75 Years Ago: FDR introduces the Four Freedoms

The last fourth of the 6 January 1941 State of the Union Address to Congress

A 75-year old speech reminds of us a time before the corporate capture of politics, when even a well-born WASP president recognized that freedom requires ending special privilege for the few and had to include economic security for workers and those unable to work. There is probably no better guide to understanding why the rich hated “that man in the White House” every bit as much as the right hates President Obama, a far less liberal thinker, today.

This is the last fourth of FDR’s 1941 “State of the Union” address to Congress. He spent much of the speech outlining the “Lend Lease” program of sending arms to Britain to help it keep Hitler at bay. FDR had to overcome the fact that many prominent Americans on the right cheered Hitler’s results in Germany and promoted the idea that America should ignore the fight in Europe. But FDR’s speech did not just discuss arms and war — he segued from Lend Lease to discussing the basic social contract that had to exist to justify taking Americans toward what FDR knew would be a titanic war against fascism.

FDR’s speech captured the essence of the progressive struggle against the Gilded Age policies that still mainly dominated up to FDR’s election and the “New Deal.” Undoing FDR’s legacy has been the main object of the Republican Party ever since, and they have succeeded to a frightening degree in convincing average folks that what is good for the top 1% is good for America, despite all evidence to the contrary.

The 272-word Gettysburg Address is the standard by which all Presidential speaking is judged. This part of FDR’s speech lacks the amazing crystalline precision and simplicity of that speech and can seem leaden and dull in comparison. But in terms of effect, the roughly 600 additional words FDR used to outline a positive program for the American Century were well used.

As men do not live by bread alone, they do not fight by armaments alone. Those who man our defenses, and those behind them who build our defenses, must have the stamina and the courage which come from unshakable belief in the manner of life which they are defending. The mighty action that we are calling for cannot be based on a disregard of all things the worth fighting for.

The Nation takes great satisfaction and much strength from the things which have been done to make its people conscious of their individual stake in the preservation of democratic life in America. Those things have toughened the fibre of our people, have renewed their faith and strengthened their devotion to the institutions we make ready to protect.

Certainly this is no time for any of us to stop thinking about the social and economic problems which are the root cause of the social revolution which is today a supreme factor in the world.

For there is nothing mysterious about the foundations of a healthy and strong democracy. The basic things expected by our people of their political and economic systems are simple. They are:

Equality of opportunity for youth and for others.
Jobs for those who can work.
Security for those who need it.
The ending of special privilege for the few.
The preservation of civil liberties for all.
The enjoyment of the fruits of scientific progress in a wider and constantly rising standard of living.

These are the simple, the basic things that must never be lost sight of in the turmoil and unbelievable complexity of our modern world. The inner and abiding strength of our economic and political systems is dependent upon the degree to which they fulfill these expectations.

Many subjects connected with our social economy call for immediate improvement.
As examples:

We should bring more citizens under the coverage of old-age pensions and unemployment insurance.

We should widen the opportunities for adequate medical care.

We should plan a better system by which persons deserving or needing gainful employment may obtain it.

I have called for personal sacrifice. And I am assured of the willingness of almost all Americans to respond to that call.

A part of the sacrifice means the payment of more money in taxes. In my Budget Message I will recommend that a greater portion of this great defense program be paid for from taxation than we are paying for today. No person should try, or be allowed, to get rich out of the program; and the principle of tax payments in accordance with ability to pay should be constantly before our eyes to guide our legislation.

If the Congress maintains these principles, the voters, putting patriotism ahead of pocketbooks, will give you their applause.

In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.

The first is freedom of speech and expression–everywhere in the world.

The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way–everywhere in the world.

The third is freedom from want–which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants-everywhere in the world.

The fourth is freedom from fear–which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor–anywhere in the world.

That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called new order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.

To that new order we oppose the greater conception–the moral order. A good society is able to face schemes of world domination and foreign revolutions alike without fear.

Since the beginning of our American history, we have been engaged in change–in a perpetual peaceful revolution–a revolution which goes on steadily, quietly adjusting itself to changing conditions–without the concentration camp or the quick-lime in the ditch. The world order which we seek is the cooperation of free countries, working together in a friendly, civilized society.

This nation has placed its destiny in the hands and heads and hearts of its millions of free men and women; and its faith in freedom under the guidance of God. Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere. Our support goes to those who struggle to gain those rights and keep them. Our strength is our unity of purpose.

To that high concept there can be no end save victory.