- Historic Sites
F.D.R: The Last Journey
Roosevelt, like Lincoln and Wilson, died fighting for his ideals.
August 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 5
With an assurance undergirded by his sense of identity, Roosevelt moved from Groton and Harvard into the muckraking decade of Theodore Roosevelt, into the simmering politics of the Hudson Valley, into the reformist and idealistic mood of the Wilson years. It was with this assurance, sometimes bordering on arrogance, that he could confront and overcome his domestic adversaries of the 1930’s—and do so without personal hatred for a Huey Long, a Carter Glass, a Norman Thomas, an Al Smith, or a Wendell Willkie. He reserved his hatred for people in his own social world, such as Hamilton Fish, who he felt had betrayed him; and they reciprocated.
He embraced the ideology of freedom not with the demonic passion of the true believer who possesses a creed and ends up being possessed by it, but with the easy assurance of a man who slowly fashions his political faith, borrowing from the thinkers and political leaders of the day, reshaping his ideas as he undergoes new experiences and lives through changing times—and hence can, when necessary, keep his distance from that faith’s possessive demands. He overcame his adversaries not only because he outwitted and outmaneuvered and outstayed them but also because he outsermonized and outmoralized them. Only a man deadly serious and supremely self-assured could have spent the time Roosevelt did appealing to old-fashioned moralisms of home and school, the golden rule and the Ten Commandments as interpreted by Endicott Peabody (the headmaster of Groton), the maxims of freedom as practiced by Wilson and Al Smith, the “simple rules of human conduct to which we always go back,” as he said in 1932. So certain was he of the Tightness of his aims that he was willing to use Machiavellian means to reach them; and his moral certainty made him all the more effective in the struggle. He used the tricks of the fox to serve the purposes of the lion.
People in northern Virginia and Washington felt they had never known such a lovely spring. On the warm and windless morning of Saturday, April 14, the lilacs and azaleas were in full bloom. The funeral train rolled through woods spattered with showers of dogwood, crossed the Potomac, and pulled into Union Station. Thousands waited outside in the plaza, as they had so often before. Anna, Elliott, and Elliott’s wife entered the rear car; President Truman and his Cabinet followed. Then the soldier’s funeral procession began—armored troops, truck-borne infantry, the Marine band, a battalion of Annapolis midshipmen, the Navy band, WACS , WAVES , SPARS , women Marines, then a small, blackdraped caisson carrying the coffin, drawn by six white horses, with a seventh serving as outrider. Army bombers thundered overhead.
“It was a processional of terrible simplicity and a march too solemn for tears,” William S. White wrote, “except here and there where someone wept alone. It was a march, for all its restrained and slight military display, characterized not by this or by the thousands of flags that hung limply everywhere but by a mass attitude of unuttered, unmistakable prayer.”
In front of the White House the coffin was lifted from the caisson during the playing of the national anthem, carried up the front steps, and wheeled down a long red carpet to the East Room. Here, where Lincoln had lain, banks of lilies covered the walls. The President, Cabinet members, Supreme Court justices, labor leaders, diplomats, politicians, agency heads, crowded into the room and spilled over into the Blue Room. At the close of his prayer Bishop Dun paused and quoted from F. D. R.’s First Inaugural: ”… Let me assert my firm belief that the only thiner we have to fear is fear itself. …”
Eleanor Roosevelt rose and left the room; then the others filed out. Later, upstairs, she came into Anna’s room, in anguish. She had heard in Warm Springs, from a relative, about Lucy Rutherfurd’s visits; she had heard that Lucy had been with her husband when he died. Her daughter must have known of this; why had she not told her? Mother and daughter confronted each other tensely. Then, as always, Eleanor Roosevelt steadied herself. She returned to the East Room, had the casket opened, and dropped in some flowers. Then the casket was sealed for good. Later in the evening the funeral cortege went back to Union Station. Crowds still lined the avenues. The presidential train, with seventeen cars filled with officials and politicians, pulled out before midnight.
The train had brought Roosevelt’s body up through Virginia, the land of Washington and Jefferson; now, from the capital all the way to Hyde Park, he would be following the route of Abraham Lincoln’s last journey, and people would be thinking of the strange parallels between the two—the sudden, unbelievable deaths, the end for each coming in the final weeks of a terrible war, both in the month of April—and of things that seemed to be more than coincidence. Both men had been perplexing combinations of caution and courage, of practicality and principle; both had taken their countries into war after faits accomplis had allowed it; both had acted for black Americans only under great pressure.
Through the long night, under weeping clouds, the train moved north, through Baltimore to Wilmington to Philadelphia. And everywhere it was as it had been eighty years before: