Franklin Delano Roosevelt at Harvard

F.D.R. Was a Fair Student, An Extracurricular Demon, And a Gentleman-Democrat

Historians differ widely in evaluating Franklin D. Roosevelt's Harvard career. Some find him an average undergraduate; others detect a natural propensity for class leadership. Some emphasize his aristocratic background; others point to democratic tendencies. Some claim he had few friends; others assert he mixed well with people.

Though seemingly contradictory, all these generalizations are in some degree true. Roosevelt was a class leader in extracurricular activities, but he was only an average student. He was a New York aristocrat living on the Gold Coast, yet compared to his Groton friends he had some radically democratic ideas. And while he worked well with people, his liberal notions alienated many of his Gold Coast acquaintances.

F.D.R. achieved his greatest college fame in extracurricular activities. "Any chronicle of Roosevelt at Harvard must inevitably bear much outward resemblance to Stover at Yale," Frank Freidel has said, "with its hero ever striving onward and upward from one extracurricular triumph to another."

The extent of Roosevelt's extracurricular interests can be seen in a list of his activities. He belonged to the Fly Club, the Hasty Pudding, the Institute of 1770, the Dickey, the Signet Society, the Social Service Society, the Political Club, the Yacht Club, the Glee Club, the Memorial Society, the St. Paul's Society, and the Harvard CRIMSON.

In many of these, he held positions of leadership. He helped found the Political Society, he was elected secretary of the Glee Club, he worked his way up from assistant managing editor to managing editor to president of the CRIMSON, and, though defeated for class marshal, he was elected chairman of the Class Day committee.

Crimson Career

Most important of his activities was the CRIMSON. On the paper's 70th anniversary in 1943 F.D.R. said: "I am sure that I voice the sentiment of all that company of happy men when I say that none of them would exchange his CRIMSON training for any other experience or association in college days." The occasion admittedly called for a eulogy. But F.D.R. had earlier remarked: "I must say frankly that I remember my own adventures as an editor rather more clearly than I do my routine work as a student."

Roosevelt's CRIMSON career began on October 15, 1900 when he and about 67 of his classmates answered a call for candidates. Competitions in those days were grueling affairs, and Roosevelt had committed himself heavily to journalism for the remainder of the year. W.R. Bowie, managing editor of the paper when F.D.R. was president, wrote in the 1904 Harvard Yearbook this description of a competition: "The task was heavy, the drain on the candidate's thought and time exhausting. The candidate was everywhere; he was 'the arrow that flieth by day, and the pestilence that walketh in darkness.'"

An erroneous legend persists that F.D.R.'s first important story came through a bold interview with President Eliot. Then, as now, there was a rule forbidding candidates to pester the University's top administrators. But, ignorant of this, the story goes, Roosevelt approached Eliot and asked him how he was going to vote in the 1900 presidential election. The legend has several variations, all of which glorify F.D.R. as a brash, bright young man who charms the story from Eliot through sheer daring.

In 1931, however, F.D.R. wrote: "In some way I was a number of years ago given credit for getting a scoop from President Eliot in regard to the way he was going to vote in the autumn of 1900. The real man who got that scoop was Albert W. DeRoode, now a lawyer in New York City, and he should have the credit and not I."

When the first group of freshmen was elected to the paper in February, 1901, Roosevelt was not among them. It was not until the end of April that he got the story which insured his election. He saw in the Boston papers that his cousin, vice-president Theodore Roosevelt '80, was in Cambridge visiting Professor Lowell, so he and another cousin called T.R. up and asked to see him. The vice-president said he was going to lecture in Lowell's Gov 1 course in Sanders the next morning. He would be glad to see them afterward. F.D.R. raced for the CRIME and reported his story. "Young man," the managing editor is supposed to have replied, "you hit page one tomorrow morning." The scoop appeared, Sanders Theatre was swamped, and F.D.R. gained election that June.

Too Much Credit

Roosevelt boosters have given him more journalistic credit than he deserves. One has said that the CRIMSON was "dull reading until Franklin came along. He gave it a shot of modern journalism that raised its circulation--and the blood pressure of the faculty." And another has exclaimed: "The astounded college awoke. Gossip carried the news of the revived CRIMSON throughout the student body and town. Men who had never read the paper took fresh interest. Well! ...Hm! ...Well! Well!... So the dead have arisen! ...Say, that's an apt bit, and this is a scathing comment, if I may say so--have you read it?"

Actually, Roosevelt was a good, though not a spectacular, Crimed. His fellow editors remember him variously as "a cocky, conceited chap with a great name but nothing else," the best "mixer of claret punch for the semi-annual initiations of new editors," an "energetic, resourceful, and independent" person, and a man with "remarkable capacity for dealing genially with people."

'Lillie of the Valley'