Government and Politics

The American Presidency

How were Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt related?

The two men, among America’s most well-known presidents, were distant cousins. Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919) was born in New York City, and after a career in public service that included organizing the first volunteer cavalry regiment that was known as the Rough Riders, the ardent outdoors enthusiast became vice president in 1901. When President William McKinley (1843–1901) died in office later that year (on September 14), “Teddy” Roosevelt succeeded him as president. He was elected in his own right in 1904 and went on to serve until 1909, spending nearly two full terms in the White House.

Teddy Roosevelt was president of the United States when he walked his niece, Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962), down the aisle on March 17, 1905. The young woman was marrying her distant cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882–1945), who had been courting her since he entered college at Harvard in 1900.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was born in Hyde Park, New York. Like his fifth cousin Theodore, Franklin went on to a life of public service, which bore some remarkable similarities to that of his cousin: Both Theodore and Franklin served as assistant secretary of the U.S. Navy (1897–98 and 1913–20, respectively) and both were governors of New York (1899 to 1900 and 1929 to 1933, respectively). As presidents, both served the nation for more than one term—but Franklin Roosevelt made history for being the only president to be elected for third and fourth terms. (In 1951 the U.S. Congress voted in favor of the Twenty-second Amendment, limiting presidential tenure to just two terms.) Both served the country in times of conflict: For Theodore it was the Russo-Japanese War (1904–05)—which he was instrumental in ending with the Treaty of Portsmouth (New Hampshire) on September 5, 1905, and for which he was awarded the Nobel peace prize the following year. Franklin Roosevelt was one of the so-called Big Three leaders: Along with Britain’s Sir Winston Churchill (1874–1965) and the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin (1879–1953), he coordinated the Allied nations’ effort against Nazi Germany and Japan during World War II (1939–45). He, too, was a champion of peace, having been central in laying plans for the United Nations.

It’s an interesting note, however, that when Teddy Roosevelt ran for president in 1912, he was opposed by his young Democratic cousin Franklin, then a state senator in New York, who supported Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924) in the presidential race. After Wilson was elected, he appointed Franklin Roosevelt assistant secretary of the navy—a post that delighted him for combining his vocation (politics) with his avocation (ships), and one that certainly furthered his political career. By the end of World War I (1914–18), Franklin Roosevelt was a well-known national figure.

Theodore and Franklin also shared an interest in outdoor activities. But Franklin’s participation in sports was curtailed when he was stricken with polio in August 1921. The 39-year-old Roosevelt was paralyzed for a time, and though he later regained movement and was able to walk with braces, he never fully recovered. Through fierce determination he continued his life of public service, becoming president in 1933. He saw the country through two of its most trying periods: the Great Depression (1929–39) and World War II (1939–45). He died suddenly of a brain hemorrhage in April 1945.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, pictured in 1937, began broadcasting his “fireside chats” to reassure the American public during the Great Depression.

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