On January 11, 1944 — with American workers going “All Out!” on the home front and American soldiers, airmen, and seamen fighting European fascism and Japanese imperialism globally — President Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered his annual message to Congress on the State of the Union. In that speech, he reaffirmed his determination to pursue the Four Freedoms — “Freedom of Speech, Freedom of worship, Freedom from want, Freedom from fear” — both in the United States and abroad. He also articulated those freedoms anew, especially freedom from want and fear, in the form of an Economic Bill of Rights for all Americans.
Roosevelt knew full well that Congress, dominated by a conservative coalition of Republicans and Dixie Democrats, would never endorse it. And yet, based on polls commissioned by his administration, he had good reason to believe that most of his fellow citizens would support it. He also had reason to imagine that it would lead not only to victory in the upcoming November elections, but also to renewed efforts to extend and deepen freedom, equality, and democracy in a peacetime America.
Suffering from the flu and unable to go up to Capitol Hill to speak in person, the president sent the text of his message to Congress at midday and then presented it to the American people in a radio broadcast from the White House that evening. As ill as he was, he spoke vigorously and his remarks were reminiscent of a younger FDR.
He began by discussing his recent meetings with Churchill and Stalin at Tehran and the need to translate the wartime alliance into a permanent system of international security, and he then turned to the subject of the home front. To speed victory, but “maintain a fair and stable economy at home,” FDR recommended five legislative measures to Congress, the first four clearly targeting corporate greed, the fifth evidently challenging labor. Specifically, he called on Congress to pass a “realistic” revenue act to increase taxes on profits; maintain the law allowing government to renegotiate war contracts to “prevent exorbitant profits and assure fair prices;” approve a law enabling government to more effectively control food prices; renew the Economic Stabilization Act; and enact “a national service law — which, for the duration of the war, will prevent strikes, and… make available for war production or for any other essential services every able-bodied adult in this Nation.”
The president then looked ahead. Hoping to be heard on every front, he told Congress and the nation that, “It is our duty now to begin to lay the plans and determine the strategy for the winning of a lasting peace and the establishment of an American standard of living higher than ever before known.” And in favor of that, he proposed the recognition and adoption of a Second Bill of Rights.
He said: “This Republic had its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights… They were our rights to life and liberty. As our Nation has grown in size and stature, however — as our industrial economy expanded — these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.” But, he continued: “We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. ‘Necessitous men are not free men.'” And evoking Jefferson and Lincoln, Roosevelt contended that, “In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident,” and, “We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all regardless of station, race, or creed.” This Second Bill of Rights included, he proffered:
The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the Nation;
The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;
The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;
The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;
The right of every family to a decent home;
The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;
The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;
The right to a good education.
In sum, he stated, “All of these rights spell security. And after this war is won we must be prepared to move forward, in the implementation of these rights, to new goals of human happiness and well-being.”
The vision and aspirations articulated by FDR and fought for by those whom we have come to call the Greatest Generation continue to resonate in American hearts and minds. It is up to liberals, progressives, and radicals to encourage their fellow Americans — starting with Obama and the Democrats — to pursue them.
Harvey J. Kaye is the Rosenberg Professor of Democracy and Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and the author of Thomas Paine and the Promise of America. He is currently writing The Four Freedoms and the Promise of America. Follow Harvey on Twitter: www.twitter.com/HarveyJKaye