On January 6, 1941, on the eve of the most disastrous conflict of the 20th century, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered an address to a joint session of Congress. In his address, he stressed the need for American self-determination at home and international engagement abroad. Yet, this speech is less remembered for what the President described but for what he called for. It was in this address that FDR laid out his vision of freedom for both Americans and citizens of the world. He called these proscriptions “The Four Freedoms,” and he outlined them towards the end of his speech. Roosevelt declared:
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 my estimation, this is the most succinct and powerful statement of freedom ever uttered by an American President, and its vision for the world embodies my own ideals. Roosevelt’s idea of freedom was complex yet understandable, attentive to the heritage of our nation as well as its future.
The first two, freedom of speech and freedom of worship, are the foundational liberties enshrined in our Bill of Rights. Philosophically, they are “negative liberties,” meaning that they are freedoms that are protected from government intrusion or degradation. I have always been a champion of free speech and expression. The freedom to think, write, publish, and speak exist beyond an American sense of rights. They are human rights that under-gird every other right or liberty we can claim as citizens. It is our task, in triumphant as well as troubled times, to defend these rights from any threat or limitation.
The second set expand the nature of freedom, from mere rights granted to us in spite of government to rights guaranteed by government. As such, they are called “positive liberties.” “Freedom from want” ensures that a society takes care of its citizens who are without the means for a better life, from food, shelter, and clothing to basic medical and social services. Roosevelt’s inclusion of this freedom came from his experience of being President during the Great Depression, when millions were unemployed, living in shacks, and barely had enough to eat. He believed in a world where those with less would never suffer the iniquities that had plagued his fellow citizens. Thus, as economist Karl Polanyi noted, when a person’s economic position is stable, their overall personal liberty increases. Put another way by another president, “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”
The last was “freedom from fear,” meaning that a society protects not only its own but those who can’t protect themselves. In this freedom, Franklin Roosevelt established a liberal, internationalist order that has kept the world largely peaceful for over 70 years. An international political order, with the United States at its center, should supply the military and diplomatic resources necessary to stave off conflicts and to ameliorate others from starting. Every president since FDR has kept this promise. In doing so, they have kept a foreign conflict from hitting our shores, with the exception of the horrific events of September 11, 2001. Even so, 9/11 rededicated the United States and its allies to the same principles that Roosevelt outlined in 1941; a world without the leadership of the most powerful nation on earth will be less free, less prosperous, and less peaceful. We haven’t always gotten it right; we’ve made mistakes and blunders that have set our goals back. But FDR’s principle stands. A world without fear is a world worth fighting for.
It is in this tradition that I begin a new campaign, a campaign to reaffirm Roosevelt’s principles for a new generation of Americans. I call this project “Renew the Four Freedoms.” With the election of a President very much the opposite of FDR, we need a movement that will place these ideals at the forefront of our national dialogue. These aren’t partisan values, but are American values. These are the values that Lincoln believed to resonate in “every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land.” I hope that you will join me in the fight for these freedoms. Use the hashtag #renewthefour when discussing these values on social media. Talk about them with your friends and loved ones, on your own podcast or radio show, and on television. Start conversations about what we must do in the coming years. America needs a vision that will unite us, more now than ever before. This is that vision.