In the two centuries or so of our history, it has happened that a few of our leaders — a very few — became symbols of some powerful idea, one that left a permanent imprint on the life of our country. Thomas Jefferson is one such symbol. With Jefferson, it is the idea of a free, self-governing people, dedicated to the enjoyment of their God-given natural rights, in their work, their communities, and the bosom of their families. Abraham Lincoln symbolizes a rather different idea — of America as a great, centralized nation-state, supposedly dedicated to individual freedom, but founded on the unquestioned authority and power of the national government in Washington.
And now Franklin Roosevelt, too, has come to represent a certain conception of America, one that is worlds apart from Jefferson’s vision, and different from anything that even Lincoln could have imagined. Roosevelt stands for the national government as we know it today: a vast, unfathomable bureaucratic apparatus that recognizes no limits whatsoever to its power, either at home or abroad. Internationally, it gives every evidence of intending to run the whole world, of extending its hegemony — now that the Soviet Union is no more — to every corner of the globe.
Domestically, it undertakes, through an annual budget of close to $2 trillion, to assuage every real or invented social ill and thus enters into every aspect of the people’s lives. In particular, it is engaged in what even a couple of decades ago would have seemed fantastic — a campaign to annihilate freedom of association, subjecting the American people to a program of radical social engineering, in order to transform their voluntarily held traditional beliefs and values and way of life.
More than anyone else, Franklin Roosevelt is responsible for creating the Leviathan state that confronts us today.
In his own time, FDR had many influential enemies in business, politics, and the press, men and women who recognized what he was doing to the republic they loved and who fought him tenaciously. They were proud to be known as “Roosevelt haters.” Today, however, practically the whole of the political class in the United States has been converted into idolaters of Franklin Roosevelt.
This state of affairs was epitomized last May, when the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial was dedicated in Washington, DC. Situated on a 7.5-acre site by the Tidal Basin, it includes an 800-foot wall, six waterfalls, outdoor galleries, and nine sculptures. Congress voted $42.5 million to fund the memorial, Republicans (those wild revolutionaries) joining Democrats with equal enthusiasm. No one breathed a word about Roosevelt’s failure to end the Depression, his lying us into war, his warm friendship with Joseph Stalin, and similar milestones in his long career — the major controversy was over whether or not he should be shown with his signature jaunty cigarette-holder. (In deference to the forces of political correctness, he wasn’t.)
Most revealing was that self-styled conservative organs such as the National Review and the American Spectator joined in the hosannas. It is a sign of how far things have moved that abject adulation of Franklin Roosevelt is now the order of the day even at the Wall Street Journal. The Journal has long been supposed to be the voice of American business, a quality paper that stood for the market economy and limited government, and so was the counterpart to the New York Times in the American press. On the occasion of the dedication of the FDR memorial, the Journal expressed its opinion through an article by one of its editors, a certain Dorothy Rabinowitz (who used to review movies). Rabinowitz was outraged that Ed Crane, president of the Cato Institute, had dared to refer to her hero as “a lousy president.” No, she insisted, Roosevelt was a great one.
Why? Well, because of “the depth of his hold on minds and hearts,” because in the midst of the Depression he gave the people hope, because he stood firm against Hitler, because when he died even Radio Tokyo called him a “great man.” Roosevelt’s many enemies, in his time and even now, never had any good reason to condemn this man who changed America so radically; they were merely “maddened by hatred of him.” In all of Rabinowitz’s effusion there were no hard facts, no analysis, no argument (and certainly no mention of FDR’s great friend Joseph Stalin). It was all sentimental gush. And so the Wall Street Journal enters the age of Oprah Winfrey journalism.
Such productions by FDR’s devotees are by no means mere exercises in historical myth-making. They perform a vital political function for the antifreedom forces in contemporary America. Simply put: the glorification of Franklin Roosevelt means the validation of the Leviathan state. Thus it is of great importance to those on the side of freedom to understand who this man really was, what he really stood for, and what, as a matter of historical truth, he inflicted on the American republic.
Franklin Roosevelt was born in 1882, in the family mansion overlooking the Hudson River, on the 1,300-acre estate that came to be known as Hyde Park. On his father, James’s, side, Franklin could trace his ancestry back to the middle of the 17th century, when a forebear immigrated from Holland to what was then New Amsterdam. Part of the family settled in Oyster Bay, Long Island, eventually producing Franklin’s distant cousin, Theodore.
The Hudson Valley Roosevelts tended to marry well, mainly into affluent families of English descent — by the time Franklin came on the scene he was, despite his name, of nearly purely English heritage. His mother, Sara, was from an equally prominent family, the Delanos. Franklin was his doting parents’ only child. While by no means fabulously rich, the family was of the sort that mingled freely with the Astors and the Vanderbilts and the rest of the high society of nearby New York City.
Until the age of 14, Franklin was tutored at home. Not at all a bookish boy, he loved nature and, above all, boating on the Hudson and at the family summer home in Campobello, Maine. He developed a passion for stamp collecting, which he pursued all his life. His admirers later claimed that this hobby gave him great insight into the geography, resources, and character of all the world’s nations — more pro-Roosevelt blather. He often visited New York and toured Europe every year with his parents. The inevitable word to describe the Roosevelts and their lifestyle is patrician.
Franklin’s prep school was Groton, near New London, Massachusetts, as close to an English “public” (i. e., private) school as one could get on this side of the Atlantic. The whole ethos of the place was “Old English,” an attempt to copy the educational experience of schools such as Eton and Harrow, whose job it was to shape the future ruling class of the great world empire. At Groton, Franklin lived and studied among the progeny of his own class, those who felt themselves to be the fated future leaders of American business, education, religion, and, above all, politics. Ironically, a fellow Grotonian in Franklin’s day was the young Robert McCormick, whose father owned the Chicago Tribune — ironically, because Colonel McCormick, as he was known in later life (after his service in the First World War), went on to become the greatest and best-known “Roosevelt hater” of them all.
Franklin was a mediocre student at Groton in every respect. His top grades were no better than B; he did not stand out in debating or sports, nor was he particularly popular with the other boys. In 1900, he went on to Harvard, where he showed as little interest in studies or ideas as he had at prep school. Franklin coasted through college with the traditional “gentleman’s C” average that was perfectly acceptable in the sons of the elite at that time.
His social life, however, improved dramatically. Franklin was already beginning to display the affability and charm that so bedazzled politicians and the press in the years ahead. Of course, his popularity was helped along by his family name. Cousin Theodore had been elected vice president, and then, in 1901, through the assassination of William McKinley, had become president of the United States.
It was only natural that Franklin, already toying with the idea of a career in politics, should pay close attention to the doings of his presidential relation. Theodore was the first president in the distinctively modern mold: he had a sense of drama and timing and a natural grasp of how to exploit the press to create a persona for himself in the eyes of the people. Beyond that, TR, as he was commonly known, had a rare ability to make personal use of popular causes and resentments. It was the age of “progressivism,” a vague term, but one that connoted a new readiness to use the power of government for all sorts of grand things. H.L. Mencken, the great libertarian journalist and close observer and critic of presidents, compared him to the German kaiser, Wilhelm II, and shrewdly summed him up: “The America that [Theodore] Roosevelt dreamed of was always a sort of swollen Prussia, truculent without and regimented within.”
Particularly fascinating to Franklin must have been the way TR was able to turn his patrician background to his advantage. After all, in the past, the Americans had shown themselves wary of upper-class leaders, who were suspected of being insufficiently “democratic” and not in tune with the people. What TR did brilliantly was to introduce caesarism into American politics. This term refers to the political strategy adopted by Julius Caesar to gain power. Although himself from a wealthy and high-born family, Caesar castigated his fellow patricians and appealed instead to the lower classes for support. They, in turn, loved the favors they received from on high, and, perhaps even more, the sight of Caesar trouncing and humbling his fellow blue bloods.
Julius Caesar was thus one of history’s great demagogues; and ever since his time the tactic of a politician from society’s elite pandering to the “have-nots” against the upper classes has been known by his name. In fabricating his persona as the great “trustbuster,” Theodore Roosevelt’s form of American caesarism proved wildly successful.
Ralph Raico (1936–2016) was professor emeritus in European history at Buffalo State College and a senior fellow of the Mises Institute. He was a specialist on the history of liberty, the liberal tradition in Europe, and the relationship between war and the rise of the state. He is the author of The Place of Religion in the Liberal Philosophy of Constant, Tocqueville, and Lord Acton.
A bibliography of Ralph Raico’s work, compiled by Tyler Kubik, is found here.