The Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library in Hyde Park, New York

On 30 June 1941 President Franklin Roosevelt addressed a gathered crowd of invited dignitaries to formally open the Roosevelt Library on the Roosevelt family estate at Hyde Park, New York. The process from original, vague idea to completion of the project had taken around six years, but from 1937 FDR had begun seriously to plan for a separate library complex devoted to his presidential years and political career as a whole. In doing so he created a precedent with the first presidential library housing his personal papers accessible to the nation, a model that was to be followed by subsequent presidents (and even by his immediate predecessor, Herbert Hoover).

Roosevelt opened his speech on 30 June with the following declaration:

It seems to me that the dedication of a library is in itself an act of faith, to bring together the records of the past and to house them in buildings where they will be preserved for the use of men (living in the future), and women in the future. A nation must believe in three things:

It must believe in the past
It must believe in the future
It must, above all, believe in the capacity of its own people so to learn from the past that they can gain in judgment in creating their own future.

For the President, the creation of publicly-accessible archives such as this was a fundamentally democratic act in a time when democracy was under attack around the world: “We believe that people ought to work out for themselves, and through their own study, the determination of their best interest…. It is, therefore, proof that our confidence in the future of democracy has not diminished in this nation and will not diminish.”

Roosevelt’s powerful rhetoric at the opening was the culmination of a long and often problematic process of political negotiation to make his library a reality. The National Archives (NA) had been created by Congress during Roosevelt’s first presidential term, in 1934, to bring order to and centralize the nation’s federal record-keeping. While FDR supported this move, by 1937 he had decided to aim for a separate institution that would still be administered by the NA apparatus. Roosevelt wanted an archive to cover his entire collection of personal papers, something that fell far beyond a depository of materials purely related to the federal government. Thinking at the time that he would be retiring at the end of his second term in 1941, the sketches for a building in a ‘New York Dutch style’ (simple exterior, steep rooves, simple porches) were drawn up, and the President began to canvas historians on how best to organize its contents.

Professor Samuel Morison of Harvard, FDR’s alma mater, argued strongly that all Roosevelt’s papers should be kept in one location, wherever that may be. He also argued for a fifty-year closure rule, a piece of advice that fortunately for historians was not followed. Throughout this process, Roosevelt remained adamant that his papers should not be placed in a geographically remote location (the suggestion of Warm Springs, Georgia was put forward) and that they should not be overshadowed by larger collections (ruling out the Library of Congress, the National Archives, and even places such as Harvard). In this way, in his inimitable style, FDR steered the process in the direction of his first goal, a Hype Park-based library on his own grounds. Morison participated in a lunch on 10 December 1938 that included other formidable guests such as Charles Beard, Helen Taft Manning, Archibald MacLeish and Felix Frankfurter to discuss the proposals, after which a press conference was held to announce the plans to the public. Here FDR emphasized that no previous President’s papers were intact as a complete collection available to the public. The scale of the enterprise was also a factor: whereas Theodore Roosevelt used to receive around 400 letters a day, for FDR it was upwards of 4,000.

Roosevelt also sought to ensure limited resistance from within Congress. The library would be funded by private subscription, and then handed as a gift to the nation for administering by the National Archives. Financially, the project was without problems. Ultimately, 28,000 Americans donated a total of $400,000 towards construction and outfitting of the building. Politically it was a different story. Passing the Senate on 19 April 1939, the legislation for the government’s management of Hyde Park library was defeated in the House due to a lack of a two-thirds majority (a requirement imposed on the bill by FDR’s opponents). Missouri Republican Dewey Short thundered that “only an egocentric megalomaniac would have the nerve to ask for such a measure,” but Majority Leader Sam Rayburn twisted arms in his familiar style and secured the necessary two-thirds support. The nation had agreed to its first presidential library, less than two months before the opening of World War II.

A final twist was in store. FDR planned a public ceremony on 24 July 1939 to celebrate the passing of the bill by Congress, but his mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt, title-holder to the land, had left for Paris without transferring power of attorney. The ceremony went ahead, despite the press being aware that the real signing of the deed to the library’s land would have to take place on another occasion.

The final step was the choice for the library’s first director. FDR managed to keep this process on track despite the outbreak of war in Europe and the increasingly threatening situation in East Asia. It is noteworthy that Roosevelt pushed at various times to appoint his trusted aide, Harry Hopkins, as first director, probably as a means to keep Hopkins close by Hyde Park as a political confidant in stressful times. But Hopkins, recovering from a severe illness, did not seem interested to back up FDR’s lobbying on his behalf, and the decision in the end went to National Archives administrator Fred Shipman.

Throughout the war Roosevelt was still able to devote some time to library affairs, displaying his sincere belief in the importance of history as a guiding source of inspiration for a nation. Visitors grew from 46,000 in 1941-1942, its first year of opening, to 91,586 in 1946 and 304,526 in 1947, by which time the war was won, FDR has passed away, and his Hyde Park estate had taken on a much greater national significance.

The Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library set a crucial precedent the nation. It sought to keep history as a non-partisan endeavor, above politics, a goal that has so far been more or less held to by subsequent presidents. It furthered the professionalization of governmental record-keeping and boosted the role of the National Archives in the safe-guarding of the nation’s past. But it also focused attention on the US President as a figure apart, allegedly standing above the political turmoil and personally symbolizing the nation for a given period. Just as FDR capitalized on the Great Depression and World War II to expand the power and scope of the executive, so too did his presidential library draw attention to the increasing power of the federal government centered on the White House.

Sources:

Donald R. McCoy, “The Beginnings of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library,” Prologue: The Journal of the National Archives (Fall 1975), pp. 137-150.

‘Materials related to the Founding of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library,’ October 1974, Collections of the Roosevelt Institute for American Studies, Middelburg, The Netherlands.