January 6, 2021 is a day that will be remembered in American history. This will be so because of the storming of the halls of Congress on that date by a mob of insurrectionists intent on impeding the democratic process in America.
January 6, 1941 is also a day that should be remembered in American history. On that date, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt enunciated a commitment to four “essential human freedoms” in America and around the world.
President Roosevelt did this in his Annual Message to Congress (State of the Union Address) in what became known as his Four Freedoms speech. This speech was delivered in an attempt to persuade the many Americans who wanted to remain isolationists that it was important for the United States to get involved in the war in Europe where the German Army was prevailing.
President Roosevelt devoted the bulk of his Address to describing the critical need for U.S. involvement in the war effort because of the threats to democracy and the contributions that Americans should make to the endeavor. He did not outline the four freedoms until near the end of his remarks, when he stated:
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 the 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.
To summarize, those four freedoms are: freedom of speech; freedom of worship; freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Norman Rockwell’s iconic paintings of the four freedoms espoused by President Roosevelt on January 6, 1941 helped make those freedoms part of our enduring American vision and vocabulary.
As we approach January 6, 2023, unfortunately, our national conversation will not center on where we stand in terms of actualizing those four freedoms here in the United States or around the world. Instead, it will most likely be concentrated on the findings and charges brought forth in the report released by the United States House Committee to Investigate the January Attack on the U.S. Capitol (January 6 Committee) on December 19.
The January 6 Committee Report definitely warrants and demands non-partisan analysis and appropriate legal actions in order to prevent a similar occurrence going forward. This upcoming January 6 should serve as a starting point for ensuring that happens.
This January 6 should also serve as a time to remember the four freedoms and as a starting point for moving forward on them. Here are some initial thoughts for consideration in doing that.
In his four freedoms speech, President Roosevelt identified the “basic things expected by our people of their political and economic systems” in a “healthy and strong democracy.” They are:
- Equality of opportunity for youth and others
- Jobs for those who can work
- Security for those who need it.
- The ending of special privilege for the few.
- The preservation of civil liberties for all
- The enjoyment … the enjoyment of the fruits of scientific progress in a wider and constantly rising standard of living.
Roosevelt went on to state “Many subjects connected with our social economy call for immediate improvement: As examples,
- We should bring more citizens under the coverage of old-age pensions and unemployment insurance
- We should widen the opportunities for adequate medical care.
- We should plan a better system by which persons deserving or needing gainful employment may obtain it.
FDR cited those items, which are contextually linked to the four freedoms, more than seven decades ago. In the years since then, progress has been made on many of them, but much work remains to be done.
The same holds true for the four freedoms. There is no standard set of criteria and metrics that can be used to evaluate performance on those freedoms.
It is possible, however, to assess the status of these freedoms in the United States today. Following is a top-line overview of the current condition of each freedom.
Freedom of Speech. This freedom would seem to be almost sacrosanct. The First Amendment to the Constitution has enshrined it. It has been embraced and endorsed by virtually all Americans as a fundamental principle of our democracy.
Nonetheless, as Jacob Mchangama, author of Free Speech: A History from Socrates to Social Media, states in a CBS News feature in February 2022, “I would argue that the culture of free speech is under attack in the U.S. And without a robust culture of free speech based on tolerance, the laws and constitutional protection will ultimately erode.” In its report, CBS references a number of actions, such as states drafting laws that prevent teachers from discussing certain topics in the classroom and the banning of certain people from the social media, which impinge on free speech.
The free speech issue is a complex one. And whether that right is used appropriately will many times have to be evaluated, and sometimes even adjudicated, on a case by case basis. That said, free speech still stands atop of America’s freedom pyramid.
Freedom of Worship: Historically, because of its guarantee in the first amendment, freedom of worship for all has also stood close to the top of our freedom pyramid. This freedom though has been put into jeopardy over the past several years by Donald Trump.
When running for president in 2015, Trump proclaimed, “Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.” Shortly after entering office in 2017, President Trump signed an executive order banning immigrants from seven Muslim countries.
Even though Trump has not spoken outright in support of those who are anti-Semitic, he has indirectly aided and abetted their cause. In a press interview, after the neo-Nazi “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville in August 2017, which turned violent against counter-protesters, Trump infamously said “. … you also had people that were very fine people on both sides”. More recently, shortly after he announced he was running for president again, he hosted a private dinner at Mar-a-Lago for the separatist hip-hop artist Kanye West and avowed anti-Semitic white nationalist Nick Fuentes.
Freedom from Want: Unlike freedom of speech and freedom of worship, freedom from want has always been more idealistic than realistic in the United States. From its inception, there have been the haves and the have nots in this nation. The rich and the poor.
While progress has been made through the centuries, according to the U.S. census bureau, the official poverty rate in 2021 was 11.6 percent, with 37.9 million in poverty. The Poor People’s Campaign estimates that once poor people working in low-income jobs (the working poor) are included that number is closer to 140 million.
Either calculation means that freedom from want is still a goal not close to being achieved. Sadly, it may become even more difficult to do so as prices continue to rise and a recession seems possible in 2023.
Freedom from Fear: In his 1941 speech, President Roosevelt related fear to the presence of armaments that nations could use against other nations. In the United States today, armaments are still a cause for fear on the international stage.
But, in this third decade of the 21st century, fear is not limited to concern about weapons and the use thereof abroad. It has become virtually transcendent in these United States.
For example, as we have written, The omnipresence and potential use of guns against each other in the U.S. generates considerable fear. Catastrophic climate change has become an intensifying fear generator. Fear and anxiety have contributed to mental health problems affecting tens of millions of American citizens. Finally, due to the extreme polarization, there is fear for the future of our American democracy.
As this brief overview indicates, there is much work to be done on the four freedoms in the U.S.
That is the first reason to remember the four freedoms on this January 6. Make it a time to reflect on the work that has to be done here at home, and to begin to develop and implement the plans to do that work.
The second reason is to celebrate those freedoms. In remembering them, we should recognize that they have served as a fundamental frame of reference for democratic growth around the world. As the FDR Library and Museum explains:
The ideas enunciated in the Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms were the foundational principles that evolved into the Atlantic Charter declared by Winston Churchill and FDR in August, 1941; the United Nations Declaration of January 1, 1942; President Roosevelt’s vision for an international organization that became the United Nations after his death; and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations in 1948 through the work of Eleanor Roosevelt.
The third reason is to elevate the four freedoms. When FDR espoused those freedoms, he said those freedoms should be held “everywhere” and “anywhere” in the world.
Over the past seven decades, the U.S. has played a leadership role in promoting those freedoms internationally. Its recent commitment to the Ukraine demonstrates that it is still willing to and will be a leader for the four freedoms now and in future.
We leave you with these closing comments from FDR’s four freedoms speech:
This nation has placed its destiny in the hands and hearts of its millions of free men and women; and its faith in freedom under the guidance of God. Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere. Our support goes to those who struggle to gain those rights and keep them. Our strength is our unity of purpose.
To that high concept there can be no end save victory.
January 6: A day to remember the four freedoms this year and on each January 6 thereafter.