Have you ever imagined what it must be like to be President of the United States? You’d have to govern an entire country! Just think, you would sign laws that affect over 300 million people. You would be in charge of one of the strongest militaries in the world. You would give speeches to millions of people!
Now, imagine if you had to do all of that from a wheelchair. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the thirty-second President of the United States, had to use a wheelchair because his legs were paralyzed. This meant that he couldn’t walk or even stand. How did that happen, you may be asking? And how did he still become president regardless of his challenges despite that? Let’s rewind and find out!
Roosevelt grew up on a large farm in New York State. Since he lived in the country, Roosevelt was taught at home by tutors when he was young. Because of this, he didn’t have a lot of friends his age, and he was very shy.
But Roosevelt was close with his family. He also had a distant older cousin named Teddy who he really admired. Teddy was outgoing and popular. When Roosevelt started high school, Teddy announced that he wanted to become a politician. A politician is someone who gets elected to a government position.
That sounded pretty cool to Roosevelt. He decided he wanted to be a politician just like his cousin. What he didn’t realize is that to be a politician, he’d have to talk to large crowds of people. He’d have to get those crowds to like and trust him. That meant A LOTa lot of socializing.
There was one big problem: Roosevelt was not particularly social. He had a hard time making friends. He preferred to spend his time reading books and studying. He studied so hard, in fact, that he got accepted into Harvard just as his cousin Teddy had done. Harvard was a top college and a good choice for people who wanted to study law.
While Roosevelt was in his first year at Harvard, his cousin Teddy became the most important politician in the country: he was elected President of the United States. If you want to learn more about Teddy Roosevelt be sure to look up our episode about him. Roosevelt was proud of his cousin, no doubt. But how could he compete with him? Roosevelt decided to work even harder. He was determined to keep up with his superstar older cousin and forge his own path to the presidency.
As president, Teddy made hundreds of decisions every day! People counted on him to keep the country safe. To be elected, he’d had to convince millions of people that he was the best person for the job. But Teddy had always been popular.
Being popular was not something Roosevelt had ever been very good at.
He was not athletic. He always cared more about grades than being cool. How could he get his classmates at Harvard to like him? He hatched a plan. He started to join clubs and meet people. He even became the editor of the Harvard Crimson newspaper!
As editor of this newspaper, Roosevelt reported on events that happened not just on campus but around the world. He began to learn more about politics and the government. He started to realize which politicians he agreed with and which ones he didn’t. His cousin Teddy was a Republican, but Roosevelt decided he would prefer to be a Democrat.
Roosevelt married a woman named Eleanor and graduated with a law degree. He was ready to give politics a try. So, when he was twenty-eight, he ran in an election to be a state senator for New York and won. As a senator, Roosevelt helped create and vote on laws for his state. Being a state senator was a good first step. But Roosevelt still had more work to do.
After only one two-year term as a state senator, Roosevelt received a life-changing call! It was the new President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson. Wilson asked Roosevelt to move to Washington D.C. to help run the United States Navy. This was huge! Roosevelt was excited to take this job.
His dream of being president suddenly seemed within reach. Roosevelt’s career was moving in the right direction. He was getting experience in politics and learning about different parts of government. He was meeting important politicians. He was even gaining popularity among Americans. His dream of being president was within reach.
Then, in 1921, Roosevelt went to New York for a family vacation. One day, he was relaxing on a boat, when without warning, he fell into the ice-cold water. His legs felt numb. Soon after that, he felt lots of pain in his back and his legs. He started to lose control of his body. He couldn’t even move his face. For a short period of time, he was almost entirely paralyzed and unable to move any parts of his body.
The doctors told Roosevelt that he had a disease called polio. This disease affected his spinal cord, which is what allowed his arms, legs, and all the other parts of his body to move. It was unusual for an adult to get polio. Since there was no cure for it, Roosevelt thought that he would never be able to move again.
How was Roosevelt ever going to control a country or command a military if he couldn’t move? He couldn’t stand. He couldn’t walk. He couldn’t even wave or smile at people. It seemed like his political career was over.
However, Roosevelt did not want this disease to decide when he should retire. He wanted to stay in politics. He was determined wanted to become president. Roosevelt decided that he would fight to recover to reach his goal. Nobody knew how long it would take or if it was even possible! And he’d be away from politics for a long time. Would anybody remember him after he was away for so long?
He needed people to remember his name. He had an idea. His wife, Eleanor, was well-liked and very intelligent. Maybe his wife could help remind people of his accomplishments in political circles. Plus, he could write letters to important politicians all over the country. He would make sure he wasn’t forgotten.
It took Roosevelt years to recover. He had to work hard to regain the use of his body parts. Roosevelt had to learn how to move again by swimming. Since he weighed less in the pool, it was easier for him to try lifting his arms and legs again. At first, he needed a lot of help, but he did get stronger. He had braces fit for his legs that allowed him to stand up.
By 1928, Roosevelt had made a lot of progress. He had built back a lot of his muscles, but he was still paralyzed in his legs. He realized he would never be able to walk again. Could he be the powerful, admirable figure that past presidents like his cousin were known for if he was stuck in a wheelchair?
Roosevelt did what he’d always done: use his intelligence and determination to make progress his hard work. In 1928, seven years after he first got sick, Roosevelt made his political comeback as Governor of New York.
This same job title had belonged to his older cousin Teddy almost 30 years earlier. Roosevelt’s path to the presidency was back on track.
Just like Teddy, Roosevelt was well-liked by the people of New York. He ran for re-election in 1930, and he won again. He liked being governor, but still, he wanted a promotion. He wanted to be president.
In 1932, Roosevelt ran for president of the United States. He won the election by beating Herbert Hoover. He became the thirty-second President of the United States, joining the long line of famous, powerful presidents, including his older cousin Teddy.
Roosevelt didn’t let a wheelchair stop him. He did all of the things that presidents are supposed to do. He showed his country and the world that he was a strong and capable leader. When he gave speeches, Roosevelt used leg braces, a cane, and usually the arm of a family member to walk to the podium. Instead of using the bulky, ugly wheelchairs of the time, Roosevelt built his own sleek wheelchair using a dining chair with bicycle wheels attached to it. He could even climb stairs using just the strength of his arms like a gymnast!
Roosevelt showed the country that a disability did not mean he couldn’t be just as powerful and admirable as any other president. In fact, he served nearly four terms, making him the longest-serving president in history!
Fortunately, a few years later, a scientist named Jonas Salk discovered a cure for polio. His vaccine made it so no one had to go through what President Roosevelt did.
Roosevelt’s path to the presidency was not an easy one. But he never gave up on his dream or his desire to match Teddy’s success. Sometimes, being the younger cousin isn’t such a bad thing, after all.