Closer Readings Commentary

Leadership and Legacy of the Roosevelts

Perhaps you have been watching the recent Ken Burns series The Roosevelts and were inspired by some aspect of the lives and achievements of these figures. You may also have noticed that Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor Roosevelt are listed among the 100 leaders on the new National History Day minisite. If your students are interested in doing National History Day projects on one or more members of this distinguished family, EDSITEment has some resources for them. (Note: The entire series remains online for a limited time).

The Modern Presidency

One of the big take-aways from the series is that Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt invented the modern presidency. In their hands the institution became more important than Congress, more assertive in domestic and foreign policy, and more “rhetorical.”

TR was the first “modern” president, engaging directly with the people over the heads of party leaders in Congress.  Before TR, presidents communicated through written messages rather than speeches and seldom spoke on behalf of specific policy proposals.

TR was famous for establishing the presidency as a “bully pulpit” to bring national attention to serious problems that needed to be addressed by the federal government.  

His cousin Franklin Roosevelt was the first mass media president using the new medium of radio to great effect. And Mrs. Roosevelt was the first spouse to be a “full partner” in the White House, getting out around the country in a way that her wheelchair-bound husband could not. After Franklin’s death she served the nation for another two decades as a champion of civil rights, civil liberties and the newly established United Nations.

Voices of Democracy

The NEH-supported project Voices of Democracy will help you explore the important rhetorical aspect of the Roosevelts’ leadership through a series of “case studies” of their key speeches. The site provides authentic texts of speeches of TR, Franklin, and Eleanor (among other American leaders) as well as scholarly commentary; questions to help you focus on and think through the arguments being made in the speech; and suggestions for further research. Think of VOD as an extra academic advisor.

In “The Strenuous Life” (1901) Theodore Roosevelt articulated a philosophy of personal and national character emphasizing hard work, self-discipline, risk-taking, and moral virtue. Roosevelt linked these values with America's frontier past, using the example of the brave men who tamed the wilderness to illustrate the meaning of the “strenuous life.” Applying that philosophy to the issues of his own day, Roosevelt called on his fellow Americans to reject the life of material prosperity and ease and embrace instead the challenges of international leadership.

Students interested in origins of investigative journalism, will find “The Man with the Muck Rake” (1906) eye opening. Delivered in his second term as president, TR condemned the muckraking journalists who had become so important in the Progressive era, yet he also acknowledged the need for "absolutely truthful" exposés of corruption. Adopting a middle ground between those who celebrated the muckrakers and those who would limit their First Amendment right to free speech, Roosevelt upheld the same progressive principles he applied to other political and social controversies: balance, moderation, order, and stability.

VOD offers a penetrating analysis of FDR’s oratorical masterpiece, the 1941 State of the Union address. Popularly known as the “Four Freedoms” speech and delivered eleven months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the speech made clear Roosevelt’s determination to defend America’s core principles against any potential threat on the horizon. In that sense, it foreshadowed not only Roosevelt’s later war rhetoric, but also virtually all war addresses by U.S. presidents in the decades that followed. As Americans faced later challenges, from the communism of the cold war era to today’s threat of global terrorism, echoes of Roosevelt’s four freedoms are heard in the war speechmaking of later U.S. presidents

Eleanor Roosevelt’s 1940 address to the Chicago Civil Liberties Committee advocated protection of civil liberties at a time of perceived communist threats. Ms. Roosevelt urged listeners to act in accordance with the ideals of democracy and to uphold their responsibility to protect the rights of all Americans. Examining the speech within its own historical framework reveals how Mrs. Roosevelt embraced an increasingly public role as a political first lady and addressed a basic tension between civil liberties and national security that still concerns us today.

Students can supplement these speeches with a few other EDSITEment-reviewed resources. The Miller Center’s American President: A Reference Resource series at the University of Virginia provides expert scholarly input on each of our nation’s chief executives. The series of short essays on various aspects of the two Roosevelt administrations were written by distinguished historians.

Finally there’s the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project offering unique access to the writings of Eleanor’s important post-White House Years. Here you will find the archive for her famous newspaper column “My Day” and radio broadcasts. The site’s lively Twitter feed offers daily quotations from the woman who was called the “First Lady of the World.”