October 18, 2017

FDR’s Theology of Place

FDR shared with George Washington, his fellow Episcopal vestryman, a strong theology of place.  Both grew up by and spent their lives along a particular river, attached to a particular home, intricately connected to a network of family, friends, church and neighbors, and informed powerfully by the culture and assumptions of that neighborhood.

For Washington it was the Potomac, Mount Vernon, Truro Parish of several congregations including Christ Church and Pohick Church, Virginia’s Tidewater and its landed gentry who were his formative and lifelong associations. For FDR it was the Hudson, his family estate of Springwood at Hyde Park, the landed gentry of the Hudson River Valley, and the parish of Saint James Episcopal, of which he was a lifelong communicant.

Both FDR and Washington lived the duration of their lives in houses built by their fathers. Both styled themselves farmers as their primary identities despite their other larger accomplishments, and both saw their estates as restorative refuges from the world. Washington was born along the Potomac at another house but FDR never fully left the house where he was born. His bedroom as an adult faced the river and mountains he loved.

It’s said that late in life FDR found mental comfort by recalling childhood memories there such as sledding down its snowy riverside slopes in Winter. He also gained a lifelong fear of fire by as a boy watching his aunt burn from an oil lamp, later prompting him as an adult to keep bulbs of fire retardant in every room and refusing to lock his bedroom door, even at the White House. His paralysis only enhanced his apprehension.

FDR recovered partly from polio at his Hyde Park home, never regaining use of his legs, but arduously refining his appearance of walking by hobbling with crutches and braces down the long driveway. His mother hoped he would as an invalid retire to the home they shared, but FDR’s ambition prevented any retreat from politics. Yet Springwood was always his political headquarters. He spent election night at the dining room table receiving returns, and greeted applauding neighbors outside his front door.

When voting FDR listed his occupation as tree farmer. He reputedly knew the major trees on his estate and over years planted many thousands as part of his tree plantations. He was also a lifelong ornithologist who collected birds as a boy and watched for birds as an adult. When crippled he found mobility and freedom by driving his completely hand operated convertible on the estate, his carefree motoring typically terrifying to passengers like Churchill and the Queen of England.

FDR entertained at Hyde Park his most esteemed associates, including Churchill and the British royals, with whom he established rapport that facilitated the new special relationship between Britain and America. Churchill found Springwood to be a fascinating window into the persona of the man whose support he and his nation required. The walls are covered with naval art, which Churchill as former Naval Sea Lord surely appreciated. Other guests included Madame Chiang Kai-shek and Canada’s McKenzie King. Norway’s attentive Crown Princess Martha, an FDR favorite, found refuge there in exile from Nazi occupation of her country.

After his polio FDR was introduced by his mother to distant cousin and neighbor Daisy Suckley, whose own Hudson River estate he would visit. They often toured the region together across nearly a quarter century, and their years of correspondence often cite their mutual love of the Hudson Valley, in which their families dated back generations. They reveled in gossip about the valley, which FDR found a relief from more somber talk during his presidency, especially during the war. FDR intimately knew the local history and knew his neighbors. During my recent visit to Suckley’s estate, the tour guide recalled FDR had a special nickname for her father.

I’ve visited the Roosevelt home at Hyde Park several times, including last week, and never fail to learn and understand more about the man with each visit. This most recent visit I hiked from his stone Top Cottage, a daytime retreat from the busy big house, to his wife Eleanor’s own stone cottage Valkill, her refuge from FDR’s mother, to Springwood itself, about four miles along an old farm lane that FDR often drove. It reminded me of hiking the riverside woods of Mount Vernon, where Washington similarly for decades found solace inspecting his lands on horseback.

Like Washington, FDR worshiped at the closest Episcopal church, Saint James, on whose vestry he served, even as president. He took the British royals there, among other guests, and his father was buried in its graveyard, alongside his first wife, later joined by his second wife, FDR’s mother. It’s said a strong theology of place requires or at least is enhanced by sacramentalism, which both FDR and Washington experienced in their lifelong Anglican worship.

FDR and Washington, because of and not despite their strong theology of place, rooted so deeply in a particular culture and neighborhood, were men of the world. They were not at all parochial, and they each politically abhorred local favoritism. They were both strong nationalists and internationalists, without being cosmopolitans. Their rich attachment to home and land and people provided the confident foundation for broader loves and attachments, perhaps unlikely without those roots.

These particularities of FDR’s and Washington’s theology of place echo the particularities of the biblical revelation, whose personages also are providentially shaped, although with far more cosmic significance of course, by the particularities of their often strong home attachments. In that revelation, the Chosen People seek and cherish their Promised Land. Washington often liked to quote Scripture about living contentedly under his own vine and fig tree.

FDR like Washington instructed that he be buried at his home, where he built the first presidential library for the public, while also deeding his cherished home as a museum for the public. It opened to waiting crowds exactly one year after his death, who were greeted at the door by his widow as their tour guide.

3 Responses to FDR’s Theology of Place

  1. Richard Hyde says:

    Great reflections. Thank you, mark!

  2. Mike says:

    Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty not First Sea Lord as cited.

  3. Churchill was not a former Naval Sea Lord. He had been First Lord of the Admiralty, a civilian political appointment equivalent to our Secretary of the Navy. The three Sea Lords are the top uniformed positions in the Royal Navy, equivalent to our CNO and his immediate subordinates. BTW, Churchill wouldn’t even have been eligible for a Sea Lord appointment; he was a career officer in the Army, not the Navy.

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