[An earlier version of this post appeared in 2013; updated January 30, 2023]
“Who was the most influential President?”
That was the question once posed to me by a tenth grader during a Skype session I had with a classroom in rural Pennsylvania.
This is a twist on the “greatest President?” query often asked during these visits. My answer usually involves the four men I graded with an A+ in Don’t Know Much About the American Presidents –Washington, Lincoln and the two Roosevelts.
But my answer focused on Franklin D. Roosevelt, born on this day: January 30, 1882. See “FDR’s Birthday” from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum.
In 1918, Franklin D. Roosevelt survived a bout of influenza during the 1918 Pandemic. How history might have changed had he not.
I believe that FDR left the greatest impact on contemporary America. His “New Deal” legacy transformed the country, whether you like it or not. It is a permanent influence best exemplified by a State of the Union address given in January 1941, usually known as the “Four Freedoms” speech.
In it, FDR called for many of the basic elements of the “social safety net” that remains at the heart of political controversy today.
For there is nothing mysterious about the foundations of a healthy and strong democracy. The basic things expected by our people of their political and economic systems are simple. They are:
Equality of opportunity for youth and for others.
Jobs for those who can work.
Security for those who need it.
The ending of special privilege for the few.
The preservation of civil liberties for all.
The enjoyment of the fruits of scientific progress in a wider and constantly rising standard of living.
These are the simple, basic things that must never be lost sight of in the turmoil and unbelievable complexity of our modern world.
In a country still limping out the Great Depression and facing the prospect of the growing war in Europe, FDR also said something else rarely heard from politicians today:
I have called for personal sacrifice. I am assured of the willingness of almost all Americans to respond to that call.
State of the Union (January 6, 1941)
Learn more about FDR and his life and times at The Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, New York, his birthplace.
You can also read more about Franklin D. Roosevelt in Don’t Know Much About History and in Don’t Know Much About the American Presidents.