American history, biographies, book reviews, FDR, James MacGregor Burns, presidential biographies, Presidents, Pulitzer Prize
Published in 1956, “Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox (1882-1940)” is the first volume in James MacGregor Burns’s two-volume series on FDR. The second volume (“Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom (1940-1945)” won the 1971 Pulitzer Prize. Burns was a historian, biographer and professor at Williams College for nearly 40 years. He died in 2014 at the age of 95.
One of the first in-depth biographies of Roosevelt, “The Lion and the Fox” covers FDR’s life through his election to a third presidential term. Ostensibly comprehensive in scope, Burns’s biography treats the various phases of Roosevelt’s life with uneven emphasis. Just one-fourth of the book’s 478 pages are allocated to the first 50+ years of FDR’s life; the first two terms of his presidency are the clear focus of this self-professed “political biography.”
Unfortunately, lost in this emphasis on FDR’s political life, is any meaningful discussion of his personal life. Benito Mussolini seems to make as many appearances in the book as his wife, Eleanor, and I recall no mention of the breakdown in his marriage or the unique political partnership they eventually forged.
Only slightly more effort is made to describe Roosevelt’s relationships with important political figures and advisers such as Winston Churchill and Louis Howe. Important initiatives such as Lend-Lease frequently come and go with the speed of a supersonic jet, hardly leaving any impression of their successes or failures. And important sites such as Warm Springs and Campobello are barely mentioned.
Given the book’s emphasis on the first two terms of Roosevelt’s presidency one might expect an artful and engaging review of his First Hundred Days. But while each of the components of FDR’s frenetic New Deal program makes an appearance, the overall discussion is disorganized and often difficult to follow and fully understand.
But for all its shortcomings, this book has much to offer the patient reader. Among early chapters, Burns’s discussion of FDR as New York’s governor is excellent: descriptive, analytical and engrossing. Several chapters later Burns offers one of the most detailed and insightful analyses of the Court Packing episode I’ve ever read.
Somewhat past the book’s halfway point Burns devotes time to analyzing Roosevelt’s political skills and virtues for public office. This proves a fascinating review of the politician who was able to grow and adapt so adroitly. Later, Burns offers an engrossing review of the race for the 1940 Democratic presidential nomination. Here, for nearly the first time in the book, a group of characters come to life in a dynamic way.
The biography concludes with an epilogue surveying FDR’s last two terms and considering his legacy (such as it existed in 1956). The summary of his last terms in office is far too brief to be of much advantage but the analysis of his mark on the executive branch is useful despite the lack of in-depth discussion of his years as a wartime president.
Overall, James MacGregor Burns’s “Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox” is most notable for what it is not: an academic study of his early presidency, a character study or strictly a political biography. At various times it is each of these but never with complete success. Standing on its own, “The Lion and the Fox” falls short; whether a compelling conclusion to this series can make up for lost time remains to be seen…
Overall rating: 3½ stars
Matt Oaks said:
The Lion and The Fox is a great read! I am reading Theodore Roosevelt and The Making of American Leadership by Jon Knokey. What a leader Teddy was, one of the best. Knokey’s book is great, makingofamericanleadership.com is his site.
Tim McBride said:
I agree 100% with the review….uneven and no depth on certain aspects of his life and certain events during his presidency. 3 stars
I have to admit I was hoping for much more given Burns’s reputation. Oh well. That’s why I’m reading multiple biographies of each president(!)
Have a question after reading the reviews on James Macgregor Burns 2 volumes.Even though and older work and a bit dated probably,does Macgregor Burns 2 volumes cover more in some areas in it than Jean Edward Smith does in his?
My recollection (and apologies in advance, but it almost seems a lifetime ago I was reading FDR!) is that Burns is more detailed and provides greater breadth/depth than JES. But having said that I think the JES book packs a healthy punch given it is 1/3 shorter than the series. I also recall the JES biography being more interesting and colorful. If you are just reading for content, I’d probably go with Burns. If you are looking for maximum bang for the buck (efficiency) as well as great writing, I would go with Smith.