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Why I Voted for Lincoln and Roosevelt

Recently, I was discussing presidential politics with a naturalized citizen who came to this country from Malaysia as a scholarship student in 1969. When she left home, her parents took her to the airport in Kuala Lumpur, where she would set out on her long journey to a different culture and a new life.

Before she boarded the plane, her father gave her an assignment. He told her that America was a great country — not because it had helped liberate their own country from the Japanese, or because it had just put a man on the moon, but because it took care of its weakest citizens. “I want you to go over there and find out how they do it,” her father said.

I was struck by the irony of that story. It expresses a vision of American society that is held as a matter of faith by people all over the world, and that we here at home are still struggling to achieve. I wondered what my friend’s father would say today, two decades later, after the go-go ’80s when the number of American children living in poverty grew by more than a million. Currently, according to the Children’s Defense Fund, one in six American children lives below the official poverty level.

The vision of a nation that values and defends its weaker citizens was shared by the two American presidents I’ve chosen to write about — Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Both are recognized as strong chief executives who left a powerful impression on the office of the presidency. In a recent survey of historians, Roosevelt moved past George Washington to be ranked as the second greatest president in our history. He is excelled in the eyes of the historians only by Lincoln — a distinction that certainly would have rankled some of FDR’s contemporaries.

While I was working on my biography of FDR, I discovered that he was a great admirer of Lincoln. In fact, one of his speechwriters was the playwright Robert E. Sherwood, whose Abe Lincoln in Illinois won the Pulitzer Prize in 1939. Before the movie version of the play opened across the country in 1940, a special White House screening was arranged for Roosevelt. The star, Raymond Massey, sat between the president and Sherwood. As the lights came on at the end of the film, after Lincoln’s funeral train chuffed slowly out of Springfield past his weeping fellow citizens, FDR shook his head and muttered, “… and he wrote all those speeches himself!”

Of course, Lincoln and Roosevelt were two very different men in different situations. Lincoln grew up as a poor backwoods boy whose family lived in a one-room log cabin with a dirt floor. Roosevelt, a pampered Hudson River patrician, spent his boyhood in a sixteen-room mansion staffed by an English butler and French maids. Lincoln was self-taught. Roosevelt had the best education money could buy. Lincoln was brooding and melancholy, enveloped by a tragic sense of life. Roosevelt breezed through life with an air of confident and incurable optimism. Lincoln didn’t drink, or use tobacco, or bet, or swear. Roosevelt mixed a mean martini. He was famous for his cigarette holders (and probably died from the effects of smoking); he played poker regularly; and he sometimes used language that was not fit to print in a family newspaper.

They were different, yet they shared some fascinating parallels and similarities. Both were men of mysterious and impenetrable reserve who concealed their innermost thoughts and feelings behind a screen of jocular humor and good fellowship. Both had deep moral convictions about freedom and human rights. Both were skilled politicians; when necessary, they could be ruthless. And both provoked cries of tyranny and dictatorship when they did what they thought they had to do to save the republic.

Lincoln was feared and hated by many of his contemporaries because he challenged the established slavery-based social order. He was an enemy of entrenched privilege. Even before he took office — in the interim between the 1860 election and his inauguration the following March — hate mail threatening his life began to arrive. No chief executive had ever received such malignant correspondence. And later, during the most dispiriting days of the Civil War, as demoralization spread across the North, Lincoln and his war and his racial policies became the target of massive opposition. From all over the North came cries that the president was a tyrant, an abolitionist dictator, an incompetent charlatan unfit for office. The most unpopular president the nation had ever known, he was called a “black-hearted radical,” a “mobocrat,” a “dangerous lunatic.”

Roosevelt inspired abiding hatred for similar reasons. Much of his New Deal legislation seemed directed against the privileged and the wealthy. It was said that the first hundred days of the Roosevelt administration comforted the afflicted, while the second hundred days afflicted the comforted. Roosevelt raised taxes and regulated business practices. He brought the disenfranchised — women, blacks, Jews, and Catholics — into the federal government for the first time. No wonder he was called “a traitor to his class.” No president since Lincoln had aroused such intensely personal attacks. At a country club in Connecticut, the mere mention of FDR’s name was forbidden as a health measure against apoplexy.

If this seems excessive today, it is well to remember that a relatively modest New Deal reform like Social Security was the target of enraged opposition and was attacked as “socialistic,” as undermining traditional American values of thrift and self-reliance. Originally, the Social Security Act included a rudimentary form of national health insurance, but in order to get the act through a resisting Congress, FDR was forced to compromise. He had to drop the health insurance provision. A half-century later, the United States remains the only industrial nation in the world, except for South Africa, without a national health plan.

From my personal point of view, the biggest difference between Lincoln and Roosevelt is that I can remember Roosevelt. He was the president of my childhood — “that man in the White House,” as he was called by those who could not bear to say his name. Like most Americans of my generation, my earliest memory of politics is sitting by the radio and hearing that voice, so serene and confident, saying, “My friends.” I remember the Movietone newsreels at Saturday matinees, sandwiched among the double feature, the latest chapter of the Flash Gordon serial, the Bugs Bunny cartoon, the short subject, the previews of coming attractions — the newsreels, showing President Roosevelt greeting the king and queen of England, or touring some European battlefield in a Jeep, or splashing about in the pool at Warm Springs.

I remember as a boy being bewildered at the extreme emotional reactions to Roosevelt that I noticed around me. People seemed to love him or hate him, even in my own family. The dinner-table debates, the raised voices, the looks of pained exasperation! I couldn’t understand it. I remember the day Roosevelt died. His death was announced at school, and we were let out early. When my homeroom teacher at Presidio Jr. High School in San Francisco dismissed us, her face hardened and so did her voice, and she said: “Thank God that awful man is dead!” I was shocked. Yet as I left the school, other teachers were standing in the hallways weeping, sobbing.

I knew, of course, that Franklin Roosevelt was a victim of polio. And I’ve searched my memory, trying to recall if I actually realized back then that the president of the United States could not stand on his own feet. On the arm of a son or an aide, he appeared always erect. He was so active, he projected such a dynamic personality, that he gave the impression he had no disability. People tended to forget that Roosevelt couldn’t walk, or even stand up, without help. Some visitors to the White House were ready to swear that as they were being ushered into the Oval Office, the president rose from his desk and strode forward to greet them.

That’s one reason why Roosevelt is such a terrific subject for a biography. On the personal level his life is the dramatic story of his struggle to overcome a crippling handicap. That struggle helped forge his character, just as Lincoln’s struggle to overcome his log-cabin origins helped form his character.

Lincoln’s first great act in life was to escape from his father’s world, from a life of unrelenting physical toil. He had to fight his way up and out of the grinding poverty into which he had been born. As a respected attorney — and a wealthy man — he believed passionately in the words of the Declaration of Independence, which states that “all men are created equal” and that all are entitled to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Lincoln took this declaration to heart. He took it personally. To him it meant that every poor man’s son deserved the opportunities for advancement that he had enjoyed. He believed that the Declaration of Independence, the charter of American liberty, meant just what it said — all men, black as well as white, were entitled to the rights it spelled out.

“I am not ashamed to confess that twenty-five years ago I was a hired laborer, mauling rails, at work on a flatboat — just what might happen to any poor man’s son,” said Lincoln. “I want every man to have a chance — and I believe a black man is entitled to it — in which he can better his condition.”

Roosevelt’s life changed abruptly when he was thirty-nine years old, a handsome, cocksure individual admired for his boundless energy and charm. Overnight he found himself paralyzed and in agonizing pain. It was probably the first time in his life that he was afraid. Before his illness, most things had come easily to him. Now he knew what it was like to be helpless, to be weak, to be dependent on others. It would have been easy for him to retire to the comfortable privacy of Hyde Park, as his mother begged him to do, and to lead the pampered life of a wealthy invalid. Instead, he struggled to conquer his handicap and lead an active life. Those who knew him well believed that he emerged from that battle a bigger man. His friend Frances Perkins felt that he had experienced a “spiritual transformation.” “Having been to the depths of trouble,” she wrote, “he understood the problems of people in trouble.”

Roosevelt and Lincoln both came to the presidency during critical moments in history, when the American system had to redefine itself. The Civil War has been called a test of American ideals. The Great Depression and Hitler’s rise to power were also, each in a different way, tests of American ideals.

One lasting effect of the Civil War was to transform and expand the concept of liberty in America. The war gave “liberty” a new meaning. Until then, liberty had always meant freedom from government power — the notion that the individual must be protected against state coercion. The Civil War made it mean freedom of opportunity, which only government power could guarantee. The federal government became the agent of freedom, rather than its enemy. Lincoln saw that if all men truly are created equal, then freedom from government intrusion must yield to freedom enforced by government power. The Civil War, he said, was “a struggle for maintaining in the world that form and substance of government whose leading object is to elevate the condition of men — lift artificial weights from all shoulders … to afford all an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life.”

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Roosevelt acted in this tradition by using the state to expand the choices available to the poor and the powerless. “We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence,” he said. ”’Necessitous men are not free men.’ People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.”

Roosevelt had learned the hard way that the stern doctrine of self-reliance had limitations. He had to depend on helping hands for such simple tasks as getting dressed or getting out of a car. A man who could not stand up without help knew that se1f-reliance can carry one only so far. And so, like Lincoln, Roosevelt wanted to use the power of the federal government to guarantee certain rights. During FDR’s administration, the federal government, for the first time, made itself responsible for the welfare of those Americans who had been victimized by economic forces beyond their control. In his annual message to Congress in 1938, Roosevelt expressed his philosophy about the duty of the state: “Government has a final responsibility for the well-being of its citizens. If private cooperative endeavor fails to provide work for willing hands and relief for the unfortunate, those suffering hardship from no fault of their own have a right to call upon the Government for aid; and a government worthy of the name must make a fitting response.”

Both Roosevelt and Lincoln changed the fundamental relationship between ordinary citizens and their government. And they shared another quality: both were motivated by an illuminating moral vision of the America they wanted to see. They shared the belief that a society must be judged by the way it treats its weakest citizens. That is why their stories — their lives and accomplishments — have an enduring meaning as each new generation of Americans embraces the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship.

From the November/December 1992 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Russell Freedman About Russell Freedman

Newbery Medalist Russell Freedman is the author of nearly fifty nonfiction books for children and young adults. He is a winner of the 2014 Kerlan Award of the Children's Literature Research Collections of the University of Minnesota Libraries.

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