Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 32nd President of the United States (1933–1945). His 1941 State of the Union address has been immortalized as the "Four Freedoms" speech.
Credit: Courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.
Sometimes we fail to hear or heed these voices of freedom because to us the privilege of our freedom is such an old, old story.
—Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in his Third Inaugural Address, January 20, 1941. Full text of the speech is available through the EDSITEment resource, Presidential Speeches.
While many of the most frequently-studied statements about freedom were published in the form of written documents such as the Bill of Rights or the Magna Charta, the library is certainly not the only place where Americans encounter references to freedom. On radio and television, on the campaign trail and at press conferences, our public officials appeal to the cause of freedom every day. The world of political oratory provides a living laboratory for studying the place of "freedom" within public discourse. Some of the most thought-provoking—and influential—musings on freedom were first presented not in books or in pamphlets, but broadcast from podiums and grandstands.
One of the most famous political speeches on freedom in the twentieth century was delivered by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his 1941 State of the Union message to Congress. The address is commonly known as the "Four Freedoms" speech, and an excerpt is available through the EDSITEment-reviewed website POTUS—Presidents of the United States. In the relevant part of the speech, President Roosevelt announced:
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.
In bold and plain language, Roosevelt's declaration raises many of the broad questions underlying any discussion of freedom. This lesson will introduce students to some of the rudiments of political theory embedded within FDR's vision.
The tone set by FDR in his "Four Freedoms" speech has been imitated by his successors and by his counterparts in other countries. Students today are so accustomed to hearing freedom invoked rhetorically as a matter of course that the word sometimes signifies little more than something to feel vaguely good about. This lesson will examine some of the nuances, vagaries, and ambiguities inherent in the rhetorical use of "freedom." The objective is to encourage students to glimpse the broad range of hopes and aspirations that are expressed in the call of—and for—freedom.
NOTE: This lesson may be taught by itself, or it may serve to introduce or complement lessons on any of the books included in the We the People Bookshelf on Freedom. For a brief overview of lesson plans that may be used in conjunction with the We the People Bookshelf on Freedom, please consult EDSITEment's July 2004 Spotlight.
What does FDR's "Four Freedoms" speech reveal about the variety of different attitudes, priorities, and political philosophies encompassed by the word "freedom"?
Let no man or woman thoughtlessly or falsely talk of America sending its armies to European fields. At this moment there is being prepared a proclamation of American neutrality. This would have been done even if there had been no neutrality statute on the books, for this proclamation is in accordance with international law and in accordance with American policy.It will be helpful, in considering the evolution of FDR's foreign policy, to consult a timeline of World War II related events that occurred during his presidency. An excellent WWII timeline is available through the FDR page of the PBS American Experience: The Presidents website. The American Experience site is available as a link from the EDSITEment resource New Deal Network.
Activity 3 demonstrates that people do not always agree about which freedoms are most essential. More generally, we can add that people do not even agree about what counts as freedom at all. But notice that President Roosevelt's vision of freedom is a universal one. He emphasizes his hope that each of the freedoms he lists will take hold "everywhere in the world." Discuss:
As students will surely notice during activity 1, a roomful of people will come up with a roomful of responses when asked to identify the four most essential freedoms. Now ask students to think about the significance of the particular four freedoms listed by FDR: expression, worship, economic prosperity, and physical security.
Explain to the class that FDR's goal in giving the "Four Freedoms" speech was to persuade Congress to end American neutrality in World War II through the passage of the Lend-Lease Act. If desired, you can read FDR's 1939 fireside chat in support of American neutrality in World War II(see the excerpt in Preparation Instructions). The arguments FDR makes in that address reflect the arguments of those who opposed the Lend-Lease Act in 1941. If time permits, discuss:
Franklin Roosevelt ranks among the most gifted orators in American Presidential history. A large part of his reputation for eloquence comes from his institution of regular "fireside chats" with the American public. Families would gather around the radio to hear President Roosevelt offer words of hope, caution, and direction in regular radio broadcasts. These chats helped Roosevelt cultivate an unmatched rhetorical rapport with the American public. Introduce the class to the idea of the fireside chat, and then read aloud from the chat entitled "Greater Freedom and Greater Security." Roosevelt closes this speech, which addresses mainly worker's rights and issues of economic security, with the following paragraph:
I still believe in ideals. I am not for a return to that definition of Liberty under which for many years a free people were being gradually regimented into the service of the privileged few. I prefer and I am sure you prefer that broader definition of Liberty under which we are moving forward to greater freedom, to greater security for the average man than he has ever known before in the history of America.
Within this remark, there is an apparent tension between two alternative definitions of freedom. Discuss this tension with the class:
These questions provide a nice introduction to the idea of competing definitions of freedom.
In order to set the scene for the "Four Freedoms" speech, first remind students of the date of the speech: January 6, 1941. You may want to note that the speech was delivered almost exactly 11 months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, at a time when the United States was officially neutral in World War II. If desired, distribute copies of the World War II timeline from the FDR page of the PBS American Experience: The Presidents website.
Now tell students that what they are about to hear was addressed to Congress as part of FDR's 1941 State of the Union speech. Make sure the class has a general idea of the significance of the State of the Union address. If desired, you can familiarize the class with the Constitutional basis of the State of the Union address by reading to them from Article 2, Section 3 of the Constitution, which states:
He [the President] shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.
(Note: The Text of the Constitution is available on the EDSITEment resource Digital Classroom.) You might also want to ask members of the class who have watched a State of the Union address live to recount their memories of the speech.
Now ask students to imagine that they have all crowded around a radio set in a cozy living room on a cold January day to listen to the President deliver his State of the Union address. Then, have a volunteer read the relevant part of the speech (excerpted above) aloud to the class. Or, for a more dramatic experience, students can actually listen to a recording of FDR himself delivering a few lines from the speech. The recording can be accessed and played from the Four Freedoms section of the Powers of Persuasion exhibit on the EDSITEment-reviewed National Archives websites.
After listening to the recording of the speech, give students a moment to read and annotate the short excerpt on their own. If desired, have students read the brief commentary on the Four Freedoms speech provided in the Powers of Persuasion exhibit. The exhibit features four different World War II posters later designed by the artist Norman Rockwell in 1943, which promote the war effort by drawing from the text of the Four Freedoms speech. Discuss:
Before showing students the text of the "Four Freedoms" speech, ask students to each come up with a list of their own four most essential freedoms. Then, briefly discuss:
FDR's speech presents an opportunity to highlight a subtle distinction that has troubled political philosophers through the ages: the distinction between "freedom FROM" and "freedom TO." Notice that two of FDR's four freedoms are framed as freedom to do something: freedom to speak one's mind and freedom to worship as one sees fit. The other two freedoms are framed in terms of freedom from something: freedom from want and freedom from fear. Many scholars have taken care to distinguish sharply between these two types of freedom. The British political philosopher Isaiah Berlin called "freedom from …" negative liberty; he called "freedom to …" positive liberty. Here is how Berlin defines those terms in an essay published in 1958:
Negative liberty is the absence of obstacles, barriers or constraints … Positive liberty is the possibility of acting—or the fact of acting—in such a way as to take control of one's life and realize one's fundamental purposes.
Of course, positive and negative liberty do not always describe two entirely different forms of freedom—they are often just two different ways of thinking about the same freedom. A single freedom might be conceived as the presence of a clear path to happiness or alternatively as the absence of obstacles to happiness. Almost any freedom can be expressed either as freedom TO or freedom FROM. "Freedom to worship God" in one's own way (FDR's second freedom) can just as easily be expressed as freedom from religious coercion. Similarly, "freedom from want" (FDR's third freedom) can just as easily be expressed as freedom to have a full stomach.
Teenagers tend to enjoy the freedom that comes with being able to drive. But when they ask their parents for the keys to the car, are they enjoying the freedom from parental interference or are they enjoying the freedom to go out and see their friends whenever they wish? Try asking your students which idea of freedom most closely resembles their way of thinking. Does the class agree, or does it depend on the individual?
While positive and negative conceptions of freedom often represent two ways of saying the same thing, there are instances in which "freedom to" and "freedom from" do conflict. We can imagine a situation in which a person is subject to no external constraints but is not, on his own, able to support his basic needs or pursue his fondest ambitions. In other words, he is held back not by externally imposed restrictions, but by his own personal limitations. The person has "freedom FROM," but not "freedom TO." There is sometimes a tradeoff to be negotiated between these two dimensions of freedom. If desired, ask your students to brainstorm situations that might involve such a tradeoff, and ask them how they would resolve such situations.
Theorists have long argued about which dimension of freedom should be honored by governments. Proponents of "negative liberty" contend that governments should avoid interfering with the private decisions of its citizens. "Freedom from" can therefore be understood as the ideal of non-coercion. Proponents of "positive liberty" suggest that governments should intervene to make it possible for their citizens to achieve certain ends. "Freedom to" can thus be understood as the ideal of empowerment. Discuss: Are the liberties guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution most readily understood as "negative" or "positive" liberties—or some combination?
Ask your students to imagine that the school principal has just announced a new homework policy. Effective immediately, students will no longer be permitted to take their homework assignments home with them. Instead, students will be required to complete their assignments during a two-hour long study hall held each day immediately after school. Students will have access to all necessary texts and supplies, but they will not be permitted to leave the building until the two hours are up or until their work has been completed and turned in.
The principal has explained the new policy as follows: "We want students to enjoy the time they spend out of school We think that by getting all homework over and done with before they leave the building, students will find themselves more free to pursue their extra-curricular interests. We have found that when students are left to manage their time as they see fit, they end up wasting a lot of time. Of course, students will no longer be free to decide for themselves when to complete their assignments. We've taken the option of procrastination away from students, and we think that as a result, they are going to feel like their evenings are a lot more free."
Divide the class into two teams and organize a debate over the new homework policy, focusing on the issue of freedom. Do students agree with the principal's statement that the new policy will make them more free? Do students prefer the freedom of doing their homework whenever they please, or do they prefer the freedom of being done with their work by the time they leave the school building?
Students should be sure to note both the freedom TO and freedom FROM aspects of both sides of the debate. Completing the chart below will help debaters organize their thoughts:
|The new homework policy will give me greater freedom to…|
|The new homework policy will give me greater freedom from…|
|The new homework policy will give me less freedom to…|
|The new homework policy will give me less freedom from…|
If desired, this debate can be used as a prelude to some of the more substantive historical controversies over the scope and meaning of freedom, such as debates over permissible limitations on free speech. The EDSITEment lesson plans The First Amendment: What's Fair in a Free Country? and Regulating Freedom of Speech provide basic introductions to a number of Supreme Court cases exploring the Constitutional limitations on protected freedoms. The materials in either lesson may be suitable for students in grades 6-8.
Also, students can find more examples of the centrality of "freedom" in American political rhetoric by visiting two EDSITEment-reviewed websites: Great American Speeches and Presidential Speeches. The speeches of John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, both of whom invoke freedom profusely, may provide particularly rewarding points of comparison and contrast. Finally, because many of the most-studied Presidential speeches have taken the form of inaugural addresses, the background information provided in the EDSITEment lesson plan I Do Solemnly Swear: Presidential Inaugurations may be helpful in framing the discussion.
3 class periods