Franklin Delano Roosevelt was born into privilege. Though the Roosevelts were not as wealthy as their neighbors -- the Astors, Rockefellers, and Vanderbilts -- the family lived in a large house with several servants in an upscale neighborhood. They also had enough money that they did not have to work for a living if they didn't want to. Most of the Roosevelt wealth was inherited wealth.
Franklin's Father's Family
Franklin's father's side of the family made their money buying and selling things. From the time Claes Martenszen van Rosenvelt emigrated from Amsterdam in the 1640s, the family lived in or near New York City, and as the wealth of the city grew, so too did the Roosevelt wealth. Franklin Roosevelt is descended from one of Claes's sons; his wife, Eleanor's ancestor was a different son. According to Conrad Black, author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, most of the family money was made in dry goods, real estate and sugar imports. Wealth was passed down from generation to generation, with each adding to the amount. Franklin's father made his money by investing in coal and railroads. He left Franklin an ample trust fund.
Franklin's Mother's Family
Franklin's mother's family were the Delanos. Their wealth was several times as great as that of the Roosevelts'. The wealthiest member of the Delano family was Warren Delano, the father of Franklin's mother, Sara. As a young man, Warren Delano apprenticed himself to importing firms in New York and Boston. At the age of twenty-four, he moved to Canton, China. There his amassed a considerable fortune exporting goods from China to the West and importing opium from India to China. Warren passed his wealth to his daughter, who brought it into her marriage to Franklin's father. When Franklin's father died, however, the Delano family money stayed under Sara's control. During her lifetime, she doled it out out as she saw fit to Franklin's family.
Eleanor's Family Money
Eleanor Roosevelt came to her marriage with Franklin with a larger trust fund than he had. At a time when a small-town merchant would consider himself a success if he made $300 per year, Eleanor's trust fund gave her $7,500 per year. (Franklin's was $5,000 per year.) Eleanor's family wealth was also inherited, coming originally from trade, some of it dating back to the Dutch East India Company. Her father, who was an alcoholic, burned through the family money more quickly than most, but he did set up a generous trust fund for his wife and children before dying of alcohol abuse and a fall from a window at the age of 34.
Though the Roosevelt wealth was inherited, it could be said that much of it came from good social connections. Franklin attended prep school at Groton before going to Harvard. At both schools he spent far more time and energy cultivating his social connections than he did working on his grades. Like his father and many of the Roosevelt men before him, he married a woman with more money than he had. He found good jobs, first in law and then in politics, because he knew people and because those people knew the value of Franklin's social connections. Like the Roosevelt men before him, Franklin knew how to give and receive investment tips. They all knew how to make the most of a good contact.
- Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom; Conrad Black
- New York Times: The Opium War's Secret History
- Park City Daily News: Eleanor Roosevelt Admits Warren Delano Made Money in Opium Trade
- FDR; Jean Edward Smith
- Eleanor Roosevelt: Volume 1, 1884-1933; Blanche Wesen Cook
- The Independent Institute: FDR: The Man, the Leader, the Legacy
- Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images