Closer Readings Commentary

Four Freedoms for the Fourth

July 4, 2008, marks the 232nd anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. The holiday generally focuses on the contributions of the founding generation, but it also reminds us that the freedom we have inherited from the founders is re-earned, refined, and re-shaped in every generation. From small-town mayors to members of Congress to the President of the United States, public officials across the country have traditionally honored the Fourth by offering their own toasts to freedom.

Of course, freedom is a common theme of American political oratory not only on July 4, but all year long and an excellent place to begin a critical examination of the meaning of “freedom” within the national discourse. Fourth of July speeches, in particular, offer a great opportunity to reflect on the ways in which freedom is being defined—and continuously redefined—in the public square. The Fourth is a powerful reminder that our sense of freedom is shaped not only through written texts, but also through public oration and works of art such as Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom of Speech,” from the cover of the Saturday Evening Post, published on February 20, 1943, and featured in the new NEH Picturing America initiative.

After Pearl Harbor, Rockwell explained that he “wanted to do something bigger than a war poster, make some statement about why the country was fighting the war.” Later, as he looked for inspiration he turned to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's State of the Union Address in 1941. In that speech President Roosevelt spoke about a future world order founded on the "essential human freedoms." This address became known as the “Four Freedoms” speech; an excerpt is available through the EDSITEment-reviewed website POTUS—Presidents of the United States.

Rockwell decided to illustrate each of those freedoms using his Vermont neighbors as models: “I’ll express the ideas in simple, everyday scenes.” These paintings which later became government posters were by far the most popular works of art produced during World War II.

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.

It might be fun to 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 President Roosevelt deliver his State of the Union address. Then, have a volunteer read the relevant part of the speech aloud. 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 them read the brief commentary on the Four Freedoms speech provided in the Powers of Persuasion exhibit. The exhibit features the four different World War II posters later designed by Norman Rockwell in 1943, which promoted the war effort by drawing from the text of the Four Freedoms speech. Ask students to discuss:

How do these posters reflect the influence of FDR's "Four Freedoms" speech on the American public even two years after it was delivered?

Resources for teaching Rockwell’s interpretation of Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” speech can be found in the Picturing America Teachers Guide as well as in the Norman Rockwell Museum’s resource packet for educators, the PBS teaching guide for “Freedom: A History of US” and in the EDSITEment lesson plan, The Legacy of FDR’s “Four Freedoms.” Norman Rockwell is one of the artists featured on the new EDSITEment-reviewed website American Masters

Interested students can also explore more examples of American political oratory by visiting Presidential Speeches. The theme of freedom is particularly prominent in the speeches of Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan. A new EDSITEment curriculum unit Abraham Lincoln and Union: “A Word Fitly Spoken” focuses on the Civil War President’s three greatest speeches: the First and Second Inaugurals and the Gettysburg Address.

If desired, the discussion can be broadened to include the issues involved in some of the landmark cases addressing the interpretation of constitutionally protected freedoms by the Supreme Court. The EDSITEment lesson plan The First Amendment: What's Fair in a Free Country provides a basic survey of a number of cases exploring the scope of the First Amendment’s free speech guarantee.

The summer—and the Fourth of July in particular—presents an opportunity for students to reflect on the ways in which they casually invoke freedom in their daily lives. For instance, when we say that we can’t wait for the freedom of summer vacation, what do we mean by that? What exactly is “freer” about our lives during the summer?

Freedom, it turns out, is a rather versatile word. A President addressing Congress and a student anticipating the arrival of summer will both shout “Freedom!” when asked what it is they hope to achieve. Our hope is that EDSITEment will help students of all ages explore the full range of aspirations that are echoed in the call of—and for—freedom.


National Council for the Social Studies:

ii – Time, continuity, and change
v – Individuals, groups, and institutions
vi – Power, authority, and governance
x – Civic ideals and practices

National Standards for Civics and Government:

I.B – What are the essential characteristics of limited and unlimited government?
V.B – What are the rights of citizens?

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