Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Boyhood

Figure 1.--Franklin Roosevelt is pictured here at 8 or 9 years of age about 1890 in a kneepants sailor suit. Available images suggest he often wore sailor suits. I'm not sure if the child in the foreground in a sailor dress is a boy or girl.

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.


Franklin D. Roosevelt was born in Hyde Park, New York on January 30, 1882, the son of James Roosevelt and Sara Delano Roosevelt. Both were scions of wealthy families. His parents each in their own destinct way had a huge impact in molding their son's character. HPC and HBC biographies are largely short summaries of presidents and other important individuals. We do, however, atempt to look at the various individual's childhood in detail. An individual's character is formed in childhood. Often we can not unlock the family privacy to fully understand the dynamic involved. But with Franklin Roosevelt we know a great deal and the figure that emerges as the greatest figure in life is his mother Sarah. While Sarah may have caused Eleanor constant irritations, the American people can think this young mother for forming the boy who became president.


The care of young children born into wealthy families in the 19th century was commonly put in the hands of servants. Women were more concerned with the social whirl. A good example of this was the boyhood of Winston Churchill, Franklin's great war-time comrade. Not only did Winston's beautiful mother not want to be bothered with him, but his father didn't even like him. In many cases these children developed much closer relationships with their childhood nurse maids than their own mothers. This was not the case of Franklin Roosevelt. Not only was his father devoted to him, but his mother Sara was extremely reluctant to delegate his care to others. Sara later explained, "At the very outset he was plump, pink and nice. I used to love to bathe and dress him, although I took the responsibility of lifting and turning him rather seriously. .... Still, I felt ... that every mother ought to learn to care for her own baby, whether she can afford to delegate the task to some one else or not." [Ward, p. 110.] Franklin's father hired an English nurse to care for Franklin after he was born. She proved to be overly intrusive and Sara was not having it. She was quickly discharged. Finally a "gentle" Scottish woman named Helen McRorie was hired. She got on well with sara and cared for Franklin for 9 years. Franklin came to call her "Mamie". [Ward, p. 111.] The proud parents took Franklin every where. Sara's diary was full of entries, "Baby went with us." Sara carried him and held him. She breast fed him, on demand. [Ward, p. 112.] This was not common for wealthy families. Few babies could have felt more secure in his parents love.


One of the most engaging characteristic of FDR as president was his outward even exuberant personality. This was the personality his children remember even before the American public came to know him. Surprisingly as a little boy, Franklin was painfully shy. He was constantly in the company of his parents and Mamie and Elespie (nurses). He would trot after his mother when she made her daily rounds. He would become silent, even in front of kindly servants, and hide behind his mother's skirts. He would become terrified even with the briefest separation from his mother. His parents took him on their trips to Europe, but on a trip to Mexico, considered unhealthy for small children, he was left at home. A little older at the time, he behaved stoically, but was very relieved when they returned and latched on to Sara. [Ward, pp. 114-115.]

Hyde Park

Although they were not wealthy on the scale of the families like the Astors. Carnegies, Rockefellers, and others, James Roosevelt possessed a substantial financial resources. As a railroad executive, he had his own private car. In the winter they rode in a sleigh that Tzar Alexander II had given Napoleon III. (James Roosevelt bought it at auction after the failure of the Commune in Paris.) by late 19th century standards, the Roosevelts of Hyde Park led a comfortable, gracious existence, and young Franklin's life was in many ways idyllic. He was brought up in a sheltered, protective environment. He was educated by a series of governesses and indulged by his father. Franklin had a secure and pleasurable if rather structured and controlled childhood. His half brother was an adult when Franklin was born, and Franklin faced no rivals for the love of his parents. He did not extensively play with the local children. In fact he was treated as a young prince. Life at Hyde Park swirled around Master Franklin as he was called. The worker's on the estate would doff their caps to him, even as a young boy when he he rode around, often dressed in a sailor suit and leggings. It seems a picture right out of Little Lord Fauntleroy This is hardly the boyhood one would imagine for a Democratic masses that was loved by low income and dispossessed of American society.

President Roosevelt's boyhood home is a popular related attraction at the Hyde Park historic site. The house, on a 188-acre estate, contains an office which the President referred to as his "Summer White House". From this room he broadcast the last speech of his fourth campaign for the Presidency on November 6, 1944. Famous guests at the house included King George VI of Great Britain and of course Prime Minister Churchill. The house contains abundant memorabilia from all periods of the President's life. As his wife Eleanor remarked, "He always felt that this was his home, and he loved the house and the view, the woods, special trees...."

Daily Life

The young Franklin led a very structured, thoroughly supervised life. He was awoken at &;00 and had breakfast at 8:00. There were lessons from 9:00-12:00 after which there was an hour for play before lunch at 1:00. Then there were more lessons until 4:00. He had 2 more hours to play games his mother approved. Supper was at 6:00 and bedtime was 8:00. This schedule was observed day after day. He had no real privacy. Sara followed him everywhere. At age 8 1/2 while at Algonac (his maternal grandmother's home), Franklin wrote his father to proudly relate, "Mama left this morning, and I am to take my bath alone!" Of course the next day presumably Sara again returned to supervising his bath. We do not know when she finally allowed him to bathe himself without supervision. Sara believed that it was a parent's responsibility to keep a child's mind "on nice things, on a high level." [Ward, p. 125.] Franklin was not given an allowance. Of course there was no place to spend money at Hyde Park and all his toys, books, and clothes were provided. He was given spending money on trips. Uncle Warren Delano gave him his first dog, a big red setter named "Marksman". It was the first of several large dogs that enlivened his boyhood. Franklin had to first promise to be responsible to feed and care for it. [Ward, pp. 125-126.] Sara later wrote that one day Franklin seemed rather sad and after little prompting said "Oh, for freedom!." Sara remembers being rather shocked. After some discussion with her husband, they decided that perhaps they had structured him life too much. Franklin was thus told that the next day he could do whatever he wanted. Franklin disappeared the next day, but came home hungary, dirty, and ready for bed. No one knows what he got up to, but the next day on his own he returned to his familiar schedule. [Ward, p. 128.]


As far as we know, Franklin was never spanked as a boy. His father was not a disciplinarian. Once Franklin had put effervescent powder in his governess' chamber pot, causing her to go screaming down the hall to his mother, convinced that she had some horrible disease. His father gave him a stern lecture, suppressing his amusement. Franklin was dismissed with the admonition, "Consider yourself spanked." Mother was the disciplinarian in the family, but the tool was disappointment, never physical measures. She would not get angry with him, but when necessary tell him how disappointed she was in him. She was careful to always do this in private. He was not a perfect child. Once at 3 years old he had been dangerously naughty. His mother demanded to know, "Franklin, where is your obedience." Little Franklin replied, "My 'bedience has gone upstairs for a walk." His parents did have a few basic rules for the boy's saftey, but there were not a lot of "don'ts" in his boyhood. Sara explained, "... we took a secret pride in the fact that Franklin instinctively never seemed to require that kind of handling." [Ward, pp. 126-127.]

Young Squire

Any assessment of the Roosevelt's at Hyde Park always dwell on how James Roosevelt was the squire and treated deferentially by the staff who tipped their hats not only to Mr. James, but Master Franklin as well. Franklin would accompany his father on almost daily tours around the estate. Franklin would normally be outfitted n a sailor suit and riding his pony "Debbie". Not only did Franklin grow up in this aristocratic environment, but among the Roosevelts and Delanos there was considerable distance toward racial and ethnic minorities, especially Jews and Blacks. This was not unusual at the time, it was in fact how most Americans felt. What is interesting that perhaps Franklin Roosevelt's greatest achievement as president was realigning the American political system. The Democratic coalition of working people, Jews, Catholics, and ethnic minorities brought these groups into the mainstream for the first time, bringing about fundamental changes in the political system.


Franklin went with his parents during the summer to the seaside in New England, or to Campobello Island off the coast of New Brunswick. The family visited Campobello when Franklin was just 1-year old . His father was attracted by the bracing sailing. Friends had brought property there and Franklin's father decided to join them and build a "cottage" of his own. Franklin spent almost every summer beginning at age 3 at Campobello. Some of his most pleasant boyhood memories came from Campobello as was to be the case of his own children. It had been a fishing village, but after the construction of several grand hotels, it became a fashionable tourist destination. It was at Campobello that Franklin could be a boy. He played with both the local children (mostly low income) and the summer children (wealthy visitors). It was with them that he romped around the island, doing what most American boys at the time did. He also learned to sail and fell in love with the sea. The impact of Campobello can be seen in the fact that as an adult he returned time and time again to Campobello and saw to it that his children experienced the same childhood pleasures that he had at Campobello. Franklin's mornings on Campobello were devoted to his studies for which he had tudors. I assume the same regime was followed at Hyde Park. I'm not sure if he dressed differently for his morning lessons. He may have well dressed differently given the fact that in the afternoon he would set out to explore the largely undeveloped island at Campobello. Franklin did not attend school until he went away to boarding school at about 12-13 years of age.


Franklin while having a half brother was essentially raised as an only child because James was so much older. Despite this and the fact that he was tutored does not mean that he had no childhood friends. His parents carefully selected his friends. Virtually all were children of his class, primarily family and children who lived on nearby estates. There were brother James' children, Taddy and Helen. There was also the Delano cousins. His best friend as a boy was Archie Rogers who lived on an estate close by, Crumwold. Archie had a younger brother Edmund. Their father, Colonel Archie Rogers, was an executive at Standard Oil who married well. Franklin would daily ride his pony over to see Archie. They dug tunnels in the snow and sailed together. They learned their ABCs together under Archie's governess in Crumwold's schoolroom. Franklin would write Archie on the family's many trips. At age 7, Franklin wore Archie from New York City, "We are going to se Barnom's Circus and it is going to march through the strets and we are going to see it. .... Snd love to Edmund." Tragically a few months later, Archie died from diphtheria. [Ward, p. 139.] Franklin sometimes played with the other children on the estate, always outside--never inside. Presumably Sara did not think it appropriate for such children to come into the home. Franklin especially liked the stable boys, presumably reflecting his interest in horses. With the boys on the estate, it was clearly understood who was in charge. After watching Franklin building a fort with one of the estate boys, she later suggested that he allow the other boy to give the order for a while. He protested, "Mummie, if I didn't give the orders, nothing would happen." [Ward, p. 141.]


There were also many trips to Europe. They visited England, often to stay with Rosy who had a home there. Franklin would play with his cousins Tadddy and Helen. They also visited Germany where his father felt that spas were very important for his health. Franklin when he was 9 years old even attended school for a few weeks while in Germany. One of the great tragedies in FDR's life, was that he died before a planned visit to England could be arranged to celebrate the great Allied victory in Europe with his war time comrade Prime Minister Churchill and the royal family. He more than any other single individual made the victory possible that saved England and in fact all of Europe. The visit would have capped this stunning achievement. While this was not possible, his parents did bring Franklin along for many trips to Europe, both England and the Continent. Franklin learned to speak French reasonably well, but primarily due to a tutor more than his European travels. He also learned some German. The trips were part of the normal social activities of a well to do American family at the time, but also because his parents thought the European spas beneficial to his father's health.

Figure 2.-- Franklin is pictured here in 1891 on one of his daily rides around the family estate with his father. His mother stands at the right holding a dog. I think this might be Markman, the dog that Franklin's older brother gave him. Note the dogs and horses, common fixtures in Roosevelt family photographs.

Relationship with his Father

While Sarah is often mentioned in any history of FDR, his father is often ignored. In fact, his father was a powerful influence on the young Franklin. While his father was elderly, he was 54 years old when Franklin was born, they were reportedly very close. One biographer writes, "Mr. James was never distant, and for the first half of their lives together, at last, he and Franklin were vigorous and almost inseparable companions." [Ward, p. 120.] Franklin called his father "Popsy", which suggests some of the nature of their relationship. His father was a gifted sportsman. Despite the age difference, the two went riding, sailing, sledding, rowing, tobogganing, and skating. It was his father who taught him these activities. His father also departed his love of animals, especially horses and dogs. In particular the two shared a love of Campobello. His father was still very active while Franklin was a boy. They would daily tour the estate on horseback. It was said that many of the New Deal programs grew out of the experiences and discussions with his father. This changed abruptly in 1890 when Franklin was 8 years old. His father suffered a mild health attack. After this he was no longer capable of all the activities he once shared with his son. This also changed Franklin's behavior. He was put under even more pressure to be a good boy, so as not to trouble his father. It is also at this time that Franklin and his mother are brought increasingly together in their mutual desire to protect and safeguard their ailing father and husband. On occasions when Franklin suffered boyhood accidents, a steel rod cutting his forehead or a rod smashing a tooth, he tried to keep it from his father so as not to trouble him. [Ward, pp. 144-145.]

White House

James Roosevelt took Sara and Franklin to Washington in 1887 for a 6 week stay and Franklin's first view of the White House. President Grover Cleveland was a friend of and James Roosevelt had been an important supporter. Cleveland was the first Democrat elected since James Buchanan in 1856. Cleveland offered Roosevelt diplomatic posts abroad, but he declined. Father at the end of his stay took 5-year old Franklin to say good-bye to the President. President Cleveland patted him on his head and told him, "My little man, I am making a strange wish for you. It is that you may never be President of the United States." [Ward, p. 124.]


At an early age Franklin became interested in birds. On his 11th birthday he asked his parents for a gun and with it began a collection of all the birds native to Dutchess County. While it sounds rather irresponsible to our more ecologically correct age, that was the way naturalists at the time studied wildlife, they shot them! Even Audubon shot some of the birds he drew. Franklin by the time he entered college, he had collected and identified about 300 different species. Even today, this remains the most comprehensive collection ever made of Duchess County birds. Warren Delano, Franklin's grandfather, was so impressed with the lad's knowledge of birds that in 1894 he gave him a life membership in the American Museum of Natural History. Franklin spent hours there looking at the exhibits and attending lectures. He became acquainted with some of the curators and sent them specimens of Dutchess County birds which they lacked.


Ward, Geoffrey. Before the Trumpet: Young Franklin Roosevelt, 1882-1905 (Harper and Row: New York, 1985), 390p.


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Created: April 18, 2003
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Last edited: 8:17 PM 8/4/2007