Closer Readings Commentary

FDR's Four Freedoms Speech For the Classroom

The “Four Freedoms” in historical context

On January 6, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered his annual State of the Union Address to both houses of Congress. At a time when Western Europe lay under Nazi domination and the United States had not yet entered the war, FDR boldly presented a “post-war” vision in which the American ideals of individual liberties were extended throughout the world. Alerting Congress and the nation to the necessity of war, Roosevelt made one of the most famous political formulations of the 20th century, announcing:

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.

The tone set by FDR in his “Four Freedoms” speech has been much imitated by his successors and by his counterparts in other countries—so much so that 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. We should be wary of any such “easy going” attitudes. When it comes to important issues we need to articulate definitions of terms and engage in meaningful debate. Roosevelt's declaration raises many of the broad questions underlying any discussion of, and theory of, freedom.

Engaging students with the concept of “freedom”

The EDSITEment lesson FDR’s “Four Freedoms” Speech: Freedom by the Fireside examines some of the substantial meanings, contradictions 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 and at the same time introduce students to some of the rudiments of political theory embedded within FDR’s vision.

Through this lesson students will become familiar with the substance, context, subtext, and significance of the most famous portion of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's 1941 State of the Union Address. They will understand the influence of political rhetoric and oratory on the ongoing process of refining our definitions of “freedom.” They will be also be able to locate FDR, the United States Constitution, and their own attitudes within the context of these debates.

Finally, they will be able to explain, on a very rudimentary level, longstanding theoretical debates over the scope and meaning of freedom including the important distinction first drawn by the renowned political philosopher Isaiah Berlin between negative (“freedom from”) liberty and positive (“freedom to”) liberty. Using Berlin’s distinction, the first two freedoms in FDR’s speech would appear to be considered negative liberties, ones that the government promises not to infringe. The second two would seem to be considered positive liberties, ones which the government promises to provide.

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.

The final activity asks directs students to discuss this question: Are the liberties guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution most readily understood as “negative” or “positive” liberties—or some combination?

The lesson aligns with several Common Core Standards for English Language Arts Reading Informational Texts Grade 8 under Craft and Structure:

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.8.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative, connotative, and technical meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including analogies or allusions to other texts.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.8.5 Analyze in detail the structure of a specific paragraph in a text, including the role of particular sentences in developing and refining a key concept.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.8.6 Determine an author’s point of view or purpose in a text and analyze how the author acknowledges and responds to conflicting evidence or viewpoints.

In a related lesson, Norman Rockwell, Freedom of Speech—Know it When You See It, students examine the role that artist Norman Rockwell played in visualizing the Four Freedoms’ speech. The speech so inspired the well-known illustrator that he either initiated or was chosen to create the series of paintings on the “Four Freedoms” in order to help disseminate FDR’s appeal and aid the war effort. Images of his paintings were circulated in the popular Saturday Evening Post and embodied the abstract concepts of freedom in four scenes of recognizable personalities and everyday American life. This lesson for grades 6–8, focuses on the “first freedom” FDR mentioned, freedom of speech, and on student identification of specific freedoms outlined in the First Amendment.