The origins of the RIAS go back to 1982. That year marked both the bicentenary of Dutch-American diplomatic relations and the centenary of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's birth.
The Institute is located in the capital of Zeeland, a region that, for centuries, has acted as one of Europe's primary windows unto the Atlantic world. It is also the ancestral homeland of the Roosevelt family, which hailed from the island of Tholen in the eastern part of Zeeland. Around 1650 Claes Maartensz. van Rosevelt and his wife Jannetje made the crossing to New Amsterdam, buying a piece of land on Manhattan island. From these beginnings sprang the two wings of the family: the 'Oyster Bay' Roosevelts that included Theodore and Eleanor, and the 'Hyde Park' Roosevelts to which Franklin belonged.
To celebrate the anniversaries of 1982, and to recognize the Roosevelt family's roots in Zeeland, the Province of Zeeland and the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute of New York (FERI) organized the first international Four Freedoms Awards ceremony in Middelburg. The first Awards were presented to, among others, Her Royal Highness Princess Juliana of the Netherlands. Since then the Awards have been presented in Middelburg every two years, and notable laureates have included Václav Havel (1990), Mary Robinson (1998), Nelson Mandela (2002, pictured), the European Court of Human Rights (2010), and most recently, Angela Merkel (2016).
Out of this transatlantic partnership came a plan for establishing the Roosevelt Study Center as a permanent archive and library for the study of US history. Together, the Theodore Roosevelt Association, the Province of Zeeland, and the FERI enabled the Center to open its doors on 19 September 1986. Present at the inauguration were the renowned historian and presidential advisor Professor Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., FDR's youngest son, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr., and Ambassador William J. vanden Heuvel (pictured).
At the inauguration, Arthur M. Schlesinger observed: 'This is the century that witnessed the emergence of the United States as a world power, and the three Roosevelts played crucial roles in the American journey from the wings to the center of the international stage.' Looking ahead, he stated that 'The Roosevelt Study Center will be the central European repository for the basic documents essential to the public history of the United States.'
The new Center also received recognition from President Ronald Reagan, who sent a letter of support, praising the legacy of the Roosevelts: 'Peace and justice were their constant objectives.' 'The establishment of the Roosevelt Study Center,' he noted, 'is not only a tribute to these three great Americans, but is also a significant part of the bond, that connects the European and American democracies.'
In 2016, 30 years after its founding, the Center entered a new partnership together with the University of Leiden. This brought a new name – Roosevelt Institute for American Studies – and a new purpose – to become a graduate school for US history.
The Center and Institute have always been located in the twelfth-century Abbey at the center of Middelburg, the Netherlands.