Franklin Roosevelt: Family--Mother (1854-1941)


Figure 1.--There were four key women in Franklin Roosevelt's life. Best known of course was Eleanor, but hardly the most important or cloesest. The most important woman was Sara Delano. Franklin's mother Sara was both the great constant in his life and the most important influence. It was Sara that he got his optimistic, sunny dispositioin and his sence of social respinsibility. Here we see Franklin and Sara in 1887. Franklin did not have Scottish ancestors, but British fashion was very influential among the American elite in the late 19th century.

There were four key women in Frabklin Roosevelt's life. Best known of course was Eleanor, but hardly the most important or cloesest. The most important woman was Sarah Delano. (The other two were Lucy Mercer and Missy Lehand.) Franklin's mother Sarah was both the great constant in his life and the most important influence. She was as devoted and doting as a mother could be. She was also the disciplarian in the family. Her approach was always to correct Franklin in private and to use disappointment as the principle tool. Sarah was a Delano and James' second wife. They married 4 years after James' first wife died in 1876, James met and married Sara Delano, a sixth cousin. She, too, was a member of the Hudson River aristocracy. Her father, one of James' business associates, had made and lost fortunes in the China trade before settling with his wife and 11 children on the west bank of the Hudson. Sara had sailed to China as a girl, attended school abroad, and moved in high social circles in London and Paris. Though only half her husband's age of 52 at the time of her marriage in 1880, she settled in happily at Hyde Park. Their marriage was serene until broken by James' death in 1900 when Franklin was 18. The Roosevelts were a mostly Republican family as was customary for the wealthy elite of the late 19th Century. The family was related to President Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin visited the White House as a youth. As a Harvard undergraduate he idealized Presidenr Roosevelt. Sara Delano raised Franklin in luxurious circumstances, but she stressed to the boy that with his place in society came responsibilities for the less fortunate. Historians ask the question as how a president raised in luxury could have developed a concern for the least fortunate in American society came. Of course his suffering as a polio victim was a factor, but the principal answer is that it came from Sara. [Smith] This was the in effect the thrust of the New Deal. Much of the wealthy in America, the economic royalists as he called them, never forgave him and he was considered to be a traitor to his class. In reality, he probably saved them. Even as an adult, his mother played an important role in Franklin's life--too great a role for Elenor. When a friend in 1910 suggested that Franklin run for the New York legislature, he replied, "Sounds like a good idea, I'll have to discuss it with mother." And it was Sarah who stepped in decisively to ensure that Franlkin and Eleanor did not divorce when Eleanor found out about Lucy Mercer.

Women

Fraklin Roosevelt loved women. He emensly enjoyed their company. There were four key women in Franklin Roosevelt's life. Best known of course was Eleanor, but hardly the most important or cloesest. The most important woman was Sara Delano. (The other two were Lucy Mercer and Missy Lehand.) Franklin's mother Sara was both the great constant in his life and the most important influence. Eleanor Roosevelt was one of the most remarkable women of the 20th century. She played an important role in President Roosevelt's political career. She was not, however, an ideal life partner for Franklin. She did not have the vivacious personality that his young mother provided or that he sought out as an adult. Eleanor Roosevelt rightly so has become an icon in American history. As a result, because she was constantly frustrated by the role that Sara continued to play in family life after marrying Franklin. Thus Sara often cpmes out poorly in Roosevelt biographies. Often given insufficent attention is the role she played in forming Franklin's character and shapeing his social outlook. This did not come From Eleanpr's lectures and memorandums, it came from the patient work of a remarkable young mother.

The Delanos

Sara like her husband was a member of the Hudson River aristocracy. Roosevelt was a Dutch name. The Delanos were very much of English ancestry. Sara had not one, but several ancestors who arrived on the Mayflower. Very few Americans have such illustrious family histories.

Parents

Sara's parents were Warren Delano and Catherine Robbins Lyman. Sara's father, one of James Roosevelt's business associates, had made and lost fortunes in the China trade--meaning tea and opium. Warren finally settled with his wife and 11 children on the west bank of the Hudson. The Delanos moved in high social circles in London and Paris.

Siblings

Sara had ten siblings. Two of her siblings died as small children and three as young adults. She was probably cloest to her younger brother Philippe.

Girlhood

At the time Sara was born, the family was living comfortably on a Hudson River estate. Her father experienced a financial reverse, losing his fortune. So Warren returned to China to begin all over. He sent for the family and they lived in Hong Kong for a few years (1862-64). The family returned to America in 1864 during the Civil War. Most of her girlhood was spent at Algonac, the family estate on the Hudson River near Newburgh, New York.

Education

Sara was educated at home. She briefly attended a school for girls in Dresden, Germany (1867).

Debutante

Sara grew into a tall, slender young woman. She was attractive, but perhaps not really beautiful like her sisters. She was, howver, very inteligent. She has also been sescribed as having a sense of purpose lacking in many young women of her class and age. Some have even described her as intimidating. She was by all accounts eagerly courted by male admierers. As a young woman in her early 20s, however, she does not seem to have been especially eager to marry, unimpressed with the young men who courted her.

James Roosevelt

Sarah was a Delano and James' second wife. Of all people, it was --a young Theodore Roosevelt who found Sara's husband. He introduced the two at a dinner party. Theodore and James Roosevelt were cousins. James Roosevelt was an older man and when he introduced the twonhe had no idea marriage would be in the offing. James sat on several corporate boards with Warren Delano. For some reason, his maturity appealed to the the young Sara. It was in contrast to the flipancy of many of her younger suitors. Roosevelt was not as well-to-do as the Delanos. But he did have an estate called Springwood at Hyde Park, New York which was near the Delano home. James was a frequent visitor to the Delano home. Sara's father was taken back when James raised the issue of marriage. It seemed such an unlikey pairing. James was a Democrat. At the time both religion and politics were factors in marriage. And James' wealth was less than Warren had bestowed on Sara. And most of all there was the question of age, although it was not quite as important as it is in our contempry age. Warren was doubtful, but not Sara. She insisted and Warren finally gave her consent. The wedding was held at the Delano's Hudson River home in 1880. They married 4 years after James' first wife died in 1876. They were sixth cousins. Though only half her husband's age of 52 at the time of her marriage in 1880, she settled in happily at Hyde Park. Their marriage was serene until broken by James' death in 1900 when Franklin was 18. Sara lived another 40 years.

Motherhood

Sara like othe wealthy women of her age never had a job or worked. Her life's work was her son Franklin. Franklin was her only son. The birth was very difficult. Sear almost died. Thus there were no more children. James had a son when they married, but he was an older boy--James. Sara Delano was as devoted and doting as a mother could be. At the time, many wealthy parents turned over the raising of the children to servants. Not Sara. She absorbed herself in Franklin's upbringing. She chose his playmates, read to him, bathed and dressed him, and completely oversaw his daili routine. Some historians have labeled her as possessive. This is probably accurate, but understandable given her husband's age and her lack of other outlets. More important was her approach to raising Franklin and her impact on him. She was a young, cheerful and optimistic toung woman. And she transferred this sunny disposition to Franklin. One reaso that Franklin was such a successful politican and so appealed to the American people was his sunny, optimistic personality. And this came from Sara. [Ward] Perhaps equally important was that Sara structured an evironment for him in which he was the center of their small world. And Freanlin was taught that he was detined for great success. One historian suggests that Franklin entered politics essentially to reconstruct the boyhood environment that Saa had created for him. [Ward] She is best known as an elderly woman because of her age when Franklin became president. She was, however, a rather youthful mother and unlike many other wealthy women at the time, fully engaged in raising her son. She was also the disciplarian in the family. Her approach was always to correct Franklin in private and to use disappointment as the principle tool. I am not sure how she developed this approach. Is this how she was raised? Did her parents counsel her? Or was this just the intuitive approach she worked out on her own. When James died she became even more focused on Franklin, although by that time he was an older teenager.

Franklin's Boyhood

The young Franklin Roosevelt led a sheltered youth, educated by a series of governesses. His life revolving about the Hyde Park family estate and rural Dutchess County. There were trips to Europe, athletics (especially swimming and boating), and hobbies such as stamp and bird collecting. There were also summer trips to Campobello Island. Franklin had what has often been called a constrained childhood growing up on the Hyde Park estate. His father at the time Franklin was born was elderly. His mother younger. While loving and devoted, she was prim and proper. She hovered over Franklin as a boy and coddled him. A bond formed between them that lasted there entire life. It was to cause some problems for Elenaor.

Political Leanings

The Roosevelts and the Delanos were strongly Republican families as was customary for the wealthy elite of the late 19th Century. James family was an exception. The family was related to President Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin visited the White House as a youth. As a Harvard undergraduate he idealized Presidenr Roosevelt.

Social Attitudes

Sara Delano raised Franklin in luxurious circumstances, but she stressed to the boy that with his place in society came responsibilities for the less fortunate. Historians ask the question as how a president raised in luxury could have developed a concern for the least fortunate in American society came. Of course his suffering as a polio victim was a factor, but the principal answer is that it came from Sara. [Smith] This was the in effect the thrust of the New Deal. Much of the wealthy in America, the economic royalists as he called them, never forgave him and he was considered to be a traitor to his class. In reality, he probably saved them.

Franklin's Education

Franklin was home schooled as a boy. This was closely supervised by Sara who was both inteligent and well educated. His studies and trips to Europe made him conversant in both German and French. In fact the first school he attended was a German primary school. The family traveled to Germany so Franklin's brother James could attend a German university. When Franlkin attended Harvard law school, Sara moved to Boston where she could look out over him.

Franklin's Marriage

Sara might be called the mother-in-law from Hell. She is probably best known as Eleanor's interfearing mother-in-law. Franklin's decesion to marry Eleanor, was strongly opposed by Sara. I'm not sure to what extent Eleanor was aware of this, but their relations were strained after the marriage. I'm also not ebtirely sure why Sara was so opposed to the marriage. This was not the kind of thing that either Sara and Franklin wrote about. Sara knew Eleanor because she was a distant Roosevelt cousin. She may have sensed that the two were not a good match because of their temperments. Mosy authors attribute the resistance to Sara's fear of losing Franklin which undeniably was a factor.

Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962)

Franklin married a distant cousin, a shy young woman, Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, on March 17 1905. Eleanor had had a trying childhood. Her mother, a beautiful socialite who gave her little affection, died when Eleanor was eight. Her father, Theodore Roosevelt's brother, was spirited and charming. But he was unstable and alcoholic, and he died when Eleanor was ten. Orphaned, she lived with her maternal grandmother and entered her teens feeling rejected, ugly, and ill at ease in society. When Franklin, a dashing Harvard man two years her senior, paid her attention, she was flattered and receptive. Franklin was clearly serious in 1903 when he brought her to Campabello, his special space, to spend time with his mother. Elenor was the niece of President Theodore Roosevelt. They mairred in 1905. Her uncle President Theodore Roosevelt gave her away. That shy young lady was to become the greatest First Lady in American history. Without her support it is doubtful if Franklin could have even become president. Once president, it was Elenor who traveled from one end of the country, serving as her husband's eyes and ears.

Finances

James Roosevelt left most of his estate to Sara who had money of her own. At the time many wealthy men would leave their estates primarily to their sons. James was, however, not very responsible and Franklin was still a minor. Throughout most of Franlin's life until Sara's death, she held the purse strings. She generously supported Frankline, making possible for him to devote his like to politics without having to make a living. And she set the young married couple up in a luxurios New York brownstone (next door to her own). But she held her money and the inheritance from her husband James all her life.

Grandmother

Franklin and Eleanor married in a notable White House wedding (1905). The young couple moved into a luxurious New York brown stone that Sara purchased for them by Sara, next door to her home. She also became a frequent houseguest, which irritated Eleanor to no end. She interfeared in the decoratiins and furnishing as well as hiring the staff. Perhaps the greatest irritation came when the children arrived. Whenever the children were told they couldn't do something or have some they wanted by Eleanor they would make a beeline for grandmother who often gave her permission.

Adult Years

Even as an adult, Sara mother played an important role in Franklin's life--too great a role for Elenor. When a friend in 1910 suggested that Franklin run for the New York legislature, he replied, "Sounds like a good idea, I'll have to discuss it with mother." Perhap's Sara's last major influence on Franklin was when she stepped in decisively to ensure that Franlkin and Eleanor did not divorce when Eleanor found out about Lucy Mercer.

Polio

Franklin had been a rising star in the Democratic Party. He was nominated for vice-president (1920). The Democrats lost badly, but Roosevely was not blamed. After Franlkin was struck by polio, it seemed the end to a promising political career. At the times, criples were no elected to public office. Sara is generally seen as wanting him to retire retire to Hyde Park where she could take care of him. This is probably because this is the way she was portrayed in "Sunrise at Campbello". This is, however, simply not true. [Ward] Even Eleanor who had a great deal to say about Sara, never accused her of this. Sara did want him to recuperate at Hyde Park which was probably a good deal because of the tension in their New York home. Elennor was a bit like a drill seargeant and didn't approve of his attractive therapist. And Anna was acting up, beccauyse she had to give up her room to Louis Howe. Eleanor did know instictively that a man as active and as engaged with politics would never be happy leading such a life. She encouraged Franklin to reenter politics. She did all she could to keep his name alive within the Democratic Party. This required her to enter politics herself, something she had not done up to that time. Here she was aided by Franklin's polituical adviser, Louis Howe--a man that she had disliked. The two became close friends and allies in helping to forge Franklin's new political career.

Sources

Smith, Jean Edward. FDR.

Ward, Geoffrey. A First Class Temperment.










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Created: 5:16 PM 8/4/2007
Last edited: 7:29 AM 8/12/2007