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The Legacy of FDR's “Four Freedoms” Speech

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, Jan. 20, 1941.


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 Question

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.

Preparing to Teach this Lesson

  • Copy and distribute the portion of FDR's "Four Freedoms" speech excerpted above. The excerpt is most readily accessible through the EDSITEment-reviewed website POTUS—Presidents of the United States. Teachers should also read the full version of FDR's speech, which is accessible via the EDSITEment resource New Deal Network. Click on Annual Message to the Congress, 1941 in the Document Library's World War II section.
  • Using the New Deal Network's Document Library, review and print the transcripts of some of FDR's fireside chats. Reading very short excerpts from these transcripts in Activity 2 will help set the scene for the unique rapport FDR had established with the American people by the time he made his Four Freedoms speech. You may want to pay particularly close attention to the September 1934 chat entitled "Greater Freedom and Greater Security," which will be used in Activity 2.
  • The ostensible purpose of FDR's 1941 State of the Union was not to comment about freedom in the abstract, but to persuade a reluctant Congress to pass the Lend-Lease Act. Through speeches like the Four Freedoms speech, FDR successfully sold the public and the Congress on the idea of the Lend-Lease Act. The passage of the Act effectively ended American neutrality in World War II by essentially giving the British the badly needed weapons that they could not afford to buy. This lesson does not focus on the debate over American participation in World War II, but it is impossible to read Roosevelt's "Four Freedoms" as anything other than an argument against American neutrality in the war. Initially, of course, FDR was—at least publicly—in favor of neutrality. This is the position he stakes out in a fireside chat entitled "On the European War," available through the EDSITEment resource Presidential Speeches. In this speech, delivered in September 1939, FDR says the following:

    Let no man or woman thoughtlessly or falsely talk of America sending its armies to European fields. At this moment there is being prepared a proclamation of American neutrality. This would have been done even if there had been no neutrality statute on the books, for this proclamation is in accordance with international law and in accordance with American policy.

    It will be helpful, in considering the evolution of FDR's foreign policy, to consult a timeline of World War II related events that occurred during his presidency. An excellent WWII timeline is available through the FDR page of the PBS American Experience: The Presidents website. The American Experience site is available as a link from the EDSITEment resource New Deal Network.

  • For general background on the life and policies of President Roosevelt, you may consult any of the general internet biographies available through the American Presidency, a link from the EDSITEment resource POTUS—Presidents of the United States.

Suggested Activities and Questions for Discussion:

1. Prologue

Before showing students the text of the "Four Freedoms" speech, ask students to each come up with a list of their own four most essential freedoms. Then, briefly discuss:

  • How do the students' selections differ from each other?
  • Does the class reach consensus on any particular freedom?
  • What are the most controversial choices, and why?

2. Setting the Scene: FDR, Freedom, and Fireside Chats

Franklin Roosevelt ranks among the most gifted orators in American Presidential history. A large part of his reputation for eloquence comes from his institution of regular "fireside chats" with the American public. Families would gather around the radio to hear President Roosevelt offer words of hope, caution, and direction in regular radio broadcasts. These chats helped Roosevelt cultivate an unmatched rhetorical rapport with the American public. Introduce the class to the idea of the fireside chat, and then read aloud from the chat entitled "Greater Freedom and Greater Security." Roosevelt closes this speech, which addresses mainly worker's rights and issues of economic security, with the following paragraph:

I still believe in ideals. I am not for a return to that definition of Liberty under which for many years a free people were being gradually regimented into the service of the privileged few. I prefer and I am sure you prefer that broader definition of Liberty under which we are moving forward to greater freedom, to greater security for the average man than he has ever known before in the history of America.

Within this remark, there is an apparent tension between two alternative definitions of freedom. Discuss this tension with the class:

  • What "definition of Liberty" is Roosevelt rejecting?
  • How is his own idea of freedom new and different?
  • Was the medium of the fireside chat effective in reflecting and communicating Roosevelt's new definition of freedom?

These questions provide a nice introduction to the idea of competing definitions of freedom.

In order to set the scene for the "Four Freedoms" speech, first remind students of the date of the speech: January 6, 1941. You may want to note that the speech was delivered almost exactly 11 months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, at a time when the United States was officially neutral in World War II. If desired, distribute copies of the World War II timeline from the FDR page of the PBS American Experience: The Presidents website.

Now tell students that what they are about to hear was addressed to Congress as part of FDR's 1941 State of the Union speech. Make sure the class has a general idea of the significance of the State of the Union address. If desired, you can familiarize the class with the Constitutional basis of the State of the Union address by reading to them from Article 2, Section 3 of the Constitution, which states:

He [the President] shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.

(Note: The Text of the Constitution is available on the EDSITEment resource Digital Classroom.) You might also want to ask members of the class who have watched a State of the Union address live to recount their memories of the speech.

Now 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 the President deliver his State of the Union address. Then, have a volunteer read the relevant part of the speech (excerpted above) aloud to the class. 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 students read the brief commentary on the Four Freedoms speech provided in the Powers of Persuasion exhibit. The exhibit features four different World War II posters later designed by the artist Norman Rockwell in 1943, which promote the war effort by drawing from the text of the Four Freedoms speech. 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?

3. If you had to choose… Which freedoms are most essential?

As students will surely notice during activity 1, a roomful of people will come up with a roomful of responses when asked to identify the four most essential freedoms. Now ask students to think about the significance of the particular four freedoms listed by FDR: expression, worship, economic prosperity, and physical security.

  • Why do you suppose that these were the four freedoms he chose to highlight as "essential?"
  • How did the historical circumstances of the speech (see timeline) contribute to FDR's emphasis on these freedoms?
  • How are these four freedoms foreshadowed in FDR's 1934 fireside chat on economic freedom and security for all Americans? How is the 1934 speech different?
  • Obviously there are more than four freedoms that the President could have mentioned. Which potential freedoms did the President leave out?
  • How do FDR's four freedoms compare with the essential freedoms that the class came up with in Activity 1?
  • How do FDR's four freedoms compare with the liberties guaranteed in the Bill of Rights?

Explain to the class that FDR's goal in giving the "Four Freedoms" speech was to persuade Congress to end American neutrality in World War II through the passage of the Lend-Lease Act. If desired, you can read FDR's 1939 fireside chat in support of American neutrality in World War II (see the excerpt in Preparing to Teach this Lesson). The arguments FDR makes in that address reflect the arguments of those who opposed the Lend-Lease Act in 1941. If time permits, discuss:

  • How did FDR's attitude towards neutrality change, and how does the "Four Freedoms" speech explain that change?
  • Whom is FDR trying to persuade and why?
  • What might his opponents have listed as the four most essential freedoms?

4. Competing definitions of freedom: Is the idea of freedom universal?

Activity 3 demonstrates that people do not always agree about which freedoms are most essential. More generally, we can add that people do not even agree about what counts as freedom at all. But notice that President Roosevelt's vision of freedom is a universal one. He emphasizes his hope that each of the freedoms he lists will take hold "everywhere in the world." Discuss:
  • Is it possible to distinguish between ideas of freedom that are specific to certain times and places and ideas of freedom that are universal?
  • How should we address disagreement about the meaning of freedom?
  • What does the Declaration of Independence tell us about the universality of human freedom?
  • How does the American Constitutional system handle disagreement about the meaning of freedom? Does the system of federalism and states' rights reflect the Founders' willingness to entertain more than one conception of freedom? What about the Bill of Rights?
  • In the long run, can more than one idea of freedom coexist within a single nation? Within the world?

5. Two dimensions of freedom: "freedom to" versus "freedom from"

FDR's speech presents an opportunity to highlight a subtle distinction that has troubled political philosophers through the ages: the distinction between "freedom FROM" and "freedom TO." Notice that two of FDR's four freedoms are framed as freedom to do something: freedom to speak one's mind and freedom to worship as one sees fit. The other two freedoms are framed in terms of freedom from something: freedom from want and freedom from fear. Many scholars have taken care to distinguish sharply between these two types of freedom. The British political philosopher Isaiah Berlin called "freedom from…" negative liberty; he called "freedom to…" positive liberty. Here is how Berlin defines those terms in an essay published in 1958:

Negative liberty is the absence of obstacles, barriers or constraints… Positive liberty is the possibility of acting—or the fact of acting—in such a way as to take control of one's life and realize one's fundamental purposes.

Of course, positive and negative liberty do not always describe two entirely different forms of freedom—they are often just two different ways of thinking about the same freedom. A single freedom might be conceived as the presence of a clear path to happiness or alternatively as the absence of obstacles to happiness. Almost any freedom can be expressed either as freedom TO or freedom FROM. "Freedom to worship God" in one's own way (FDR's second freedom) can just as easily be expressed as freedom from religious coercion. Similarly, "freedom from want" (FDR's third freedom) can just as easily be expressed as freedom to have a full stomach.

Teenagers tend to enjoy the freedom that comes with being able to drive. But when they ask their parents for the keys to the car, are they enjoying the freedom from parental interference or are they enjoying the freedom to go out and see their friends whenever they wish? Try asking your students which idea of freedom most closely resembles their way of thinking. Does the class agree, or does it depend on the individual?

While positive and negative conceptions of freedom often represent two ways of saying the same thing, there are instances in which "freedom to" and "freedom from" do conflict. We can imagine a situation in which a person is subject to no external constraints but is not, on his own, able to support his basic needs or pursue his fondest ambitions. In other words, he is held back not by externally imposed restrictions, but by his own personal limitations. The person has "freedom FROM," but not "freedom TO." There is sometimes a tradeoff to be negotiated between these two dimensions of freedom. If desired, ask your students to brainstorm situations that might involve such a tradeoff, and ask them how they would resolve such situations.

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. Discuss:

Are the liberties guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution most readily understood as "negative" or "positive" liberties—or some combination?

Assessing the Lesson

Ask your students to imagine that the school principal has just announced a new homework policy. Effective immediately, students will no longer be permitted to take their homework assignments home with them. Instead, students will be required to complete their assignments during a two-hour long study hall held each day immediately after school. Students will have access to all necessary texts and supplies, but they will not be permitted to leave the building until the two hours are up or until their work has been completed and turned in.

The principal has explained the new policy as follows: "We want students to enjoy the time they spend out of school We think that by getting all homework over and done with before they leave the building, students will find themselves more free to pursue their extra-curricular interests. We have found that when students are left to manage their time as they see fit, they end up wasting a lot of time. Of course, students will no longer be free to decide for themselves when to complete their assignments. We've taken the option of procrastination away from students, and we think that as a result, they are going to feel like their evenings are a lot more free."

Divide the class into two teams and organize a debate over the new homework policy, focusing on the issue of freedom. Do students agree with the principal's statement that the new policy will make them more free? Do students prefer the freedom of doing their homework whenever they please, or do they prefer the freedom of being done with their work by the time they leave the school building?

Students should be sure to note both the freedom TO and freedom FROM aspects of both sides of the debate. Completing the chart below will help debaters organize their thoughts:

The new homework policy will give me greater freedom to…





The new homework policy will give me greater freedom from…





The new homework policy will give me less freedom to…





The new homework policy will give me less freedom from…





Extending the Lesson

If desired, this debate can be used as a prelude to some of the more substantive historical controversies over the scope and meaning of freedom, such as debates over permissible limitations on free speech. The EDSITEment lesson plans The First Amendment: What's Fair in a Free Country? and Regulating Freedom of Speech provide basic introductions to a number of Supreme Court cases exploring the Constitutional limitations on protected freedoms. The materials in either lesson may be suitable for students in grades 6-8.

Also, students can find more examples of the centrality of "freedom" in American political rhetoric by visiting two EDSITEment reviewed websites: Great American Speeches and Presidential Speeches. The speeches of John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, both of whom invoke freedom profusely, may provide particularly rewarding points of comparison and contrast. Finally, because many of the most-studied Presidential speeches have taken the form of inaugural addresses, the background information provided in the EDSITEment lesson plan I Do Solemnly Swear: Presidential Inaugurations may be helpful in framing the discussion.

This lesson plan is provided by EDSITEment and the National Endowment for the Humanities through a partnership with the MarcoPolo Education Foundation. EDSITEment offers a treasure trove for teachers, students, and parents searching for high-quality material on the Internet in the subject areas of literature and language arts, foreign languages, art and culture, and history and social studies.


Last updated: Wednesday, April 23, 2014 | 10:36:34