Okay, Presidential trivia buffs: here’s some information about American Presidents that I’m sure will fascinate you. Did you know:
* As of this writing, Americans have elected 42 men and no women to our nation’s highest office.1 Of these men, 16 were Democrats and 18 were Republicans. Americans have also elected 4 Whigs, 4 Democratic-Republicans, and 2 Federalists. One President was African American; one was Roman Catholic. All of the others were white Protestants.
* Americans have elected 9 Presidents who were formerly Army Generals. Five of those men were elected primarily because they were formerly Army Generals.
* Americans have elected two fathers of later Presidents; one grandfather of a later Chief Executive; and two cousins.
* Americans have also elected 12 men to the Presidency who came from what may be considered the “patrician,” or “upper class” of American society.
THE THREE ROOSEVELTS: “PATRICIAN LEADERSHIP” EXAMINED?
This last fact of American politics – that many of our Chief Executives came from the “patrician class” (if, indeed, there is any such a thing) of American society – is the central premise of The Three Roosevelts: Patrician Leaders Who Transformed America. In this book, co-authors James MacGregor Burns and Susan Dunn purport to examine the role played in American history by arguably the most influential “patrician” family of the twentieth century – the Roosevelts of New York. They do this through a series of three short biographies of Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor Roosevelt.
Theodore Roosevelt: A “Traitor to His Class?” The Three Roosevelts opens with a look at Theodore Roosevelt (TR). The scion of a wealthy New York family, young Theodore overcame a debilitating childhood illness and became one of the great leaders of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. After graduating magna cum laude from Harvard University, he embarked on a life of privilege typical of a member of society’s elite. Soon, however, his sense of noblesse oblige – the notion that “on the shoulders of the social elite falls the duty to lead society intellectually, culturally, and politically”2 – caused him to alter the course of his life. At a time when most of the sons of America’s wealthiest families were expected to enter the family business, young Theodore Roosevelt decided on a career in politics.
His political career advanced steadily. Roosevelt was elected as a Republican to the New York Assembly; later he was elected governor. Under various state and Federal administrations, he served as New York City Police Commissioner and as a Civil Service Commissioner. In 1897, during William McKinley’s first term as President, he was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Three years later, he was elected Vice President of the United States, sharing the ticket with William McKinley, newly elected to his second term as President.
On September 14th 1901, Theodore Roosevelt became the 26th President of the United States after McKinley was assassinated. His seven years as President were some of the most successful of any Chief Executive up to then. Always the activist, TR spurred Congress to enact some of the most important and progressive legislation in American history. Conservation, regulation of interstate commerce, workers’ compensation, “trust busting…” all these, and many other causes, were championed by Theodore Roosevelt. Yet, despite his progressivism, and despite the good that resulted from his efforts, he was vilified as a “traitor to his class” by those who considered themselves society’s “elites.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt: A “New Deal for All Americans?” While Theodore Roosevelt presided over the American nation, the second of the “three Roosevelts” – TR’s cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) – was watching with intense interest. Franklin practically hero-worshipped his older cousin and wanted to emulate him in every way possible. But he appeared to have little of TR’s intellectual acumen, forceful ambition, or ideological bent. FDR attended Harvard, but didn’t achieve anywhere near the level of academic success as Theodore did. After graduating from Harvard, Franklin decided to follow his famous cousin into politics; unlike his cousin, however, Franklin became a Democrat.
For a while at least, Franklin’s political career paralleled that of his famous older cousin. In rapid succession, he was elected State Assemblyman, then State Senator; by age 31, he had been appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy by President Woodrow Wilson. Throughout his early political career, FDR supported most progressive causes in an unassuming and pragmatic manner.
Then, suddenly – his promising political career was put on hold. In 1921, FDR was stricken with polio and was paralyzed from the waist down. After a seven-year hiatus from politics, during which he recuperated from his illness, FDR was elected Governor of New York. His two two-year terms were highly successful, but by then FDR already had his eyes on the biggest political prize of all: the Presidency.
In 1932, America had been in the throes of the Great Depression for three years. President Herbert Hoover seemed incapable of doing anything to stop the nation’s decline; Americans were ready for a change. They elected Franklin D. Roosevelt – the man promising Americans a “New Deal for all Americans” – as President of the United States.
The vast majority of The Three Roosevelts is taken up with an account of FDR’s “transformation of America” during the Great Depression. Spurred on by FDR’s pragmatic, “try anything that works” approach to governance, Congress passed a body of legislation that, for the first time in American history, actively involved the Federal government in the daily affairs of all Americans, in order to make life better for all. The modern welfare state was born.
Eleanor Roosevelt: An “Ambassador to the World?” The third of the “three Roosevelts” – Eleanor (ER) – was an integral part of her husband’s political success. Eleanor was a distant cousin of Franklin’s. As a young girl, she was unattractive and ungainly; nevertheless she matured into a woman of tremendous intelligence and sensitivity. During the early years of their marriage, Eleanor was disinterested in politics. She steadfastly supported her husband, however, especially during his illness and recuperation. As FDR’s political career progressed, so did Eleanor’s interest in politics. In fact, she was much more of an ideologue than Franklin. Burns and Dunn imply that Eleanor grew to have a tremendous political influence on Franklin, possibly pulling him increasingly to the left of center during his Presidency.
On April 12, 1945, after thirteen years as President, years which saw the United States struggle out of Depression and stumble into a world war, Franklin D. Roosevelt died. He had been President longer than any man before him, or any American in the future would ever become. By the time of his death, Roosevelt had steadily moved to the left of center in American politics. He had helped build the modern welfare state, and had guided the United States to the gates of victory in the Second World War.
After FDR’s death, Eleanor Roosevelt continued to be a major influence on American politics. Through her nationally syndicated newspaper column My Day, ER continually interjected her ideas and opinions into the national debate. She was appointed as an American delegate to the first organizational meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. Later she would serve on a UN commission that authored the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. She championed the cause of equal rights for all Americans, and was vocal in her support of the new nation of Israel. She was vilified by the Right and adored by the Left. By the time of her death in 1962, Eleanor Roosevelt was one of the most respected Americans of her time.
THE THREE ROOSEVELTS: “PATRICIAN LEADERSHIP” EXPLAINED?
Initially published in 2001, The Three Roosevelts was the first book written by James MacGregor Burns in over 20 years. Burns, the author of several books on the subject of leadership, is perhaps best known as Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s biographer. His two volume biography of the 32nd President – Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox and Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom (winner of the 1970 Pulitzer Prize for History) are now considered to be among the finest Presidential biographies ever written, and certainly among my favorites in the genre. The co-author of The Three Roosevelts is Susan Dunn, herself a brilliant historian and author of several books.
My hope was that Burns and Dunn would provide a penetrating examination of what caused Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor Roosevelt to leave behind the values and traditions of their 19th century “patrician” class, in favor of a progressive and activist political agenda. In short, what drove the “three Roosevelts” to help transform the United States into the economic, social, and military power it is today?
It is a question left largely unanswered. To be sure, Burns and Dunn leave some clues, but because the authors fail to provide any new and relevant information in answer to the book’s central premise, The Three Roosevelts remains very long on biographical information and very short on historical analysis.
That’s not the only problem with The Three Roosevelts. The authors display a disturbing lack of objectivity toward their subjects. Burns and Dunn, both well known for their liberal political views, demonstrate their political bias on practically every page as they present a left-leaning, politically correct paean of praise to the subjects of this book.
Theodore Roosevelt, the progressive Republican, is seen in a fairly positive light, but (perhaps because he was a Republican?) he receives relatively short shrift from the authors. Only about the first 100 pages of this 577-page book discuss TR’s role in transforming America. The vast majority of The Three Roosevelts – nearly 400 pages – is dedicated to a nearly hagiographic account of FDR’s Presidency. Only the last 75 pages are reserved for a recap of Eleanor Roosevelt’s life after the death of her husband.
MY VERDICT: The Three Roosevelts is written in a lively and yet scholarly style. It’s easy to read, reasonably interesting, and informative. Readers who are looking for a well written overview of the lives of Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor Roosevelt will find The Three Roosevelts entertaining and informative. However, Burns and Dunn fail to adequately explain the role played in American history by these three “patrician” leaders. That, along with the authors’ obvious political bias and unabashed admiration of the “three Roosevelts,” limits this book’s usefulness an objective and scholarly study of these monumentally important figures in American history.
SOURCES AND NOTES:
1. Explaining those numeric discrepancies: Grover Cleveland was elected to two non-consecutive terms, making him the 22nd and the 24th President. Gerald Ford was never elected President. He was appointed Vice President under the provisions of the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, and succeeded to the Presidency when Richard Nixon resigned in 1974.
2. James MacGregor Burns and Susan Dunn The Three Roosevelts: Patrician Leaders Who Transformed America (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2001), 22.
3. List of Presidents of the United States – Wikipedia article