Reading

The "Four Freedoms" Speech

Shortly before President Roosevelt’s State of the Union address was delivered on January 6, 1941, Eleanor published her first My Day column of the year. The essay anticipated many of the themes the president would address in his speech. Though hope was hard to entertain, she believed that many Americans would nevertheless find a ray of hope by working together toward the attainment of “peace with honor and justice for all.”1She then mentioned the goals (or “freedoms,” in Franklin’s speech) for which she thought people would be inspired to fight: “Justice for all, security in certain living standards, a recognition of the dignity and the right of the individual human being, without regard to his race, creed, or color.”2

I doubt if anyone will say a thoughtless “Happy New Year.” They will know that happiness is hard to achieve in a world where war and famine and poverty and injustice still hold sway. Most of us will wish each other a “Happier New Year,” vowing inwardly that whatever we can do to obtain peace with honor and justice for all, we will do in the future. In our own country and in our own lives, we will try to disassociate ourselves from our personal interests sufficiently to help bring about such things as seem to be of benefit to our whole people.

Justice for all, security in certain living standards, a recognition of the dignity and the right of the individual human being, without regard to his race, creed, or color—these are things for which vast numbers of our citizens will willingly sacrifice themselves. Progress may be slow, but as more of us keep this determination in our minds and hearts, I feel sure we will be able to say, as we look back over each year, “This has been a Happier New Year.”3

Several days later, when FDR addressed the nation with his “four freedoms” speech, which is excerpted below, he presented a vision of a new world order founded on a quartet of essential freedoms: freedom of speech and expression, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. The first two were already enshrined in the American Constitution. But the idea that every American should enjoy freedom from want, which went beyond the traditional political and civil rights granted to most Americans, grew out of the New Deal. The last item, freedom from fear, belongs to the same impulse that drove Franklin to dream up the United Nations. All four elements found expression in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Annual Message to Congress

January 6, 1941

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 neighbor--anywhere in the world.

That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for the kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called new order of tyranny, which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.

To that new order we oppose the greater conception—the moral order. A good society is able to face schemes of world domination and foreign revolutions alike without fear.

Since the beginning of our American history, we have been engaged in change—in a perpetual peaceful revolution—a revolution which goes on steadily, quietly adjusting itself to changing conditions— without the concentration camp or the quick-lime in the ditch. The world order which we seek is the cooperation of free countries, working together in a friendly, civilized society.

This nation has placed its destiny in the hands and heads 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 or keep them. Our strength is our unity of purpose. To that high concept there can be no end save victory.4

  1. Citations

    • 1 Roosevelt, My Day, January 1, 1941.
    • 2 Ibid.
    • 3 Ibid.
    • 4 Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Annual Message to Congress: The Four Freedoms Speech,” January 6, 1941, Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum website, (accessed April 6, 2009).

Audio Version

In this audio recording, an actor reads President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s January 6, 1941 address to the nation, featured in the resource book "Fundamental Freedoms: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights." In the speech, Roosevelt presents a vision of a new world order founded on four essential freedoms: freedom of speech and expression, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.

Connection Questions

  1. What are the basic principles that Eleanor and Franklin discuss? How are these ideas connected to human rights? 
  2. The “four freedoms” speech caught the imagination of many people. What do you think it was about Franklin Roosevelt’s ideas that people responded to? 
  3. Why does Franklin emphasize the need for a new moral order? What is a moral order? What would be the foundations of that new moral order? What would it take to put his ideas into practice?

Related Content

Audio
Justice & Human Rights

Audio Reading of FDR's "Four Freedoms"

In this audio recording, an actor reads President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s January 6, 1941 address to the nation, featured in the resource book "Fundamental Freedoms: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights." In the speech, Roosevelt presents a vision of a new world order founded on four essential freedoms: freedom of speech and expression, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.

Reading
Justice & Human Rights

What Are You Fighting For?

Explore how Eleanor Roosevelt worked for racial equality in the United States.

Audio
Justice & Human Rights

Audio Reading of Eleanor Roosevelt's Speech at the Sorbonne

In this audio recording, an actor reads Eleanor Roosevelt’s speech delivered at the University of Paris, or the Sorbonne, in 1948, which is featured in the resource book Fundamental Freedoms: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In the speech, Roosevelt describes the differences in the ways that people in the United States the and Soviet Union understood human rights.

Reading
Holocaust

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Learn about the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Eleanor Roosevelt’s role in its creation.

Search Our Collection

Everything you need to get started teaching your students about racism, antisemitism and prejudice.