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Episode 19 – Louis XIV versus Franklin D. Roosevelt

Today’s episode will compare the tenure of two leaders, the Sun King of France, the longest reigning monarch in European history, Louis XIV against the longest-serving president of US history, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Born on September 5, 1638, at the Chateau de Saint-Germain-en-Lay to King Louis XIII and Anne of Austria, Louis Dieudonne, the future King Louis XIV was considered a gift from God as his mother had born only still-born children during the 23 years of marriage to her husband. 

His father died when he was a mere four-years-old. Louis XIII, knowing he was gravely ill of tuberculosis, named a regency council to serve as regent to his son instead of the more traditional naming of his wife Queen Anne in that role. She was not to abide by her late husband’s edict and had the will annulled by the Parlement de Paris on May 14, 1643. She was now the sole regent. The young boy was to remain very close to his mother until her death in 1666.

During the early part of his reign, the Thirty Years War was raging on in Europe, from 1618 until the Peace of Westphalia was signed on May 15, 1648. Louis was 9 years old. Peace would not last very long as a civil war was to break out in France known as the Fronde. It came out right after the peace treaty and was started by parts of the French nobility, hardened by years of combat. 

This revolt, led by Gaston of Orleans, The Grand Conde and Armand de Bourbon, Prince of Conti lasted until 1659 with the institution of absolute monarchism winning out. With Queen Anne at the helm, she tried to make the case that King of France ruled by way of divine rights given to him directly from God. Louis would see this happening as a growing boy which would lead him to despise Paris and the nobles who threatened him and his mother.

When Louis reached the age of majority on September 7, 1651, at the age of 13, the country’s finances were in a shamble, mostly because of the wars that his father fought as well as the embezzlements that had gone on for years by Cardinals Mazarin, Richelieu, and Nicholas Fouquet. The government was also plagued by inefficient taxation methods which Louis had reformed. From 1661 to 1665, the French treasury went from being in debt to having a surplus. The problem was, most of the taxes were paid by the peasants as there was a deal from the past whereby the king was free to raise taxes without consent as long as he did not tax the nobles. This was to haunt his successors, especially Louis XIV who was to pay the ultimate price, his life.

In 1660 he was made to marry his cousin, Maria Theresa of Spain. This marriage was to help secure the peace between Spain and France who were on opposite sides of the Thirty Years’ War. Of the six children she was to give birth to, only one, Louis, the Grand Dauphin, would make it through childhood. She was a devoted wife as he was a devoted husband for the first year of their marriage, but after that, Louis became a serial philanderer, having numerous mistresses, some of whom were to bear him countless illegitimate children.

Louis believed that this was normal as he was king, and he could do as he pleased. When he was a child, he once wrote, “Kings are appointed by God, and they may do as they please.” Years later, he made the statement, “L’etat c‘est moi!”I am the state. By the time Louis was 22, there were actually title given to the official royal mistress, maitresse-en-titre.

While researching the life of the Sun King, my head spun trying to figure out who was his mistress when and what kind of influence did they have or not. His own mother, Anne, hand-picked one mistress, Louise de la Valliere to distract him from his affair with his brother in law, Philip, Duc d’Orleans wife, Princess Henrietta. 

Louise would have four children with the King, starting with the first one born in 1663 and the last in 1667. A new woman caught Louis’ eye, one Francoise-Athenais, the Marquise de Montespan. She was accused by some of using witchcraft to seduce and entrap the king.

Aside from bedding women, the one thing that defined Louis’ reign is the wars he led France into. The three major ones were the Franco-Dutch War of 1672 to 1678, the War of the League of Augsburg also known as the Nine Years’ War of 1688 to 1697 and the War of the Spanish Succession of 1701 to 1714. 

After the Franco-Dutch War, Louis XIV became the most powerful ruler in Europe. The French were the leading force and was the second most populated country, with only Russia having more people. The King’s aggressive foreign policy was a mirror of his own personality. The problem was that the cost of his way of doing things was enormous. By the end of the Nine Years’ War, France was in an economic crisis and almost broke.

All the while, Louis was also exerting greater control over the Catholic Church in France. In 1682, the Declaration of the Clergy of France gave him more power over the church at the expense of the Pope. Unless the king approved of a papal edict, it was invalid. This greatly enraged the Pope, Innocent XI.

Concurrently to all the wars and declarations, Louis XIV was building his grand palace, Versailles. Earlier I mentioned how the king despised Paris. Because of this, he built the new Palace about twenty kilometers outside the capital. If you have not visited the place, you must go. When I was an exchange student in France in 1972, I was staying in a suburb of Paris, Meudon, which wasn’t far away. I went there many times and was awed each time. 

What was interesting about Versailles and how Louis used it. He made the nobles he so detested along with anyone who wanted his favor to stay at the palace. The king would watch them, making mental notes to himself about their behavior. He also had their letters opened as well. Here is an interesting quote about this, “Moreover, by entertaining, impressing and domesticating them with extravagant luxury and other distractions, Louis not only cultivated public opinion of him, but he also ensured the aristocracy remained under his scrutiny.”

Despite Louis’ battles with the Catholic Church, he was a strong believer in Catholicism over Protestantism. In 1598, the Edict of Nantes, signed by King Henry IV of France, Louis’s grandfather, gave the Huguenots, also known as Calvinists, freedom of religion. The Edict of Fontainebleau, signed by Louis in 1685, revoked the rights forcing many Huguenots to leave France or be forced to convert to Catholicism. Some members of my father’s side of the family came to Germany fleeing the persecutions of the Protestants.

The War of the League of Augsburg, then the War of the Spanish Succession began the downward spiral of France’s power in Europe. The battle of over the succession of the King of Spain post-Charles II’s death was to leave France broke and humiliated. The war would cost the lives of over two million people as well as significantly weakening his country.

The war ended in August of 1714, just 13 months before the Sun King would die. Louis XIV would die painfully of gangrene, likely due to diabetes, on September 1, 1715, four days before his 77th birthday. He ruled France for 72 years. Louis outlived his son, so while dying, he named his five-year-old grandson, Louis the XV, as his heir.  

Now for our Put It Into Perspective segment.

Since Louis ruled for so long, I’m going to share what was going on the in the years before his death. The first Mardi Gras parade in America was held in what was to be known as Mobile, Alabama, Peter the Great moved the capital of Russia from Moscow to St. Petersburg, a Jacobite revolt occurs in Scotland, Daniel Defoe publishes his book, Robinson Crusoe, and Swedish troops occupy Norway.

Next up we will review the life and career of the 32nd President of the United States of America, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. 

FDR, as he was known to the American people, was to be President of the USA during two of its three most trying events, World War II and the Great Depression with the Civil War being the third. His ranking among the all-time greats is usually in the top three, that is unless you ask a die-hard conservative who would like to rank him towards the bottom. Whatever side you take, Roosevelt’s tenure as President casts a huge shadow on the history of his country.

Born into a wealthy family on January 30, 1882, in Hyde Park, New York. His parents, James Roosevelt and mother Sara Ann Delano, were sixth cousins. The Roosevelts could be traced to the 17th century as merchants and shipbuilders while the Delanos family came to America on the Mayflower. 

Franklin’s rise to the Presidency was not likely because of his wealth. As Robert McElvaine puts it in his biography of FDR, “Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s background was similar in important respects to those of the first six presidents of the United States but very different from those of later presidents. The early presidents were men of privilege, either Virginia planters or Massachusetts Adamses. After the revolt of the ‘common man’ resulted in Andrew Jackson’s election in 1828, the route to the presidency changed dramatically. After that, presidential aspirants were expected to be ‘self-made men,’ preferably of log cabin birth. Accused of having been born privileged, a candidate could expect a swift end to his campaign. The principal exceptions to this tradition were Theodore Roosevelt and his fifth cousin, Franklin.”

While nowhere near the wealthiest of families, their high social status made many of the nouveau riche, self-made millionaires jealous. FDR’s mother was his father’s second wife and 26 years younger than him. His half-brother, James was thirty years older which made Franklin pretty much an only child growing up.

They frequently traveled, mainly to Europe. These trips allowed the young boy to become conversant in both German and French. His family also believed that it was the duty of people of privilege to give back to the community, sort of a sense of civic responsibility. This was to mold his personality as he grew up.

Never a great student, he went to private schools like Groton in Massachusetts, and then Harvard University. Franklin greatly admired his headmaster at Groton, Endicott Peabody but it was his cousin Theodore who he admired the most. When he ascended to the presidency in 1901 after the assassination of William McKinley, Franklin knew what he wanted to become in life. He was in his fifth year at Harvard when his cousin became president. It was also the year that he became engaged to his fifth cousin Anna Eleanor Roosevelt.

The two would work together, a sort of political partnership from the 1920’s when he became the Governor of New York State to his death in 1945. The two were reformers and progressives who fought hard against the political machine in New York known as Tammany Hall. 

When Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat was elected president in 1912, Roosevelt would be appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy, a position he was to hold throughout World War I, ending in 1920.

During that time, he ran for the U.S. Senate seat in New York against the wishes of Tammany Hall. His run was not only unsuccessful, but it was also an outright disaster as he lost in the primary by a three to one margin.

Roosevelt served admirably in his position in the Navy, traveling to Europe in 1918 where he would view some of the action close to the front. When he returned to the US, Eleanor found love letters from her social secretary, Lucy Mercer to her husband. She was furious. Eleanor demanded that Franklin end the affair and threatened him with divorce. If that had happened, he would have never been elected to public office as in that era, divorces were not publicly acceptable. FDR swore he would end the affair immediately and would never stray again, which he ultimately did not do. While publicly the two were husband and wife, their private life was not that close. 

What did come out of this marital crisis was a political partnership between Eleanor and Franklin which started in earnest in 1920 when he became the Democratic nominee for vice president on the ticket with James Cox of Ohio. While they lost the election to Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge, it did thrust the 38-year-old FDR into national attention.

The next year, in August 1921 while vacationing at Campobello Island, Franklin fell ill. It was thought for many years that FDR had developed polio, but newer evidence suggests that he actually had Guillain-Barre syndrome. From then on, he needed help to stand or walk. While those around him sought not to have the press picture him as an invalid, it was actually common knowledge that he had a serious affliction.

In 1928, Democrats asked FDR to run for governor of New York as the current holder of the office, Al Smith was their nominee for President. At first, he hesitated, but he was convinced to run. While Smith was defeated in a landslide, even loosing in his home state, Roosevelt won his election by just one percentage point.

Just one year into his time as governor, the US fell into the Great Depression. While President Hoover and many state governors believed that the situation was a temporary one, Roosevelt thought otherwise. His progressive ideas during the hard times made him a very popular man as was seen in his reelection bid in 1930 where he won by fourteen percent. 

In 1932 he tried to get the Democratic nomination for president but was met with opposition from none other than Al Smith. It took three ballots to get the two-thirds majority needed, but he was ultimately successful. His vice president was John Nance Garner, who at the time was the Speaker of the House who rarely saw eye to eye with the newly elected president. 

The months leading up to his taking office after the election were some of the worst times of the Great Depression. In February 1933, he went on a cruise with a number of influential bankers, including Vincent Astor. Many thought he had forgotten the people who elected him and was siding with the wealthy. When he returned, FDR was the target of an assassin, Giuseppe Zangara. While Franklin was not hit, Anton Cermak, the mayor of Chicago was killed. 

On March 4, 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inaugurated as the 32nd President of the United States of America. He took the reigns of a country where two million people were homeless, 32 of the 48 states had closed their banks and industrial output of the nation was half of what it was in 1929. These were definitely desperate times. 

Not since the Civil War had the country been through a crisis like the Great Depression. What FDR did in the first 100 days of his presidency was filled with new legislation to help bring the country out of the massive hole that the previous administration did little to resolve. This move to save the US economy was known as the New Deal.

The First New Deal contained a number of measures that actually did very little to bring the economy back. What it did do was, as author McElvaine states in his biography of FDR, “did provide people with a sense that their president and government cared about their suffering and were trying to help.”

Many from the conservative side of the aisle, have said that Roosevelt rammed through legislation he created, but that isn’t true. Only two laws, the Economy Act and the Civilian Conservation Corps, or CCC, came from his desk. The other 13 major acts came from members of Congress and his advisors. What FDR was able to do was use what his cousin Teddy called, a “bully pulpit.”

If there is anything you can say about Roosevelt is that he could rally the people. His speaking skills were second to none. If not for that, it is highly unlikely that all of those economic recovery bills would have passed.

The First Deal went from 1933 to 1934, and while helping the economy, it wasn’t the roaring success it was meant to be. A Second New Deal was begun in 1935 which was to last through 1938. This second wave came up against stiff opposition from the conservative businessman and their allies. Still, with the economy still in shambles and Roosevelt being extremely popular with the people, he was able to pass more legislation with the two most profound acts being the introduction of the Social Security system and the National Labor Relations Act. These were partially in response to the growing unrest and strikes happening around the country.

While he was dealing with internal strife, FDR was well aware that things in the rest of the world were deteriorating rapidly. Europe was about to go up in flames, and the Japanese were already fighting in China and other parts of Southeast Asia. That and the communist threat that was the Soviet Union was also on his mind.  

The American people were dead set against the US entering any foreign war, but Roosevelt, while outwardly agreeing with them, was preparing for war. So, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, FDR rallied the people to fight the enemy with his famous line about the attack, “A day that will live in infamy.”

His leadership during the war, especially early on when things weren’t going so well, was reassuring to the American people. Roosevelt also capably handled his relationship with his allies, first Churchill of the United Kingdom and later Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union. 

In the midst of all that was going around him, Roosevelt broke with the tradition of stepping aside after serving two terms in office, something started by George Washington. He firmly believed that he was the only person capable of winning the war because of his extraordinary leadership skills. He won both a third and fourth term with ease, but the stress was wearing him down. 

On April 12, 1945, just weeks before the surrender of Germany, Franklin Delano Roosevelt died of a cerebral hemorrhage. 

Now on to the scoring. The first one is pretty much a slam dunk for the King of France. He lasted for over 72 years while FDR was President for a little over 12. Louis gets 15 points, Roosevelt, 5.

Next, we have to award points for their effect on the rest of the world in their time. Louis had significant influence over the affairs of Europe during his reign, but FDR’s impact was global.  For this reason, I will award Roosevelt 20 points, but Louis is right up there with 18.

The next score we have to give out is their lasting effect on the world. Louis XIV has had a long time to see the impact he had on the world, and while substantial, I don’t think it comes close to rivaling FDR. Twenty-five points for the President, 18 for the Sun King.

Finally, we have the big points for how they affected their country for the better. Louis really didn’t do a great job for his country, especially the peasants. In fact, much of what he wrote would come unraveled during the French Revolution and the subsequent era of Napoleon. 

As for Franklin D. Roosevelt, whatever side of the political fence you are on, he was the man who helped lead his nation to victory in World War II, and many would say he instituted a number of institutions that would benefit the common man. Yes, he did create a bureaucratic behemoth which can be argued has hindered the USA, but I will still give him the full 40 points with King Louis XIV getting 25. 

The final score is 90 to 76, FDR over the Sun King, Louis XIV. 

I hope you enjoyed today’s podcast in the next round, Franklin Delano Roosevelt will face off in the next round against, the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. 

Join me next week as we pit the Italian hero Giuseppe Garibaldi against one of the greatest figures in world history, Napoleon Bonaparte. 

Join us on Facebook at the Battle Ground History page and please write a review on your favorite podcatcher, especially iTunes as that will help get the podcast noticed. So, as always, 

Remember, we are not the makers of history, we are history.

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