FDR's "Four Freedoms" Speech: Freedom by the Fireside

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.

Guiding Questions

What does FDR's "Four Freedoms" speech reveal about the variety of different attitudes, priorities, and political philosophies encompassed by the word "freedom"?

Learning Objectives

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.

Students will understand the influence of political rhetoric and oratory on the ongoing process of refining our definitions of "freedom."

Students will be able to explain, on a very rudimentary level, longstanding theoretical debates over the scope and meaning of freedom.

Students will be able to locate FDR, the United States Constitution, and their own attitudes within the context of these debates.