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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

The Roosevelt Legacy:  How FDR Shaped the Modern Presidency

As the United States faces a massive economic crisis, politicians on both ends of the political spectrum routinely invoke Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who led the nation through the Great Depression. Patrick Maney, then Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and professor of history at Boston College, spoke about FDR’s legacy at a colloquium on September 17.

Roosevelt dominated popular culture during his own days to an unparalleled degree. Children were named after him, songs were sung about him and movies portrayed him. Through his Fireside Chats on the radio and his administration’s effort to respond to all of his personal mail, Americans identified with him personally and felt that he knew them personally. He did have detractors, but they were largely silent in the face of his overwhelming popularity. Still, many Republicans despised the shift towards big government and FDR’s pro-labor stances. The Republican shift towards admiration of FDR began in the 1980s when Ronald Reagan cited him regularly to attract Democratic voters—though Reagan still critiqued many components of the New Deal. Roosevelt’s importance is now assumed by most people, and even Newt Gingrich declared him the greatest political leader of the twentieth century.     

But does FDR deserve this glowing legacy? To be sure, Maney argued, this legacy is more complicated than is commonly understood. FDR did support sweeping reforms that transformed the United States during the Great Depression and World War II, but the historical record does not show him to be the activist president so fondly remembered. He worked with an extremely proactive Congress, which had begun to develop before FDR’s election some of the programs (such as the Tennessee Valley Authority) that would come to be part of the New Deal. FDR initially opposed the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and it was Congress, not the President, that developed the Social Security Administration. Furthermore, FDR’s shameful role in the Japanese internment camps has not been adequately remembered. Overall, Maney said he did not want to detract from FDR’s accomplishments, but that his legacy was much more nuanced and ambivalent than is commonly allowed.