Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms

Eleanor Roosevelt studies the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Eleanor Roosevelt studies the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

by Ray Setterfield

January 6, 1941 — President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered his famous “Four Freedoms” speech to Congress on this day. It came to be regarded as so important that a plaque commemorating it hangs inside the Statue of Liberty and murals depicting the Four Freedoms appear in public buildings across the US.

Technically, it was the 1941 State of the Union address, but is famous now as the Four Freedoms speech. The President said:

“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 worldwide 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 neighbour – anywhere in the world.”

Roosevelt added: “That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation.”

He was speaking as Adolf Hitler was embarking on his quest for world domination and at a time when America was deeply committed to isolationism, most of its citizens anxious to avoid becoming involved in another war.

But Roosevelt warned: “The future and safety of our country and of our democracy are overwhelmingly involved in events far beyond our borders.”

He hammered the point home by declaring: "No realistic American can expect from a dictator's peace international generosity, or return of true independence, or world disarmament, or freedom of expression, or freedom of religion – or even good business.

“Such a peace would bring no security for us or for our neighbors. Those, who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

Roosevelt died in April, 1945, never to see either the defeat of Nazi Germany or the fulfilment of his Four Freedoms dream. But later that year the United Nations was established and promptly created a Commission on Human Rights chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, the President’s widow.

On December 10, 1948, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Both the Declaration and the system that grew out of it were mainly influenced by Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms.

Published: May 10, 2021

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