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Franklin D. Roosevelt, the nation's 32nd president, is best known for his New Deal programs and his leadership during World War II. Roosevelt appointed several liberal Supreme Court justices who would later rule on First Amendment issues. Roosevelt contrasted the rights in the U.S. Bill of Rights to the lack of such rights in enemy countries during the war. (Roosevelt photo taken as 1944 Official Campaign Portrait by by Leon A. Perskie, CC by 2.0)

Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) was not only the longest serving but also one of the most consequential presidents in U.S. history.

Born and raised in New York, Roosevelt earned an undergraduate degree from Harvard and a law degree from Columbia. Subsequently elected to the New York Senate, he also served as assistant secretary of the Navy under President Woodrow Wilson and as the 1920 Democrat vice-presidential candidate. A year later he was struck with polio, but he was elected as governor of New York before gaining the Democrat nomination for president and serving as the nation's 32nd president from 1933 to 1945. His presidency was marked by both the New Deal programs and World War II.

Roosevelt developed a fairly cozy relationship with the press, and was, through the medium of radio, able to take his message directly to the American people through what he called “fireside chats.” Roosevelt was the first to be invited to address the National Press Club when he became president-elect in 1932.

In addressing the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America in 1933, Roosevelt further stressed his hope that “the churches and the Governments, while wholly separate in their functioning, can work hand in hand. Government can ask the churches to stress in their teaching the ideals of social justice, while at the same time government guarantees to the churches—Gentile and Jewish—the right to worship God in their own way.” In 1939, Roosevelt became the first U.S. president to appoint a personal representative (Myron Taylor) to Vatican City

Elected at a time of economic depression, Roosevelt advanced numerous federal programs that some feared might threaten civil rights and liberties by making individuals too dependent upon the government. Although Roosevelt rejected the idea that he should assume dictatorial powers to deal with the Great Depression, he proposed a “New Deal.” His first 100 days in office were especially known for the number of new federal agencies that Congress created with his encouragement. His most important legislative accomplishment may have been the adoption of a Social Security system to provide income for the disabled and the retired.

Roosevelt appointed several liberal Supreme Court justices

Roosevelt did not have the opportunity during his first term to appoint any Supreme Court justices, and the conservative court majority invalidated many of these programs (some of which had been hurriedly drafted) as unconstitutional interferences with property rights.

Shortly after his first presidential reelection, Roosevelt proposed expanding the size of the Supreme Court by adding one justice for every member 70 or older, which had not been part of his presidential platform. Although Congress rejected this proposal, a majority of the Supreme Court began upholding most of the programs he had proposed, and Congress adopted a more liberal retirement policy for justices who wanted to retire. 

In time Roosevelt successfully nominated Hugo Black, Stanley Reed, Felix Frankfurter, William O. Douglas, Frank Murphy, James Byrnes, Robert Jackson and Wiley B. Rutledge, almost all of whom were regarded as liberals. In 1938, Justice (later chief justice) Harlan Fiske Stone announced in footnote four of United States v. Carolene Products Company, 304 U.S. 144 (1938), that the Supreme Court would concentrate on protecting rights, such as those contained in the First Amendment and other provisions of the Bill of Rights, rather than focusing on property rights. 

Roosevelt viewed America as defender of free world against Nazism, fascism

As Europe became engulfed in World War II, Roosevelt shifted focus from domestic to foreign concerns.

Even before the U.S. entered the war, Roosevelt arranged a deal to aid Great Britain by supplying carriers for bases. At his request, Congress narrowly approved a conscription law barely a year before the Japanese attack on the U.S. naval base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Viewing America as the defender of the free world against Nazism and fascism (albeit allied with communist Russia), in a speech that he delivered in 1941, Roosevelt articulated four basic freedoms, the first two of which were articulated in the First Amendment. These were: freedom of speech and expression, freedom to worship God in one’s own way, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. 

Roosevelt contrasted America’s ideals in Bill of Rights with its enemies

During Roosevelt’s Administration, the first ten amendments were increasingly referred to as the Bill of Rights, which were used to contrast American ideals with those of its enemies. In dedicating the Thomas Jefferson Memorial on April 13, 1943, Roosevelt quoted Jefferson as observing that “I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”

Although the Supreme Court had decided that a number of First Amendment freedoms applied to the states as well as the national government, the process of incorporating other provisions of the Bill of Rights into the due process protections of the 14th Amendment largely took place during the era of the Warren Court.

Consistent with many of the New Deal programs that he had proposed, in his State of the Union Address in 1944, Roosevelt further advocated what he called a second bill of rights. These focused on positive social and economic rights such as employment, the right to a fair income, decent housing, medical care and education rather than on the negative rights (freedom from government interference) listed in the Bill of Rights.

Roosevelt pushed for the establishment of the United Nations as a way of securing peace and human rights, and his wife, Eleanor, worked on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that was adopted in 1948. 

Roosevelt ordered Japanese Americans into relocation camps

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor stirred deep fears, particularly in western states where numerous Japanese immigrants maintained dual citizenship. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 removing and detailing more than 100,000 Americans of Japanese descent in relocation camps, which the Supreme Court approved in Korematsu v. United States, a precedent that it has subsequently repudiated.

Although the Japanese detention remains a major embarrassment, Roosevelt’s attorney generals, Robert Jackson and Frank Murphy (both of whom later served as Supreme Court justices) and Francis Biddle consistently sought to protect First Amendment freedoms. Because the Japanese had initiated the war with an attack on the U.S., there was generally far less opposition to World War II than to World War I. 

Although Congress had established the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1938 and had adopted the Smith Act of 1940 to criminalize advocacy of the violent overthrow of the government (especially by Communists), the U.S. was allied with Russia during World War II, and the U.S. did not experience a “Red Scare” like that between 1917 and 1920 until the Cold War.

During Roosevelt’s Administration, the Supreme Court decided in Minersville School District v. Gobitis, 310 U.S. 586 (1940) that school children could be expelled from school if they failed to salute the U.S. flag (a practice contrary to the beliefs of Jehovah’s Witnesses). The court later reversed course in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette , 319 U.S. 624 (1943) in a stirring opinion authored by Justice Robert Jackson.

Roosevelt died in office in 1945 and was succeeded by his vice president, Harry S. Truman. The 22nd Amendment, adopted in 1951, prevented future presidents from serving for more than two terms.

John Vile is a professor of political science and dean of the Honors College at Middle Tennessee State University. This article was published on Nov. 29, 2023.

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