1. Roosevelt was distantly related to both his wife and 11 other presidents.
An only child with maternal roots dating back to the Mayflower, Franklin D. Roosevelt spent a privileged childhood in Hyde Park, New York, prior to attending an elite Massachusetts boarding school. He then enrolled in Harvard College, where he began courting another Roosevelt, Anna Eleanor, his fifth cousin once removed as well as the niece (and goddaughter) of his fifth cousin, then-President Theodore Roosevelt, whom FDR greatly admired. When the couple married in 1905, Theodore Roosevelt took a break from his White House duties to give Eleanor away in lieu of her deceased father. “Well, Franklin,” the president purportedly exclaimed at the wedding, “there’s nothing like keeping the name in the family.” Though Theodore was his closest relative to head the country, FDR claimed to have traced his family tree to 10 other presidents as well.
2. He had little love for the law.
After Harvard, FDR went on to Columbia Law School, where he promptly flunked contracts and civil procedure and had to make up the classes over the summer. “Franklin Roosevelt was not much of a student and nothing of a lawyer afterwards,” one professor later recalled. “He didn’t appear to have any aptitude for law, and made no effort to overcome that handicap by hard work.” In fact, Roosevelt didn’t even stick around to get his degree, leaving Columbia in 1907 upon passing the bar exam. Family connections landed him a job at Carter Ledyard and Milburn, a prestigious New York City firm. But although he had some minor successes there, he never quite took to the profession, preferring instead to talk politics. Luckily, his family connections also brought him into contact with local Democratic leaders, who in 1910 backed his successful campaign for a New York State Senate seat. Roosevelt’s star only rose from there; he became assistant secretary of the Navy in 1913, a vice-presidential candidate in 1920, governor of New York in 1929 and a presidential candidate in 1932.
3. FDR won all of his presidential elections in landslides.
In what came to be called the “New Deal coalition,” disparate groups such as Southern whites, Catholics, Jews, African-Americans, labor union members and small farmers united to comfortably elect Roosevelt to four terms in the White House. During his first presidential race in 1932, with the Great Depression at its height, he defeated unpopular incumbent Herbert Hoover by an electoral vote tally of 472-59. He then vanquished Kansas Governor Alf Landon in 1936 (523 electoral votes to eight), businessman Wendell Willkie in 1940 (449 electoral votes to 82) and New York Governor Thomas Dewey in 1944 (432 electoral votes to 99), winning at least 53.4 percent of the popular vote each time.
4. No president will ever serve longer (barring a constitutional change).
When George Washington decided in 1796 that eight years in office was enough, he established an unwritten rule that would stand for nearly a century and a half. A few presidents, including Theodore Roosevelt, tried to buck this precedent. But none succeeded until FDR, who ran for a third term in 1940 largely over concerns about the growing threat from Nazi Germany. In the end, he served in the White House for more than 12 years, a feat his political opponents disparaged as bad for democracy. With Roosevelt’s tenure in mind, momentum grew for the 22nd amendment, ratified in 1951, which declared “no person shall be elected … president more than twice.”
5. His handicap was largely concealed from the public.
In the summer of 1921, while on vacation in Canada, 39-year-old Roosevelt fell ill with what was ultimately diagnosed as polio, a disease with no known cure. Paralyzed from the waist down, he underwent years of painstaking physical rehabilitation to try and regain the use of his legs. Yet although he made some progress, learning to move short distances with the help of steel leg braces and a cane (usually while holding the arm of a companion), he would remain wheelchair-dependent for the rest of his life. FDR could not even dress or bathe himself. The public never knew the full extent of his disability, however, in part because the media rarely mentioned it. At Roosevelt’s request, most images from the time show him seated in an open car or standing at a podium. When the occasional photographer did try to catch him in his wheelchair, Secret Service agents reportedly tore the film out of their cameras.
Recommended for you
6. Historians divide his New Deal into two parts.
In his 1932 speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president, Roosevelt famously promised to tackle the Great Depression with “a new deal for the American people.” Wasting no time, he initiated a flurry of legislation during his first 100 days in office, much of which remains in effect to this day. To shore up the faltering financial sector, FDR closed insolvent banks and reorganized others, federally insured bank deposits, established stock market regulations and abandoned the gold standard. He also took steps to end Prohibition, to increase employment through large-scale public works projects, to institute agricultural subsidies and to bring electricity to rural areas. Related measures continued to pass throughout the rest of 1933 and 1934, after which Roosevelt took the New Deal in a more liberal direction, generally referred to as the “Second New Deal.” This time around, Congress raised taxes on the wealthy, guaranteed labor unions the right to collectively bargain and approved unemployment and disability benefits, as well as Social Security for retirees. Try as he might, though, Roosevelt could not fully pull the country out of the Depression until it began mobilizing for World War II.
7. Roosevelt tried to increase the size of the Supreme Court.
Fed up with the U.S. Supreme Court for striking down several New Deal laws, Roosevelt in early 1937 proposed expanding it from nine to as many as 15 justices. Under this so-called “court-packing” plan, which critics derided as a separation of powers violation, a new justice would be added for each sitting justice above the age of 70 who refused to retire. But although FDR’s fellow Democrats held large majorities in both houses of Congress, they for once balked at supporting his agenda. In losing the battle, though, Roosevelt won the war. Never again would the Supreme Court invalidate a piece of New Deal legislation, and by the time of his death, seven of the nine justices were his appointees.
8. He sanctioned the imprisonment of Japanese-Americans.
Anti-Japanese sentiment in the United States reached a fever pitch following the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. In California, for example, the governor, the entire congressional delegation, numerous newspapers and top U.S. Army commanders all called for Japanese residents to be removed so that they could not commit acts of espionage and sabotage. Some government officials had misgivings about what’s now considered one of the most shameful episodes in U.S. history. But not Roosevelt, a humanitarian in many other respects, who told the War Department to do what it thought best. In February 1942, he signed an executive order delineating “military areas … from which any or all persons may be excluded.” About 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, two-thirds of whom were American citizens, were then forcibly removed to internment camps, their property sold off at bargain-basement prices. German-Americans and Italian-Americans were generally spared this fate. A few decades later, Congress issued a formal apology and awarded $20,000 to each surviving detainee.
9. FDR was the first sitting president to fly in a plane.
At a time when air travel was much more dangerous, Roosevelt flew to Chicago in 1932 to accept the Democratic nomination for president. He then became the first sitting president to journey via airplane—and the first sitting president to leave the country in wartime—when he took off from Miami in January 1943 aboard a Boeing 314 flying boat. After making stops in Trinidad, Brazil and Gambia, he got on a second plane, a TWA C-54, which brought him to Casablanca, Morocco, for a conference with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. More flights followed, including one from Malta to the Soviet Union just a couple of months before his death.