodrow Wilson made him assistant secretary of the navy See It Now - FDR as Secretary of the Navy. In 1920, he ran for vice president. He lost, but people began to talk of him as a politician to watch .

He by now had a large family See It Now - FDR Family Portrait: a busy wife, whose name was also Roosevelt—Eleanor Roosevelt—a daughter, and four sons. One night, he went to bed, not feeling well; the next morning, he couldn't move. He was thirty-nine and he had a dreadful disease: poliomyelitis (or, as it was called then, "infantile paralysis"). Usually it struck children, but it was especially hard on adult victims. At first Roosevelt couldn't move at all. Slowly, with painful therapy and concentration, he regained the use of his upper body See It Now - FDR on Crutches.

He never did regain the use of his legs, but as it turned out, Roosevelt gained something else from his terrible illness. It taught him patience, and made him more determined. It made him know frustration, and sorrow, and anguish See It Now - FDR Stamp Collection. And he—the boy who had everything—came to better understand those who had troubles of their own. Seven years after polio crippled him, he reentered presidential politics and won the Democratic nomination in 1932 See It Now - FDR Campaigning. In a campaign address he said these words: "I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people." To a nation that had suffered three years of terrible poverty and unemployment, the words "new deal" sounded very good. The election of 1932 was a landslide See It Now - FDR Inauguration.

But by March 1933, when Roosevelt took office, the economy seemed close to collapse. When FDR was inaugurated in Washington, D.C., that city was described as like "a beleaguered capital in wartime." And then, in his inaugural address, Roosevelt spoke these words: Hear It Now - FDR "Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.... I shall ask the Congress for ... broad executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were ... invaded by a foreign foe.... This nation asks for action, and action now.... We must act and act quickly Check The Source - FDR's First Inaugural."

And that is exactly what Roosevelt did: act quickly. The first hundred days of his presidency are famous for all the things he got done. His ideas really were a "new deal See It Now - FDR Signing Leglislation." He did away with most child labor, regulated the stock market, made bank deposits safe, helped make employers pay fair wages, encouraged workers' unions, limited hours of work, helped farmers, brought electricity to rural areas, and gave Americans an old-age pension system, called Social Security. Roosevelt did something else, too. He shared power with those who had never held it before, by including in positions of government many of those who had been long excluded: women, eastern Europeans, Catholics, and Jews. He rejected the idea of an aristocracy of birth, and replaced it with Jefferson's goal of an aristocracy of talent.

All the while FDR was president he had a powerful ally. The first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt See It Now - Eleanor Roosevelt, became his link to the people. He stayed in the White House; she went to coal mines, and factories, and workers' meetings. Then she told the president what people were thinking. They became a team—one of the greatest political teams in history. Shy at first, Eleanor turned herself into a successful public speaker, a newspaper columnist, and an author. And she was the first first lady to hold regular press conferences. She invited all kinds of people to White House lunches and dinners: young and old, rich and poor, people of every race and religion. Not only did she care passionately about matters of justice, she could always be counted on to speak the truth.

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