Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882–1945)

2012-08-28 13:57:14

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, thirty-second president of the United States (1933–1945), cited the protection and expansion of civil liberties throughout the world as a justification for U.S. entry into World War II, broadened liberty to include entitlement to public benefits, such as food and shelter, and appointed justices to the Supreme Court who played critical roles in the expansion of civil liberties into the 1970s. At the same time, Roosevelt’s record on civil liberties is deeply blemished. He authorized the internment of more than 100,000 Japanese Americans during the war, most of whom were U.S. citizens, even though there was no evidence of disloyalty or criminal activity on the detainees’ part, an act repudiated by the U.S. Congress in 1988.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882–1945)Franklin D. Roosevelt was born on January 30, 1882, at his family’s estate at Hyde Park, New York, overlooking the Hudson River. His mother came from a wealthy family, and his father was a successful businessman, with an interest in Democratic politics. He was schooled by tutors at home until the age of fourteen. A graduate of Groton School and Harvard College, he supported the vice-presidential and presidential campaigns of his cousin, Theodore Roosevelt, in 1900 and 1904. He attended Columbia University Law School and practiced law in New York City. In 1905, he married his distant cousin, Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, niece of President Theodore Roosevelt, who was present at the ceremony.

He won election to the New York State Senate in 1910. At the state capitol in Albany, he became known as a champion of economic and social reform. Roosevelt campaigned for Woodrow Wilson in the 1912 presidential election and was rewarded by the victorious Wilson with appointment as assistant secretary of the Navy. In 1920 Roosevelt sought and won the Democratic nomination for the vice presidency but was forced to return to private life after the Republican Warren Harding’s victory. In August 1921 he was struck down by poliomyelitis and was never able again to walk unaided. He soon returned to politics and was elected governor of New York in 1928.

In 1932, Roosevelt received the Democratic presidential nomination. In his acceptance speech delivered at the convention in Chicago, he promised a New Deal for Americans. The New Deal was his response to the crisis of the Great Depression and signified that the federal government would become involved in social and economic regulation at an unprecedented level. Roosevelt easily defeated Republican President Herbert Hoover and began the first of four presidential terms in March 1933.

Roosevelt’s presidency (1933–1945) resulted in the expansion and redefinition of civil liberties in the United States. The New Deal introduced far-reaching reforms within the economy and represented the beginning of what was later termed ‘‘the welfare state.’’ As leader of the Democratic Party, he transformed it from an institution associated with conservative principles and laissez-faire capitalism into the chief vehicle for the promotion of liberal policies, including government regulation of the economy and protection of the poor, unemployed, and aged against hardship and deprivation. He empowered the labor movement by including protections for union organizing in the New Deal. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 gave federal protection to the right of workers to organize and bargain through unions.

Roosevelt, in his 1941 State of the Union Address, delivered before a joint session of Congress on January 6, focused understandably on the threat to national security posed by the aggressive acts of the Axis Powers, Germany, Italy, and Japan. By the end of the year the United States would be at war with all three countries. Toward the end of his speech, he shifted from a presentation of foreign and defense policy to domestic issues. He pointed out that the rise of dictators in Italy, Germany, and elsewhere in the 1920s and 1930s was due to economic and social problems, problems that spawned a social revolution. He described the foundations of a healthy and strong democracy: equality of opportunity, the ending of special privilege for the few, jobs, a rising standard of living, security, and the preservation of civil liberties. He asked Congress to expand old-age pensions and unemployment insurance and widen the opportunities for adequate medical care. He closed his address by saying that he looked forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms: freedom of speech and expression, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. ‘‘Freedom,’’ he concluded, ‘‘means the supremacy of human rights everywhere.’’ Roosevelt continued this theme in the Atlantic Charter, issued jointly with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill on August 14, 1941. The charter promised the peoples of the world suffering from the hardships of World War II improved economic conditions, freedom from fear, and the disarmament of the aggressor nations.

Not only did Roosevelt cite the preservation and restoration of civil liberties, especially freedom of speech and religion, as a justification for going to war against the Axis dictatorships, more importantly, he redefined liberty itself. James Madison, author of the Bill of Rights, in 1787 had conceived liberty as a person’s right to be left alone by government. Freedom had an essentially negative meaning. Government may not intrude upon an individual’s expression of political or religious opinions. Government may not prescribe modes of worship or establish an official religion. Freedom was something enjoyed by individuals in the private sphere and was dependent upon the absence of governmental restraint. While acknowledging the value of this form of liberty, Roosevelt believed that human beings were not truly free if they were hungry, homeless, idle and in fear of their lives or property. He called for a positive role for government in securing civil liberties by making government responsible for meeting the needs of the poor, the elderly and the disabled—needs previously met primarily by families or private charities. This package of government provided benefits came to be known as the social safety net. Roosevelt established the welfare state through legislation enacted during his first term (1933–1937), the most important of which was the Social Security Act of 1935. The act provided unemployment insurance, an old-age pension system, and financial assistance for dependent children and the blind. The funds needed to finance such extensive programs of public assistance were supplied by taxes, including payroll taxes shared equally by employers and employees.

Roosevelt’s recasting of liberty as consisting of both negative and positive rights played an enormous role in the way that many Americans came to understand civil liberties. In Roe v. Wade (1973), for example, the Supreme Court recognized the negative right of a woman to terminate her pregnancy, free of the threat of criminal sanction. This decision lay within what the Court referred to as a zone of privacy protected by the Fourteenth Amendment, which guaranteed that no person would be deprived of liberty without due process of law. In Harris v. McRae (1980), four dissenting justices expressed the opinion that, for a poor woman, the freedom to terminate a pregnancy is meaningless unless the government is willing to pay for her abortion. The Constitution, they claimed, does not protect individual rights without obliging the government to provide to the indigent the means of enjoying them. A majority of the justices of the Supreme Court, however, has refused to accept that there is a necessary linkage between civil liberties and government entitlements.

Two justices who embraced an expanded view of individual freedom were Roosevelt appointees— Hugo Black and William Douglas. Roosevelt’s appointment of liberal justices to the Supreme Court had an enormous and enduring impact on the expansion of civil liberties. Roosevelt was able to transform the Court from a conservative bastion of laissez-faire economics into a champion of civil liberties and the welfare state because of his demand expressed in 1937 that Congress increase the size of the tribunal from nine to fifteen justices. Although Congress ultimately failed to enact his ‘‘court-packing’’ plan, two of the jurists who had opposed the New Deal, Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes and Associate Justice Owen Roberts, in response to the president’s campaign against the High Court, changed their minds and began voting in favor of the constitutionality of New Deal legislation, a change known as ‘‘the switch in time that saved nine.’’ Now in the minority, the anti–New Deal ‘‘four horsemen of the Apocalypse’’— Justices George Sutherland, James McReynolds, Pierce Butler, and Willis Van Devanter—began to retire from the high bench, leaving vacancies for the president to fill with like-minded justices.

Roosevelt appointed Black to the Court in 1937. Black, as a Democratic senator from Alabama, had strongly supported the New Deal, including the Fair Labor Standards Act which established a minimum wage and maximum hours for workers. Black took an absolutist view of the First Amendment, declaring that neither Congress nor the state legislatures could make any law abridging freedom of speech or the press. He opposed governmental controls over what had been considered offensive or dangerous speech, such as obscenity, defamation and sedition. He also supported racial desegregation, the separation of church and state and the rights of the criminally accused, including, in Gideon v. Wainwright (1963), the right of indigent defendants to a governmentappointed attorney. In his opinion for the Court, Black expressed the view that the right to counsel, guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment, was a positive right, requiring government involvement if it was to have any meaning for the poor.

William O. Douglas served on several federal regulatory commissions from 1934 until 1939. In 1939, Roosevelt appointed him as an associate justice of the Supreme Court. Douglas, one of the most liberal justices ever to serve on the Court, supported the Supreme Court’s ban on prayers in public schools (Engel v. Vitale [1962]), saw a right of privacy implied in the Bill of Rights (Griswold v. Connecticut [1965]) and expanded the definition of speech to include symbolic expression, such as the burning of a draft card to protest the war in Vietnam (United States v. O’Brien [1968]). Douglas also viewed tax exemptions for churches as unconstitutional governmental subsidies for religion (Walz v. Tax Commission of the City of New York [1970]).

Roosevelt, Black, and Douglas, however, were not consistent supporters of civil liberties. In Korematsu v. United States (1944), Black wrote the opinion for the Court, an opinion in which Douglas joined, supporting President Roosevelt’s order to remove all Japanese Americans from the western coast of the United States and place them in detention camps during the course of the war. After the Japanese surprise attack on American naval facilities at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, there was widespread fear of disloyalty by Japanese citizens and resident aliens living in the United States. On February 19, 1942, the president, citing the danger of espionage and sabotage, issued Executive Order 9066 authorizing military authorities to remove persons of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast. The army detained and relocated 120,000 Japanese Americans to camps in the interior of the country. Ironically, the military authorities did not arrest and remove Japanese Americans living in Hawaii, the U.S. territory with the highest percentage of persons of Japanese descent and the site of the Japanese attack. Moreover, residents of German and Italian ancestry were not removed. More than 60 percent of the Japanese Americans who were forcibly taken away from their homes were U.S. citizens.

Many Japanese Americans lost their property and means of livelihood during their long confinement in the relocation centers. Following the war, many of them demanded reparations and, in 1980, Congress established the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. The commission found that there was no military necessity for the internment and blamed it on racial prejudice, an irrational fear of a Japanese invasion and the failure of President Roosevelt to exercise proper leadership. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which provided an apology from the federal government and compensation of $20,000 to each surviving internee.

Roosevelt, Black, and Douglas’s support for the deprivation of freedom on the basis of one’s race illustrates the dilemma that supporters of civil liberties face in time of war. Roosevelt’s action is often placed with Abraham Lincoln’s suspension of the writ of habeas corpus during the Civil War and Woodrow Wilson’s suppression of free speech during World War I as the three most egregious examples of violation of civil liberties during wartime.

Roosevelt died in Warm Springs, Georgia, on April 12, 1945, of a cerebral hemorrhage, only three months into his unprecedented fourth term as president.


References and Further Reading

  • Black, Conrad. Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom. New York: Public Affairs, 2003.
  • Kersch, Kenneth I. Constructing Civil Liberties: Discontinuities in the Development of American Constitutional Law. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
  • McMahon, Kevin J. Reconsidering Roosevelt on Race: How the Presidency Paved the Road to Brown. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.
  • Rehnquist, William H. All the Laws but One: Civil Liberties in Wartime. New York: Knopf, 1998.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962)
  • Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963)
  • Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479 (1965)
  • Harris v. McRae, 448 U.S. 297 (1980)
  • Korematsu v. United States, 323 U.S. 214 (1944)
  • Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973)
  • United States v. O’Brien, 391 U.S. 367 (1968)
  • Walz v. Tax Commission of the City of New York, 397 U.S. 664 (1970)

See also Douglas, William Orville; Japanese Internment Cases; New Deal and Civil Liberties; World War II, Civil Liberties in