A remarkable leader, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the longest serving U.S. president, elected to serve four terms. In his time in office, he navigated the United States through some of the most difficult occasions in its history.
Succeeding Herbert Hoover, FDR was tasked with pulling the country out of the Great Depression. Contending with the worst economic depression the United States has ever faced, Roosevelt created the New Deal, a package of radical relief and reform policies, aimed righting the economy and lifting up those in need. Bold and idealistic, many of FDR's measures, from insurance programs like Social Security, to regulatory bodies like the SEC, still exist today.
Though monumental in its challenges, the Great Depression gave way to an even more daunting trial, as World War II broke out in Europe and the Pacific. Guiding the United States into war following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, FDR mobilized the country like never before. Calling up millions of troops and throwing the full resources of the home front into the war effort, FDR’s partnership and leadership proved invaluable to the Allied forces.
Passing away just after he began his fourth term, FDR left a lasting impact on the United States and the world, more broadly. Despite disgraces that cannot be overlooked, like Japanese internment policies, Roosevelt remains one of America's most admired presidents and one of history's most fascinating figures. The books below are some of the best FDR biographies that help to illuminate 32nd president; his life, his politics, and his mark on history.
The Definitive FDR
A two-volume set containing James Macgregor Burns’s Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox (1882–1940) and Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom (1940–1945), The Definite FDR gives readers a revealing look into the life of FDR and his unwavering leadership through unprecedented and unimaginable trials.
Chronicling his upbringing, early years in politics, and first two terms as president, The Lion and the Fox recounts how FDR moved through his formative years and came to be an adept politician capable of reaching the presidency and addressing the problems that awaited him in office. Comprehensive and engaging, Burns writes “a sensitive, shrewd, and challenging book” (New York Times).
Picking up after his first two terms, the Pulitzer prize and National Book Award winning, Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom looks deeply at FDR as he confronted the tumultuous years of WWII and prepared for the uncertainty that would follow in the post-war years. Offering a fascinating portrait of a leader faced with unthinkable decisions, the award winning book shares a profound and riveting account of Franklin Roosevelt.
The Three Roosevelts
Chronicling the impacts Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor Roosevelt had on one another, The Three Roosevelts provides a unique look into the prominent political family. From their background within the upper echelons of New York society, to their decisions of national and international importance, The Three Roosevelts traces the relatives through decades of shared history in "a detailed study ... written with impeccable scholarship” (Houston Chronicle).
Related: Theodore Roosevelt's Strenuous Life Extended Far Beyond a Single Speech
The Coming of the New Deal
The second volume of Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s three-book series, The Age of Roosevelt, The Coming of the New Deal focuses on FDR’s transition into the presidency. Elected amidst the Great Depression, Roosevelt tried untested means to save the country from economic collapse. Tracing his reforms and his hopeful visions, Schlesinger offers a detailed look into the politics and processes FDR leveraged to move the nation toward recovery. Described by The New York Times as “monumental… authoritative… spirited… one of the major works in American historical literature,” The Coming New Deal places the politics before the person in its examination into a critical period of FDR’s life.
In 1940, the world was on an edge. The Nazis had begun to invade Europe and divisions within the United States grew more intense. As the hysteria of the war reached new heights, FDR faced off against the Republican candidate Wendell Wilkie in the year's presidential elections. In a vibrant and exciting book, Dunn explains the context of the 1940 elections, maps the trajectories of the competing campaigns, and underscores the significance the race's culmination to provide a unique examination of a critical stretch of American history and a revealing snapshot of President Roosevelt.
A national bestseller, praised as the go-to biography for the memorable president, Jean Edward Smith’s FDR goes beyond the surface, to share Roosevelt’s life story in rich detail. Smith brings FDR to life by exploring his relationships with close confidantes, like Eleanor Roosevelt and Missy LeHand; challenges he overcame, like his struggles with disability; and failures that remain controversial, like Japanese internment, his attempt to pack the Supreme Court, and his tenacious use of executive power. Following his entire life through, Smith's FDR creates a full and balanced picture of the remarkable man.
Traitor to His Class
Another national bestseller, Traitor to His Class pulls together archival documents, speeches, letters, and the records of those who knew him well to offer a perceptive and well-researched account of FDR. Brands’ Traitor to His Class offers a wealth of information on FDR’s political life, from his start in politics, to his handling of the Great Depression, to his choices during World War II and relationships with world leaders, like Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin.
Franklin and Winston
On opposite sides of the Atlantic, Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill came together with the fate of the free world and the outcome of WWII in the balance. Sharing a unique and world changing friendship, the two remarkable leaders met and corresponded frequently. They mapped the course of the war, shared the weight of their place in history, and built a close-knit alliance. In a narrative that is as human as it moving, Jon Meecham recounts their strikingly similar backgrounds, their family ties, and their dynamic relationship.
Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life
Chosen as a best book of the year by NPR and The Washington Post, Robert Dallek's Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life examines the personal and political insights that helped FDR effectively shape the presidency, the nation, and his own enduring legacy. Dallek argues that FDR became a successful politician and president by recognizing the importance of consensus, the benefits of a long-term approach to governance, and the power wielded by the executive.
No Ordinary Time
In a story that is as touching as it is compelling, Doris Kearns Goodwin's Pulitzer Prize winning No Ordinary Time covers the lives of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt during the second World War. Offering perspective on their individual lives, their marriage, and their respective work during the war, Goodwin tells a richly textured and fully detailed account of happenings within the White House and America's homefront as FDR led the country through WWII.
Related: 20 Influential Women in History You Need to Know About
Once again a contentious topic within the news, court packing has a long history, most notably associated with FDR. Describing his battle to pack the Supreme Court with appointees who similarly believed in a "living constitution," Jeff Shesol traces FDR's efforts to expand the court following its dismantling of his New Deal programs in 1935. Diving into a significant and controversial chapter of Roosevelt's presidency, Shesol's Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs. The Supreme Court was named a Notable Book by the New York Times.
A First Class Temperament: The Emergence of Franklin Roosevelt
Following up on his account of FDR's youth in Before the Trumpet: Young Franklin Roosevelt, Geoffrey C. Ward's A First Class Temperament describes FDR's ascendance to the presidency. It follows FDR's journey from a sheltered upbringing, through his, at times, harsh political dealings, to his election to highest office in the land. Going beyond his public profile, A First Class Temperament also shares FDR's personal struggles, from coping with polio to his strained relationships with his wife and children, to fully chronicle the years that helped to establish one of the United States' most memorable leaders.
War and Peace: FDR's Final Odyssey D-Day to Yalta, 1943-1945
The final volume of his three-book series FDR at War, Nigel Hamilton's War and Peace zooms in on the final years of FDR's life. Having led America into WWII, FDR became involved in the conflicts most elaborate and crucial strategies. He not only supported the U.S. led D-Day invasions, but was able to look past the ongoing bloodshed and plans for a historic counter attack, toward a time of eventual peace. Tracing his role in directing the course of war and laying the groundwork for post-war stability, primarily through the United Nations, War and Peace describes FDR's impact in two vital years that changed the course of history.
Featured photo of Franklin Roosevelt campaigning in October of 1944: Wikimedia Commons