FDR’s “Four Freedoms” and “Second Bill of Rights”

Reproductions of Norman Rockwell’s paintings illustrating the Four Freedoms

FDR’s Charter for Human Well-Being

Nearly 80 years ago, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt laid out a new charter for human well-being in the modern era.

Nations around the world, and the United States in particular, have largely failed to fulfill FDR’s vision. In the current environment of hyper partisanship, economic inequality, discrimination, and raging pandemics, his call for financial and employment security, universal healthcare, and adequate education might surprise and encourage many.

World War II and the Question of U.S. Involvement

By January 1941, the question of U.S. involvement in the war in Europe became increasingly urgent. What turned out to be World War II had raged in Europe for 15 months.

German armed forces had overrun much of continental Europe, including France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Norway. Britain stood largely alone, facing intense bombing of cities and a threat to the major supply line in the North Atlantic.

Despite Nazi subjugation of democratic countries, however, many Americans resisted U.S. involvement. The memory of the First World War remained strong, and anti-Jewish bigotry was widespread. Even the U.S. ambassador to Britain, Joseph P. Kennedy (father of John Kennedy), an anti-Semite, opposed overt American support of Britain.

Responding to the long-term threat of fascism to democratic institutions worldwide, FDR presented a rationale for assisting Britain in his 1941 State of the Union Address to Congress. The “Four Freedoms” section of his speech encapsulated his vision of the values that Americans should defend and for which Britain was then fighting.

The “Four Freedoms” occurs in the peroration of FDR’s State of the Union Address delivered to Congress on January 5, 1941. Watch and listen to the relevant excerpt here: https://youtu.be/qrNDwyj4u1w.

Planning for Life after World War II

After nearly two and one half years of war in North Africa, Europe, and the Pacific, Allied countries began planning for life after World War II. To that end and upon winning an unprecedented fourth term as president, FDR offered a “Second Bill of Rights” as the foundation for a modernized American Republic following the war.

In that day, most Americans had learned in school about the civil and political rights enshrined in the first ten amendments, the “Bill of Rights,” to the U.S. Constitution. The Framers of the Constitution, however, could not resolve the issue of apportioning wealth and property due to slavery and, therefore, laid aside any form of economic equality as impossible to achieve.

While actual achievement of political rights had been spotty since 1787, the U.S. also endured extreme economic hardship and social unrest following the Civil War. From roughly 1870 through the 1920s (dubbed the “Gilded Age” by Mark Twain), severe economic inequality, deplorable living conditions for immigrants and lower classes, and life-threating work environments plagued the lives of many.

Enlighted political and social leaders, known as “Progressives,” attempted to address such situations by outlawing child labor, enforcing housing and sanitation codes, fighting to eliminate monopolies, and, in some cases, supporting unionization of workers. President Theodore Roosevelt (FDR’s cousin) backed many of these efforts.

During the “Progressive Era,” some religious and political leaders began to speak of economic and social issues as matters of human right. That sort of thinking became cemented in FDR’s outlook during the years that he tried to lead the country out of the Great Depression (which ended only as the result of economic policies required by World War II).

With this history in mind, FDR contemplated what would be required to alleviate human suffering and promote social stability in the post-war era.

His “Second Bill of Rights” resulted:

1. The right to a useful and remunerative job

2. The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation

3. The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living

4. The right of every business man, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies

5. The right of every family to a decent home

6. The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health

7. The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment

8. The right to a good education

FDR’s “Second Bill of Rights” is embedded in his State of the Union Address, delivered as a national radio broadcast on January 11, 1944. Watch and listen to the relevant excerpt here: https://youtu.be/3EZ5bx9AyI4.

Achievement and Resistance

By the time of his death on April 12, 1945, FDR’s vision was only partially achieved. Although unemployment compensation measures were first undertaken during the depression of 1920–22, unemployment insurance became fully actual only in 1935.

Similarly, passage of the Social Security Act (which incorporated unemployment insurance) in 1935 comprised the first step toward providing protection from hardship caused by old age, accident, and unemployment.

Nevertheless, Republican and business leaders strongly resisted these and other economic rights during FDR’s day and since. Their arguments have remained consistent:

· Economic rights are unconstitutional and were explicitly excluded by the Framers.

· Economic rights will promote laziness and dependence on government by workers.

· Economic rights will lead to excessive government control that will impede business and technological innovation.

· Economic rights will create social unrest by pitting social classes against one another.

In his 1944 address, FDR warned against such “rightist reaction.”

“Indeed, if such reaction should develop — if history were to repeat itself and we were to return to the so-called ‘normalcy’ of the 1920s — then it is certain that even though we shall have conquered our enemies on the battlefields abroad, we shall have yielded to the spirit of fascism here at home.”

Echoes for Our Time

Establishing the economic rights that FDR urged so strongly remains highly controversial today.

His Second Bill of Rights directly influenced the later Universal Declaration of Human Rights as approved by the United Nations in 1948. Almost alone, the U.S. became a signatory to the Universal Declaration except for the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. The U.S. has not signed the Covenant to this day.

Moreover, as the 2020 presidential campaign amply demonstrates, proposals to acknowledge universal access to healthcare or education as human rights are often denigrated as “socialism” or even “communism.” Often, mainstream media characterize such disputes as merely political squabbles but not as deeply philosophical differences. Nevertheless, agreement by a strong majority of Americans with the objectives outlined in FDR’s Second Bill of Rights is becoming more apparent.

Most immediately, combined catastrophes and threats in our time open the possibility to renew and expand FDR’s Four Freedoms and Second Bill of Rights.

For example, the coronavirus pandemic exposes the threat posed by lack of universal healthcare in the U.S. Now that the pandemic has become acutely menacing, proposals for providing healthcare for all U.S. citizens no longer appear quite so outlandish.

Similarly, attempts to control the coronavirus pandemic has caused severe economic disruption — staggering levels of unemployment, small business closings, dire threat to self-employed persons, massive losses to financial institutions — that may well trigger conditions not seen since the 1930s. Americans’ experience of massive disruption reveals the lack of a comprehensive, effective safety net to provide the basic necessities of life. Here, too, opportunities emerge for enacting financial reforms and expanding support for lower and middle classes.

Of course, other ominous threats, unknown to citizens during the 1940s, are becoming more urgent by the day. Global warming and the resulting climate change endanger the world’s food supply and threaten populated regions. The gradual and long-term nature of these cosmic changes plus concentration on short-term economic growth weaken the political will to address them successfully.

Clearly, the causes of all such threats have been building for some time. The present confluence of today’s catastrophes, however, requires immediate attention.

After all, similar threats caught the attention of FDR and a majority of his fellow citizens. Will we now hear and heed the sounds of history?



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
William Barnett

William Barnett

I have a background in higher education as a professor and administrator. I now manage a newsletter, Higher Ed Success, that provides tips, opinion, and advice.