The Wonderful Husband


The Roosevelts enjoyed themselves at Novar, one of the Ferguson family’s ancestral homes, and at Raith, a second Ferguson house near Edinburgh. It rained a good deal, and Franklin had begun to study in the mornings for his makeup examinations, but he managed to find opportunities to play golf at St. Andrews, to survey the tenant farms, and to take long, slow walks with Eleanor through the heather. Sir Ronald and Lady Helen Ferguson, Robert’s older brother and sister-in-law, were enthusiastic supporters of the Liberal party, and British politics was a constant topic of conversation at their table. The Fabian Socialists Sidney and Beatrice Webb came for lunch one day. Eleanor identified them to Sara as writers of “books on sociology.” “Franklin discussed the methods of learning at Harvard with the husband,” she wrote, “while I discussed the servant problem with the wife!”

Twice during their stay with the Fergusons, Franklin again had to come to Eleanor’s rescue. At tea alone with Lady Helen one afternoon, she was asked, “Do tell me, my dear, how do you explain the difference between your national and state governments? It seems to us so confusing.” Eleanor, the niece of the President of the United States, could provide no answer. “I had never realized that there were any differences to explain…,” she wrote; the curriculum at Allenswood, the French-run boarding school she had attended briefly in England, had not included much information about her homeland. “I knew that we had state governments, because Uncle Ted had been Governor of New York State. My heart sank, and I wished that the ground would open up and swallow me.”

At that moment Franklin strolled in, back from a long walk with Sir Ronald. While Lady Helen poured Franklin a cup of tea, he did what he could to explain the American system. “He was adequate,” Eleanor remembered, “and I registered a vow that once safely back in the United States I would find out something about my own government.”

Later in their stay Eleanor was asked to open the local flower show. “Any young English girl would have been able to do it easily,” she wrote later—by which she meant any English girl of her own class—”but I was quite certain that I could never utter a word aloud in a public place.” She could snip the ribbon, thank the crowd, and declare the show open, she told Franklin that morning, but that was all; he would have to do the real speechmaking. Perhaps privately exasperated at having again to compensate for her timidity, he did not consult her on what to say, sitting in their room by himself and scribbling out his remarks in pencil, with many erasures and emendations. The result was Franklin Roosevelt’s first known speech as an adult, delivered before a small gathering of crofters. It started off well enough—Franklin was already good at creating a bond with his audience, however tenuous—but before he had finished his remarks the respectful attentiveness of his listeners must have been placed under considerable strain: “I must thank you again for your very great kindness and hospitality and tell you how much we appreciate this opportunity of meeting you here. Indeed, neither of us can think of you as foreigners or strangers for several of Mrs. Roosevelt’s ancestors were Scotchmen & my own great great grandfather was in exile to America after the Scotch Rebellion. And I was fortunate, too, in having a Highland nurse so that I passed my early years with kilts on the outside and oatmeal and scones in the interior. For especially good conduct a piece of shortbread was my reward, and I can assure you that my desire to be good [was] irreproachable.”

“Mr. Ferguson has asked me to tell you something of our American gardens, but judging from amateur observations on two short walks here on Thursday I must confess that the average of your gardens seems somewhat higher than of ours. I have been especially struck by the general neatness of your flower gardens, as well as by the taste in the selection and arrangement of the flowers. I imagine that with us the relative value of the land is lower than it is here, and that this may account for our tendency to spread our gardens out too much. But in our village gardens, especially in New England, the resemblance to yours is more marked. Perhaps with us the tendency is more to combine the flowers and fine vegetables and that vegetables form a rather larger proportion of our diets. Our average garden contains not only potatoes and cucumbers and peas, beans, onions and carrots, but also the small beet, the egg-plant, the yellow sweet potato, the lima bean, and the Indian sweet corn. And even most of the small gardens have two or three glass frames, an inexpensive way of raising in a climate like this, or like that of our northeast coast, many vegetables which the poor soil and bad weather would otherwise destroy. Perhaps one reason, aside from the cheapness compared to meat, why vegetables play such an important part in America is that our womenfolk excel in cooking them. Instead of water, we cook them nearly always in milk, and this of course makes them more nutritious, besides bringing out the flavor.