What Happened to a Little Boy Who Defied the President?

FDR as a little boy with President Grover Cleveland.

Franklin D. Roosevelt as a little boy with President Grover Cleveland.

President Obama with school children in the Oval Office (EPA)

President Obama with school children in the Oval Office (EPA)

In the course of his often stressful, unpredictable days, President Obama welcomes the chance to meet many young children, who come with questions and blunt remarks known to amuse and delight him, to which he usually responds with some optimistic advice.

But Presidents never know how the kids will take that advice – or who those kids may turn out to be.

A portrait taken of James Roosevelt and his son Franklin in Washington, D.C. in 1887.

A portrait taken of James Roosevelt and his son Franklin in Washington, D.C. in 1887. (FDR Library)

James Roosevelt had become a primary investor in an American engineering project to build a sea-level canal across Nicaragua, but its success depended on negotiating with that nation’s government. Consequently, he took his wife Sara Delano and five-year old son Franklin Delano with him to live for several months in Washington, D.C. while Congress was in session from December of 1886 through the spring of 1887.

They made the temporary move so he could persistently lobby members of Congress and the Cleveland Administration to engage the Nicaraguan government into talks that would lead it to approve the intended canal.

Both descendants of wealthy families who had settled New York State early on, their primary home was an estate called Springwood in the Hudson River Valley, and there they doted on their only child.

By his first wife Rebecca Howland, James Roosevelt had a namesake son, who was nicknamed “Rosy,” but he was 28 years older than his half-brother Franklin and already married to Helen Astor, and they lived a life of luxury and leisure, largely off her family’s even greater fortune.

This allowed James and Sara to focus solely on conscientiously raising Franklin by exposing him early on to the worlds of power and money, including an extensive sojourn in Europe.

Franklin with his father on horses, his mother posed with a family dog. (FDR Library)

Franklin with his father on horses, his mother posed with a family dog. (FDR Library)

During their winter in Washington, they rented a home at 1211 K Street, then a fashionable residential district, not only plunging into the heart of high society as notable leaders themselves, but often taking along their precocious, little boy to adult events. “Everyone is charming to us,” Sara Roosevelt wrote of their stay, “Even Franklin knows everybody.”

The recent White House bride Frances Cleveland met FDR's parents during the 1887 winter social season.

The recent White House bride Frances Cleveland met FDR’s parents during the 1887 winter social season.

Among those he knew well, Roosevelt counted President Grover Cleveland and his 22-year old First Lady, ravishing Frances Folsom Cleveland who had only just married him in a White House ceremony the previous June.

Cleveland meeting with Mark Twain at the Albany Governor's Mansion.

Cleveland meeting with Mark Twain at the Albany Governor’s Mansion.

When Cleveland ran for Governor of New York in 1882 and then for President two years later, James Roosevelt had been one of his heaviest and earliest contributors. During their time in Washington, James and Sara Roosevelt were frequently entertained by Grover and Frances Cleveland.

Although James turned down the President’s offer to name him Minister to Holland, he was pleased that Rosy, also a Cleveland contributor, had accepted the position of First Secretary to the American Legation at Vienna.

Before they returned to New York in the late spring of 1887, James Roosevelt did seek one minor favor from the President – for his other son. He wanted Grover Cleveland to simply meet and speak with young Franklin D. Roosevelt.

President Cleveland at his office desk, in the present-day Lincoln Bedroom, where he advised little FDR.

President Cleveland at his office desk, in the present-day Lincoln Bedroom, where he advised little FDR.

The father brought his boy to the second floor of the Executive Mansion and into the President’s private office. It had been a particularly stressful day for Cleveland.

“My little man,” Grover Cleveland sighed, patting little Franklin D. Roosevelt on the head, “I am making a strange wish for you.  It is that you may never be President of the United States.”

Cleveland died in 1908.

Twenty-four years later, Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected to his first term as President.

It was allegedly his mother who had first begun to tell the story of the meeting shortly after it occurred.It first went public during his presidency.

When later asked if she’d ever imagined that young Franklin would have ended up defying the President’s wish to become one himself, however, Sara Delano Roosevelt made clear her view of politicians, generally, and Presidents, specifically.

FDR and the domineering woman he lovingly called "Ma-mah." ( FDR Library)

FDR and the domineering woman he lovingly called “Ma-mah.” ( FDR Library)

“Never!” she quipped. “The highest ideal I could hold up before our boy [was] to grow up to be like his father: straight and honorable, just and kind.”

Former First Lady Frances Cleveland in the 1930s. Buffaloa nd Erie County Historical Society

Former First Lady Frances Cleveland in the 1930s. (Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society)

As for by-then former-First Lady Frances Cleveland, she lived until 1948, three years beyond that of President Roosevelt, having witnessed the unprecedented twelve years of his presidency.

Married a second time, to a professor Thomas J. Preston who had taught at her alma mater Wells College, she had been rigorous in keeping herself apart from any political controversies throughout the more than half a century she lived past her time in the White House.

Still, Frances Cleveland Preston had remained  a good, loyal Democrat.

She was eager to welcome Eleanor Roosevelt when that First Lady came to deliver a speech in Princeton, where the Clevelands had retired.

She voted for F.D.R. in 1932 when he ran for and won his first term.

She again voted for him in 1936, when he ran for and won his second term.

She refused, however, to vote for him in 1940, when he ranfor and won his unprecedented third term.

When she later revealed this to her nephew Jack Cadman, he found it odd, especially since she went on to vote for Roosevelt’s fourth term, which he won in 1944.

“Your uncle was entirely against the idea of a President seeking and having a third term,” she quipped.

“But he never said anything about a fourth term.”

FDR at work as President.

FDR at work as President.

 


Categories: First Families, Presidents, Presidents Together, The Roosevelts

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5 replies »

  1. Carl, who would have thought this photo would have forecast the future? Cleveland’s strange wish did not come true. Thanks for another fascinating story.

  2. Isn’t the picture that is supposed to be of FDR’s half brother, actually a picture of his son, James Roosevelt II?

    • The identification of him was originally marked as “the President’s brother,” but looking at the clothing it seems to mark him, as you correctly suggest, as the half-nephew of FDR. I will correct the caption to reflect this – thank you for not just noticing but making the effort to write.

      • Wait, is it a picture of FDR’s half-nephew “Tadd”? I thought it was a picture of FDR’s own son, James Roosevelt II. It’s actually pretty confusing because the Roosevelt family was apparently fond of repeating names without using a straightforward system of attaching roman numerals or ‘Jr’ haha. For example, James Roosevelt I, James Roosevelt II, James Roosevelt III, James Roosevelt Roosevelt, and James Roosevelt Roosevelt Jr. were all different people. But here’s my source for the ID of the photo above:

        http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/hec2009010228/

        • Very confusing indeed for that is most definitely not a picture of the President’s son James. Perhaps it is the other gentleman mentioned in the caption – and not a Roosevelt, James or otherwise, at all! I will remove the image from my website until another more definitive one crosses my desk. Thanks for the lead on this.

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